Vietnam Is the Place 7

The eastern side of the combat area, mostly open farmland, had deliberately been left unguarded to permit artillery and aircraft to rake the Vietcong guerrillas if they tried to flee across the exposed terrain. The challenge now was to block their avenue of retreat until morning, and Vann advised that paratroopers be deployed for that purpose. But his proposal provoked yet another squabble with the South Vietnam¬ese. General Cao, the Fourth Corps commander, felt that his army had already sustained too many casualties, and he waffled. Finally, with dusk coming on fast, as it does in the tropics, he agreed to bring in an airborne battalion—but to the west, where its presence would be useless. He prevailed over American protests, and the worst oc¬curred. Landing at twilight, when it was difficult to distinguish friend from foe, the paratroopers quickly found themselves skirmishing with other South Vietnamese in the confusion.
By nightfall, the shooting had ended. A total of sixty-one govern¬ment soldiers had been killed and a hundred had been wounded. The Vietcong had evaporated into the darkness, leaving only three bodies behind. Now the investigations and recriminations would begin.
“A miserable fucking performance, just like it always is,” said Vann, excoriating the South Vietnamese officers. Several months afterward, having quit in disgust, he publicly charged that Diem wanted the war to stumble along inconclusively so that he could continue to receive American aid. That accusation, however valid, reflected Vann’s fun¬damentally sanguine view that the conflict could be won, and he would later return to Vietnam and be killed—the apotheosis of the American for whom the anti-Communist struggle had become a crusade.
The U.S. top brass refused to see the Ap Bac episode as a disaster. Admiral Harry Felt, the American commander for the Pacific, flew into Saigon two days later and called it a South Vietnamese triumph because, as he pointed out, the Vietcong had abandoned its positions. His assessment, shared by other senior U.S. officers and civilians, again underlined their concept of the conflict: a conventional contest for territory, like World War II or the Korean war, the experiences that had marked them.
The outcome at Ap Bac aggravated the friction then growing be¬tween the American government and the news media. Neither Ken¬nedy nor his successors would impose censorship, which would have required them to acknowledge that a real war was being waged. In¬stead, they wanted journalists to cooperate by accentuating the pos¬itive. Just after the Ap Bac battle, when Peter Arnett of the Associated Press asked him a tough question, Admiral Felt shot back: “Get on the team.”
Following his resignation, Vann reproved his superiors in Wash¬ington and Saigon for their “tendency to play down the real picture” in Vietnam because of a “consuming desire … to show some palp¬able results.” The remark went to the heart of the matter, which was not a simple debate between army officers and civilian officials. Amer¬ican advisers in the field, such as Vann, mostly concurred with their middle-level State Department and CIA counterparts that South Viet¬nam’s prospects were dim unless Diem overhauled his regime. But they came up against Nolting and Harkins in Saigon as well as higher- ranking Washington figures like Rusk, McNamara, Taylor and Ros- tow, who contended that the war could be effectively waged without pressing Diem to change. Nor did the debate merely focus on the question of whether the conflict was strictly military or purely polit¬ical. Both sides realized that it was a mixture, but they disagreed over emphasis. With variations, the dispute persisted throughout the next decade.
Frederick Nolting, the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, had been mis¬cast. A tall and gracious Virginian, known as Fritz to his friends, he had previously served in the chanceries of Europe, where diplomats played by the rules. He abhorred untidy discord—so much that he once asked a television interviewer to replace a portrait of Jefferson on the wall behind him with Washington, who was “less contro versial. ” Straightforward and guileless, he could not quite adapt to Vietnam. Not that he was blind to Diem’s shortcomings, but in his opinion the military effort came first, and he repeatedly recommended to Washington, as he said in one cable in 1961, that “efficiency” was more important than the “nebulous concept” of political reform. Con¬sistent with that view, he also believed that South Vietnam’s dissidents were at fault for not cooperating with the regime—even though it was Diem who refused to broaden his administration to include dis¬senters. On February 15, 1962, in an astonishing display of naivete, Nolting publicly admonished the cream of Saigon society, telling the local Rotary Club: “What a marvelous transformation would take place in this country if all those who criticize their government would decide to work with it and for it.”
His speech disturbed numbers of South Vietnamese middle-class professionals, who had hoped that the United States would lean on Diem to liberalize. And it was followed one morning a week later by a dramatic incident.
I awoke suddenly at seven o’clock that morning in February 1962 to the thud of bombs and the rattle of automatic weapons. Years afterward it might have been a Communist attack, but I knew then that the Vietcong lacked the strength to assault Saigon. Rushing to my hotel room window, I peered across the city to see smoke billow¬ing above the presidential palace, nine or ten blocks away. I pulled on my clothes, ran downstairs and sprinted up Tu Do, the main street, to the Boulevard Norodom, a handsome avenue that opened onto the palace, an imposing structure that dated back to French colonial days. It was now a flaming shambles. Overhead, beneath a low cloud cover, two fighter aircraft were circling in an almost leisurely racetrack pat¬tern. I recognized them as AD-6s, World War II models given to the South Vietnamese air force by the United States. They were dropping napalm and bombs, and as I watched, sprawled on the sidewalk a hundred yards from the palace, they came around again and again to strafe their target with machine gun fire. I presumed that Diem and his family were inside, probably dead.
The Saigon garrison, not knowing whether the airplanes were acting alone or in concert with a ground force, was caught off balance. Tanks and truckloads of troops sped to battle stations, and antiaircraft bat¬teries began to fill the sky with flak, nearly hitting loyal fighter air¬planes that had taken off in pursuit of the attackers. Sirens screamed as police cars careered around the city, and the heavy scent of cordite pervaded the air. Amid the uproar, though, I noticed that the popu¬lation seemed to be strangely calm, almost detached. Girls in ao dais pedaled their bicycles through the streets as always, their silk skirts billowing behind them, and motorists even stopped for traffic lights.

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