Tet Plus 40: US-Vietnam Turning Point
Editor’s Note: On Jan. 31, 1968, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong attacked the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and more than 100 other targets throughout South Vietnam. The assault was dubbed the Tet Offensive, named after the Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year.
When the bloody fighting finally ended 24 days later, the communist troops had been driven from all major South Vietnamese cities and senior U.S. military officers declared victory. But there was little doubt, too, that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong had scored a stunning psychological success.
Because U.S. politicians and commanders had oversold progress in the war as a way to quiet domestic dissent, the savage Tet fighting shocked millions of Americans and widened Washington’s “credibility gap” on Vietnam.
Within weeks, President Lyndon Johnson would bow out of his race for re-election. Tet was the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War.
But Tet had another long-term consequence. In the years that followed, U.S. conservatives would insist bitterly that critical news reporting about the war in general but particularly the Tet Offensive caused the American defeat, that the U.S. news media had betrayed the nation, that reporters had gone from being the Fourth Estate to acting like an enemy fifth column.
Official Army historians would conclude eventually that the war was lost by poor strategy and excessive casualties, not by disloyal reporters.
“It is undeniable,” wrote Army historian William M. Hammond in 1988, “that press reports were … more accurate than the public statements of the administration in portraying the situation in Vietnam.” [Hammond’s The Military and the Media, 1962-1968, published by the U.S. Army Center of Military History.]
But by then, the “press-lost-Vietnam” charge had become an article of faith to many conservatives. That certainty fueled the vitriol of rightist anti-press groups and led deep-pocket conservatives to pour billions of dollars into the construction of an ideologically right-wing media, now one of the most potent political forces in the nation.
With this historical significance of Tet in mind, Don North, who spent three years as a reporter in Vietnam for ABC and NBC News, has continued investigating the details of this historic battle over the past 40 years.
North also had first-hand experience. On the morning of the attack, he was at ground zero, under fire with Army MPs outside the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Here is his story of Tet:
At midnight, heading into the fateful day of Jan. 31, 1968, 15 Vietcong gathered at a greasy car repair garage at 59 Phan Thanh Gian Street in Saigon.
Wearing black pajamas and red arm bands, they were part of the elite 250-strong J-9 Special Action Unit, formerly known as the C-10 sapper battalion. They were mostly born in Saigon and were familiar with the streets of the teeming city.
Only eight of them were trained sappers, experts in laying and disarming mines and explosive devices. The other seven were clerks and cooks who signed up for the dangerous mission mainly to escape the rigors of life in the jungle.
They would be helped by four other Vietnamese, civilian employees at the U.S. Embassy, including one of Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker’s chauffeurs.
Nguyen Van Giang, known as Captain Ba Den, the commanding officer of the J-9 unit, was designated to help lead the mission. On the morning before the attack, Ba Den had met with the ambassador’s chauffeur, Nguyen Van De, who drove Ba Den in an American station wagon past the embassy, revealing that it would be the secret target of the Tet attack.
Learning the identity of the target, Captain Ba Den was overwhelmed by the realization that he would almost surely not survive the next day.
Pondering his likely death – and since it was the eve of Tet – Ba Den had a few Ba Muoi Bau beers at the Saigon Market and bought a string of firecrackers as he had done for every Tet celebration since he was a child.
Ba Den then wandered down Tran Qui Cap Street, looking for the house where he had lived with his wife and children six years earlier.
Later that night, he joined the other attackers at the garage on Phan Thanh Gian Street.
Senior Captain Bay Tuyen briefed them on their mission and handed out weapons. The sappers were told to kill anyone who resisted but to take as prisoner anyone who surrendered. Ominously, they were not given an escape route.
The embassy attack was to be the centerpiece of a larger Saigon offensive, backed up by 11 battalions totaling about 4,000 troops. The operation’s other five objectives were the Presidential Palace, the national broadcasting studios, South Vietnamese Naval Headquarters, Vietnamese Joint General Staff Headquarters at Ton Son Nhut Airbase, and the Philippine Embassy.
The goal was to hold these objectives for 48 hours until other Vietcong battalions could enter the city and relieve them. Survivors of the attacks were to be instantly promoted.
Of all the targets, the overriding importance of the U.S. Embassy could not be overstated. The $2.6 million compound had been completed just three months earlier and its six-story chancery building loomed over Saigon like an impregnable fortress.
It was a constant reminder of the American presence, prestige and power.
Never mind that Nha Trang, Ban Me Thout and Bien Hoa also would be attacked that morning. Most Americans couldn’t pronounce their names, let alone comprehend their importance. But the U.S. Embassy in Saigon?
For many Americans, this would be the first understandable battle of the Vietnam War.
En route to the U.S. Embassy, the 15 sappers were spotted driving without lights by a South Vietnamese civilian policeman. But he chose to avoid problems and did not intervene.
The sappers had similar good fortune confronting the embassy’s first line of defense. After turning onto Thon Nhut Boulevard, they encountered four police officers, but the policemen fled without firing a shot.
So, at 2:47 a.m., the sappers wheeled up to the front gate of the U.S. Embassy and opened fire with AK-47 assault rifles and a B-40 rocket launcher. One sapper used a satchel charge to blow a three-foot hole in the embassy’s concrete wall. Two VC officers led the way through the hole firing AK-47s.
Two American MPs – Sp. 4 Charles Daniel of Durham, North Carolina, and Private Bill Sebast of Albany, New York – returned the fire, killing the two VC officers, but the two Americans were cut down themselves.
Just minutes later, at about 3 a.m., from his home a few blocks away, chief U.S. Embassy spokesman Barry Zorthian phoned news bureaus to alert them. Zorthian had few details but told us what he knew: the embassy was under attack and there was heavy fire.
ABC News bureau chief Dick Rosenbaum called me after Zorthian had called him. The ABC bureau, located at the Caravel Hotel, was only four blocks from the embassy. And as it turned out, cameraman Peter Leydon and I were in Saigon because of what we had thought only hours earlier had been a stroke of bad luck.
A National Offensive
We had been in Khe Sanh the day before, on Jan. 30, and had come under a barrage of North Vietnamese artillery fire. When we dove into a trench, the lens of our 16 mm film camera had broken off, forcing us to cut short our stay in Khe Sanh.
We returned to Saigon on the C-130 “milk run” that connected the two cities.
Because of the broken camera, we thought we would be missing an expected big military push against Khe Sanh. But flying the length of Vietnam that night, it seemed like the whole country was under attack.
As we took off from the Danang air base, there were incoming rockets. Flying over Nha Trang, shortly after midnight, we could see fires blazing. We heard about the attacks through radio contact with ground control.
But at 3:30 a.m., Jan. 31, we were back in Saigon with a new camera – and suddenly heading into the thick of the fighting on its most important front. In the ABC News Jeep, we started driving toward the embassy. We didn’t get far.
Just off Tu Do Street, three blocks from the embassy, somebody – VC, ARVN, police or U.S. MPs, we weren’t sure who – opened up on us with an automatic weapon. A couple of rounds pinged off the hood of the Jeep.
I killed the Jeep's lights and reversed out of range. We returned to the ABC bureau to wait for first light, around 6 a.m.
As the dawn was breaking, we walked toward the embassy. As we approached the compound, heavy firing could be heard, and green and red tracer bullets cut into the pink sky.
Near the embassy, I joined a group of U.S. MPs moving toward the embassy front gate. I started my tape recorder for ABC Radio as the MPs loudly cursed the South Vietnamese ARVN troops. The MPs claimed the ARVN had “D Dee’d” (Vietnamese war slang for running away under fire) after the first shots.
Green-colored VC tracer bullets were still coming from the embassy compound and from the upper floor of a building across the street. Red tracers stitched back across the street. We were in the cross-fire.
Retaking the Embassy
Crawling up with me to the gate was the Associated Press’s intrepid Peter Arnett, who was in a jovial mood and glad to have the company of another journalist who wasn’t competing with the AP. Peter had been covering the war for more than five years and I had been in Vietnam for three years.
Lying flat in the gutter that morning with the MPs, we didn’t know where the VC attackers were holed up or where the fire was coming from, but we knew it was the “big story.”
Several MPs rushed past, one of them carrying a VC sapper piggy-back style. The VC was wounded and bleeding. He wore black pajamas and, strangely, an enormous red ruby ring.
I interviewed the MPs and recorded their radio conversation with colleagues inside the embassy gates. There was no doubt they believed the VC were in the chancery building itself. Peter Arnett crawled off to find a phone and report the MPs conversation to his office.
A helicopter landed on the embassy roof, and troops started working down the six floors. MP Dave Lamborn got orders on the field radio from an officer inside the compound:
“This is Waco, roger. Can you get in the gate now? Take a force in there and clean out the embassy, like now. There will be choppers on the roof and troops working down. Be careful we don’t hit our own people. Over.”
Preparing to join the MPs rushing the gate, I had other concerns.
“Okay, how much film have we got left?” I shouted to cameraman Leydon.
“I’ve got one mag (400 feet of film),” he replied. “How many do you have?”
“We’re on the biggest story of the war with one can of film,” I groaned. “So it’s one take of everything, including my stand-upper.”
There was no time to argue about whose responsibility it was to have brought more film.
I stepped over the Great Seal of the United States which had been blasted off the embassy wall. We rushed through the main gate into the once-elegant embassy garden where the bloody battle had been raging. It was as UPI’s Kate Webb later described “like a butcher shop in Eden.”
As helicopters continued to land troops on the roof, we hunkered down on the grass with a group of MPs. The MPs were firing into a small villa on the embassy grounds where they said the VC were making a last stand. Tear-gas canisters were blasted through the windows, but the gas drifted back through the garden.
Col. George Jacobson, the U.S. mission coordinator, lived in the villa, and he suddenly appeared at a window on the second floor. An MP threw him a gas mask and a .45 pistol. Three VC were believed to be on the first floor and would likely be driven upstairs by the tear gas.
It was high drama, but our ABC camera rolled film on it sparingly. I continued to describe everything I saw into a tape recorder, often choking on the tear gas.
I could read the embassy ID card in the wallet of Nguyen Van De, the ambassador’s chauffeur whose bloody body sprawled beside me on the lawn. The MPs told me that the chauffeur shot at them during the early fighting and was probably the “inside” man for the attackers.
Amid the tension, I was distracted by a big frog hopping and splashing through thick pools of blood on the lawn. It was one of those frozen images on the wide screen of your life that never gets properly filed away and keeps returning at odd times.
A long burst of automatic fire snapped me back. The last VC still in action rushed up the stairs firing blindly at Jacobson, but missed. The colonel later told me, “We both saw each other at the same time. He missed me, and I fired one shot at him point blank with the .45,” taking the VC down.
Jacobson later admitted that his Saigon girlfriend was with him that evening and witnessed the entire drama from beneath the sheets of their bed.
In the embassy garden, using the last 30 feet of film, I recorded my closing remarks or “stand-up closer.” I said:
“Since the Lunar New Year, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese have proved they are capable of bold and impressive military moves that Americans here never dreamed could be achieved. Whether they can sustain this onslaught for long remains to be seen. But whatever turn the war now takes, the capture of the U.S. Embassy here for almost seven hours is a psychological victory that will rally and inspire the Vietcong. Don North, ABC News, Saigon.”
A rush to judgment before all the pieces of the puzzle were in place? Perhaps. But there was no time to appoint a committee to study the story. I was on an hourly deadline and ABC expected the story as well as some perspective even in those early hours of the offensive – a first draft of history.
Still, my instant analysis never made it on ABC News. Worried about “editorializing” by a correspondent on a sensitive story, someone at ABC killed the on-camera close.
(Ironically, the “closer,” along with other out-takes, ended up in the Simon Grinberg film library in New York, where it was later found and used by Peter Davis for his Academy Award-winning film, “Hearts and Minds.”)
The rest of the story package fared better. The film from all three networks arrived on the same plane in Tokyo for processing, causing a mad competitive scramble to be the first film on the satellite for the 7 p.m. (EST) news programs in the United States.
Because we had only 400 feet to process and cut, ABC News made the satellite in time and the story led the ABC-TV evening news. NBC and CBS missed the deadline and had to run catch-up specials on the embassy attack later in the evening.
Meanwhile, at 9:15 a.m. in Saigon, the embassy was officially declared secure. At 9:20 a.m., Gen. William Westmoreland strode through the gate in his clean and carefully starched fatigues, flanked by grimy and bloody MPs and Marines who had been fighting since 3 a.m.
Standing in the rubble, Westmoreland declared, “No enemy got in the embassy building. It’s a relatively small incident. A group of sappers blew a hole in the wall and crawled in, and they were all killed. Don’t be deceived by this incident.”
I couldn’t believe it. Westy was still saying everything was just fine. Also, it wasn’t true that all the sappers had been killed, at least a few were wounded but survived.
Later, at the MACV press briefing, the so-called “Five O’clock Follies,” Westmoreland appeared in person to emphasize the huge enemy “body counts” around the country as U.S. and ARVN forces repelled the Tet offensive.
But MACV (which stood for Military Assistance Command Vietnam) had been caught manipulating the enemy casualty figures before and there was a lot of skepticism among reporters.
To add to Westy’s growing credibility gap, it was also reported at his press briefing that the northern city of Hue had been cleared of enemy troops. That false report had to be retracted as the enemy held parts of Hue for the next 24 days.
Not to be outdone by Westy’s Tet spin control, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker called a “background” briefing for select reporters at the embassy three days after the embassy attack.
“Our reports from around the country indicate the South Vietnamese people are outraged by the deceitful Vietcong violation of the sacred Tet holiday,” Bunker said, identified then only as a “senior American diplomat.” He added that “no important objectives have been held by the enemy and there was no significant popular support.”
The ambassador ignored the fact that Hue was still under enemy control and, in Saigon, residents had not sounded the alarm while 4,000 VC and North Vietnamese troops infiltrated the city.
In later interviews with Saigon residents, I found no Vietnamese who thought the VC had been particularly deceitful in breaking the Tet truce to gain a military surprise.
A more frequent complaint was over how vigorously U.S. and ARVN firepower had been directed against VC targets even in heavily populated urban centers of Saigon, Can Tho and Ben Tre, attacks that killed and wounded thousands of civilians and displaced a half million people.
‘Out of Touch’
My TV and radio report on those interviews was entitled “U.S. mission more out of touch with Vietnamese than ever.”
But it also never made it on the ABC-TV evening news. It was logged arriving in New York, but was never scheduled for broadcast and was later reported lost. It was, however, broadcast as an “Information Reports” on the ABC Radio News Network, which tended to be more open to critical stories from the staff in Vietnam.
After the last enemy troops were rooted out of Hue, the U.S. government could finally declare that the Tet Offensive was indeed a clear-cut American military victory. Westmoreland said 37,000 of the enemy had died, with U.S. dead put at 2,500.
But it was obvious that the scope of the enemy operations had dealt Washington a decisive psychological defeat. Somehow, more than 70,000 Vietcong, backed by regular units of the North Vietnamese Army, had been able to coordinate a nationwide offensive with attacks on 36 provincial capitals and 64 district towns.
Tet’s political consequences were made worse by the cheery U.S. public-relations campaigns that had preceded the offensive.
Though senior U.S. commanders, such as Gen. Fred Weyand, had been warning of a coming offensive against Saigon and had repositioned some U.S. forces, Gen. Westmoreland and President Johnson had been determined to keep up a happy face.
At times, it seemed as if Westmoreland and Johnson were the only ones oblivious to the intelligence reports pouring into the MACV headquarters about an upcoming VC offensive.
In late November 1967, Westy had been enlisted by Johnson in a “spin” campaign to put the war in the most favorable light. The general spoke to Congress and to the National Press Club – and dutifully painted a rosy picture of the war’s progress. Time magazine honored Westy as its “man of the year.”
Just days before Tet, Johnson gave a State of the Union address which avoided telling the American people what his military advisers were telling him: “expect a big enemy offensive, there are hard times ahead in Vietnam.”
The official optimism would double the shock felt by American citizens about Tet. In the offensive’s wake, U.S. strategy was subjected to a new and searching re-examination.
There were stunning political consequences, too. On March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced that he would not run again. In the following week, polls showed a drop-off in public support for the war.
Soon, policy-makers in Washington were hedging their bets and voicing more discontent about the war. Following that official shift, TV news correspondents gave more time to war opponents.
Contrary to the view of some conservative media critics, it was not that TV editors suddenly had become opponents of the war. Rather, their Washington sources had decided to shift toward opposition and that change was simply reflected in the reporting. TV news followed the change. It did not lead it.
Still, much of the later criticism of the press for its handling of the embassy story fell on Arnett for supposedly exaggerating the VC success with his report from the MPs who mistakenly believed the VC had penetrated the chancery building.
But a reporter is only as good as his sources, and as dawn broke over the embassy, most of the Army MPs counter-attacking the embassy believed the VC were in the chancery.
Even after Westmoreland’s later pronouncement that the chancery had not been breached, Arnett continued to trust the MPs and repeat their account because, as Arnett would explain, “we had little faith in what General Westmoreland stated.”
Ten years later, when I produced a TV documentary on the Tet Offensive, Westmoreland was still bad-mouthing the media for the events of that morning.
“This was the turning point of the war,” he told me. “It could have been the turning point for success, but it was the turning point for failure. By virtue of the early reporting … which was gloom and doom and which gave the impression that Americans were being defeated on the battlefield, it swayed public opinion to the point political authority made the decision to withdraw.”
Westy’s insistence that the news media somehow betrayed the troops in the field continued to color the views of senior U.S. officers for decades.
In the book, The War Managers, retired Gen. Douglas Kinnard polled the 173 Army generals who commanded in Vietnam. Eighty-nine percent of them expressed negative feelings toward the press and 91 percent were negative about TV news coverage.
Despite those findings, Kinnard concluded that the importance of the press in swaying public opinion was largely a myth.
Yet, it was a myth that was important for the government to perpetuate, so officials could insist that it was not the real situation in Vietnam against which the American people reacted, but rather the press portrayal of that situation.
The Tet Offensive also reaffirmed a truth about counterinsurgency wars: “Guerrillas win if they don’t lose. A conventional army loses if it does not win.” Vietnam was first and foremost a political struggle, as the North Vietnamese understood far better than the Americans.
Col. Harry Summers, a war historian, recounts telling a North Vietnamese Army officer in Hanoi after the war, “You know you never beat us on the battlefield.” The North Vietnamese officer pondered a moment, then replied, “That may be so, but it’s also irrelevant.”
The psychological impact of the 1968 Tet Offensive and the aura it bestowed on the communist forces were seen seven years later as contributing factors in South Vietnam’s eventual collapse. In 1975, a minor setback in a battle near Ban Me Thout escalated into ARVN’s panicked retreat and the fall of Saigon a few weeks later.
Tet also should have taught a hard lesson to American leaders: responsible leadership in wartime will recognize problems clearly and publicize events that are likely to have a serious psychological impact on the nation. PR spinning only makes matters worse.
But American leaders extracted a different lesson: the need to control images coming from the battlefield. The bad rap the press got in the wake of Tet 1968 stuck and became the rationale for the military’s hostility toward – and desire to manipulate – the press, tendencies that continue to this day.
The sour military/media relations extend even into the Iraq War where many U.S. military officers still believe that the U.S. media betrayed the country in that earlier war.
As for the final toll of the U.S. Embassy battle, seven American soldiers were dead along with 16 of the 19 Vietcong attackers.
Three wounded sappers were captured and disappeared into the Saigon prison system, including Captain Ba Den, who later under interrogation described both the attack planning and how he spent what he had presumed would be his last evening alive.
As revealed in those sapper interrogations and the after-action reports of VC officers, such as General Tran Do, it is now clear that the Embassy attack was badly planned and carried out by poorly trained Vietcong troops.
Washington military analyst Anthony Cordesman told me recently, "One way to achieve decisive surprise in warfare is to do something truly stupid." Yet, in this case, the “truly stupid” changed the course of the war.
Why the Tet Offensive became a dramatic turning point was explained by Washington military analyst Steven Metz, who said: "The essence of any insurgency is the psychological. It is armed theatre. You have protagonists on the stage, but they are sending messages to wider audiences. Insurgency is not won by killing insurgents, not won by seizing territory; it is won by altering the psychological factors that are most relevant."
Several decades after the Tet battle – long after the Vietnam War was over – I received a call from “Stan,” a Vietnam veteran who had become a resident businessman near Saigon, which had been renamed Ho Chi Minh City:
“Don, you have a pretty good handle on this story. Would you like to meet Nguyen Van Sau, the last surviving sapper of the Embassy attack.”
In the gutter in front of the U.S. Embassy, I had lain nearby Nguyen Van Sau as U.S. Marines and MPs exchanged fire with the attackers. Sau had been one of the first VC through the hole blown in the Embassy’s wall and was immediately wounded.
He was unconscious and bleeding. I saw Sau and two other wounded attackers taken away by U.S. MPs. I was told that they were later turned over to the ARVN.
Stan said Sau had spent the rest of the war with the other survivors from the Embassy attack in the infamous French-built prison on Con Dau Island. He was released in 1975 and returned to his village north of Saigon.
Within a month of Stan’s phone call, I had flown back to Vietnam in pursuit of the interview. However, over a serving of spring rolls, Stan passed on some bad news: “Sorry, Don, Sau died just two weeks ago.”
Time has taken its toll in other ways, too.
The imposing U.S. Embassy that withstood the attack 40 years ago was torn down by the Vietnamese shortly following the war’s end. A modest U.S. consulate has since taken its place.
A small marker in the consulate’s garden, closed to the public, lists the names of the American Marines and MPs who died there.
Outside the consulate gates is a gray-and-red marble monument engraved with the names of the Vietcong soldiers and agents who also died.
As I again visited the scene of this unique military encounter, I imagined two of the soldiers who fought there – PFC Bill Sebast and Nguyen Van Sau – and how they might have marveled at what has happened over the past 40 years.
What would they think about Vietnam’s economic progress, about the close relationship that now exists between the two former enemy countries? And what would they see as the meaning of that war which pitted them on opposite sides of the Embassy wall so many years ago?
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