LBJ Goes to War 6

As usual, the South Vietnamese had advantages—tanks, armored personnel carriers, heavy artillery and helicopters flown by American pilots. But the superior equipment made them complacent in contrast to the Vietcong, which had learned to be fast and flexible. In typical style, Vietcong soldiers would hit a target while their comrades am¬bushed South Vietnamese convoys speeding to the rescue along ex¬posed roads.
On the night of December 28, 1964, after sporadic actions in the region, the Vietcong occupied the village of Binh Gia for eight hours to dramatize its prowess, then faded into the jungle to elude pursuit. Five days later, the South Vietnamese army suffered a devastating blow as two companies of crack rangers, accompanied by tanks, ran into an ambush inside a nearby rubber plantation; the Vietcong, armed with recoilless rifles and other sophisticated weapons, had waited pa¬tiently in the trees before raking the rangers from both sides of a narrow road. Surprised and confused, the rangers valiantly tried to fight back but were cut to pieces.
Altogether, seven battalions of South Vietnam’s best troops had been thrown into the engagement; nearly two hundred were killed, along with five American advisers. The enemy had tightened the noose around Saigon. Senior U.S. officers in the city were both awed and astonished. As one of them observed at the time: “The Vietcong fought magnificently, as well as any infantry anywhere. But the big question for me is how its troops, a thousand or more of them, could wander around the countryside so close to Saigon without being dis¬covered. That tells something about this war. You can only beat the other guy if you isolate him from the population.”
American officials had been even more stunned on Christmas Eve, when Vietcong terrorists penetrated Saigon itself and planted a bomb in the Brinks hotel, which housed U.S. officers. The explosion had killed two Americans and injured fifty-eight others. The Vietcong commanders had planned the daring venture with two aims in mind: by attacking an American installation located in the very core of the heavily guarded capital, they would have demonstrated their ability to react in South Vietnam should the United States begin air raids against North Vietnam; equally important, the South Vietnamese pop¬ulation would be shown that the Americans, with all their pretense of power, were vulnerable and could not be counted on for protection.
The two Vietcong agents who performed the operation and escaped unscathed had prepared it with painstaking care. One of them, Nguyen Thanh Xuan, recollected the episode with professional coolness during an interview in 1981 in Ho Chi Minh City. He and a comrade had received orders for the mission from an intermediary in late November 1964. They reconnoitered the target, mixing easily with the crowds that filled the busy street outside and noting, among other details, that South Vietnamese officers mingled freely with the Americans. That determined their first move. Obtaining the proper uniforms from the city’s ubiquitous black market, where nearly anything could be bought, Xuan’s comrade disguised himself as a South Vietnamese army major while Xuan dressed as his military chauffeur. Next they observed the mannerisms of South Vietnamese soldiers. “We spent several days following the puppet soldiers around to watch their be¬havior—how they talked to people and to each other, how they got in and out of their cars, even how they smoked cigarettes.”
Xuan had meanwhile procured two automobiles and the explosives for the job—again, not a difficult task in Saigon, where the Vietcong had a clandestine logistical labyrinth. Then, on the afternoon of De¬cember 24, they went into action.
They stashed the explosives in the trunk of one of their cars, setting a timing device to trigger at exactly a quarter to six in the evening— “happy hour” in the officers’ bar. They drove both automobiles to the Brinks hotel, and there the “major” played a persuasive scene. A Vietcong spy inside the South Vietnamese government had told them that a certain American colonel had left for the United States. Armed with that intelligence, the “major” told the desk clerk he had an appointment with the colonel, who was arriving soon from Dalat. The clerk replied that the colonel had left Vietnam, but the “major” insisted otherwise. Finally, turning to his “chauffeur,” he ordered him to wait; he, the “major,” would drive home in his own car and the “chauffeur” was to bring the American along in the other automobile. After that, as Xuan recalled, “I parked the car in the lot beneath the building. Then I went to the front gate, where a cop was on duty. I hadn’t eaten all day, I told him. If the American colonel showed up, could he tell him that I’d gone for a bite and would be back soon. The cop agreed. I strolled over to a nearby cafe, sat down at a table and waited. The explosion came right on time.”
Ambassador Taylor, backed up by General Westmoreland and every other senior American officer in Saigon and Washington, urged Pres¬ident Johnson to authorize retaliatory raids against North Vietnam. But Johnson still demurred. He did not want to intensify the war during the Christmas season, and there were practical considerations, which he explained to Taylor in an unusually long cable—a “full and frank statement of the way I see it . . . The final responsibility is mine and the stakes are very high indeed, ” Johnson wrote.

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