Fifty years ago, Vietnam was a very different place from what it is now. In 1968, there were a half-million American military personnel in Vietnam. The central part of the country was a war zone, literally. And in the middle of the lunar new year holiday, on January 31, 1968, the communist government in the north began a military offensive. They carried out a series of coordinated attacks all over the central and south. A lot of people died. One of the most surprising and shocking actions was an attack on the American Embassy in Saigon. A dozen or so commandos used satchel bombs to blow a hole in the wall surrounding the Embassy, and entered the grounds.
Five American servicemen were killed in action while defending the Embassy. One of those killed was a Marine Security Guard. We have a detachment of MSGs at our Consulate now. They provide security for the Consulate. They’re good people. They hold an annual birthday ball and invite us to attend. It’s a lot of fun. I like the MSGs. Anyway, in 1968, an MSG named James was on duty, and he was killed while fighting off the attackers. In the almost 20 years of having MSGs at our Embassies, James was the first one killed in the action of defending an Embassy. In addition to James, four Military Policemen also lost their lives in the fighting.
Eventually, all of the attackers were killed (one was wounded and captured). The Embassy grounds had been briefly occupied, but the Chancery building was secured throughout the attack. The attack was militarily meaningless. But symbolically it was huge. The American public had been told that we were winning the war. To see enemy soldiers shooting on the grounds of our Embassy was shocking. Some have called this attack the beginning of the end of public support for the U.S. engagement in Vietnam.
The site of our Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City is the exact same spot as the U.S. Embassy when the city was called Saigon. It’s literally on the same plot of land. There are still some old building from the old Embassy on the compound that we are still using today. That means that every day, when I go to work, I walk through the location of that historic and horrible event. There is a plaque on the grounds of the Consulate, listing the names of the five fallen servicemen. It’s hard to describe the combination of feelings that I have every morning after I walk through the security checkpoint and onto the Consulate grounds. Pride, humility, patriotism, respect, joy, thankfulness. But never apathy. Ever.
On Wednesday this week, the 50th anniversary of the attack, we held a small, solemn event on the grounds to honor those five men. It was a military-civilian ceremony, representing the cooperation between the U.S. military and the State Department. Many people who work in the Consulate attended. From the perspective of U.S. personnel, it was a dignified tribute to those who put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe. For some of the locally-engaged staff, who had family living here during the war, this isn’t just history. It’s memory.
I was proud to have helped to coordinate the commemoration event. I’m glad that we had the ceremony. And I hope that we can spread the message that while we honor those who have died for us in armed conflict, peace is always the path to a brighter future.