On January 31, 1968, the NVA and VC attacked the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and more than 100 other targets throughout South Vietnam. The assault became known as 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 U.S. military analysts declared victory. But there was little doubt that the NVA and VC 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 B. 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. military officers would insist bitterly that critical reporting about Tet and the war in general 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. In turn, the correspondents who covered Vietnam, many of whom now assume highly influential roles in their news agencies, are more distrustful of U.S. military officials than their older or younger counterparts.
Army historians would eventually conclude that the war was lost by poor strategy and excessive casualties, not by disloyal journalists. ‘It is undeniable, wrote Army historian William Hammond in 1988, that press reports were…more accurate than the public statements of the administration in portraying the situation in Vietnam. But by 1968, the charge that the press lost Vietnam had become an article of faith to many Vietnam veterans.
As a reporter in Vietnam for ABC and NBC News, I was there to experience Tet at most of the major battlefields, from Khe Sanh on January 30 to Hue on February 25, as U.S. Marines secured the southeast gate of the Citadel to end the siege of Hue. But it was at the U.S. Embassy at dawn on January 31 that one of the most important engagements of the war took place.
At a greasy car repair shop at 59 Phan Thanh Gian Street just before the VC attacks on Saigon, 19 VC sappers climbed into a small Peugeot truck and a taxicab to begin the short drive to their objective, the U.S. Embassy. Wearing black pajamas and red armbands, they were part of the elite 250-strong C-10 Sapper Battalion. Most of them had been born in Saigon and were familiar with the streets of the crowded city.
Two days earlier, heavy baskets, supposedly containing tomatoes, as well as bamboo containers of rice, had arrived at the home next door to the repair shop. They also contained all the AK-47s, B-40 rocket-propelled grenades and satchel charges the 19 sappers would need for their mission that evening. Shortly after midnight the soldiers were briefed for the first time on their com-bat mission against the American Embassy. There were no mock-ups of the location, no instructions on what to do after gaining entrance to the compound, no word of reinforce-ments or an escape route and no confirmation that this would be a suicide mission.
The embassy assault would be only a part of the sapper battalion’s assignment to spearhead the attack on Saigon, backed up by another 11 battalions, totaling about 4,000 troops. There had been little time for rehearsal. What they lacked in planning would be made up for in the intensity, scope and audacity of the attacks.
The battalion’s mission that morning was to gain control of six objectives: the U.S. Embassy, the Presidential Palace, the national broadcasting studios, South Vietnamese Naval Headquarters, Vietnamese Joint General Staff Headquarters at Tan Son Nhut air base and the Philippine Embassy. The attackers were to hold these objectives for 48 hours until other VC battalions could enter the city and relieve them. The survivors of the attack 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 chan-cery 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 or Ban Me Thout or Bien Hoa would also 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 battle of the Vietnam War they understood.
En route to the American Embassy, the sappers were spotted driving without lights by a South Vietnamese civilian policeman. This member of the South Vietnamese National Police force, referred to as the white mice, chose to avoid problems and stepped back into the shadows as the truck and taxi passed by. The sappers had similar good fortune confronting the embassy’s first line of defense. After turning onto Thong Nhut Boulevard, they encountered four police officers, but the policemen fled without firing a shot.
At 2:45 a.m., the sappers wheeled up to the front gate of the U.S. Embassy and opened fire with AK-47 machine guns and a B-40 rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Outside the embassy entrance, two American military police of the 716th Battalion — Spc. 4 Charles Daniel, 23, of Durham, N.C., and Pfc Bill Sebast, 20, of Albany, N.Y. — returned fire while backing through the heavy steel gate and locking it behind them. At 2:47 they radioed Signal 300 — the MP code for enemy attack. A tremendous explosion shook the compound as the sappers blew a 3-foot hole in the wall with a satchel charge. Daniel shouted into the MP radio, They’re coming in — help me! and the radio went dead.
The first two soldiers of the C-10 Battalion who went through the hole are believed to have been the two senior members, Bay Tuyen and Ut Nho. They and the two American MPs were killed in a close and deadly exchange of gunfire. The remaining sappers had more than 40 pounds of C-4 plastic explosive, more than enough to blast their way into the chancery building. Without any clear orders since their leaders had been killed, they took positions behind big circular flower tubs on the embassy lawn and fired back at the growing force shooting at them from rooftops outside the embassy.
Just minutes later, at about 3, chief U.S. Embassy spokesman Barry Zorthian phoned news bureaus from his home a few blocks away to alert them. Zorthian had few details, but he told us what he knew: The embassy was being attacked and was under heavy fire.
ABC News Bureau chief Dick Rosenbaum called me after Zorthian had phoned him. The ABC bureau, located at the Caravelle 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 thought had been a stroke of bad luck at Khe Sanh the day before.
For months any journalist with decent sources was expecting something big at Tet. The ABC bureau and most other news agencies were on full alert, R&Rs were canceled and I had celebrated Christmas with my family in nearby Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on December 1 so I could be in Vietnam, ready for the big enemy push when it came sometime before, during or after Tet. Plenty of captured enemy documents circulating in the months before Tet indicated something big was afoot. One of the most respected and credible military sources at the time was Lt. Gen. Fred C. Weyand, commander of American forces in III Corps, the area around Saigon. In the weeks prior to Tet, General Weyand told many journalists what he was telling General William C. Westmoreland: The VC are maneuvering in large units with reinforcements of North Vietnamese and new weapons. Enemy documents and prisoners indicate that a major Communist offensive is coming soon, probably against Saigon. There were strict rules against reporting U.S. troop movements, but Weyand told us, off the record, that he was shifting 30 American battalions into better defensive positions around Saigon.
In the weeks before Tet, the various civilian and military intelligence agencies, both American and South Vietnamese, knew most of the facts about the enemy but didn’t understand their significance. Because of hostility and rivalry between the agencies, they rarely shared or compared intelligence and were never able to assemble it into a cohesive mosaic. They knew through an ava-lanche of captured documents the enemy’s intentions for 1968, but they did not know that their capabilities were anywhere close to matching these intentions.
In the New Year’s Eve roundup of ABC News TV correspondents around the world, I predicted heavy fighting in Vietnam in the new year. Documents captured at Dak To recently indicate the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong are now entering what they call the’sprint phase of the revolution,’ I said. Intensification of the fighting seems the intent here of both sides as 1968 begins. Don North, ABC News, Vietnam. It was to be the Year of the Monkey — a year in which we all experienced more history than we could digest.
The week before Tet had been strangely quiet. With nothing else to do, I took a camera crew over to the Phu Tho racetrack in Cholon to produce a little news feature on the crookedest horse race in the world. Widespread drugging of the horses produced some weird results, and often a lame horse could enter the winner’s circle if it could still stand up by the end of the race. A week later, the Phu Tho racetrack was used as a staging center and resupply base for the VC during the Tet Offensive. Even on that quiet Sunday afternoon it was likely the VC had been infiltrating Saigon and the racetrack — chances are that the heavy better in line with me at the parimutuel win-dow that afternoon was an NVA colonel. Arriving back at the ABC bureau I was dispatched immediately to the airport for a flight to Khe Sanh, which was where General Westmoreland was expecting the main thrust of an enemy strike during Tet.
In Khe Sanh on January 30, ABC News cameraman Peter Leydon and I came under a heavy barrage of NVA artillery fire. When we dived into a trench, the lens of our 16mm film camera broke off, forcing us to cut short our stay in Khe Sanh. We returned to Saigon on the Lockheed C-130 milk run that evening.
Because of the broken camera, we thought we would be missing the NVA’s 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 Da Nang air base, we saw 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. on January 31, we were back in Saigon, wheeling out of the Caravelle Hotel in the ABC News jeep with a new camera. 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 lights and reversed out of range. We returned to the ABC bureau to wait for first light.
As dawn was breaking around 6 a.m., we walked the three blocks to the embassy. As we approached the compound, we could hear heavy firing, and green and red tracers cut into the pink sky.
Near the embassy, I joined a group of U.S. MPs moving toward the embassy’s front gate. I started my tape recorder for ABC radio as the MPs loudly cursed the ARVN troops who were supposed to provide embassy security. The MPs claimed the ARVN had D-Dee’d (slang for running away under fire) after the first shots.
Green-colored VC tracer bullets were coming from the embassy compound and the upper floor of buildings across the street. Red tracers stitched back across the street. We were in the cross-fire.
Crawling up to the gate with me was Peter Arnett of the Associated Press (AP), who was 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 had picked up a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting. Arnett was a prolific, competitive and fair journalist, often filing more than a dozen stories for the AP every week. In spite of his later problems at CNN that would bring into question his credibility as a reporter of Vietnam-related stories, I believe his eight years of daily reporting from Vietnam are without par in the annals of war correspondence.
Lying flat in the gutter that morning with the MPs, Arnett and I 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.
Arnett and other AP staffers had been the first to alert the world of the attack on the U.S. Embassy. At 3:15 the first bulletin had gone out a full 40 minutes ahead of competitor United Press International (UPI). First Lead Attack: Saigon (AP) The Viet Cong shelled Saigon Wednesday in a bold followup of their attacks on eight major cities around the country.
Simultaneously, a suicide squad of guerrilla commandos infiltrated the capital and at least three are reported to have entered the grounds of the new U.S. Embassy near the heart of the city. U.S. Marine guards at the Embassy, opened only late last year, engaged the infiltrators in an exchange of fire.
Several MPs rushed by, one of them carrying a VC sapper piggyback 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. The MPs believed the VC were in the chancery building itself, an impression that later proved false. Peter Arnett crawled off to find a phone and report the MPs’ conversation to his office. At 7:25, based on Arnett’s calls from the scene, the AP transmitted the first report that the VC were inside the embassy.Bulletin: Vietnam (Tops 161) Saigon (AP) The Vietcong attacked Saigon Wednesday and seized part of the U.S. Embassy. U.S. Military Police on the scene said it was believed about 20 Vietcong suicide commandos were in the Embassy and held part of the first floor of the Embassy building.
The question of whether the VC were in the chancery building or only in the compound took on symbolic importance. I have replayed the tape of that day in 1968, and there is no doubt the MPs believed the VC were in the chancery.
A helicopter landed on the embassy roof, and troops started working down the 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.
As we prepared to join the MPs rushing the gate, I had other concerns. OK, how much film have we got left? I shouted to cameraman Peter Leydon.
I’ve got one mag [400 feet], 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 standupper. There was no time to argue about whose responsibility it was to have brought more film.
I stepped over the United States seal, which had been blasted off the embassy wall near a side entrance. We rushed through the main gate into the garden, where a 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. They 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. Colonel 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 News 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, whose bloody body was sprawled beside me on the lawn. Nguyen was later identified as an embassy driver who often chauffeured the American ambassador and who had been a driver for 16 years. The MPs told me Nguyen Van De had 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 pools of thick blood on the lawn. It was one of those images that never gets properly filed away and keeps coming back at odd times.
A long burst of automatic-weapons fire snapped me back to reality. The last VC still in action rushed up the stairs firing blindly at Colonel Jacobson, but he 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. Jacobson later admitted that his Saigon girlfriend had been with him at the time and witnessed the entire drama from beneath the sheets of their bed.
The death toll from the embassy battle stood at five American soldiers killed along with 17 of the 19 sappers. The two surviving but wounded sappers were later questioned and turned over to the ARVN.
On the last 30 feet of film, I recorded my closing remarks in the embassy garden: Since the lunar New Year, the Viet Cong 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 Viet Cong. Don North, ABC News, Saigon.
A rush to judgment before all 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 rough draft of history.
My on-the-scene analysis never made it on ABC News. Worried about editorializing by a correspondent on a sensitive story, someone at ABC headquarters in New York killed the on-camera closer. (Ironically, the closer and other outtakes ended up in the Simon Grinberg film library, where they were later found and used by film director Peter Davis in his Academy Award–winning movie Hearts and Minds.)
The film from all three networks took off from Saigon on a special military flight about noon. When it arrived in Tokyo for processing, it caused a mad, competitive scramble to get a cut film story on satellite for the 7 p.m. (EST) news programs in the 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, General 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. Nineteen bodies have been found on the premises — enemy bodies. Don’t be deceived by this incident.
I couldn’t believe it. Westy was still saying everything was just fine. He said the Tet attacks throughout the country were very deceitfully calculated to create maximum consternation in Vietnam and that they were diversionary to the main enemy effort still to come at Khe Sanh.
Most journalists in Vietnam at that time respected Westmoreland — he often generously gave long interviews, which would invariably explain the success of his command. But an incident about six months prior to Tet left questions in my mind concerning the commanding general’s understanding of the role of the media in wartime.
The military and the media have since the beginning of recorded history had a difficult and conflicting relationship. The reporter’s job is to gather information, while the soldier’s concern is to hold back in-formation that could possibly help the enemy or demoralize the home front and — sometimes — to hide his own mistakes or incompetence. A U.S. military censor in Washington, D.C., in 1938 expressed the ultimate military disdain for the American public’s right to know: I wouldn’t tell the people anything until the war is over and then I’d tell them who won. In 1914, Richard Harding Davis of the New York Herald wrote, In war the world has a right to know, not what is going to happen next, but at least what has happened.
A memo signed by Westmoreland was delivered to the ABC News Bureau and to most other agencies in mid-1967 suggesting that news reports of inefficient Vietnamese ground troops were not helping the war effort. If you give a dog a bad name, he will live up to it, Westmoreland suggested, recommending that more positive reporting be done on our Vietnamese allies.
Most of us had been with crack South Vietnamese airborne or marine units and had described them accordingly. We thought the ARVN 1st and 21st divisions were effective, but we considered the 2nd, 5th and 18th divisions slacker units, plagued with high desertion rates and questionable commanders who rarely moved aggressively out of their base camps.
Westmoreland’s ill-advised memo was largely ignored by Saigon journalists. In fact, the MACV chief of information, Maj. Gen. Winant Sidle, had strongly urged Westmoreland not to issue the memo. A television report on an ARVN unit doing nothing doesn’t make great news, however, so it was more likely that the better units got more coverage anyway.
Even after Westmoreland’s pronouncement that the chancery had not been breached, Peter Arnett and the AP seemed heavily committed to their earlier lead and continued to quote the MPs and others at the embassy who believed the sappers had penetrated the first floor. As Arnett would explain later, We had little faith in what General Westmoreland stated, and often
in the field we had reason to be extremely careful in accepting the general’s assessments of the course of a particular battle. Much of the later criticism of the press for its handling of the embassy story fell on Arnett for supposedly exaggerating the VC action with his report from the MPs. But a report is only as good as its sources, and the MPs’ fears and warnings were trusted.
Later, at the MACV press briefing, the so-called Five O’clock Follies, Westmoreland appeared in person to emphasize the huge enemy body counts as U.S. and ARVN forces repelled the Tet Offensive. But MACV had been caught manipulating enemy casualty figures before, and many reporters were skeptical.
To add to Westy’s growing credibility gap, it was also reported at his press briefing that the city of Hue, in the northern part of South Vietnam, 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 vigorous control of the Tet story, Ambassador Ells-worth Bunker called a background briefing for select reporters at the embassy three days after the attack. Our reports from around the country indicate the South Vietnamese people are outraged by the deceitful Viet Cong violation of the sacred Tet Holiday, Bunker said, identified only as a senior American diplomat. He added, 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 NVA troops infiltrated the city. In later interviews with Saigon residents, I found none who thought the VC had been particularly deceitful in breaking the Tet truce to gain the element of surprise.
Many were, however, alarmed at how vigorously U.S. and ARVN firepower had been directed against VC targets in heavily populated urban centers of Saigon, Can Tho and Ben Tre — attacks that killed and wounded thousands of Vietnamese civilians and created a half-million refugees.
My TV and radio report on those interviews was titled U.S. mission, more out of touch with Vietnamese than ever. But it also never made it on the ABC-TV evening news. It arrived in New York but was never scheduled for broadcast and was later reported lost. It was, however, broadcast as an Information Report 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 would claim that 37,000 of the enemy had died, with U.S. dead at 2,500.
It was obvious that the enemy operations had dealt Washington a decisive psychological blow. Somehow, more than 70,000 VC, backed by regular units of the NVA, had been able to coordinate a nationwide offensive with attacks on 36 provincial capitals and 64 district towns.
The political consequences of Tet were made worse by the cheery public-relations campaigns that had preceded the offensive. Although some senior U.S. commanders, like General Weyand, warned of a coming offensive against Saigon and had repositioned some U.S. forces, Westmoreland and 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 possible. 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 Westmoreland as its man of the year.
Just days before Tet, Johnson gave a State of the Union address in which he avoided telling the American people what his military advisers were telling him — that there would be a large enemy offensive. 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 critical re-examination.
There were stunning political consequences, too. On March 31, President John-son 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 were given more time for war criticism.
Contrary to what some critics of the media believed, it was not that TV editors had suddenly 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.
Ten years later, when I produced a TV documentary on the Tet Offensive, one of 26 programs in the series The Ten Thousand Day War, General 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. In a lengthy critique of the press, Westmoreland made it clear we were his worst enemy. At one time we had 700 accredited reporters, all practicing, seeking and reporting news as they were accustomed to in the United States, all looking for sensational stories. If we continue the practice of reporting only the off-beat, the unusual or the bizarre in any future war, well, then the American public are going to be influenced as they were during Vietnam. I think the bottom line on this subject is how an open society, and how our political democracy are vulnerable to manipulation by an autocratic flow of society.
Westmoreland not only failed to understand journalism in our society, but he also failed the lessons of history. Even grave defeats have been perceived as victories of the spirit when clear-cut goals — and shortcomings — are shared with the public. But there was little to inspire confidence in the nation about the military’s claims of victory at Tet.
On March 25, 1968, just two months after Tet, a Harris poll showed that the majority of Americans, 60 percent, regarded the Tet Offensive as a defeat for U.S. objectives in Vietnam.
Westy’s insistence that the media somehow betrayed the troops in the field still rings true with many senior U.S. military officers. In the book The War Managers, retired General Douglas Kinnard polled the 173 Army generals who commanded in Vietnam. Eighty-nine percent of them expressed negative feelings toward the printed press and even more — 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. That myth 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.
In a research paper for the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard, William Hammond of the U.S. Army Center of Military History describes a breakdown in the basic spirit of cooperation and communication that had made MACV’s Guidelines for the Press so successful in Vietnam.
In a paper titled Who were the Saigon correspondents, and does it matter? Hammond observes, Flailed both by the Nixon White House and increasingly by officers in the field for their supposed disloyalty, reporters had encountered generals who would no longer give interviews, staff officers who declined to respond to the most innocuous questions in a timely manner, and official dissembling on a range of topics that stretched from the so-called ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ to the supposedly secret wars in Laos and Cambodia…as a result many reporters lost faith in their government’s word.
The psychological impact of the 1968 Tet Offensive was considered a contributing factor in South Vietnam’s collapse seven years later. In 1975, a minor setback in a battle near Ban Me Thout escalated into the ARVN’s panicked retreat and the fall of Saigon a few weeks later.
Tet 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 impact on the nation. Public relations 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 stuck and became the rationale for the military’s hostility toward the press. The fallout is still with us, in tighter battlefield censorship of war dispatches and a denial of access to soldiers in the field — changes that have reduced public information about more recent conflicts, including the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the Persian Gulf War and NATO’s Serbia bombing campaign.
In 1968, a few months after the Tet Offensive, although the hole in the wall had been repaired, bullet holes still pockmarked the facade of the U.S. Embassy. In the lobby a plaque commemorating the U.S. soldiers who died defending the embassy that morning had been erected. It read: In memory of the brave men who died January 31, 1968, defending this embassy against the Viet Cong: Sp4 Charles L. Daniel MPS, Cpl James C. Marshall USMC, Sp4 Owen E. Mebust MPC, Pfc William E. Sebast MPC, Sgt Jonnie B. Thomas.
On the same wall nearby someone had framed a quotation from Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by Lawrence of Arabia: It is better that they do it imperfectly than that you do it perfectly. For it is their war and their country and your time here is limited.
This article was written by Don North and was originally a February 2001 Vietnam eContent Feature for Vietnam magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!