Among the many milestones that marked the tortuous path of Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive stands out. The coordinated series of attacks by North Vietnamese forces, timed with the Vietnamese New Year celebration, was technically a win for the South and its American allies — but for Americans watching back home, it looked like such a disaster that the national understanding of the war effort changed. The day it began, 50 years ago, on Jan. 30 and 31, 1968, would go on to qualify as one of TIME’s 80 Days That Changed the World. As it all went down, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Peter Arnett had a firsthand view.
In the following excerpt from his new book We’re Taking Fire, he recalls that war-shaping day.
The blast of strings of exploding firecrackers jerked me awake as Vietnamese neighbors continued their celebrations into the early hours of the morning. It was Saigon, January 31, 1968, the first day of the year of the traditional lunar calendar, Tet Nguyen Dan, and the most important Vietnamese festival. Amid the cacophony I noticed a loud, methodical rat-tat-tat that shook our apartment shutters as though someone was banging on them with a hammer. I’d heard that sound before in the battlefield, the roar of a heavy-caliber machine gun, and it seemed to be shooting up Pasteur Street just three room-lengths away. A weapon that lethal had not been discharged in Saigon since the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem four years earlier. I opened my bedroom window and watched as war came to Saigon from the jungles and paddy fields and peasant villages where it had lingered for years. Red tracer bullets zipped through the sky and firefights were erupting near the centers of power in South Vietnam’s capital, the presidential palace and the American embassy. As the sounds of exploding grenades and rockets vibrated through the darkness, I bundled my wife Nina and my young children, Elsa and Andrew, and our maid into the bathroom, which I hoped was safer than the rest of our small apartment, and I covered them with mattresses from the beds. I phoned the Associated Press office, and bureau chief Robert Tuckman answered, his voice high-pitched and excited: “They’re shelling the city, for God’s sake.” I told him I was on my way.
I wasn’t the only one so rudely awakened in total surprise at around 2:30 that morning. Only those in the know — the attacking Vietcong guerrillas and North Vietnamese military forces and their allied clandestine networks in the city — had any idea of what was happening. By quietly moving combat troops through the supposedly secure countryside into the heart of Saigon, they were able to strike without warning. General William Westmoreland, the increasingly confident commander of all American combat forces fighting in Vietnam, was asleep in his comfortable villa at Tran Quy Cap street when attacks began all around his neighborhood. Just nine weeks earlier, the general visited the United States on the orders of President Lyndon Johnson to participate in a “success offensive,” a concerted effort to bolster public support for the war. In an address at the National Press Club, he asserted that the Vietcong were “unable to mount a major offensive” and that the point was reached “when the end begins to come into view.” But on this early morning, Westmoreland was stuck, unable to reach his Saigon headquarters as gunfire roared in the street outside. By telephone, he learned of the spiraling crisis, particularly a fierce attack on the six-story American embassy at Thong Nhut street several blocks away. He later said, “My Marine aide was talking to the Marine guard inside the embassy, and by my numerous telephone conversations with U.S. Army MP command I was able to follow the course of the battle and direct action.”
Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker was similarly blindsided by the ferocity of the enemy attacks, particularly the assault on his embassy. He was asleep in his villa four blocks away when his security team rushed into his bedroom and ushered him down to the basement in his pajamas. Wearing his bathrobe, he was soon loaded into an armored car and driven to a safe house. Bunker had been in South Vietnam less than a year, and in that time he had worked closely with Westmoreland and endorsed his views.
In Washington, D.C., half a day behind Vietnam in time, it was the early afternoon of January 30. President Johnson was presiding over a meeting of his closest security advisers, their biggest Vietnam concern the struggle to avoid the loss of the U.S. Marine combat base of Khe Sanh that over the weeks had been threatened by a growing number of North Vietnamese troops. Nearly half of all American combat troops in Vietnam were being moved to the northern provinces to support Khe Sanh and other border bases. It was during the meeting that President Johnson first heard the alarming news from Saigon. His special assistant for national security affairs, Walt Rostow, returned after taking a call from the National Military Command Center. It was 2:35 p.m. Rostow, a hawk on Vietnam who late in 1967 had used the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel” to describe the war policy’s successes, announced, “We have just been informed that we are being heavily mortared in Saigon. The presidential palace, our bachelor officers’ quarters, the embassy and the city itself have been hit. This flash was just received from the NMCC.”
The minutes of the meeting record President Johnson as responding, “This could be very bad. What can we do to shake them from this? This looks like where we came in. Remember it was at Pleiku that they hit our barracks and that we began to strike them in the North. What comes to mind in the way of retaliation?” He was recalling that it was at Pleiku in the Central Highlands in the early morning hours of February 7, 1965, that 300 Vietcong troops attacked the helicopter facility at Camp Holloway, killing eight Americans, wounding 126 and destroying 16 aircraft. President Johnson ordered retaliatory airstrikes against North Vietnam by carrier-based Navy fighter-bombers in a response that foretold America’s full-scale entry into the Vietnam war.
At the White House meeting, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Earle Wheeler, downplayed the news. “It was the same type of thing before. You remember that during the inauguration, the MACV (Military Advisory Command Vietnam) headquarters was hit. In a city like Saigon people can infiltrate easily. They carry in rounds of ammunition and mortars. They fire and run. It is about as tough to stop it in its entirety as to protect against a mugging in Washington, D.C. We’ve got to pacify all of this area as get rid of the Vietcong infrastructure. They are making a major effort to mount a series of these actions to make a big splurge at Tet.” Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the primary architect of early war policy whose growing doubts about the morality of the American effort had led to his announced replacement, gave little weight to the initial information, suggesting it should be handled as “a ‘public relations’ issue.”
Around the same time, William Colby, the CIA’s chief of the Far East Division, at work at the agency’s Langley, Virginia, headquarters, received a flash message from Saigon station reporting that “a violent attack against the American embassy is in progress with the attackers possibly within the embassy itself.” Colby advised them in a flash return message that the Communications Center should button up its steel doors. Colby was a former CIA station chief in Saigon, a confidant of the slain President Ngo Dinh Diem, and a proponent of a counter insurgency strategy that relied less on American combat troops. Within days, he would be on his way to South Vietnam to help pick up the pieces of a crumbling policy.
As the 3 million people of Saigon became abruptly aware of the brutal enemy intrusion in their Tet holiday celebrations, there was confusion within the South Vietnamese security ranks. Many of the military police primarily responsible for city protection were at home celebrating with their families. President Nguyen Van Thieu, who was also the commander of Vietnam’s armed forces, was on a Tet holiday with his family and could not be immediately located. A month earlier, the American military command had handed over the security of the nation’s capital entirely to the Vietnamese paramilitary police forces, and Thieu’s authority was necessary to facilitate supporting troop movements from outside. Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky complained later, “Catastrophe loomed. In expectation of the usual Tet truce, half of our armed forces had gone on leave. To make things worse, most of our army’s combat forces were not deployed in or near big cities.” General Westmoreland was particularly unhappy about President Thieu, who had been informed of security concerns in the northern region and had agreed to cancel the Tet ceasefire there a day earlier. The day passed with no notice of the cancellation, and according to Westmoreland, “I telephoned the American embassy to find that the South Vietnamese government had provided its press officer with a release but that the press office was shut tight, closed for Tet. President Thieu had departed to pass the holidays in My Tho, his wife’s hometown in the Mekong Delta. Such a lackadaisical attitude on the part of the government was shocking and frustrating yet indicative of the state of mind, to near euphoria, that envelops the Vietnamese at Tet.”
Not all the Vietnamese, however, were euphoric celebrants, certainly not the Vietcong who were violating their own announced seven-day Tet truce with surprise attacks across the country. We would soon learn that the Saigon attacks were just the point of the spear. The Vietcong and the North Vietnamese, who had until now avoided attacking major population centers, were using an estimated 80,000 fighters in a coordinated assault against 39 of South Vietnam’s 44 province capitals, 64 district headquarters, almost every allied airfield, and Saigon. A puzzle was that the only American installation attacked was the embassy.
I said goodbye to my family to begin my reporting day, and opened my apartment door as a burst of heavy machine-gun fire flashed through the darkness in the direction of the presidential palace two blocks away. I waited for a break in the shooting and stepped out into the lamplight, raising my arms in a friendly gesture to the invisible gunners behind the sandbags just down the street. I was in shirt sleeves and slacks and I smiled and shouted “journalist” in Vietnamese. There was no reaction so I just walked past them on my way to the AP office. Our staff were on the telephones, reporting what best they could to our news headquarters in New York City. The American embassy was under attack; so was Tan Son Nhut airport and the main Saigon radio station, the presidential palace, and Vietnamese security installations. We needed eyewitness stories, bureau chief Tuckman told me.
Excerpted from We’re Taking Fire: A Reporter’s View of the Vietnam War, Tet and the Fall of LBJ, by Peter Arnett, available now from the Associated Press.