September 25, 2017–Well, the vertigo is back again. The intrepid Burns and Novick indulge in such extravagant reorientations of the chronology as to call into question the status of their film “The Vietnam War” as documentary history. The one that got me most was the footage of Richard Nixon visiting with troops in South Vietnam, which was in the cut of the film broadcast here in a way that put it in the middle of the 1968 election campaign. That worked with the timeframe of this episode–January to July 1968. But it never happened. Richard Nixon visited South Vietnam only once, and that was in July of 1969. In this picture the likely locale is at Di An, the combat base of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division. Nixon visited for less than a day, after meeting with Saigon leader Nguyen Van Thieu, and early in a global tour which took him also to Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, Romania and the United Kingdom.
Similar legerdemain takes place with footage of journalist Walter Cronkite, where he is spliced in as if reporting on the ground in the heat of the Tet Offensive, but whose famous remarks re-evaluating the U.S. prospects in Vietnam took place on February 27, 1968. By then not only was Tet over but so was the Battle of Hue, which is made much of in this episode. While we’re on that subject, by the way, Burns and Novick have text in their script which (correctly) says that the outcome of Tet would have been different had the South Vietnamese not fought it out, but Hue became the battlefield where the South Vietnamese showed brightest yet the film has hardly any coverage of them. Vietnamese soldiers commenting on Hue are all Liberation Front or Northerners.
The one battle from Tet that was still ongoing by the end of February was the siege of Khe Sanh. In the Burns and Novick film that action, one of the most important of the war, ends on January 21 when the North Vietnamese shelling ignited the base’s ammunition dump. That day was before the Tet Offensive even began. There’s no fight for Khe Sanh village, no “night of the silver stars” at Lang Vei, no fights for the hill strongpoints, no attack on the combat base, the siege never happens. By the way, the Tet, Second Phase, though mentioned, is also greatly shortchanged. Burns and Novick indulge in a lengthy discussion of how Tet was a disastrous bloodletting for the North Vietnamese. They give the figures 85,000 engaged with 54,000 casualties. The Department of Defense official statistic for enemy losses in the months February and March 1968 is 34,000. You don’t get to 54,000 without including Tet II. It was the second and third rounds of Tet which made it so bad for Hanoi. You can read much more on Tet in my book Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War.
One last point for today–Hanoi. The filmmakers have been retailing the theory that Le Duan had elbowed his way to the top of the heap in North Vietnam, and that he was the big champion of Tet. Well, if Tet was such a huge disaster, where’s the price for Le Duan? This picture of leadership in the North is not complete, it does not compute.