Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk
VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia ― How quickly we forget. Memories, dates and events fade away, only to be revived on anniversaries. A lot of historical events are barely recalled.
I was in a country named “South” Vietnam 50 years ago when North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces attacked almost every city and town at the opening of Tet, the Lunar New Year. The 50th anniversary of Tet 1968 has to be the topic of colorful reminiscences and guilt-dripping analyses about the American role in foreign wars, but how many remember two other events in the month of January 1968 that stand out in modern Korean history?
It was on Jan. 21, 1968, that 31 North Korean commandos staged their raid on the Blue House in a weird attempt at assassinating President Park Chung-Hee. They did come close, but in the end the raid was a colossal failure in which almost all of them were killed as were 26 South Koreans and four Americans.
Two days later, while the hunt was still on for the Blue House raiders, the North Koreans captured the American spy ship, the Pueblo, a reconverted merchant vessel, off the coast east of Wonsan. They held the crew for nearly a year before President Lyndon Johnson, humiliated by Tet, apologized. Nowadays the Pueblo is a mandatory stop on guided tours around Pyongyang.
Caught up in the turmoil of domestic politics, U.S. Marine and Naval reservists, on weekend training on the day the Congress failed to pass the budget, were sent home. No way, they were told, would they get paid while the government was shut down. Nor would there seem much point in their returning while the Congress, having approved a three-week stopgap, faces more debate and another shutdown two weeks from now.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis hates it, but all he can do is complain that congressional standoffs pose a greater military threat to U.S. defenses than foreign enemies. When the spigot is turned off and on, immediate bills take precedence over long-range planning.
History, however, haunts the psyche. Tet 1968 lives on. It was difficult to forget the anniversary on hearing that Mattis would be in Hanoi, headquarters of the enemy “North” Vietnam, talking about cooperation against China, the source of most of the arms with which the North Vietnamese fought the Americans.
Amid latter-day storm and strife, these half-century anniversaries rate barely a mention in this sprawling oceanside community to which millions flock in the summer “high season.”
Young American troops, here year-around, may have heard of the Pueblo, an American story, but shrug when told of the Blue House raid. If Korea counts as “the forgotten war,” why bother to remind them of the bloody aftermath?
Actually, I can relate to their incomprehension. I was in Danang, the port city on the central coast, when the North Vietnamese attacked half a mile or so down the street at the end of January 1968. We heard the rifle fire and the crump of mortars and artillery.
Rushing to the scene with a Marine escort, I got there in time to see a North Vietnamese dying of a sucking chest wound while South Vietnamese soldiers, distinctly not interested in trying to save him, looked on. Down the road, I saw a South Vietnamese shot dead in the driver’s seat of a jeep. Beside the jeep, the major whom he was driving, having escaped, was saying, “very lucky, very lucky.”
Down in Saigon, Viet Cong sappers had been turned back in their attack on the American embassy. Up the coast, the North Vietnamese had taken over the old dynastic capital of Hue, including the great walled citadel. When I asked at the air base in Danang if anything was flying there, a young U.S. airman told me laconically, “Hue isn’t ours.” All I cared about was getting in when U.S. Marines were back again, fighting block by block.
First, though, I had to meet the editor of The Washington Star, for which I was working at the time, on a junket to Saigon. While Americans and South Vietnamese were fighting around the race track, wiping out the last of the attackers, he wanted me to understand Tet was a victory for the U.S.
By amazing coincidence, this editor had just been in Seoul and insisted on talking about the Blue House raid. To me it sounded like some far-off event of little immediate interest. I know better now ― but can’t blame young Americans whom I meet here for not caring. Half a century later, they have their own wars to fight.
Donald Kirk has covered war and peace in Asia for decades.