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Vietnam 1965: A Turning Point

by John Prados


A Streetcar Named Pleiku

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A Streetcar Named Pleiku

David Halberstam, whose renown as a journalist began in Vietnam, dined out on the story for years. Recalled from Southeast Asia and given a prestigious assignment as White House correspondent for the New York Times, Halberstam got the story right in the White House basement, from the horse’s mouth. In this case the horse was McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser to President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Sitting in a barber’s chair, Bundy was getting his hair clipped when Halberstam happened by. It was the spring of 1965. Bundy had held the same job under John F. Kennedy. More than anyone, “Mac” Bundy knew where the bodies were buried. As an undergraduate at Harvard College, David Halberstam had taken history courses with McGeorge Bundy, a well-regarded lecturer. The two were close enough that the reporter felt comfortable shouting out a question to the presidential aide. The situation that day was dramatic, even historic—the United States had begun landing combat troops to fight in South Vietnam. Probing for the backstory, the rationale underlying this new escalation, Halberstam called out, “Was it Pleiku?”

His reference was to a town in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Not long before, in February 1965, Pleiku had been targeted by insurgents, and Americans were killed there. The town had long been a key South Vietnamese headquarters. But when enemy guerrillas struck there, the attack—similar to the incident at Benghazi in 2012—aimed at Americans. These Americans in South Vietnam were not diplomats, however, but airmen and soldiers who were flying helicopters in support of the South Vietnamese military. The results at Pleiku had elevated the guerrilla attack to a “spectacular,” a major strike in the idiom of that day.

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