Fifty Years Later: A Look Back on American Diplomats During the Tet Offensive

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Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Michelle Giuda delivers opening remarks at the "Embassy in Crisis: Diplomats and the Tet Offensive" panel discussion at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on March 15, 2018.
Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Michelle Giuda delivers opening remarks at the "Embassy in Crisis: Diplomats and the Tet Offensive" panel discussion at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on March 15, 2018.

Fifty Years Later: A Look Back on American Diplomats During the Tet Offensive

Throughout history, American diplomats have served in hazardous conditions, putting their lives in danger to protect and serve the American people and our national interests. Fifty years ago, the U.S. Embassy in Saigon was attacked at the height of the Vietnam War.

To remember this anniversary, the United States Diplomacy Center hosted an event featuring an impressive lineup of panelists at an event in Washington, D.C., last week. The discussion focused on the 1968 Tet Offensive on the U.S. Embassy of Saigon and both the historical and personal perspectives shared by the panelists took us back to a pivotal moment in American diplomatic and military history.

To kick off the event, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michelle Giuda introduced the panelists and shared her strong family link to this American diplomatic and military story. Her father arrived in Da Nang to begin his tour with the Navy Seabees in January 1968, just in time for the Tet Offensive. And her mother and grandmother, both Vietnamese, lived in Saigon. In fact, the Assistant Secretary’s grandmother worked for USAID in Saigon. And it was thanks to the American government that her grandmother was able to leave the country on April 29, 1975, the day before Saigon fell.

Panelists included Dr. Erik Villard, Military Historian at the U.S. Army Center for Military History; retired Ambassador E. Allan Wendt, who was the duty officer at the time of the attack; retired Senior Foreign Service Officer James Nach who served in Saigon from 1970-1974; Don North, a former ABC journalist who witnessed and reported on the attack; and Eric Duyck, the Diplomacy Center’s Collections Manager.  

Dr. Villard set the historic stage for the audience, contextualizing the Viet Cong offensive and explaining how the embassy building had been designed to withstand an attack. Ambassador Wendt spoke about his experiences while being the duty officer during the attack, including relaying information back to Washington and carrying a wounded marine to safety. Don North spoke about his experience of being outside the embassy compound, lying flat on the sidewalk, witnessing the siege until the end, as well as about his efforts to try to interview embassy staff the next day.

James Nach and Eric Duyck showed the audience two items that Nach donated to the Diplomacy Center, including a Vietnamese “Family Tree” that Nach drew on a large piece of paper to show the family relationships among Vietnam’s political leaders, and a piece of concrete from the sidewalk from outside the Embassy that he later salvaged.

The United States Diplomacy Center was honored to explore this historic example of the types of challenges faced by our nation’s diplomats. Just as they did 50 years ago, our diplomats today continue to serve in often-dangerous locations on behalf of the American people and our interests. These kinds of programs are central to the U.S. Diplomacy Center’s mission, and we  look forward to continuing to bring together history, personal stories, and significant artifacts to share the important story of U.S. diplomacy with our visitors.

About the Author: Dr. Alison Mann serves as Public Historian at the U.S. Diplomacy Center at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.