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  • MAIN PAGE: Cronkite and the Tet Turning Point

    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