• U.S.

Foreign Relations: Outrages like This

6 minute read

For at least three weeks Saigon had been rife with rumors that a Communist suicide squad was going to try to blow up the U.S. embassy in reprisal for air attacks on North Viet Nam. Last week the Communists made the rumors come true.

It happened on a clear, hot morning. More than 150 embassy staff people were at work inside the five-story building. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor was in Washington for talks with President Johnson; left in charge was Deputy Ambassador U. Alexis Johnson. Out side the embassy, a sentry unit of six Saigon policemen ambled conversationally along the sidewalk.

At 10:46 a.m., a man on a Lambretta motor scooter buzzed past the cops, parked across the street from the embassy. Moments later, a Renault Fregate sedan drove up, pulled up to the curb about four yards from the building. The driver got out, complained about having motor trouble. When a cop told him to move on because he was blocking traffic, he opened fire with a pistol. The Lambretta rider also began blasting away. The Saigon cops shot back; the car-driving terrorist was riddled, and the scooter rider fled for his life. One policeman fell, wounded in the stomach. Hearing the gunfire, embassy workers hurried to peer out the windows. They got there just in time to see a plume of white smoke curling from a rear window of the car. Then 250 Ibs. of dynamite, crammed inside the car, exploded.

Glistening with Blood. Every window in the embassy burst inward. Jagged glass bits blasted like a blizzard of razor blades through every office. The ground floor was turned into a knee-deep mass of rubble. Parked cars spun into the air and landed in twisted heaps. A crowded Chinese restaurant across the street collapsed in smoke and flames, its floor strewn with still bodies and flopping forms of the wounded. Dozens of pedestrians in a nearby shopping district were flattened by the blast. Where the car had been, there was only a smoking pit, two feet deep. Three charred bodies lay near by, and bits of pulverized flesh littered the street.

For a moment there was silence. Then the first pathetic moans sounded from the wreckage. They became screams. Sirens began to wail in the distance. At last, people started to stumble from the embassy, blood streaming from their faces and arms, their hair glistening with blood and tiny shards of glass.

Deputy Ambassador Johnson had been in his fifth-floor office. Immediately after the blast, he appeared at the shattered entryway, calmly directing first-aid operations and bringing the first order out of chaos. His face was cut and blood dripped on his shirt. A Navy enlisted man lay on a stretcher while a medic held his hand over a gaping wound in the sailor’s throat. A man rushed down the street cradling the corpse of a little boy in his arms. Many of the wounded who could walk left bloody footprints on the pavement.

Two Americans were dead. Embassy Stenographer Barbara Robbins, 21, who had come to Saigon from Denver six months before, died at her desk, a ballpoint pen still clutched in her hand. Navy Storekeeper 2/C Manolito W. Castillo, 26, a clerk at the embassy, was killed in the doorway of the building when the bomb exploded. Three Saigon policemen were blown to bits. In all, 22 persons, most of them innocent Vietnamese pedestrians, were killed, and 190 were hurt. The motor-scooter driver had raced out of the blast area, was shot twice and arrested by pursuing police. He claimed he was a hired helper, that he had been paid $139 by the Viet Cong to offer getaway transportation for the bomber.

Same Program. When the news got to Washington, it was evening. President Johnson was in the midst of making a champagne toast at a White House dinner when an aide handed him a small brown envelope. While a segment of his toast was being translated into French for foreign guests, the President read the message. His face tightened, and he stumbled slightly over his words as he continued the toast. Even as he talked, Johnson handed the note to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, seated near him. Rusk read it and quickly left the room. Later the President, in quiet fury, circulated word of the bombing among his guests.

Next day the President issued a blistering statement: “Outrages like this will only reinforce the determination of the American people and Government to continue and to strengthen their assistance and support for the people and government of Viet Nam.” Johnson, Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Foreign Policy Adviser McGeorge Bundy decided not to launch any massive attack against North Viet Nam in specific retaliation for the bombing. After a long session with the President, Ambassador Taylor said: “We are simply going to stay on our program of doing what we did before. We’ve just got to do what we have been doing more effectively.”

Through the week, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces continued to do what they had been doing—hitting North Viet Nam and the Viet Cong with bombs and ground fire (see THE WORLD). To make the U.S. commitment more effective, the President agreed with Taylor’s request to send more men, money and equipment into the war. Several thousand more U.S. troops would be dispatched to beef up the 27,500-man contingent there now, and another 160,000 men would be added to the existing South Vietnamese military force of over half a million. Should the Red Chinese choose to intervene with ground forces, some 350,000 U.S. troops could be thrown into the war, according to a longstanding Administration contingency plan.

Twittering Doves. Meanwhile, U.S. air strikes were intensified—and extended farther to the north. There was a considerable twittering among the doves, and complaints that the bombings had so far produced no tangible results. Before he returned to Saigon at week’s end, Taylor replied to them: “I think that it is premature, too early to see any great visible sign. What I do see is a very notable increase in morale and confidence.” The President, too, remained adamant, told a press conference: “I think that we are following a course of action that is calculated to best represent the interests of this nation, and beyond that I see no good that would flow from prophecies or predictions.”

The U.S. course of action may have brought at least one result: there were new indications all last week that the Hanoi regime might be softening toward the idea of negotiating a ceasefire and, eventually, a full settlement that might not require a complete pull-out of U.S. forces from Southeast Asia. But the negotiating table remained a long way off. Viet Nam was still a bloody, violent battlefield, and U.S. forces were committed to an ugly war. Last week alone, seven Americans died in combat. And Saigon was rife with new rumors to the effect that Viet Cong suicide teams were taking aim on their next target: the six-story, glass-walled United States Information Service building.

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