Cronkite and the Tet Turning Point
July 18, 2009

By Don North

Editor's Note: The death of legendary CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite on
July 17 recalls sadly what has happened to the U.S. news media over
the past several decades and especially how attempts by mainstream
journalists to tell difficult truths were successfully politicized by
an aggressive Right.

A pivotal moment in that history came on Feb. 27, 1968, when Cronkite
` just returned from a trip to Vietnam ` closed his evening news
broadcast with an analysis that the bloody Tet Offensive showed that
`we have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American
leaders ¦ to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find
in the darkest clouds.'

Cronkite added, `to say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only
realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion' and `it is increasingly
clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to
negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to
their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.'

Cronkite's analysis would prove prophetic. Indeed, President Lyndon
Johnson was reaching a similar conclusion and would press tenaciously
during his final months in office to bring the war to a negotiated
end, a goal that eluded him.

But the American Right would draw a different lesson in the years that
followed, insisting bitterly that critical news reporting about the
Vietnam War in general but particularly the Tet Offensive caused the
American defeat -- and that Cronkite and other journalists had gone
from being the Fourth Estate to acting like an enemy fifth column.

Official Army historians would conclude eventually that the war was
lost by poor strategy and excessive casualties, not by disloyal
reporters. `It is undeniable,' wrote Army historian William M. Hammond
in 1988, `that press reports were ¦ more accurate than the public
statements of the administration in portraying the situation in
Vietnam.' [Ham
the U.S. Army Center of Military History.]

But by then, the `press-lost-Vietnam' charge had become an article of
faith to many on the Right. That certainty fueled the vitriol of
rightist anti-press groups and led deep-pocket conservatives to pour
billions of dollars into the construction of an ideologically
right-wing media, now one of the most potent political forces in the

So, in Cronkite's memory ` and in recognition of his courageous TV
editorial four decades ago ` we are reposting an investigative article
about the Tet Offensive written by veteran war correspondent Don
North, who spent three years as a reporter in Vietnam for ABC and NBC

On the morning the Tet Offensive began, North was at ground zero,
under fire with Army MPs outside the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Here is
his story of Tet:
At midnight, heading into the fateful day of Jan. 31, 1968, 15
Vietcong gathered at a greasy car repair garage at 59 Phan Thanh Gian
Street in Saigon.

Wearing black pajamas and red arm bands, they were part of the elite
250-strong J-9 Special Action Unit, formerly known as the C-10 sapper
battalion. They were mostly born in Saigon and were familiar with the
streets of the teeming city.

Only eight of them were trained sappers, experts in laying and
disarming mines and explosive devices. The other seven were clerks and
cooks who signed up for the dangerous mission mainly to escape the
rigors of life in the jungle.

They would be helped by four other Vietnamese, civilian employees at
the U.S. Embassy, including one of Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker's

Nguyen Van Giang, known as Captain Ba Den, the commanding officer of
the J-9 unit, was designated to help lead the mission. On the morning
before the attack, Ba Den had met with the ambassador's chauffeur,
Nguyen Van De, who drove Ba Den in an American station wagon past the
embassy, revealing that it would be the secret target of the Tet

Learning the identity of the target, Captain Ba Den was overwhelmed by
the realization t
next day.

Pondering his likely death ` and since it was the eve of Tet ` Ba Den
had a few Ba Muoi Bau beers at the Saigon Market and bought a string
of firecrackers as he had done for every Tet celebration since he was
a child.

Ba Den then wandered down Tran Qui Cap Street, looking for the house
where he had lived with his wife and children six years earlier.

Later that night, he joined the other attackers at the garage on Phan
Thanh Gian Street.

Senior Captain Bay Tuyen briefed them on their mission and handed out
weapons. The sappers were told to kill anyone who resisted but to take
as prisoner anyone who surrendered. Ominously, they were not given an
escape route.

The embassy attack was to be the centerpiece of a larger Saigon
offensive, backed up by 11 battalions totaling about 4,000 troops. The
operation's other five objectives were the Presidential Palace, the
national broadcasting studios, South Vietnamese Naval Headquarters,
Vietnamese Joint General Staff

Headquarters at Ton Son Nhut Airbase, and the Philippine Embassy.

The goal was to hold these objectives for 48 hours until other
Vietcong battalions could enter the city and relieve them. Survivors
of the attacks were to be instantly promoted.

The Target

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 chancery building loomed
over Saigon like an impregnable fortress.

It was a constant reminder of the American presence, prestige and

Never mind that Nha Trang, Ban Me Thout and Bien Hoa also would 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 understandable battle of
the Vietnam War.

En route to the U.S. Embassy, the 15 sappers were spotted driving
without lights by a South Vietnamese civilian policeman. But he chose
to avoid problems and did not intervene.

g the embassy's first line of defense. After turning onto Thon Nhut
Boulevard, they encountered four police officers, but the policemen
fled without firing a shot.

So, at 2:47 a.m., the sappers wheeled up to the front gate of the
U.S. Embassy and opened fire with AK-47 assault rifles and a B-40
rocket launcher. One sapper used a satchel charge to blow a three-foot
hole in the embassy's concrete wall. Two VC officers led the way
through the hole firing AK-47s.

Two American MPs ` Sp. 4 Charles Daniel of Durham, North Carolina, and
Private Bill Sebast of Albany, New York ` returned the fire, killing
the two VC officers, but the two Americans were cut down themselves.

Just minutes later, at about 3 a.m., from his home a few blocks away,
chief U.S. Embassy spokesman Barry Zorthian phoned news bureaus to
alert them. Zorthian had few details but told us what he knew: the
embassy was under attack and there was heavy fire.

ABC News bureau chief Dick Rosenbaum called me after Zorthian had
called him. The ABC bureau, located at the Caravel 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 had thought only hours
earlier had been a stroke of bad luck.

A National Offensive

We had been in Khe Sanh the day before, on Jan. 30, and had come under
a barrage of North Vietnamese artillery fire. When we dove into a
trench, the lens of our 16 mm film camera had broken off, forcing us
to cut short our stay in Khe Sanh.

We returned to Saigon on the C-130 `milk run' that connected the two

Because of the broken camera, we thought we would be missing an
expected big military 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 Danang air base, there were 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., Jan. 31, w
` and suddenly heading into the thick of the fighting on its most
important front. In the ABC News Jeep, we started driving toward the
embassy. We didn't get far.

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

I killed the Jeep's lights and reversed out of range. We returned to
the ABC bureau to wait for first light, around 6 a.m.

As the dawn was breaking, we walked toward the embassy. As we
approached the compound, heavy firing could be heard, and green and
red tracer bullets cut into the pink sky.

Near the embassy, I joined a group of U.S. MPs moving toward the
embassy front gate. I started my tape recorder for ABC Radio as the
MPs loudly cursed the South Vietnamese ARVN troops. The MPs claimed
the ARVN had `D Dee'd' (Vietnamese war slang for running away under
fire) after the first shots.

Green-colored VC tracer bullets were still coming from the embassy
compound and from the upper floor of a building across the street. Red
tracers stitched back across the street. We were in the cross-fire.

Retaking the Embassy

Crawling up with me to the gate was the Associated Press's intrepid
Peter Arnett, who was in a jovial mood and 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 I had been in Vietnam
for three years.

Lying flat in the gutter that morning with the MPs, we 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.'

Several MPs rushed past, one of them carrying a VC sapper piggy-back
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. There was no doubt they believed
the VC were in the chancery building itsel
r Arnett crawled off to find a phone and report the MPs conversation
to his office.

A helicopter landed on the embassy roof, and troops started working
down the six 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.'

Preparing to join the MPs rushing the gate, I had other concerns.

`Okay, how much film have we got left?' I shouted to cameraman Leydon.

`I've got one mag (400 feet of film),' he replied. `How many do you

`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 stand-upper.'

There was no time to argue about whose responsibility it was to have
brought more film.

I stepped over the Great Seal of the United States which had been
blasted off the embassy wall. We rushed through the main gate into the
once-elegant embassy garden where the 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. The MPs 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.

Col. 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 camera rolled film on it sparingly. I
continued to describe everything I saw into a tape recorder, often
choking on the tear gas.

Dead Chauffeur

I could read the embassy ID card in the wallet
's chauffeur whose bloody body sprawled beside me on the lawn. The MPs
told me that the chauffeur 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 thick pools of blood on the lawn. It was one of those frozen
images on the wide screen of your life that never gets properly filed
away and keeps returning at odd times.

A long burst of automatic fire snapped me back. The last VC still in
action rushed up the stairs firing blindly at Jacobson, but
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,' taking the VC down.

Jacobson later admitted that his Saigon girlfriend was with him that
evening and witnessed the entire drama from beneath the sheets of
their bed.

In the embassy garden, using the last 30 feet of film, I recorded my
closing remarks or `stand-up closer.' I said:

`Since the Lunar New Year, the Vietcong 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
Vietcong. Don North, ABC News, Saigon.'

A rush to judgment before all the 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 draft of history.

Still, my instant analysis never made it on ABC News. Worried about
`editorializing' by a correspondent on a sensitive story, someone at
ABC killed the on-camera close.

(Ironically, the `closer,' along with other out-takes, ended up in the
Simon Grinberg film library in N
, where it was later found and used by Peter Davis for his Academy
Award-winning film, `Hearts and Minds.')

Film Scoop

The rest of the story package fared better. The film from all three
networks arrived on the same plane in Tokyo for processing, causing a
mad competitive scramble to be the first film on the satellite for the
7 p.m. (EST) news programs in the United 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 a.m., Gen. William 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. Don't be deceived by this incident.'

I couldn't believe it. Westy was still saying everything was just
fine. Also, it wasn't true that all the sappers had been killed, at
least a few were wounded but survived.

Later, at the MACV press briefing, the so-called `Five O'clock
Follies,' Westmoreland appeared in person to emphasize the huge enemy
`body counts' around the country as U.S. and ARVN forces repelled the
Tet offensive.

But MACV (which stood for Military Assistance Command Vietnam) had
been caught manipulating the enemy casualty figures before and there
was a lot of skepticism among reporters.

To add to Westy's growing credibility gap, it was also reported at his
press briefing that the northern city of Hue 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 Tet spin control, Ambassador Ellsworth
at the embassy three days after the embassy attack.

`Our reports from around the country indicate the South Vietnamese
people are outraged by the deceitful Vietcong violation of the sacred
Tet holiday,' Bunker said, identified then only as a `senior American
diplomat.' He added that `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
North Vietnamese troops infiltrated the city.

In later interviews with Saigon residents, I found no Vietnamese who
thought the VC had been particularly deceitful in breaking the Tet
truce to gain a military surprise.

A more frequent complaint was over how vigorously U.S. and ARVN
firepower had been directed against VC targets even in heavily
populated urban centers of Saigon, Can Tho and Ben Tre, attacks that
killed and wounded thousands of civilians and displaced a half million

`Out of Touch'

My TV and radio report on those interviews was entitled `U.S. mission
more out of touch with Vietnamese than ever.'

But it also never made it on the ABC-TV evening news. It was logged
arriving in New York, but was never scheduled for broadcast and was
later reported lost. It was, however, broadcast as an `Information
Reports' on the ABC Radio News Network, which tended to be more open
to critical stories from the staff in

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 said 37,000
of the enemy had died, with U.S. dead put at 2,500.

But it was obvious that the scope of the enemy operations had dealt
Washington a decisive psychological defeat. Somehow, more than 70,000
Vietcong, backed by regular units of the North Vietnamese Army, had
been able to coordinate a nationwide offensive with attacks on 36
provincial capitals and 64 di

Tet's political consequences were made worse by the cheery
U.S. public-relations campaigns that had preceded the offensive.

Though senior U.S. commanders, such as Gen. Fred Weyand, had been
warning of a coming offensive against Saigon and had repositioned some
U.S. forces, Gen. Westmoreland and President 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. 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 Westy as its
`man of the year.'

Just days before Tet, Johnson gave a State of the Union address which
avoided telling the American people what his military advisers were
telling him: `expect a big enemy offensive, there are hard times ahead
in Vietnam.'

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 searching re-examination.

Political Fallout

There were stunning political consequences, too. On March 31, 1968,
President Johnson 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 gave more time to war opponents.

Contrary to the view of some conservative media critics, it was not
that TV editors suddenly had 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.

Still, much of the later criticism of the press for its handling of
the e
Arnett for supposedly exaggerating the VC success with his report from
the MPs who mistakenly believed the VC had penetrated the chancery

But a reporter is only as good as his sources, and as dawn broke over
the embassy, most of the Army MPs counter-attacking the embassy
believed the VC were in the chancery.

Even after Westmoreland's later pronouncement that the chancery had
not been breached, Arnett continued to trust the MPs and repeat their
account because, as Arnett would explain, `we had little faith in what
General Westmoreland stated.'

Ten years later, when I produced a TV documentary on the Tet
Offensive, 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.'

Westy's insistence that the news media somehow betrayed the troops in
the field continued to color the views of senior U.S. officers for

In the book, The War Managers, retired Gen. Douglas Kinnard polled the
173 Army generals who commanded in Vietnam. Eighty-nine percent of
them expressed negative feelings toward the press and 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.

Yet, it was a myth that 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.

Old Truth

The Tet Offensive also reaffirmed a truth about counterinsurgency
wars: `Guerrillas win if they don't lose. A conventional army loses if
it does not win.' Vietnam was fi
emost a political struggle, as the North Vietnamese understood far
better than the Americans.

Col. Harry Summers, a war historian, recounts telling a North
Vietnamese Army officer in Hanoi after the war, `You know you never
beat us on the battlefield.'

The North Vietnamese officer pondered a moment, then replied, `That
may be so, but it's also irrelevant.'

The psychological impact of the 1968 Tet Offensive and the aura it
bestowed on the communist forces were seen seven years later as
contributing factors in South Vietnam's eventual collapse. In 1975, a
minor setback in a battle near Ban Me Thout escalated into ARVN's
panicked retreat and the fall of Saigon a few weeks later.

Tet also 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 psychological
impact on the nation. PR 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 1968 stuck and became the rationale for the military's
hostility toward ` and desire to manipulate ` the press, tendencies
that continue to this day.

The sour military/media relations extend even into the Iraq War where
many U.S. military officers still believe that the U.S. media betrayed
the country in that earlier war.

As for the final toll of the U.S. Embassy battle, seven American
soldiers were dead along with 16 of the 19 Vietcong attackers.

Three wounded sappers were captured and disappeared into the Saigon
prison system, including Captain Ba Den, who later under interrogation
described both the attack planning and how he spent what he had
presumed would be his last evening alive.

As revealed in those sapper interrogations and the after-action
reports of VC officers, such as General Tran Do, it is now clear that
the Embassy attack was badly planned and carried out by poorly trained
Vietcong troops.

Anthony Cordesman told me recently, "One way to achieve decisive
surprise in warfare is to do something truly stupid." Yet, in this
case, the `truly stupid' changed the course of the war.

Why the Tet Offensive became a dramatic turning point was explained by
Washington military analyst Steven Metz, who said: "The essence of any
insurgency is the psychological. It is armed theatre. You have
protagonists on the stage, but they are sending messages to wider
audiences. Insurgency is not won by killing insurgents, not won by
seizing territory; it is won by altering the psychological factors
that are most relevant."

Last Survivor

Several decades after the Tet battle ` long after the Vietnam War was
over ` I received a call from `Stan,' a Vietnam veteran who had become
a resident businessman near Saigon, which had been renamed Ho Chi Minh

`Don, you have a pretty good handle on this story. Would you like to
meet Nguyen Van Sau, the last surviving sapper of the Embassy attack.'

In the gutter in front of the U.S. Embassy, I had lain nearby Nguyen
Van Sau as U.S. Marines and MPs exchanged fire with the attackers. Sau
had been one of
the first VC through the hole blown in the Embassy's wall and was
immediately wounded.

He was unconscious and bleeding. I saw Sau and two other wounded
attackers taken away by U.S. MPs. I was told that they were later
turned over to the ARVN.

Stan said Sau had spent the rest of the war with the other survivors
from the Embassy attack in the infamous French-built prison on Con Dau
Island. He was released in 1975 and returned to his village north of

Within a month of Stan's phone call, I had flown back to Vietnam in
pursuit of the interview. However, over a serving of spring rolls,
Stan passed on some bad news: `Sorry, Don, Sau died just two weeks

Time has taken its toll in other ways, too.

The imposing U..S. Embassy that withstood the attack 40 years ago was
torn down by the Vietnamese shortly following the war's end. A modest
U.S. consulat
s since taken its place.

A small marker in the consulate's garden, closed to the public, lists
the names of the American Marines and MPs who died there. Outside the
consulate gates is a gray-and-red marble monument engraved with the
names of the Vietcong soldiers and agents who also died.

As I again visited the scene of this unique military encounter, I
imagined two of the soldiers who fought there ` PFC Bill Sebast and
Nguyen Van Sau ` and how they might have marveled at what has happened
over the past 40 years.

What would they think about Vietnam's economic progress, about the
close relationship that now exists between the two former enemy
countries? And what would they see as the meaning of that war which
pitted them on opposite sides of the Embassy wall so many years ago?

Don North is a veteran war correspondent who covered the Vietnam War
as well as the conflict in El Salvador and many other war
zones.. Recently, he returned to El Salvador to chronicle what
happened to the former guerrilla fighters who operated around the
Guazapa volcano. The resulting documentary, "Guazapa: Yesterday's
Enemies," is slated for completion soon.

(This article was first posted Jan. 30, 2008, as `Tet Plus 40:
US-Vietnam Turning Point") 71809a.html