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Viet Cong leader recalls blitz that changed the war. TET OFFENSIVE - 20 YEARS LATER

Two decades ago, as communist leader in Saigon, Tran Bach Dang was an outlawed and shadowy figure who oversaw a surprise blitz on the United States Embassy during the 1968 Tet offensive, the historic juncture that led to the end of the Vietnam war. Today this elderly Viet Cong veteran shuffles slowly down the streets of what is now called Ho Chi Minh City, unnoticed by American tourists recently allowed to visit Vietnam. Stripped of his high posts in the Communist Party, Mr. Dang has turned to writing articles and books - and revealing secrets in his past. (US view of Tet offensive, Page 3.)

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Tet offensive. As the lunar new year and Vietnam's biggest holiday, Tet was generally treated as an excuse for a truce in the war before 1968. It is an occasion for Dang to talk for the first time with a Western journalist about his clandestine peace attempts with US Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker in the year before the offensive.

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As he looks out over the city from the rooftop garden of the old Rex Hotel, Dang, the first secretary of the Saigon party organization from 1965 until 1975, begins to speak.

``Today we talk about Tet as a memory. To the Vietnamese, the war is not a very interesting topic. We have better things to do. I say that not because I am a politician, but it is common sense.

``We were forced into the Tet offensive. We had been seeking other solutions. I had sent signals to Ambassador Bunker in 1967, when the war was at a stalemate.

``Whenever he wanted to contact me, the American side would take out an ad in a Saigon newspaper. The ad would read, `Mr. Louis wants to meet someone.'

``Then one of my men would stand in front of city hall, and a big car would pull up. ... He would be taken to the embassy. There, they would exchange information and possibly talk about a political solution.

``The US side would also send me a secret code for radio contact. It was a thick book, and I needed a new one for every new communication.

``All the time, I was a wanted man, yet I lived in the center of Saigon. I had many aliases, but my favorite was my daughter's name, Tu Anh [which means light]. Anyone who caught me would have received a reward.

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``I never actually met Ambassador Bunker, but if I had, I would have had to shoot him. And he might have shot me. But indirectly, we were able to make deals. One time, when the Americans tried to kill some Vietnamese, I contacted Bunker and he intervened.

``The Americans once asked me to meet them in person. They even offered to fly me to Okinawa or the Philippines. But I refused. It was never a matter of trust, it was just never necessary.

``Most of the time we communicated in order to exchange prisoners. We would inform the Americans about the date, hour, and place where the prisoners would be found. Then the Americans would describe where they would release our captured fighters, usually by helicopter in the countryside.

``We had many prisoner exchanges from 1966 to 1969. Whenever a US soldier was freed, I did it. We released about a dozen. There were many more of our fighters released than theirs.

``One of them was my wife. Ambassador Bunker released her as a gesture of goodwill to me. [Dang's wife, a communist leader in the south, was later a deputy in the North Vietnamese delegation at the Paris peace talks.]

``We told the US to stop supporting the Thieu regime [in South Vietnam]. We even suggested an alternative - Gen. Duong Van Minh. [``Big Minh,'' as he was known, overthrew the Diem government in 1963]. But the US did not accept.''

From Dang's side, the talks with Bunker attempted a classic communist strategy - to negotiate and fight at the same time, or ``talk-fight-talk-fight.'' But the US chose to just fight.

With no prospect of a political compromise, the communist leaders in Hanoi decided in July 1967, to intensify the war in what ittermed a thoi co, or opportune moment. In October, Dang and other southern leaders stepped up tactical alliances with anti-US nationalists, hoping to stage ``a massive people's uprising'' that would bring a ``final victory.'' In December, party leader Ho Chi Minh called for ``greater feats of battle'' in the year ahead. The scope and penetration of Tet caught US officials largely off guard. Capitals in 36 of South Vietnam's 44 provinces were attacked by over 67,000 fighters of the People's Liberation Armed Forces, or Viet Cong. The precedents were obvious in hindsight: In 1789, the Vietnamese routed the Chinese from Hanoi on the Tet holiday, similar to George Washington's surprise strike against British troops on Christmas Eve in 1776.

``The attacks were designed to make the US understand that it cannot stay in Vietnam,'' Dang said. ``We wanted to combine a people's uprising with military attacks. We anticipated the impact on US public opinion.''

The US, like France before its 1954 defeat at Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam, did not anticipate that the communists would sacrifice so many lives for a psychological victory. While a few cities north of Saigon were attacked on Jan. 30, the US did not see these as a precursor to other attacks.

The focus of Tet was on Saigon, South Vietnam's capital, home of about one-fifth of the country's people. In Saigon, the greatest symbol of American presence was the US Embassy, or what the Viet Cong called Bunker's bunker.

``I was running all over the city, because I was commanding the operation,'' Dang said. ``I was not killed because the bullet had no eye for me.''

Five major urban targets were to be attacked by a ``special forces'' team of only 80 Viet Cong, according to Col. Do Tan Phong. They were to be supported later by about 2,500 fighters just outside the city.

Colonel Phong, who today wears a chest full of medals, led 27 men into the headquarters of the South Vietnamese Army in the early hours of Jan. 31, as firecrackers celebrating Tet burst around the city.

Fourteen men took over the military radio station. Another 14 attacked the heavily guarded presidential palace. And, by Dang's count, 18 fighters blasted their way through the wall and onto the grounds of the US Embassy at 2:47 a.m. According to Phong, more than 50 of the 80 ``special forces'' were killed or wounded. Only two of the 18 attacking the embassy survived.

Of the five attacks, the embassy siege had the greatest impact. Lasting for 6 hours, it was captured on film for American television. Timed just before the US presidential primaries, its images - including five GIs killed - reverberated in US politics. A distant war was suddenly brought home to Americans. In the old capital of Hue, the siege lasted 25 days, forcing bloody door-to-door combat by US marines, a battle depicted in the 1987 film ``Full Metal Jacket.''

The attacks shattered the credibility of US officials who had voiced optimism about the war. On March 31, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run again for president. The US acceded to peace talks, which opened May 10 in Paris and ended five years later with a US troop pullout.

In 1975, North Vietnam's troops ``liberated'' Saigon and the entire south. Despite Tet's impact, the embassy building itself was never taken by the Viet Cong. ``There were many things that went wrong. The supporting forces came late,'' according to Dang. ``The first group was too small, and the second group faced too many barriers.'' Although the communists won a victory in achieving peace talks, the effect at home was severe.

They suffered a massive bloodletting of their forces. The US counterattacks took a ``great toll,'' according to Nguyen Thi Ngoc Lien, a female Viet Cong commander at the time and now a party Central Committee member. US officials estimated that as many as 40,000 of the 67,000 fighters died.

``That loss was necessary for our subsequent victory,'' says Nguyen Van Linh said in a meeting with journalists recently. The highest-ranking communist leader in South Vietnam during Tet, Mr. Linh is now the Vietnam's Communist Party leader.

Just as damaging as the body count was the party's unfulfilled promise of a people's uprising. One excuse: ``The people had had enough of fighting,'' Mrs. Lien says. Hanoi redefined a people's uprising as a continuous process while it tried to rebuild morale and the southern forces.

Dang himself was probably criticized for not arranging Saigon's overthrow by the people. Despite that, he stayed on as the city's party boss.

He had joined the party at age 17 in 1943, rising fast as a youth leader and editor. One of his former fellow Viet Cong fighters says that Dang ``had a strong character and was very ambitious.'' A prominent Vietnamese official says, ``Dang carries the distinction of having been fired twice by Linh,'' first just after the war and again when he served as deputy to Linh in Hanoi in the party's Commission on for Mass Agitation.

Vietnam, unlike the US, will mark the Tet offensive on Feb. 17, the date of the lunar new year in 1988.

Phong plans to celebrate by visiting the families of comrades slain in Tet. Lien says the most important way to commemorate Tet is to ``produce more goods and to welcome US investment.''

For Dang, Tet is just one of several victories from the war, all of which are worth a renewed retrospective.

``We are trying to look at the war more realistically these days,'' he says, ``both the successes and failures. We can see more clearly from this distant time.''

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