They were burning brush, as they always do in the dry season, when my plane came in over the Vietnamese coast at dusk. Descending into Saigon, I could see fires burning below me, and in my naïveté I thought I was seeing the ravages of war.
I had never been to Asia before, never been in a war zone. I was as green as could be, about to become a war correspondent in Time magazine’s Saigon bureau with my nose pressed against the glass. And when I landed into the chaos of Ton Son Nhut airport on that hot, sticky night in March 1967, there were flares, illumination rounds, lighting up the night sky, I knew not why. I thought, perhaps, the airport was coming under an attack.
That night, lying in bed in the elegant old colonial Continental Palace Hotel, I could hear the faraway boom of heavy guns coming through the open window, but by then I had been assured that it was only “H and I” fire, “harassment and interdiction,” military speak for outgoing rounds fired at random into the jungle hoping, perhaps, to kill the Viet Cong.
Eight years later, on another hot and sticky spring night, I would lie in bed in that same hotel with the sound of incoming rockets landing in the city. And when my helicopter rose from the American embassy at dusk on the war’s last day the airport really was under attack, and the fires I saw burning on the ground really were the ravages of war.
But that March, 50 years ago this month, the mood of Americans officials was all upbeat, get-on-the team optimism. We were winning. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara famously said that “every quantitative measurement we have shows we are winning the war.” From Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in his elegant white suits to Gen. William Westmoreland in his starched and immaculately creased uniforms, the word was that even the most hardened doubters would become believers before the year was out.