January 1968 had not started in an apocalyptic fashion. The triumphal sense that America was a force for good and capable of accomplishing almost anything in the era following victory in World War II still pervaded the country. As a result, Lyndon Johnson seemed securely ensconced in the White House as he was preparing to launch his reelection campaign. While there were some disquieting signs of unrest on college campuses as the year began, the opinion polls still showed a firm majority supporting the war effort in Vietnam.
Indeed, if there were doubts about any military situation in the world at the beginning of 1968, it might have been about the aggressive behavior of North Korea. The regime in Pyongyang had infiltrated a military assassination squad into South Korea and launched an attack on the Blue House in an attempt to kill President Park Chung Hee. This was followed by the capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo and the temporary detention of the crew. Fascinatingly, 50 years later, despite a year of harsh rhetoric, the North Korean advance guard landed in Seoul this month to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
I could not have realized that this assignment would provide me a front row seat to the most tumultuous period in American politics since the Civil War, one that would begin on Jan. 30, 1968. In an eerily remarkable connection back to that most divisive internecine conflict in American history, Jan. 30, 1968 was also the first day a performance would be held in Ford’s Theater since April 14, 1865, the day Abraham Lincoln was shot.
It would all begin when the North Vietnam Army and the Viet Cong, breaking the traditional Tet truce, opened a surprise nationwide attack on that fateful day 50 years ago. The images of the fighting, which impacted every major population center in South Vietnam including the capital of Saigon, flowed almost instantly into millions of homes across America on television, sent by a new generation of skeptical young correspondents reporting firsthand from the battlefield.
While the fighting was intense and the number of American casualties the highest ever, the single most dramatic and impactful event of the Tet Offensive and, in retrospect the entire Vietnam War, occurred at 2:45 a.m. Saigon time on Jan. 31, 1968. It was then that a Viet Cong sapper team blew a hole in the wall of the brand new U.S. Embassy and rushed inside to try to storm the chancery where the ambassador’s office was located. Frustrated by the ballistic doors and unable to enter the building, the insurgents nonetheless marauded about the grounds in search of targets.
In tactical terms, the assault was a failure. By 9:20 a.m., less than seven hours later, the episode had concluded. All of the Viet Cong were dead, their bodies strewn around the embassy grounds where Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker came to inspect them with a coterie of Western journalists recording every image.
But in strategic terms, the penetration of the U.S. diplomatic compound, the heart of American power and authority, was the single most traumatic and devastating aspect of the Tet Offensive. For the television reports of it undermined the confidence of the American people in the conduct of the war, and began the erosion of the will of the country to prevail in the conflict.
More than anything that happened during the nationwide Tet Offensive, the perception that even with 500,000 U.S. military personnel in Vietnam, we were not able to protect our embassy, the vital center of our operations. Even for military hawks, the view took hold that something was profoundly flawed in the war effort, and that the president and Army General William Westmoreland had badly misled the American people and foolishly ensnared us in an unwinnable conflict.
This was followed by a shattering array of increasingly traumatic political tremors and tragedies. America’s triumphal position had come undone in violent paroxysms that rended our political fabric, deepened racial divisions, and intensified opposition to war.