Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

A USAID Officer Recalls Vietnam’s Tet Offensive


It wasn’t just soldiers.  USAID officer George Laudato was at his home in Mỹ Tho in 1968 when mortars started landing.  The Tet Offensive had begun. Laudato’s vehicle was destroyed early in the fighting, and he had to make his way on foot to South Vietnam’s nearby 7th Division military headquarters.  He and other civilians hid out in a hardened bunker in the division’s nursing compound until the fighting passed.

USAID was a major component of the U.S. effort in South Vietnam.  Laudato was part of the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) program, part of U.S. efforts to “pacify” rural areas and build support for the South Vietnamese government.  Assessments of the program vary. Some called it “too little, too late”; others cite an impressive record of accomplishments. With the withdrawal of U.S. military forces and many civilian personnel, CORDS was abolished in February 1973.

George Laudato was a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama before joining USAID.  His first USAID assignment was in Vietnam in the midst of the war. Later in his career, Laudato served in Washington, the Philippines and Egypt (twice). He retired from USAID after 33 years of service, but was brought back to serve as USAID’s director for the Middle East. He retired from the agency for the final time in 2011.  Laudato has since served as chair of the Seton Hall University School of Diplomacy and International Relations, and as an advisor to Arizona State University..

George Laudato was interviewed by John Pielemeier on March 6, 2018. You can read his full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Simone van Heijst

Excerpts:
The fighting was so close. . . there were Viet Cong in the hospital.  

. . . At the beginning of 1968 was the Tet Offensive, and Mỹ Tho was overrun. The night the attack started, I was by myself in my house. Mortar rounds started to come in. We took two mortar rounds – one in the front room, and then one right in front of the house that blew up my car. I had a bunker though in the house, so I crawled into the bunker. I waited and waited. Then, of course, you begin to hear the response. They called in the “Puff, the Magic Dragon” flying gunships, the big ones – C-130s or something. I lived fairly close to the edge of town, so I could hear it. I thought, “Shit, this is a major attack.” So I get out of my bunker. It was about three in the morning.

I walked outside and was going to drive over to the nurses’ compound, which was over by the 7th Division headquarters. But, of course, my car was blown up, so I had to walk over. I grabbed my rifle and I go walking over. The Vietnamese call out to me. They knew who I was because I lived right next to TOC [Tactical Operations Center]. They say, “Where are you going? Be careful, they are shooting. Under attack! VC!” I said, “Yeah, I got it all. Don’t worry.” Then another major mortar round hit as soon as I got to the nurses’ compound. They had hardened bunkers though. We all crawled into one of their bunkers, and we sat there until morning. Then we came out and finally everybody – all of the civilians, the American civilians – got together at the nurses’ compound. But the fighting was so close. …There were Viet Cong in the hospital. They were fighting in the hospital. So we said, we’ve got to pull back from this a bit. So we did.”

We weren’t getting any help or any assets on the U.S. side, or even on the ARVN.

There was enough ARVN, Army of Vietnam, and provincial forces that they were able to pretty much develop a perimeter. We only had about four streets left before we were in the river or in the canal. If you thought you were going out by boat, that wasn’t going to work. Any help would have had to come down from Đồng Tâm, down the river. Who knows? We weren’t getting any help or any assets on the U.S. side, or even on the ARVN. That fight went on for four or five days, and it got pretty vicious.

They come right over our heads, literally right over our heads. You almost felt like you could reach up and touch them.

Saturday afternoon was a gray day. I was on guard duty. I was on top of the USAID building and across the street from us was an orphanage. Beyond that, there was a no-man’s land for two blocks, then the Viet Cong. I was with another AID guy, John Dodson…. We were up there, just bullshitting and talking, and all of a sudden, through the clouds, break two, I guess they were F-14s at that time. They come right over our heads, literally right over our heads. You almost felt like you could reach up and touch them. I’m sure they weren’t that close, but that’s what it felt like, because we could feel the downdraft of the heat from the engines. as they come over us. When they drop their ordnance, it starts to roll like this. We both knew it was napalm, because that’s what napalm does. It hit the ground. Of course, there was this huge flash, fireball, and then right behind them two more F-14s come in with 500 pounders. That was the technique – drop the napalm, and then drop a 500-pound bomb in the middle of it and spread it out all over the place. It burned out three-quarters of the city within a couple of hours.

After that, obviously, you’re really relieved you’re going to live. You’re not going to die. A bunch of people were wounded. The colonel who was my boss was wounded badly. I helped to put him on the helicopter to get him medically evacuated. At the end of winter or beginning of spring in 1970 I came back to the U.S. I saw a lot of fighting while I was there. We had two major battles in Xuan Loc and two major attacks on the city. But the worst was the Tet. We would run into firefights out in the villages all the time.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education

     BA in Psychology, Seton Hall University                                                              1959-1963

     Panama—Peace Corps                                                                                              1963-1966

Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                  1966

     My Tho, Vietnam—CORDS                                                                                     1967-1970
               (Civilian Office of Revolutionary Development Support)

     Washington, D.C.—USAID Philippines Desk Officer                                         1970-1974

     Washington, D.C.—USAID Egypt Program Officer                                            1976-1980

     Washington, D.C.—USAID Philippines Program Officer                                  1984-1988

     Washington, D.C.—USAID Deputy Director                                                        1993-1995

               Bureau for Policy and Program Coordination (PPC)

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