1968: Vietnam

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The Independent Culture
IN JANUARY 1968, the Communists had agreed to a truce during Tet, the festival of the lunar New Year; and many of Saigon's international press corps had gone away. Since I had only just returned after a Christmas break, I felt obliged to stay. On the evening of 30 January, when I dined with my cameraman, Ernie Christie, we were the only BBC journalists in Saigon. When I wished Ernie goodnight and we went our separate ways, I little imagined that I should be seeing him so soon and in such extraordinary circumstances.

It was his telephone call, in the darkness of the early hours, that wakened me to the Tet offensive. Ernie was staying in a hotel close to the Presidential Palace and he had called to tell me there was heavy fighting in the streets nearby. I promised to join him as quickly as I could. In Saigon we were used to the lullaby of distant gunfire; but this was something much more immediate; the unmistakable thump of a heavy machine gun, far too close for comfort.

As I left the hotel, the local police tried to stop me; but they looked so terrified I ignored them and they went away. Eventually, I tagged onto a patrol of South Korean soldiers, and with their help joined up with Ernie near the Presidential Palace, where a furious street battle was in progress. We took up our position in the driveway of an elegant house and very soon we were getting action pictures you only expect to see in action movies. For several hours we remained, trapped in the driveway by gunfire, with the mutilated body of a red-headed, bespectacled American military policemen hanging out of a Jeep beside us. Thirty years on, the face of that man still haunts me.

Not until the evening did we begin to learn the scale of the Communist offensive: that 4,000 commandos had infiltrated the capital attacking dozens of targets including the American Embassy; and that almost every provincial town and major US base had also been assaulted. In the coming weeks we had our fill of death and destruction; and so did the American public. It was those images, nightly on television, that finally turned them against the war and convinced them that it could not be won.

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