1964 Brinks Hotel bombing

1964 Brinks Hotel bombing
Soldiers with guns and civilians walk through the rubble of a building. Pieces of wood, bent metal lie strewn on the ground. The roof has fallen off except for the support beams.
The aftermath of the bombing
LocationSaigon, South Vietnam
DateThursday, December 24, 1964
Attack type
PerpetratorsViet Cong

The Brinks Hotel in Saigon, also known as the Brink Bachelor Officers Quarters (BOQ), was bombed by the Viet Cong on the evening of December 24, 1964, during the Vietnam War. Two Viet Cong operatives detonated a car bomb underneath the hotel, which housed United States Army officers. The explosion killed two Americans, an officer and an NCO, and injured approximately 60, including military personnel and Vietnamese civilians.

The Viet Cong commanders had planned the venture with two objectives in mind. First, by attacking an American installation in the center of the heavily guarded capital, the Viet Cong intended to demonstrate their ability to strike in South Vietnam should the United States decide to launch air raids against North Vietnam. Second, the bombing would demonstrate to the South Vietnamese that the Americans were vulnerable and could not be relied upon for protection.[1][2]

The bombing prompted debate within the administration of United States President Lyndon B. Johnson. Most of his advisers favored retaliatory bombing of North Vietnam and the introduction of American combat troops, while Johnson preferred the existing strategy of training the Army of the Republic of Vietnam to protect South Vietnam from the Vietcong. In the end, Johnson decided not to take retaliatory action.

Background and planning

Brink BOQ, Saigon, South Vietnam

Following World War II, the communist-dominated Vietminh fought the French colonial forces in an attempt to gain Vietnamese independence. After the French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Vietnam was partitioned at the 17th parallel, pending national reunification elections in 1956.[3][4] The elections were canceled, resulting in the long-term existence of communist North Vietnam and anti-communist South Vietnam as separate states. In the late-1950s, South Vietnamese guerrillas known as the Viet Cong—covertly supported by North Vietnam—began an insurgency with the aim of forcefully reunifying the country under communist rule.[5] With the Cold War at its height, the United States—the main backer of South Vietnam[6]—sent military advisers into the country to help train and guide the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in their fight against the Vietcong.[7] By 1964, there were 23,000 American military personnel in the country. The communists viewed the Americans as colonizers and the South Vietnamese as their puppets, and attacked both with force.[1] Urban attacks on American personnel began in February 1963, with a bombing at a dining venue that killed one and wounded three. During that month, there were three more attacks on Americans in dining or entertainment venues, killing a total of 6 and injuring 68, leading to systematic security measures being put in place in Saigon to protect off-duty Americans.[8]

The bombing was planned and performed by two Vietcong agents who escaped uninjured and were never captured. Nguyen Thanh Xuan recollected his involvement to historian Stanley Karnow after the war had ended. In late-November, Xuan and his comrade received orders from a Vietcong intermediary to bomb the Brinks Hotel.[1] The building housed United States Army officers, including lieutenant colonels and majors,[9] and attracted off-duty personnel with its highly regarded food and drink, rooftop seating areas and movie screenings.[10] It also hosted a few officers who were members of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam.[11] The building was named after Brigadier General Francis. G. Brink, who had served as the first commander of MAAG Indochina during the First Indochina War and had been used by American personnel for about four years. A rooftop dinner had been planned for Christmas Eve.[8]

According to the historian Mark Moyar, it was a six-story building and had 193 bedrooms,[12] although The New York Times reported that the building had eight stories[8] and had 60 bedrooms that housed two people each.[11] The building was L-shaped.[8] The building was surrounded by a 4.5 m concrete wall, which provided a buffer zone of 15 m from the wall of the actual hotel. The buffer zone was used as a carpark and the streets adjoining the hotel were heavily-lit and guarded by Vietnamese personnel at all times.[8] However, the sentries had a reputation for being lax patrollers, as US journalists often entered the compound late in the evenings without being checked.[11]

The Vietcong duo observed their target over the next month, mixing with the crowds in the busy street outside. Noting that South Vietnamese officers mingled freely with Americans, they obtained ARVN uniforms from Saigon's black market, enabling them to get closer. Xuan disguised himself as a military chauffeur, while his partner dressed as a South Vietnamese major. They mingled with the real officers so that they could copy their mannerisms, speaking style and even their way of smoking. The Vietcong pair then procured the two cars and explosives needed for the operation.[1][2]

The Vietcong commanders had planned the venture with two aims in mind. Firstly, by attacking an American institution in the heart of the heavily guarded capital, the bombing would demonstrate the Vietcong's ability to strike against the Americans in Vietnam, should the United States decide to launch air raids against North Vietnam. Secondly, the attack would demonstrate to the South Vietnamese public that the Americans were vulnerable and could not be relied upon for protection.[1][2] Xuan added that "all the crimes committed by the Americans were directed from this nerve center".[13] In the month leading up to the attack, South Vietnamese military intelligence had seized communist documents indicating a strategy of attacking US military targets in urban areas during the Christmas period in order to lower the morale of the US public and therefore turn opinion against intervention in Vietnam. He recalled that the number of American officers at the Brinks Hotel had swelled on Christmas Eve because they were using the building to coordinate their celebrations, and that the attack would therefore cause more casualties than on a normal day.[13]