Saigon was quiet, as it should be during the holidays. There was a thirty-six-hour truce in effect for the Tet Nguyen Dan celebration and various festivals commemorating the lunar New Year. In any case, the Vietcong rarely came into the southern urban centers of Vietnam to attack openly with sizable forces. All that changed suddenly and without warning in the early morning of January 31, 1968. The entire country of South Vietnam, or so it seemed from panicky reports that flashed into American headquarters in Saigon, had come under fire in a matter of minutes from enemy infiltrators. Cities, villages, even rural hamlets— more than one hundred in all—were being overrun. Such a scenario at first seemed preposterous to American commanders. They were convinced that the enemy would never attack en masse, and especially not after heavy bombing attacks during 1967 that had gradually turned the tide against North Vietnam.
The center of American power in South Vietnam was the capital city of Saigon, supposedly a sacrosanct fortress. The bastion for this vast network of military and civilian support, MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam), was the American embassy, its walls of ugly concrete the consummate image of the strength and commitment of the United States to stop the communist incursion from the North and thereby allow for the eventual creation of a democratic, capitalist nation in the South. After the riveting success of World War II, two decades earlier, and the salvation of a capitalist, “free” South Korea in 1953, the American military during the first few years in Vietnam still operated with a sense of invincibility. In their eyes, the problem in Southeast Asia was not defeating the enemy, but finding him and then coaxing him to come out and fight, where he would then be promptly destroyed through overwhelming American firepower.
But city streets were as inimical to the Western way of war as dense jungle. If the Americans wished to bomb and shoot openly and thereby incinerate thousands of communists, then the North Vietnamese would attack stealthily and at night, and not always with even the pretext of shooting exclusively at combatants. Indeed, the embassy, too, was a target—in fact, the first objective of the entire massive enemy offensive that began nationwide at about 3:00 in the morning on January 31. Some 4,000 Vietcong guerrillas, many in civilian clothes and soon aided by infiltration units from the regular army of North Vietnam, attacked nearly all the main South Vietnamese and American government installations in Saigon. Hundreds of small cadres attempted to storm the military headquarters of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the state radio and television stations, police compounds, government agencies, and individual homes of army, police, and American officials in a madcap plan to raise general insurrection among the population and thereby inaugurate the long-promised war of national liberation.
Nineteen Vietcong commandos planned to force their way through the sealed American embassy grounds and overpower a skeleton detail of surprised and sleepy guards. Pulling up in a truck and taxicab, they blasted a hole in the compound wall, killed five American marines, and then began to fire grenades and automatic weapons against the heavy doors of the main chancery in a vain attempt to enter the offices of the embassy proper. What would the American public think, when in just a few hours television broadcasts sent the nation images of Vietcong peering from the windows of Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker’s own office?
It was not to be so. Within five hours helicopters had landed American airborne troops onto the grounds. The Americans killed all nineteen enemy infiltrators and secured the embassy. The enemy assault, like dozens more that morning against President Nguyen Van Thieu’s palace and other Vietnamese and American buildings, was a complete surprise and yet failure at the same time. As they urged on their troops, planners in North Vietnam boasted that the raids would signal a general uprising against the Americans and their “puppet” Vietnamese hosts:
Move forward aggressively to carry out decisive and repeated attacks in order to annihilate as many American, Satellite and Puppet troops as possible in conjunction with political struggle and military proselytizing activities. . . . Display to the utmost your revolutionary heroism by surmounting all the hardships and difficulties and making sacrifices to be able to fight continually and aggressively. Be prepared to smash all enemy counter attacks and maintain your revolutionary standpoint under all circumstances. (L. Berman, “Tet Offensive,” in M. Gilbert and W. Head, eds., The Tet Offensive, 21)
Most residents of Saigon, however, were far more concerned about the lack of security and the random shooting in their streets. Worried American and Vietnamese officers and bureaucrats barricaded themselves in thousands of private residences and began firing at anyone suspicious.
Few Vietnamese had any desire to turn on their own government, much less on the Americans, and the majority of the local population watched from the sidelines. Almost no one joined the communist “uprising.” Most were keen to monitor closely the degree of Vietcong success— weighing the odds that the communists and not the Americans might soon be in control of their lives. Like the Tlaxcalans who followed Cortés to slaughter other indigenous Mexicas, or the tribal irregulars who were attached to Chelmsford in Zululand, the South Vietnamese were ready to fight with the murderous Westerners against the hated communists—but only if the Americans could guarantee military success and bring permanent relief to Vietnam. Now their very embassy was under attack!
By midmorning the Americans were cleaning up the mess on the grounds, as Ambassador Bunker arrived for work, accompanied by dozens of television cameras and reporters, many of whom sent back fantastic cables that the Vietcong had for a time taken over the American embassy and were in possession of the main chancery. The misinformation came not only from the press. Back home President Lyndon B. Johnson scurried to assure the nation that the raid was more like a riot in a Detroit ghetto than a major military operation. General William Westmoreland, in charge of the American command in Vietnam, would insist to the nation that the systematic attacks were mere diversionary probes to draw resources away from the ongoing siege at Khesanh far to the north. He nevertheless welcomed such enemy concentrations, since they made much easier targets for overwhelming American firepower; while politicians fretted over the offensive, Westmoreland saw a chance for decisive victory.
The next month would prove wrong Westmoreland’s initial guess that Tet was some enormous ruse, but he was accurate in his belief that thousands of enemy Vietnamese were now more likely to be in the open, vulnerable, and shortly to be annihilated. The entire effort of Westmoreland’s previous three years in Vietnam had been to create the conditions of traditional Western decisive battle, in which the American military might draw on its wonderfully trained and disciplined shock infantry and enormous technological and material superiority to blast apart the enemy and then go home. The problem for the Americans in Vietnam, as for Westerners overseas in general, had always been the reluctance of the enemy to engage in set battle pieces, instead turning war into one of infiltration, jungle fighting, terror bombing, and house-to-house raiding. In retreat, not battle, Darius III had found safety from Alexander; Abd ar-Rahman had far more success looting Narbonne than meeting Charles Martel at Poitiers; the Aztecs sometimes won when they attacked the Spanish at night, in surprise, or in mountain passes. Cetshwayo would have been far better off ambushing wagons than charging British squares.
Sixty million Americans back home during the next week of fighting saw a somewhat different picture of the first night’s attack. Cameras flashed back images of a few dead Americans on the compound grounds. Tanks and howitzers rushed through the streets of Saigon. Headlines flashed “War Hits Saigon.” An especially disturbing picture was shown for days on television: General Nguyen Ngoc Loan blowing the brains out of a captured Vietcong infiltrator. That the prisoner had been part of infiltration units which just earlier had gunned down many of Loan’s security forces, including one officer at home with his wife and children, or that enemy agents out of uniform and in civilian dress were not accorded the same treatment as captured soldiers, was lost in the journalistic frenzy. Eddie Adams, the Associated Press photographer who snapped the picture for Life magazine, won the Pulitzer Prize for photography.
The image of those scattered brains apparently summed up the entire mess of Tet—dying Americans unable to protect the nerve center of their massive expeditionary force while their corrupt South Vietnamese allies shot the unarmed and innocent—at a time when the public was assured that “the light is at the end of the tunnel.” As they watched their television sets, Americans wondered if victory really was at hand and were troubled over what and whom to believe:
It says something about this war that the great picture of the Tet Offensive was Eddie Adam’s photograph of a South Vietnamese general shooting a man with his arms tied behind his back, that the most memorable quotation was Peter Arnett’s damning epigram from Ben Tre, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it” and that the only Pulitzer Prize awarded specifically for reporting an event of the Tet offensive was given two years later to Seymour M. Hersh, who never set foot in Vietnam, for exposing the U.S. Army massacre of more than a hundred civilians at My Lai. (D. Oberdorfer, Tet!, 332)
Outside the embassy a vicious battle erupted at the Phu Tho racetrack that the Vietcong had occupied as the main element of their attack, a traffic hub for several main boulevards with enough open spaces to coordinate an entire army. Homes surrounding the track were stuffed with hundreds of snipers. It took a week of house-to-house fighting for American army troops and ARVN forces to locate and expel the Vietcong, who rarely surrendered and had to be killed almost to the last man. Yet on television Americans were being blamed for blasting apart residences, as if no one noticed that urban snipers were shooting marines in the middle of a holiday truce.
It took almost three weeks for the last organized infiltrators to be killed or expelled from Saigon. A company of marines from the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Division, tried to storm the Phu Tho racetrack and locate a Vietcong battalion in brutal fighting typical of the urban firefight:
Recoilless rifles blasted holes through walls, grenade launchers were fired through the jagged cavities, and then soldiers clambered into the smoking entrances. Hundreds of panic-stricken civilians fled past the armored carriers as the battle raged on. The column continued to contest the Viet Cong in fierce house-to-house fighting as it pressed closer to the racetrack. Gunships swooped down to blast apart structures with minigun and rocket salvos. By one o’clock that afternoon [January 31] the company had advanced two more city blocks. Then the Viet Cong withdrew to positions dug in behind the concrete park benches, backed up by heavy weapons located in concrete towers on the spectator stands inside the racetrack itself. (S. Stanton, The Rise and Fall of an American Army, 225)