I was planning on waiting till I saw its end to comment on the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick PBS documentary series, The Vietnam War, since analyzing anything without seeing the whole seems like a great formula for missing something important. But the episode on the January-July, 1968 period (“Things Fall Apart”) covers such a critical period, forthrightly raises so many of most painful questions generated for both supporters and opponents of the war, and then fails so completely to answer them, that this segment seems worth its own posting.
To remind, those first months of 1968 created one of the war’s major turning points; principally, they witnessed the Tet offensive shockingly launched at the end of January by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces against a wide range of targets in South Vietnam. The ferocity and scope of the attacks seemed to discredit completely official American claims of solid progress versus the enemy, and led to levels of U.S. public backing for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s strategy dropping below critical levels, to Johnson’s stunning announcement that he would not seek a second term in office, and to the start of peace talks.
But even that description, which I tried to make as neutral as possible, can be challenged from several standpoints, and these challenges explain much of the frustration I felt watching “Things Fall Apart.”
First some truth in advertising. My strong opposition to the war dates to sometime around 1970 (somewhat later than that of many friends); I would have been a high school junior or senior at the time. Was some of it self-serving? You be the judge: I wasn’t technically a draft dodger, since I received an entirely legal, non-faked 4-F medical deferment. Also, by the time I received my very low (13) lottery number, in 1971, it seemed increasingly clear that the role of American ground troops was cresting, and there was no chance that I’d be flying over Vietnam in an air war that actually intensified. And of course, even at the conflict’s height, the vast majority of U.S. military personnel in the country were volunteers, and most of them were stationed behind the lines (though hardly out of danger).
But even though odds were my skin would have been safe had I been inducted or not, who could really be certain that American politicians would keep their Vietnamization promises over time? Moreover, I was able to avoid any service at all both through an accident of birth and thanks to family circumstances not available to so many of the young Americans who did fight and die or suffer physical and psychological wounds.
Everything I’ve learned since then about the conflict, however, has only deepened my conviction that U.S. military involvement in Vietnam was a ghastly, and in Constitutional terms, criminal mistake, which sought goals not remotely worth the sacrifice in American blood and treasure. It’s easy, consequently, for me personally to find the basic Burns-Novick narrative about early 1968 entirely convincing.
But there have so many flies in this ointment! For example, Tet no doubt was thoroughly discouraging to supporters of the war (including, at that time, yours truly). As The Vietnam War makes clear, Johnson administration assessments of the fight to keep South Vietnam in the non-communist world were invariably much rosier than circumstances warranted. In fact, just before Tet, U.S. officials were sounding especially optimistic that North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units were being “ground down,” and had lost their early momentum. How, then, could they stage attacks the length and breadth of South Vietnam, including fighting their way into the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon, and holding out in the old imperial capital of Hue for a month?
Certainly elites, especially in the media and politics, were shaken. Certainly, it was the predominant reason for Johnson’s decision about the 1968 presidential race. But the American people? There’s considerable evidence that Tet did not suddenly convince masses of the public that it the time had come for the United States to get out. This 2008 journal article ably summarizes the polling evidence giving grounds for doubt. As Patrick Hagopian of Britain’s Lancaster University has documented, Tet-period surveys generally confirmed and solidified popular dissatisfaction that had been growing since Johnson began greatly escalating the American military effort in 1965.
Just as important, many of the war’s critics actually wanted Johnson to take off the gloves and attack the foe much more energetically – and presumably decisively. In Hagopian’s words. “The majority of Americans identified themselves as ‘hawks’ before the Tet offensive, and their number actually peaked in the immediate aftermath of the offensive, indicating a wish to strike back against the communists. The Tet offensive therefore did not just increase opposition to the war, it intensified the views of hawks who saw the options as ‘fight or get out.’”
Indeed,as Hagopian notes, in the critical March 12, 1968 New Hampshire primary that helped convince Johnson to bow out of the race because of peace candidate Senator Eugene J. McCarthy’s strong showing, “the majority of those who voted for [the grassroots challenger] were Vietnam war hawks who thought that President Johnson was not escalating the war fast enough. This was a repudiation of Johnson’s policies, but it was a protest vote by the hawks and not by people who supported McCarthy’s antiwar stance.” Burns and Novick do refer to this result briefly in The Vietnam War, but it’s treated as a mere footnote and simply left hanging.
Fly in the ointment number two concerns the on-the-ground results of Tet itself. Here Burns and McCarthy admirably embrace a view that still appears far from the conventional wisdom: Tet was not only a devastating military defeat for the communist side. It was a devastating political defeat. For the offensive’s planners, notably North Vietnamese Communist Party chief Le Duan, expected the attacks to end the war once and for all by sparking a nation-wide revolt against the “puppet” Saigon government. Yet the South Vietnamese populace overwhelmingly stood beside its leaders. And the big domestic political change in the country brought about by Tet was the effective destruction of the southern dominated Viet Cong as a fighting – and major political – force.
The trouble for the documentary is that the Burns and Novick treatment of Tet’s impact on the South Vietnamese people in “Things Fall Apart” clashes violently with their portrayal of that nation’s leaders and their following. In all the previous episodes I’ve seen (that is, all save the first), South Vietnam’s leaders were depicted as incompetent, corrupt, and often both. Their political support, meanwhile, was dismissed as minimal, especially in the countryside that contained some 80 percent of South Vietnam’s people. Further, what the filmmakers tell viewers time and time again is that in the eyes of this highly nationalistic demographic, the Saigon government was also crippled politically by its heavy dependence on foreign (U.S.) backing, and that the American soldiers who strove to prop them up were generally seen as “invaders.”
Yet when this population had the chance to throw out these purportedly illegitimate leaders, most refused.
One possible explanation is that the Saigon government was seen as the lesser of two evils, but this is not an argument that Burns and Novick make. The filmmakers allude to public backing for neutralist and/or Buddhist leaders who favored a negotiated solution to the war, but these references never go beyond the allusion phase – at least not through the end of “Things Fall Apart.” So the South Vietnamese reaction to Tet (and this also includes the Burns-Novick description of a hitherto inept South Vietnamese military that made a major turnaround during Tet and often fought valiantly and effectively) is left as a total mystery.
As a result, also left completely unexamined is the potentially earthshaking but logical (at least) conclusion that can be drawn from these two flies in the ointment – that from a purely military perspective, U.S. leaders had a more accurate understanding of the war than is widely recognized. Specifically, after Tet, the tide on the battlefield had finally turned to a generally neglected extent, and that more persistence may well have produced a conclusion much better for the United States – and even arguably for the South Vietnamese people – than the total victory won by the North. Indeed, why had Hanoi at long last agreed to negotiations in 1968 after only a partial American bombing halt? Because it was still confident of triumphing militarily?
So how come I’m still an opponent of the war? For the reason stated above. No attainable goal in Vietnam could reasonably justify the price paid by America – more than 58,000 dead; some $1 trillion in 2011 (likely a conservative estimate); a broken, divided society; a wounded, distorted economy. Nor am I persuaded by an argument made by some revisionist scholars and other analysts – that the benefits extended well past Vietnam, and that the war is best seen as a delaying action that enabled the whole of East Asia to avoid communist rule and establish the foundations of its more recent stability and prosperity. If these were indeed products of Vietnam, the price for the United States still would have been wildly excessive, in my opinion.
But these subjects are much more deserving of public national debate than they’ve received so far, especially since the United States has found itself in several other unpopular, unsuccessful wars in spite of defeat in Vietnam, and surely stayed out of several other likely unpopular conflicts because of it. They also deserve much more discussion that devoted by Burns and Novick. The Vietnam War has been touted as a documentary that will help Americans better understand an historic episode that continues powerfully shaping the present in more ways than I suspect many recognize. Its treatment of crucial questions in “Things Fall Apart” makes me wonder whether it will even approach achieving this goal.