For many the Vietnam War is no more than history. For those of us for whom it is a vivid memory, the 45th anniversary of the Tet Offensive this year is a time to wonder if we’ve learned any lessons from the war.
After years being the thing we didn’t want to talk about, that conflict has taken on a new life. A wounded Vietnam veteran will soon be heading not only the United States Department of State, but the Defense Department as well. Diplomacy and War: former U.S. Senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel. How things change! Forty-five years ago, those posts were filled by Robert S. McNamara and Dean Rusk, both now reviled for their conduct during that war.
In the early hours of Wednesday, January 31, 1968, a push by the North Vietnamese known as the Tet Offensive turned the war sour for the American public. The North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong had already broken their own so-called truce in the northern reaches of South Vietnam, but in Saigon everyone was partying, their guards down, in celebration of Tet, the Lunar New Year. Some still wonder if the course of the war might have been different if the Cong had not broken into the American Embassy compound. The great seal of the United States was dumped on the ground and flattened, riddled with bullets.
The American public was stunned and outraged. It turned out, the VC sappers had not gotten into the chancery, they had only made it onto the grounds, and only five MPs and two Marines were killed in the assault. But from the early morning attack until daybreak, no one knew the extent of the incursion.
And gathered outside, waiting for the saviors of the 101st Airborne who finally arrived at 6 a.m. by helicopter to land on the Embassy roof, was the bulk of the Saigon press corps. Most of the reporters lived and worked nearby, around the National Assembly square. So the four-acre Embassy compound was one of the closest and most natural places for them to go when they were roused from their beds by explosions. A number of billets of both officers and enlisted men had been attacked, as well as the Vietnam presidential palace, Vietnamese HQO, Tan Son Nhut Airport, Saigon radio, which the Cong hoped to use for broadcast propaganda purposes. But the reporters were gathered in front of the Embassy, and thus, that’s where the story was.
Arriving newsmen and Military Police in Jeeps found VC sappers had stormed the eight-foot-high concrete wall of the U.S. compound through a hole blown by a bazooka. A bullet-riddled, black Citroen sat wrecked in the street just beyond the Embassy gate with a dead Vietnamese at the wheel. At that point, the reporters were told by military personnel already there that Cong sappers were inside the Embassy. But in the dark the MPs couldn’t see the snipers who were keeping them from trying to enter the compound. Making that point, they all watched as a Jeep pulled up across the street, but before the two MPs could get out of the vehicle, they were blown out by a stream of bullets from an automatic rifle. A sharp-shooting Marine, standing in front of the gates, bent down on one knee and provided cover while several other MPs ran across and pulled their wounded buddies out of the street. The sniper was silenced.
In those days of no cell phones or instant feeds, the assembled press was having a tough time getting their stories filed, especially since they didn’t know what the story was other than that the United States Embassy was under attack. Reuters had an office not far away, and there was an enormous line of reporters waiting to file through that British wire service. The reporters had to get something to their stateside editors to let them know they were alive and working. But for a number of hours, no one really knew what the facts were. It was afternoon the day before in the United States, 13 hours behind Saigon time, so editors were struggling to get the story for late afternoon editions.
At another point during the long night of waiting, the reporters watched as a small Huey helicopter made several passes at the Embassy’s roof-top helipad but each time was driven back by automatic weapons fire of snipers guarding the approach.
Finally, as dawn arrived, another Huey came into view. The gathered newsmen stopped talking among themselves, looked skyward as a collective face and seemed to hold their breath. The chopper dipped, hovered above the Chancery roof, and disgorged its load of paratroopers, their M-16s held aloft as though they were leaping into rice paddies. Most of their boots were on the roof and on the run before the chopper’s blade runners touched down. The gathered MPs then broke through the Embassy front gate shooting and throwing grenades. Newsmen rushed behind them, flashbulbs popping and cameras rolling. The grounds were littered with wounded Marine guards, dead Cong wearing red armbands, dropped rifles and the debris of exploded ordinance. The heads of shot-off flowers and fallen palm fronds carpeted the lawn.
The story of the Embassy had a relatively happy ending, but the die had been cast, the tide had turned, use whatever cliché you like. The Viet Cong had been able to hold the U.S. hostage for several hours. American readers didn’t care what was happening to the Vietnam navy or the inhabitants of the presidential palace – they cared about the American Embassy, and that’s where the reporters were.
The American flag was raised anew over the Embassy at 11:45 a.m. Saigon time.
Two months to the day, on March 31, bowing to protests over the war, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek another term.
It would be eight more years before the last U.S. helicopters lifted off the roof of the Embassy on April 30,1975, with friendly Saigonese lifting their arms in frantic, unrequited pleas to be rescued from the advancing North Vietnamese. Some 58,000 GIs had been killed. Untold thousands of Vietnamese, north and south, civilian and soldier, lost their lives. The Tet attack on the U.S. Embassy was the long beginning of the end.
Perhaps with history as a guide, the two veterans scarred by Vietnam will recalibrate the diplomacy vs. war equation for the United States.
Theasa Tuohy is a longtime daily journalist, and the author of “The Five O’Clock Follies,” a novel about the press in Vietnam.