Best Defense

Burns’s ‘Vietnam’ 5: On the brink of Tet

In episode 5, Burns dives into the Tet offensive and wrestles with unrest on the home front.

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By Charles A. Krohn
Best Defense war TV critic

The interview with John McCain from a hospital bed soon after he was captured in 1967 makes this entire episode worth watching, not because of his celebrity status but because it’s such an unforgettable emotional outpouring of a young warrior. It was filmed by a French crew brought in for the occasion.

There are several rather lengthy monologues by men already introduced in previous episodes. While I try to limit my commentary to military aspects of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Vietnam War, the intensity of the narration is further evidence that the war is not yet over … nor have we as a nation moved on. It is still very much with us.

The second Battle of Dak To and Hill 875 (November 1967) is explained in greater depth than the previous episode. The graphic portrayals may be difficult for many viewers, but one must admire the raw courage of those young Americans who participated and were, sadly, on the receiving end of an intense and unexpected NVA offensive. There were 115 Americans KIA, about 250 WIA. Just as tragic but not reported in this episode, 42 Americans were killed by an errant bomb dropped by a Marine fighter-bomber supporting 173d Airborne Brigade soldiers trapped by the NVA.

A critical part of the NVA’s Tet ’68 offensive planning was to lure Americans into the border areas, the narrator explains. This was to make it easier for the NVA to capture and hold metropolitan areas throughout South Vietnam in their Tet campaign. As we know now, none of the anticipated victories happened because the ARVN were ultimately able to hold their own, even in Hue, and the population did not rise in celebration or support of a Communist takeover.

Ironically, the uprising had great impact in the US, in part because it demonstrated the war was not as close to termination as many American officials predicted.

The episode does a good job reflecting American unrest, especially on the Eastern Corridor and West Coast. We also see signs that LBJ’s confidence is beginning to fracture.

LTC Charles A. Krohn, U.S. Army (ret.), is the author of  The Lost Battalion of Tet, and a former deputy chief of public affairs both of the Army and the American Battle Monuments Commission. His posse is based in Panama City Beach, Florida.

Photo credit: U.S. Army Center of Military History

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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