War of Numbers
(Steerforth Press, 1994)
TO ENTER ROOM 6F19, you first had to poke the right buttons. There were ten of them protruding from a small metal box by the outer door, and when on Tuesday morning I chose the appropriate ones -- 1-9-5-4, the date of the Geneva Accords, which George Carver felt everyone could remember -- I had no idea that unusual events were happening in Vietnam. The buzzer sounded, the door swung open, and immediately I recognized that something was the matter. It was only 8:35, coffee time on normal days, but all four secretaries were typing. I walked past them to the situation room at the end of the hall, and opened the door.
The room teemed with officials, gesticulating, reading cables, and squinting at maps. That is, all but Major Blascik, who was talking calmly on the gray phone between puffs on his pipe. In front of one of the maps I saw my friend Tom Becker, whom I'd last seen in Vietnam at CT Four in September. I said: "Hello, Tom, when did you get back?"
"A few minutes ago. I left Saigon in late November. Been on leave ever since." "What's going on, anyway?"
"The little beggars seem to have run amok," he said, "But I really don't know. I just got here myself."
I looked at the map before him. It was of I Corps and already measled with red pins. Clearly, Blascik had come in early to stick them there. Just then the major hung up the gray phone. I asked him for a quick rundown.
He said: "They've been at it since early this morning -- that's Vietnam time -- and they're hitting targets throughout the northern half of the country; first Nha Trang on the coast, fighting's still going on there; then Ban Me Thuct and Kontum in the highlands; next Hoi An in the lowlands; then they tried to get into Danang, but the Marines seem to have kept out the infantry so far -- least that's what they claim -- but not the rockets; next Qui Nhon and Pleiku; Cam Manh and Tuy Hoa as well; also several district towns, some that we know about, and others, probably, that we don't. Communications have broken down in some spots. The interesting thing about these attacks, what makes them so unusual, is that they're going into the cities. They've never done that before, at least not on this scale. God knows what's happening in the countryside." "What about Khe Sanh?" I asked.
"Nothing on Khe Sanh. Some shelling, yes, but no major attacks, not yet."
"Any word on which units are committed?"
"A couple of mentions in the cables, but that's it. Everyone's too busy fighting them off to find out who they are. That'll come later. The cables are on one of those clipboards on the wall over there. Help yourself." With typical Blascik efficiency, he had all the traffic in one place. I took down a clipboard and flipped through it. Unable to find the units Blascik had seen, I replaced it and took down another, this one holding the most recent intelligence publications. The top publication was the morning Bulletin, which, like the Sitrep, was put out by the Office of Current Intelligence.
This Bulletin was only two hours old, and had picked up the information the Sitrep had missed the night before.
The Bulletin read: "Communist forces have launched a series of well- coordinated attacks on . . ." and it listed the cities that Blascik had already mentioned. It also noted that Westmoreland had announced cancellation of the Tet cease-fire, and concluded that the assaults were a "blatant violation of the truce period."2
At this point, George Allen showed up at my elbow. "This is the one they've been planning," he said excitedly, "and they haven't even started in on the south. That should begin in a few hours." I showed him the bulletin's comment that it was a "blatant violation of the truce period."
"Blatant?" he said; "it's outrageous!" And he gave an imitation of General Westmoreland lecturing Ho Chi Minh: "Damnitall, Ho, you should be ashamed. Don't you know Tet's a religious holiday? Have you no Christian respect? Another sneak attack. You think I forgot your last one? Pearl Harbor? It was on a Sunday, goddamnit, a Sunday!" I asked George if he'd heard which units were involved in the offensive. He said: "No, I haven't, but I imagine they include the elite ones you've been telling Carver about. It's logical. Urban attacks are what they're for."
I left the confusion of the situation room for my desk, in order to draft a cable to the Saigon Station. It began: "Although we are obviously ignorant of what units carried out the city penetration operations . . . we suspect that many . . . were undertaken by units not listed in the MACV Order of Battle." Then I mentioned some types of OB normally omitted (city, sapper, scout, special action, etc.), threw in a few examples, such as the Danang city unit, including the T89 and T87 battalions, and concluded: "We request you draw MACV's attention to this matter, and suggest they address the question of how to add the missing units . . . to the OB. Frankly, we find it something of an anomoly to be taking so much punishment from communist soldiers whose existence is not officially acknowledged."3
Fortunately, Carver was alone at the moment and I was able to see him. Stroking his already mussed-up hair, he perused the draft. His main alteration to it was to change anomoly to anomaly. He said: "That's a pertinent question, whether these units are in the OB. Send it on, as is. But come to think of it, you should check it out first with Drex Godfrey." Drexel Godfrey was the head of OCI, the same man who'd complained in May about my using ''unofficial'' figures. Theresa addressed a buckslip to OCI, stapled it to the draft, and I went to the credit union to cash a twenty-dollar check.4 Dawdling over some errands, I had a later-than-usual lunch, and didn't get back to the situation room until two o'clock.
If anything, it was more hectic than in the morning. The maps of I and II Corps were now a forest of red pins, and George Allen was expostulating to a visiting dignitary about woes to come. At about 2:15 P.M., a person clutching some AP ticker crashed into the room, shouting: "Christ, they're into the embassy!" The dignitary's face went pale, even George Allen looked surprised, and Major Blascik stuck a red pin into the capital city.5 It was the first one on the III Corps map. He said to a subordinate: "Better go downstairs and get some additional pins." The subordinate reappeared a few minutes later with several more boxes. Blascik had already mounted on the wall a large-scale map of Saigon.
The rest of the afternoon was a big drain on the pin supply. Only now -- as George Allen had predicted -- they skewered III and IV Corps. The province capitals checked in one by one from the Delta: Vinh Long, Bac Lieu, Can Tho, My Tho, Vi Thanh, Ben Tre, Moc Hoa, Ca Mau, Soc Trang and so on. Few Americans were in the Delta, so reporting was sketchy about the district seats. I wondered about those I'd visited in Long An. Had Major Foote survived with his sandbagged TV set? The first reports came in of American aircraft losses. They were heavy, mostly on the ground and mostly from rockets and artillery shells. I supposed the guns that shot at them weren't in the OB. I checked Blascik's clipboard for mentions of VC units: a few now, primarily big ones, the easiest to spot. The communist Fifth, Seventh and Ninth divisions were said to be closing on Saigon. With no official duties, I left work at five o'clock. Tomorrow was the last day of January, the date set for my departure for the third floor.
The next morning the situation room had settled into a busy but cheerful routine. Blascik had drafted Tom Becker into the room's staff, and he, with three others, kept up the numerous tote boards and charts. There were frequent entries, sometimes accompanied by whistles of admiration. Becker said: "I thought the VC were supposed to be little people who crept around the jungle in rubber sandals." The cables showed that although the embassy grounds were now clear of Vietcong, the fighting had spread to other parts of Saigon, including its racetrack, and many more infantry assaults and shellings had occurred elsewhere during the night. A preliminary report from Danang said the communists had destroyed or damaged forty-three planes and helicopters at local runways alone. The worst news came from Hue. Enemy soldiers had overrun the citadel, and were roaming the imperial city in captured jeeps. About the only place in the country left quiet was Khe Sanh. By now the attacks had taken on a collective name -- the Tet Offensive.
All this was interesting, but the time had come to pack. I began loading my files into a shopping cart. As I did so, the "VC Winter-Spring Campaign" folder caught my eye. I skimmed the station cable that had prompted the folder's start. Its date was 24 November 1967, and out popped the key phrases: All-out offensive; January to March 1968; and urban centers. My Lord, the message was almost ten weeks old, but whoever'd written it was right on the button. I asked Tom Becker, who'd been in Vietnam in late November, if he knew the author.
"Joe Hovey," said Becker. "He wrote it on Thanksgiving Day. I saw it at Collation right before I left Saigon. The Agency should put his name in lights on top of the headquarters building: Joseph Hovey, The Man Who Predicted The Tet Offensive."
"Fat chance," I replied, recalling that Hovey's cable had gone to the White House in mid-December under a note by Carver which strongly implied -- at OCI's behest -- that Hovey was crying wolf. I was still annoyed at this thought when Theresa handed me the draft that I'd sent Drexel Godfrey the day before about VC units omitted from the order of battle. Godfrey had scribbled on the buckslip: "To Sam Adams. Suggest you hold this until things quiet down. Also, its validity seems a little dubious -- at least as of now."
That buckslip was too damn much. Godfrey had tried to kill realistic numbers nine months before, and he was still at it. Overcome with disgust, I wrote Carver a letter of resignation, something I hadn't intended to do. The letter said that the ClA's failing was to acquiesce to MACV's half-truths, distortions and sometimes outright falsehoods." Furthermore, Westmoreland's order of battle was a "monument of deceit" to which the agency had cravenly bowed in Saigon in September. These were the last sentences I composed for the Office of the Director, and when I slid it in Carver's in-box on my way out the door, it occurred to me that he was the wrong recipient. It wasn't really Carver's fault, not even Drexel Godfrey's. It was Helms's.
Copyright © 1994 by Anne Adams. Pages 141-146. All rights reserved.