Tet

After years of viewing the war on television, Americans at home had become accustomed to a familiar pattern of images. Columns of troops, disgorged from hovering hel¬icopters, cut through dense jungles or plodded across muddy rice fields toward faraway villages, occasionally stumbling onto mines or booby traps, or drawing fire from hidden guerrillas. Artillery shelled distant targets from lonely bases, and aircraft bombed the vast countryside, billows of flame and smoke rising in their wake. The screen often portrayed human agony in scenes of the wounded and dying on both sides, and the ordeal of civilians trapped by the combat. But mostly it transmitted the grueling reality of the strug¬gle—remote, repetitious, monotonous—punctuated periodically by moments of horror.
On the evening ofjanuary 31, 1968, the spectacle suddenly changed. Now, Americans saw a drastically different kind of war. The night before, nearly seventy thousand Communist soldiers had launched a surprise offensive of extraordinary intensity and astonishing scope. Violating a truce that they themselves had pledged to observe during Tet, the lunar New Year, they surged into more than a hundred cities and towns, including Saigon, audaciously shifting the war for the first time from its rural setting to a new arena—South Vietnam’s suppos¬edly impregnable urban areas.
The carefully coordinated series of attacks exploded around the country like a string of firecrackers. Following an abortive foray against the coastal city of Nhatrang, the Communists struck at Hoi An, Danang, Quinhon and other seaside enclaves presumed to have been beyond their reach, and they even rocketed the huge American complex at Camranh Bay. They stormed the highland towns of Ban- methuot, Kontum and Pleiku, and they hit Dalat, the mountain resort that by tacit accommodation had been spared the conflict. Simulta¬neously, they invaded thirteen of the sixteen provincial capitals of the populous Mekong Delta, among them Mytho, Cantho, Bentre and Soctrang, and they seized control of scores of district seats, disrupting the Saigon regime’s fragile pacification programs. Fighting stub¬bornly, sometimes blindly, they frequently abandoned their flexible tactics to defend untenable positions. In many places, they were swiftly crushed by overwhelming American and South Vietnamese military power, its destructive capacity brought to bear with uncommon fury—and often indiscriminately. They also displayed unprecedented brutality, slaughtering minor government functionaries and other in¬nocuous figures as well as harmless foreign doctors, schoolteachers and missionaries. Nowhere was the battle fiercer than in Hue, which Communist units held for twenty-five days, committing ghastly atrocities during the initial phase of their occupation.
The Communists staged their boldest stroke against the Saigon region, deploying some four thousand men, most of them in small teams. One of their key objectives was the U.S. embassy, situated in the heart of the sprawling metropolis, which they assaulted in the early morning darkness of January 31. An American officer, later assessing the operation by the standards of a conventional soldier, derided it as a “piddling platoon action.” The feat stunned U.S. and world opinion.
The U.S. embassy, an ultramodern concrete pile shielded by thick walls, was an eyesore in the neighborhood of handsome pastel build¬ings of the French colonial vintage. Going back in 1981, I noticed that the compound had been taken over by Vietnam’s government-owned oil exploration corporation—an enterprise that evidently did little business, since its doors were tightly shut. But during the war, with the Stars and Stripes flying above its ramparts, the enclosure repre¬sented the unshakable American presence in Vietnam.
The nineteen Vietcong commandos assigned to the job had begun their preparations three months earlier. As a gesture of confidence, the United States had recently transferred full responsibility for the defense of Saigon to the South Vietnamese authorities, whose notions of security were notoriously lax. Accordingly, the commandos easily moved arms, ammunition and explosives into Saigon from their base near a rubber plantation thirty miles to the north, concealing the shipments in truckloads of rice and tomatoes. Inside the city, they stored the materiel in an automobile repair shop whose proprietor, suspected by the South Vietnamese to be an enemy agent, had some¬how eluded jail. Nor was American security much better. The Viet- cong squad had evidently relied for guidance on a clandestine Vietnamese confederate nicknamed Satchmo, who had worked for years in the U.S. mission as a chauffeur. He was to die during the attack, a Soviet machine gun beside him.
The commandos, jammed into a truck and a taxicab, pulled up in front of the embassy at nearly three o’clock in the morning. Vaulting from the vehicles, they quickly blasted a hole in the wall and rushed into the compound, automatic weapons blazing. Within five minutes, they had killed four GIs and another one shortly thereafter. Four Saigon policemen, theoretically on guard outside, fled as soon as the shooting started. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, asleep at his resi¬dence a few blocks away, was hustled off to safety at the home of a subordinate. The ranking American diplomat inside the chancery building, Allan Wendt, a junior economic specialist doing routine night duty, locked himself in the fortified code room. A half hour later, a shocked State Department official telephoned from Washing¬ton, where it was midafternoon of the previous day. News of the attack had just come over the Associated Press teletype, and Lyndon Johnson was frantically demanding information.
WAR HITS SAIGON, screamed the front-page headline of Washing¬ton’s afternoon tabloid, The News. But newspaper accounts paled beside the television coverage, which that evening projected the epi-sode, in all its vivid confusion, into the living rooms of fifty million Americans. There, on color screens, dead bodies lay amid the rubble and rattle of automatic gunfire as dazed American soldiers and civilians ran back and forth trying to flush out the assailants. One man raced past the camera to a villa behind the chancery building to toss a pistol up to Colonel George Jacobson on the second floor. The senior em¬bassy official shot the last of the enemy commandos as he crept up the stairs.
Nearly six and a half hours after the action began, the Americans declared the site secure, and General Westmoreland appeared to speak to reporters. Dressed in starched fatigues, he delivered a televised statement as stiff as his Uniform. The Communists had “very deceit¬fully” taken advantage of the Tet truce “to create maximum conster¬nation,” he intoned, concluding optimistically that their “well-laid plans went afoul.”

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