The Vietnam War (2017) s01e02 Episode Script

Riding the Tiger (1961-1963)

1 ANNOUNCER: Major support for "The Vietnam War" was provided by members of The Better Angels Society, including Jonathan and Jeannie Lavine, Diane and Hal Brierley, Amy and David Abrams, John and Catherine Debs, the Fullerton Family Charitable Fund, the Montrone Ffamily, Lynda and Stewart Resnick, the Perry and Donna Golkin Family Foundation, the Lynch Foundation, the Roger and Rosemary Enrico Foundation, and by these additional funders.
Major funding was also provided by David H.
Koch The Blavatnik Family Foundation The Park Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the John S.
and James L.
Knight Foundation, the Andrew W.
Mellon Foundation, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Ford Foundation JustFilms, by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by viewers like you.
Thank you.
ANNOUNCER: Bank of America proudly supports Ken Burns' and Lynn Novick's film "The Vietnam War" because fostering different perspectives and civil discourse around important issues furthers progress, equality, and a more connected society.
Go to bankofamerica.
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(DISTANT HELICOPTER BLADES BEATING) (RADIO FEEDBACK) JOHN MUSGRAVE: I was assigned a listening post at Con Thien in the fall.
That was like getting a death sentence in a trial.
Because that's just three Marines out there with a radio.
And that's the scariest thing I did.
You're listening for the enemy.
They call you on the radio every hour, "Delta, Lima, Papa, Three, Bravo, Delta, Lima, Papa, Three, Bravo, this is Delta Three.
If your sit rep is alpha sierra, key your handset twice.
(TWO BLIPS OF STATIC) "If your situation report is all secure, break squelch twice on the handset.
" (TWO LOWER-TONED BLIPS OF STATIC) And if it's not, they keep thinking you're asleep so they keep asking you, "If your sit rep is alpha sierra," and then it finally dawns on them, maybe there's somebody too close for you to say anything.
So then they say, "If your sit rep is negative alpha sierra, key your handset once," and you damn near squeeze the handle off the, you know, and two on the radio because they're so close that you can hear them whispering to one another.
And that's scary stuff.
That's real scary stuff.
And I'm scared of the dark, still.
I still got a night light.
When my kids were growing up, that's the first time they really found out that Daddy'd been in a war when they said, "Well, why do we need to outgrow our night lights? Daddy's still got one.
" ("SO WHAT" BY MILES DAVIS PLAYING) JOHN KENNEDY: Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, - proud of our - JACK TODD: I still believed, very much, in this concept of an heroic America, America being a really special country, the best country in the world, the best democracy, all the things that we believe about it, which and I didn't really see anything wrong with that.
I was sure that we were right to be in Vietnam.
You know, because it started under Kennedy and, to me, JFK was God.
Anything that he thought was right, I thought was right.
NARRATOR: At 43, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected president of the United States.
He had promised bold new leadership, and to his supporters his inauguration seemed to signal a new day.
To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny.
We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view.
But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.
(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE) NARRATOR: The new president gathered around him an extraordinary set of advisors who shared his determination to confront communism, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, his deputy Walt Rostow, special military advisor General Maxwell Taylor, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had given up his post as president of the Ford Motor Company to serve his country.
He was a pioneer in the field of systems analysis.
Like the president who picked them, all of Kennedy's men had served during World War II.
Each had absorbed what they all believed was its central lesson: ambitious dictatorships needed to be halted in their tracks before they constituted a serious danger to the peace of the world.
Meanwhile, in South Vietnam, the National Liberation Front labeled by its enemies the Viet Cong was determined to overthrow the anticommunist and increasingly autocratic government of Ngo Dinh Diem.
In North Vietnam, unbeknownst to Washington, Ho Chi Minh, the father of Vietnamese independence, was now sharing power with a more aggressive leader, Le Duan, who was even more impatient to reunify his country.
BAO NINH: LESLIE GELB: None of us knew anything about Vietnam.
Vietnam in those days was a piece on a chessboard, a strategic chessboard, not a place with a culture and a history that we would have an impossible time changing, even with the mighty force of the United States.
NARRATOR: Over the next three years, the United States would struggle to understand the complicated country it had come to save, fail to appreciate the enemy's resolve, and misread how the South Vietnamese people really felt about their government.
The new president would find himself caught between the momentum of war and the desire for peace, between humility and hubris, between idealism and expediency, between the truth and a lie.
("MY COUNTRY 'TIS OF THEE" PLAYING) KENNEDY: And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
MUSGRAVE: I grew up in Missouri, near Kansas City, a little community called Fairmount.
I was born in 1948.
And there were lots of kids being born in those days from the guys who were lucky enough to come home from World War II.
My dad was a pilot in the Army Air Corps.
And all of dad's friends were World War II vets or Korean vets.
And all of my male teachers were veterans.
And even my pastor had been a chaplain.
Well, they were my heroes, and I wanted to be like them.
NARRATOR: For all of John Kennedy's soaring rhetoric, for all the talent he gathered around him, the first months of his presidency did not go well.
He approved a CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs that ended in disaster.
He felt he'd been bullied by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev at a summit meeting in Vienna.
He was unable to keep the Soviets from building the Berlin Wall.
And in Southeast Asia, he refused to intervene against a communist insurrection in Laos.
Critics accused him of being immature, indecisive, inadequate to the task of combating what seemed to be a mounting communist threat.
"There are just so many concessions that we can make in one year and survive politically," he confided to an aide in the spring of 1961.
In South Vietnam, Kennedy felt he had to act.
After the president received reports that the Viet Cong might be in control of more than half the densely populated Mekong Delta, he dispatched General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow to Vietnam.
They urged him to commit American ground troops.
Kennedy refused.
It would be like taking a first drink, he said the effect would soon wear off and there would be demands for another and another and another.
Instead, in the midst of a cold war, with its constant risk of nuclear confrontation, the president supported a new "flexible" way to confront and contain communism: limited war.
This is another type of warfare, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins; war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration instead of aggression.
NARRATOR: To fight his "limited wars," Kennedy hoped to use the elite Green Berets, special forces trained in guerrilla warfare, counterinsurgency.
They were meant to be dispatched to hotspots around the world.
ROBERT RHEAULT: Khrushchev said, "We're not going to destroy you with nuclear weapons, we're going to destroy you with wars of national liberation.
" Everybody talked about the fact that communism was spreading and it had to be stopped.
You went to Command and General Staff College and you were playing on maps with nuclear weapons and so forth.
And I escaped from that by getting into Special Forces.
So that instead of planning what we were going to do if World War III broke out, we were actually doing stuff.
And Vietnam was a place where we were going to draw the line.
NARRATOR: Kennedy sent the Green Berets to the Central Highlands of Vietnam to organize mountain tribes to fight the Viet Cong and to undertake covert missions to sabotage their supply bases in Laos and Cambodia.
But Kennedy understood that counterinsurgency alone would never be enough, so he doubled funding for South Vietnam's army, dispatched helicopters and APCs, armored personnel carriers.
Kennedy also authorized the use of napalm and the spraying of defoliants to deny cover to the Viet Cong and destroy the crops that fed them.
A whole array of chemicals was used, including one named for the color of the stripes on the 55-gallon drums in which it came "Agent Orange.
" And the president quietly continued to increase the number of American military advisors.
Within two years, the number he had inherited would grow to 11,300, empowered not only to teach the Army of the Republic of Vietnam the ARVN to fight a conventional war, but to accompany them into battle, a violation of the agreement that had divided Vietnam back in 1954.
(GUNFIRE) The administration did its best to hide from the American people the scale of the buildup that was taking place on the other side of the world, fearful that the public would not support the more active role advisors had begun to play in combat.
Mr.
President, a Republican National Committee publication has said that you are have been less than candid with the American people as to how deeply we are involved in Vietnam.
Could you throw any more light on that? We have increased our assistance to the government, its logistics.
We have not sent combat troops there.
Though the training missions that we have there have been instructed if they are fired upon to they are, would of course, fire back, to protect themselves.
But we have not sent combat troops in the generally understood sense of the word.
So that I I feel that we are being as frank as the as we can be.
I think we what I have said to you is a description of our activity there.
NEIL SHEEHAN: I was a child of the Cold War.
When I got off the plane in Saigon on a humid evening in April 1962, I really believed in all the ideology of the Cold War.
On That if we lost South Vietnam, that the rest of Southeast Asia would fall to the communists.
There was an international communist conspiracy.
We believed fervently in this stuff.
NARRATOR: Neil Sheehan was a 25-year-old reporter for United Press International, UPI.
He had served three years in the Army in Korea and Japan before deciding to become a newspaperman.
Vietnam was his first full-time overseas assignment, and his only worry, he remembered, was that he would get there too late and miss out on the big story.
Sheehan and other reporters rode along as the ARVN mounted a series of helicopter assaults on enemy strongholds in the Mekong Delta and elsewhere and brought terror to the Viet Cong.
American pilots were at the controls.
SHEEHAN: It was a crusade and it was thrilling.
And you'd climb aboard the helicopters with the Vietnamese soldiers who were being taken out to battle.
And they'd take off.
And they'd contour-fly, they'd skim across the rice paddies at about three or four feet above the paddies, and then pop up over the tree lines that lined the fields.
It was thrilling.
I mean it was absolutely thrilling.
And you believed in what was happening.
I mean you had the sense that we're fighting here and some day we'll win, and this country will be a better, better country for our coming.
NARRATOR: The new M-113 armored personnel carriers were capable of churning across rivers and rice paddies and right through the earthen dikes that separated one field from the next.
The Viet Cong had nothing with which to stop them.
JAMES SCANLON: We were just overwhelming them with force, with firepower.
And the firefights would be over in a pretty short time.
MAN ON RADIO: We have some people running along the dikes.
Actually, the canal is perpendicular to the one you're attacking now.
They have on black uniforms, and I estimate approximately 3-0.
Do you have them in sight? Over.
SCANLON: That's what was causing us to win, see.
And we were winning one after the other.
And we were not meeting a heck of a lot of resistance.
NARRATOR: Captain James Scanlon had been stationed in West Germany and had seen for himself the brutality with which the communist East Germans dealt with anyone who dared try to escape to the West.
He was now in the Mekong Delta, an advisor to the 7th Division of the ARVN, and had begun to see evidence of Viet Cong brutality as well.
SCANLON: Those of us who talked to the people who fled East Germany, we saw the need to stop the growth of communism, to stop the dominoes from being tumbled.
That was a worthy cause.
NARRATOR: As the ARVN and their advisors pursued the Viet Cong, the government of Ngo Dinh Diem had launched an ambitious program meant to gain control of the countryside by concentrating the rural population into thousands of fortified settlements, ringed with barbed wire and moats and bamboo spikes meant to keep out the Viet Cong.
They were called strategic hamlets, part of the effort to win the hearts and minds, and loyalty, of the Vietnamese people.
The French had tried something like it a decade before.
They had called it pacification.
ROBERT MCNAMARA: President Diem's strategic hamlet program is making substantial progress.
About 1,600 of the some 14,000 hamlets have been fortified to date.
NARRATOR: By the summer of 1962, news from South Vietnam seemed so promising that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara made sure the Pentagon was prepared to implement a plan for a gradual withdrawal of American advisors to be completed by 1965.
So far as most Americans knew, the United States was achieving its goal: a stable, independent, anticommunist state in South Vietnam.
It was "a struggle this country cannot shirk," the New York Times said, and the United States seemed to be winning it.
But that same summer, Ho Chi Minh traveled to Beijing in search of more help from the Chinese.
The American buildup in South Vietnam had alarmed him and the other leaders in Hanoi.
Ho told the Chinese that American attacks on North Vietnam itself now seemed only a matter of time.
The Chinese promised to equip and arm tens of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers.
Meanwhile, the Politburo in Hanoi had directed that every able-bodied North Vietnamese man be required to serve in the armed forces.
("HONKY TONK PT.
1" BY BILL DOGGETT PLAYING) NARRATOR: Inspired by their president's call, thousands of young Americans would join the Peace Corps and other organizations to help project American ideals and goodwill around the world.
("HONKY TONK PT.
1" CONTINUES) RUFUS PHILLIPS: We were not only there in Vietnam to stop communism, but there had to be something positive.
We're trying to find out what the Vietnamese people want and to help them get it.
And that was very simple but, if you think about it, also very complex.
But it went to the heart, I thought, of what we were trying to do.
("DIRTY OVERALLS" BY WOODY GUTHRIE PLAYING) NARRATOR: Pete Hunting, a 22-year-old from Oklahoma City, would go to Vietnam right after college to do what he could to help poor villagers in the countryside.
WOODY GUTHRIE: I was a soldier in the fight And I fought till we won My uniform's my dirty overhauls HUNTING (DRAMATIZED): Dear Margo, I finally finished up my work in Phan Rang last week.
Had spent a month working on a windmill I'd promised the people of one hamlet.
Cost a lot of money, too, which I paid out of my own pocket.
GUTHRIE: Well, I'll give you my sweat, I'll give you my blood HUNTING (DRAMATIZED): I'm in soaring spirits today despite all the natural disasters, political intrigues, and subversive activities.
NARRATOR: Pete Hunting worked for the International Voluntary Services, a nonprofit organization committed to improving agriculture, education, and public health.
He was one of hundreds of dedicated aid workers in South Vietnam.
GUTHRIE: My hoe is my gun HUNTING (DRAMATIZED): Latest news on this side of the world is that I'll almost definitely be extending over here for another two years, providing the country stays in one piece that long.
NARRATOR: Two years after he arrived, Pete Hunting was driving in the Mekong Delta when he ran into a Viet Cong ambush.
He was shot five times in the head (GUNSHOT) the first American civilian volunteer to be killed in Vietnam.
(HELICOPTER BLADES BEATING, VOICES ON RADIO) (DISTORTED GUNFIRE, EXPLOSION) People used to joke in Vietnam about winning the hearts and minds.
And you hear that expression, but that should not be a joke.
It's a serious, serious problem.
If you pull off a military operation, and it may be successful on the military basis, but you destroy a village, then you've created a village of resistance.
NARRATOR: Few advisors understood the unique challenges of fighting an insurgency in Vietnam better than Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann.
A career soldier from Virginia, he was the senior American advisor to the 7th ARVN Division in the Mekong Delta.
Small, wiry and abrasive, John Paul Vann was convinced he knew how to defeat the Viet Cong.
PHILIP BRADY: John Paul Vann was simply the most remarkable soldier I ever met.
Period.
The biggest challenge of John Paul Vann's life was somehow saving Vietnam, winning.
That, to him, was the ultimate challenge.
(EXPLOSION) NARRATOR: When it became clear to Vann that the tactics the Americans had taught the ARVN were beginning to make more enemies than friends, he sought out newspapermen to spread the word.
NEIL SHEEHAN: He was able to explain to us what was going on.
The important thing was not to alienate the population.
That if you got sniper fire from a hamlet, you sent in riflemen to take out the sniper.
You didn't shell the place, because you were going to kill women and kids and destroy houses and you were going to turn the population against you.
NARRATOR: Most press coverage of Vietnam was upbeat in the tradition of previous wars.
But a handful of young reporters including Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam of the New York Times, and Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press, who spent time in the field with officers like Vann, were beginning to see that from the Vietnamese countryside, things looked very different than they did from the press offices in Washington or Saigon.
SHEEHAN: So it was terribly important that we not only win the war but that we as reporters report the truth that would help to win the war.
We were very fervent in wanting to report the truth because it was very important to the welfare of our country and to the welfare of the world.
NARRATOR: Sheehan and his colleagues began asking tough questions about what constituted progress, what victory would look like, and if the people in the countryside, where 80% of South Vietnam's population lived, could ever trust the government in Saigon.
SHEEHAN: I remember going, during one of Robert McNamara's visits, out to one of these hamlets.
The Vietnamese general who commanded the area was telling McNamara what a wonderful thing this was.
And the the some of these farmers were down digging a ditch around the around the hamlet.
And I looked at their faces and they were really angry.
I mean it was very obvious to me that if these people could, they'd cut our throats.
NARRATOR: Farmers resented being forced to abandon their homes and move to strategic hamlets.
Corrupt officials siphoned off funds.
And villagers blamed the Diem regime for failing to protect them from guerrilla attacks.
As the people's anger grew, so did the ranks of the Viet Cong.
SHEEHAN: It turned out that the Viet Cong were recruiting men right out of those strategic so-called strategic hamlets.
And then the whole program fell apart.
NGUYEN NGOC: NARRATOR: Nguyen Ngoc's father was a postal clerk south of Danang.
His brothers and sisters taught in South Vietnamese schools.
But he joined the revolution, and as a political officer, wrote poems, songs, and slogans to inspire the people in the countryside to support the Viet Cong.
DUONG VAN MAI: The Viet Cong cadre would come in and talk to them and their message is usually (SPEAKING VIETNAMESE), which means "turn your grief into action.
"Do something about it.
"Join us.
"We'll fight together.
"We'll liberate the country from this corrupt, unjust government.
"We'll throw out the foreigners.
"We'll reunify the country.
"And we'll bring in this great regime "that will take care of you and bring economic and social justice.
" NARRATOR: The Viet Cong ran rival local governments, complete with their own tax collectors and school teachers, spies and propagandists, and province chiefs.
To make matters worse, ARVN troops and American advisors now found themselves confronted by a new threat: battalions of well-armed Viet Cong soldiers, as well as by local guerrillas.
SHEEHAN: We'd armed them.
You could hear the arming of the Viet Cong.
Back in early '62, they only had one machine gun per battalion.
(SINGLE GUNFIRE BURST) It was sporadic fire.
Then, as they captured more and more of these American arms, when you made contact, it fi it would build up into a drumfire of automatic and semi-automatic weapons.
(CACOPHONY OF GUNFIRE BURSTS) RUFUS PHILLIPS: Secretary McNamara decided that he would draw up some kind of a chart to determine whether we were winning or not.
And he was putting things in like numbers of weapons recovered, numbers of Viet Cong killed.
Very statistical.
And he asked Edward Lansdale, who was then in the Pentagon as head of Special Operations, to come down and look at this.
And so Lansdale did and he said, "There's something missing.
" And McNamara said, "What?" And Lansdale said, "The feelings of the Vietnamese people.
" You couldn't reduce this to a statistic.
NARRATOR: Robert McNamara had vowed to make America's military "cost-effective.
" He demanded that everything be quantified.
In Saigon, General Paul D.
Harkins, head of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, known as MACV, dutifully complied.
He and his staff generated mountains of daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly data on more than a hundred separate indicators, far more data than could ever be adequately analyzed.
(TYPEWRITER KEYS CLACKING) General Harkins had little use for skeptical reporters like Neil Sheehan.
Bad news was to be buried.
Harkins ignored the alarming after action reports John Paul Vann and other officers were sending in from the field.
DONALD GREGG: I was going to be made head of the Vietnam desk at CIA headquarters.
And the first person of importance that I met was General Harkins.
And he started out by saying, "Mr.
Gregg, I don't care what you hear from anybody else, "I can tell you without a doubt we're going to be out of here with a military victory in six months.
" JAMES MOSSMAN: The country's 12 million peasants can scarcely remember what peace was like.
They're caught between the predatory guerrillas and the almost equally demanding soldiery.
Their lives are lived in a state of permanent uncertainty, punctuated by bouts of violence as government forces come to grips with the black-clad communist rebel forces called the Viet Cong.
HUY DUC: NGUYEN NGOC: CAO XUAN DAI: On our side we were not as committed and we were our leaders were corrupt and incompetent.
And so deep down we'll always have this fear, this suspicion that in the end it'll be the communists who won.
TOM VALLELY: When John Kennedy assembled what he thinks is the best and the brightest, 20 years before that in a cave in the northern part of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh also put together his best and the brightest.
And these guys are at it for a while.
And when we show up, they were far along to consolidating their victory over this inevitable conflict between Ho Chi Minh and John F.
Kennedy's vision.
The more you think about the American strategy, the more you know that it was never going to work out particularly well.
RHEAULT: I was at my top of my game when I was in combat.
You don't have the luxury to indulge your fear because other people's lives depend upon you keeping your head cold.
You know, when something goes wrong, they call it emotional numbing.
It's not very good in civilian life, but it's pretty useful in combat.
To be able to get absolutely very cold about what needs to be done and to stick with it.
To me it's, it's a little bit distressing to realize that I was at my best doing something as terrible as war.
MOSSMAN: President Kennedy has staked his reputation in Asia on saving South Vietnam from communism.
As the army makes the sweep towards the village suspected of harboring Viet Cong, it can't tell whether it will meet resistance.
The troops round up all the young men they can find, since they can't tell who is a communist just by looking.
Those who try to run for it are shot on the assumption they have something to hide.
NARRATOR: Each of South Vietnam's 44 provinces had its own chief.
Some were simply political appointees, corrupt allies of President Diem.
Tran Ngoc Chau, province chief of Kien Hoa, was different.
A privileged judge's son from the old imperial city of Hue, he and two of his brothers had fought against the French with the Viet Minh.
But he had refused to join the Communist Party; he admired their dedication, but disliked the way they punished those who dared differ with them.
Instead, he left the Viet Minh, became a major in the army fighting against them, and eventually so impressed Diem with his insider's knowledge of communist tactics that he was promoted to colonel and made chief of Kien Hoa, a Viet Cong stronghold.
PHILLIPS: He was absolutely incorruptible.
And people came to really understand that here's a guy who's, even though it's not an elected system, who never nevertheless really represents us.
NARRATOR: "Give me a budget that equals the cost of one American helicopter," Chau liked to say, "and I'll give you a pacified province.
"With that much money, I can raise the standard of living "of the rice farmers, "and government officials can be paid enough so they won't think it necessary to steal.
" Rather than hunt down the Viet Cong, he sought to persuade them.
("WALK, DON'T RUN" BY THE VENTURES PLAYING) NARRATOR: Back home, Americans were paying little attention to what was happening in Vietnam.
They were watching The Beverly Hillbillies and Gunsmoke on TV, were interested in whether the Yankees would win the World Series again and in the recent death of Marilyn Monroe.
("STAND BY ME" BY BEN E.
KING PLAYING) But some Americans had been growing impatient with the slow pace of social change.
BILL ZIMMERMAN: We were told in the '50s that we lived in the best country in the world.
In the middle of, you know, trying to figure out what it meant to be a citizen of the of this best country in the world, suddenly the civil rights movement exploded into our consciousness.
BEN E.
KING: When the night has come ZIMMERMAN: We didn't think we had any power.
We didn't think we could be actors in history, that we could affect things.
KING: No, I won't be afraid Oh, I won't ZIMMERMAN: And suddenly, you know, these young black students in the South were doing exactly that.
And it just blew the tops of our heads off.
KING: So darling, darling, stand by me Oh, stand by me Oh, stand, stand by me Stand by me If the sky that we look upon NARRATOR: Other Americans were concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world.
Perhaps it would be a good thing to put Khrushchev and Kennedy on an island and not let either one of them off until they came to an agreement.
KING: Stand by me And darling, darling, stand by me.
(BICYCLE BELLS RING, MOTORS RUMBLE) SHEEHAN: And if you were in a café when Diem was giving a speech, somebody would get up and shut the radio off, it would be coming in over the radio.
Somebody would get up and they'd just shut the radio off.
I mean, he was not connected with to his own population.
PHAN QUANG TUE: Diem was simply the opposite of what democracy was.
South Vietnam, in the competition against the North, that should been, should have been a golden opportunity to have that society open with the free press, free expression.
But there was not much choice if the two system are structurally dictator and oppressive systems one under the Communist Party, one under a family.
NARRATOR: Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, had been the architect of the strategic hamlet program, ran a personal political party that mirrored the techniques and the ruthlessness of the communists, and supervised a host of internal security units that spied on and seized enemies of the regime.
Some reporters who probed too deeply into what Diem and Nhu were doing were ordered out of the country.
(GUNSHOT) When an American journalist objected, Nhu's sharp-tongued wife told him Vietnam had no use for "your crazy freedoms.
" Meanwhile, out in the countryside, John Paul Vann and other advisors had begun to notice that the corruption within Diem's regime had filtered down to the commanders in the field.
Troops, who had once been willing to engage the enemy, now seemed strangely reluctant.
God, I was told so many times, "(SPEAKING VIETNAMESE).
" You know, "Scanlon, (SPEAKING VIETNAMESE).
" Um very dangerous, you know, going out there.
NEIL SHEEHAN: John Vann would go out with them at night.
And he noticed that somebody would always cough or make some other slight noise when it turned out that the Viet Cong were heading into the ambush site.
They did not want to get in a fight.
NARRATOR: South Vietnamese officers were chosen less for their combat skill than for their loyalty to President Diem, and their men knew it.
RHEAULT: What we should have done is either forced the Vietnamese I mean really forced them to clean up their act.
And if they wouldn't clean up their act to say, "We're out of here.
"Because we don't bet on losing horses.
"This is a losing horse.
You are not going to win this insurgency.
" We, as Americans, should have understood the desire of the Vietnamese people to have their own country.
I mean we did the same thing to the Brits.
NARRATOR: In October of 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union came closer than they would ever come again to mutually assured destruction.
Good evening, my fellow citizens.
This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba.
Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island.
NARRATOR: The Soviets had secretly placed nuclear missiles 90 miles from the United States.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff urged President Kennedy to bomb Cuba.
He resisted and instead ordered a naval blockade to stop Soviet ships from resupplying the island.
For 13 excruciating days, the world held its breath.
Finally, in exchange for a private pledge to remove American missiles from Turkey, Khrushchev agreed to remove his missiles from Cuba.
Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union wanted so direct a confrontation ever again.
From now on, limited wars, like the growing conflict in Vietnam, would assume still greater importance.
MUSGRAVE: I'd grown up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud.
And I remember the watching President Kennedy speak during the Cuban Missile Crisis and wondering if I was ever gonna kiss a girl.
And so this was just continuing that battle against the Russians.
Only we were fighting, you know, their, their proxies, the Vietnamese there but it was monolithic communism.
It didn't matter to me where it was, I was going to go if my government said we needed to be there.
We were probably the last kids of any generation that actually believed our government would never lie to us.
SHEEHAN: We had been writing stories about all the flaws on the Saigon side about how they wouldn't fight, about the corruption, they wouldn't obey orders, the disorganization.
And then all of a sudden the Viet Cong, for the first time, the "raggedy-ass little bastards" as the Harkins's people in Saigon called them, stood and fought.
And suddenly all the flaws on the Saigon side were illuminated by this.
Like a star shell, it illuminated the battlefield.
Everything came out.
NARRATOR: A few days after Christmas 1962, the 7th ARVN Division got orders to capture a Viet Cong radio transmitter broadcasting from a spot some 40 miles southwest of Saigon in a village called Tan Thoi.
The village was surrounded by rice paddies.
An irrigation dike linked it to a neighboring hamlet Ap Bac.
Intelligence suggested no more than 120 guerrillas were guarding the transmitter.
John Paul Vann helped draw up what seemed to be a foolproof plan of attack.
Supported by helicopters and armored personnel carriers, some 1,200 South Vietnamese troops would attack the village from three sides.
When the surviving Viet Cong tried to flee through the gap left open for them, as they always had whenever outnumbered and confronted by modern weapons, artillery and airstrikes would destroy them.
Vann would observe the fighting from a spotter plane.
But the intelligence underlying it all turned out to be wrong.
There were more than 340 Viet Cong, not 120, in the area.
Communist spies had tipped them off that they were soon to be attacked.
And this time they would not flee without a fight.
Among them was Le Quan Cong, who had been a guerrilla fighter since 1951, when he was 12.
NARRATOR: At 6:35 in the morning on January 2, 1963, ten American helicopters ferried an ARVN company to a spot just north of Tan Thoi.
They met no resistance.
Meanwhile, two South Vietnamese Civil Guard battalions approached Ap Bac from the South on foot.
The Viet Cong commander let the Civil Guards get within 100 feet before giving the order to fire.
Several South Vietnamese soldiers were killed.
Survivors hid behind a dike.
(GUNFIRE) Ten more helicopters, filled with troops and escorted by five helicopter gunships, roared in to help.
LE QUAN CONG: NARRATOR: Viet Cong machine guns hit 14 of the 15 aircraft.
Five would be destroyed, killing and wounding American crewmen.
LE QUAN CONG: NARRATOR: The enemy concentrated their fire on the ARVN struggling to get out of the downed helicopters.
"It was like shooting ducks for the Viet Cong," an American crewman remembered.
Colonel Vann circled helplessly overhead.
He radioed the ARVN commander, urging him to send an APC unit to rescue the men.
SCANLON: I got the word from John Vann that American helicopters were down.
They were right in front of the Viet Cong positions.
We had Americans killed and wounded and we had to get over there right away.
NARRATOR: Like Vann, Captain Scanlon was only an advisor.
Captain Ly Tong Ba, his ARVN counterpart, would have to give the order to advance.
Scanlon liked and admired him.
SCANLON: I turned to Ba and said, "Hey, you know, you got to get over there right away.
" And Ba said to me, "I'm not going.
" NARRATOR: Ba's superiors within the ARVN, far from the battlefield, had told him to stay put.
And John Vann, my boss, was, uh, screaming at me over the over the radio to get them over there.
NARRATOR: It took Scanlon an hour to convince Captain Ba to move.
Another two hours were lost before the APCs could make their way through the paddies toward the trapped men.
The firing had died down.
SCANLON: Everything was quiet.
You could see the open expanse of rice fields.
And my reaction was, hey, it was all over.
NARRATOR: The first two APCs dropped their ramps.
Infantry squads stepped out, prepared to spray the tree line with automatic fire as they advanced.
In the past, that had been enough to make the Viet Cong scurry away.
This time was different.
Eight of the APCs came under attack.
Within minutes, six of their gunners had been killed, shot through the head.
SCANLON: And boy, we got raked.
So it was like a pool table.
We were on the green and they were in the pockets shooting at us.
NARRATOR: When Captain Ba managed to convince a few more APCs to advance, guerrillas leapt from their foxholes and hurled hand grenades at them.
None did any real damage, but the drivers were so demoralized that they halted, turned around, and withdrew behind the wrecked helicopters.
From his spotter plane, Vann begged the ARVN to make a simultaneous assault on the enemy by all the remaining ground forces.
ARVN commanders refused.
That night, the Viet Cong melted away, carrying most of their dead and wounded with them.
At least 80 South Vietnamese soldiers had been killed.
So had three American advisors, including Captain Ken Good, a friend of Scanlon's.
SCANLON: We stacked the armored personnel carriers with bodies, stacked them up on top till they we couldn't stack any more.
And, um, I wouldn't let the Vietnamese touch the Americans.
So I carried the Americans out.
And, um And I was I was exhausted.
They told me about Ken Good getting killed.
And Ken and I had worked so hard with our two battalions.
And to hear that he got killed hurt.
(VOICE BREAKING): Great guy.
NARRATOR: Reporters arrived from Saigon before all of the ARVN dead could be removed.
They were horrified at what they saw and tried to find out what had really happened.
John Paul Vann took Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam aside and told them.
The Battle of Ap Bac had been "a miserable goddamn performance.
" "The ARVN won't listen," he said.
"They make the same mistakes over and over again in the same way.
" But back in Saigon, General Harkins immediately declared victory.
"The ARVN forces had an objective," he said.
"We took that objective.
"The VC left and their casualties were greater "than those of the government forces.
What more do you want?" When Halberstam and Sheehan reported that Ap Bac had in fact been a defeat, the U.
S.
Commander in the Pacific denied it all and urged the reporters to "get on the team.
" SHEEHAN: Ap Bac was terribly important.
They had shot down five helicopters, which they previously had been terrified of.
They'd stopped the armored personnel carriers.
They demonstrated to their own people that you could resist the Americans and win.
LE QUAN CONG: NARRATOR: In Hanoi, the Battle of Ap Bac was seen by Party First Secretary Le Duan and his Politburo allies as evidence of the inherent weakness of the South Vietnamese regime.
Even when faced with American advisors and weaponry, the Viet Cong had learned how to inflict heavy casualties on Saigon's forces, and get away again.
In Saigon, President Diem claimed the ARVN were winning, not losing.
Ap Bac had only been a momentary setback.
And he resented Americans telling him how to fight his battles or run his country.
The president's sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, went further.
She denounced the Americans as "false brothers.
" "We don't have a prayer of staying in Vietnam," President Kennedy privately told a friend that spring.
"These people hate us.
"But I can't give up a piece of territory like that to the communists and then get the people to reelect me.
" (LOUD COMMOTION) ED HERLIHY: Buddhist monks and nuns are joined by thousands of sympathizers to protest the government's restrictions on the practice of their religion in South Vietnam.
SHEEHAN: Diem began by alienating the rural population.
And that started the Viet Cong.
Now he was alienating the urban population.
HERLIHY: Seventy percent of the population is Buddhist and the demonstrators clashed with the police during the week-long series of incidents like this.
NARRATOR: In the months that followed the Battle of Ap Bac, South Vietnam plunged into civil strife that had little to do with the Viet Cong.
Religion and nationalism were at its heart.
A Catholic minority had for years dominated the government of an overwhelmingly Buddhist country.
That spring in the city of Hue, Christian flags had been flown to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ordination of Diem's older brother as a Catholic bishop.
But when the Buddhists of the city flew their flags to celebrate the 2,527th birthday of Lord Buddha, police tore them down.
Protesters took to the streets.
The Catholic deputy province chief sent security forces to suppress the demonstration.
The soldiers opened fire.
(TWO GUNSHOTS) Eight protesters died.
The youngest was 12; the oldest was 20.
The Diem regime blamed the Viet Cong.
Monks throughout the country demanded an apology.
They also called for an end to discrimination by Catholic officials.
Many Buddhists had come to see Diem's policies as a direct threat to their religious beliefs.
DUONG VAN MAI: My family was against what Diem was doing.
My mother was convinced that Diem was destroying the Buddhist faith.
She would go to the pagodas and listen to the monks' speeches.
And she was just extremely upset.
She was not alone.
There was a lot of people like her.
NARRATOR: American officials urged Diem and his brother Nhu to make meaningful concessions to the Buddhists, for the sake of maintaining unity in the struggle against communism.
They refused.
On June 10, 1963, Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press received an anonymous tip: something important was going to happen the next day at a major intersection in Saigon.
He took his camera.
To protest the Diem regime's repression, a 73-year-old monk named Quang Duc set himself on fire.
As a large, hushed crowd watched him burn to death, another monk repeated over and over again in English and Vietnamese, "A Buddhist monk becomes a martyr.
A Buddhist monk becomes a martyr.
" SHEEHAN: I remember they held the ashes of the monk who burned himself to death where it was kept in one of the main pagodas.
And lines of people came to pass by, and I saw these women, not rich women, ordinary Vietnamese women, take off the one piece of gold they had on, their wedding ring, and drop it in the bottle to contribute to the struggle.
And I thought to myself, "This regime is over.
It's the end.
" NARRATOR: Soon other monks would become martyrs.
Fresh outbursts by Madame Nhu only made things worse.
Burning monks made her clap her hands, she said.
If more monks wanted to burn themselves, she would provide the matches.
The only thing they have done, they have barbecued one of their monks, whom they have intoxicated, whom they have abused the confidence.
And even that barbecuing was done not even with self-sufficient means because they they used imported gasoline.
DUONG VAN MAI: They thought she was arrogant, she was power hungry.
They suspected her and her husband of being corrupt.
Nhu ran the secret police, which arrested and tortured people.
People feared the Diem regime.
Perhaps more than they feared it, they really hated it.
NARRATOR: Students, including many Catholics, rallied to the Buddhist cause.
So did some army officers.
People among the military had to ask the question, "Can we continue this kind of situation like that "when the whole country, country was almost burning with the kind of protest from the Buddhists?" You see? ZIMMERMAN: I first became aware of Vietnam because of a burning monk.
We had watched the civil rights movement in the South and it had set the standard for us to stand up against injustice, allow yourself to be beaten up, allow yourself to be attacked by a dog or hit by a police truncheon.
And we had enormous respect for people who were willing to go that far.
And then one day in 1963, we saw on television a picture of a monk in Saigon.
This was an extraordinary act.
Why was a Buddhist monk burning himself on the streets of Saigon? NARRATOR: The protests continued.
Tensions between Washington and Saigon steadily worsened.
The more the Kennedy Administration demanded change, the more Diem and his brother Nhu seemed to resist.
The White House announced that a new American ambassador, former senator Henry Cabot Lodge, was being sent to Saigon, a man eminent enough, the president hoped, to make Diem listen more closely to American advice.
Diem professed to be unimpressed.
"They can send ten Lodges," he said, "but I will not let myself or my country be humiliated, not if they train their artillery on this palace.
" He did promise the outgoing ambassador, Frederick Nolting, that he would take no further repressive steps against the Buddhists.
Then, a few minutes after midnight on August 21, 1963, with Nolting gone and Henry Cabot Lodge's arrival still one day away, Diem cut the phone lines of all the senior American officials in Saigon and sent hundreds of his Special Forces storming into Buddhist pagodas in Saigon, Hue, and several other South Vietnamese cities.
Some 1,400 monks and nuns, students and ordinary citizens were rounded up and taken away.
(SHOUTING) Martial law was imposed, public meetings were forbidden, troops were authorized to shoot anyone found on the streets after 9:00.
PETER ROBERTS: Tanks guard a pagoda in Saigon during South Vietnam's bafflingly complicated crisis that has the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem, students, and Buddhists, and the United States government all trying to guess one another's next move.
NARRATOR: When college students protested in support of the monks, Diem closed Vietnam's universities.
High school students then poured into the streets.
He shut down all the high schools and the grammar schools, too, and arrested thousands of school children, including the sons and daughters of officials in his own government.
PHAN QUANG TUE: I participated in the demonstrations.
I strongly believed that that government has to be overthrown because it's a dictator government.
We couldn't stand it anymore and this is an opportunity to rise against it.
NARRATOR: Phan Quang Tue was a law student that summer.
His father was a prominent nationalist whom Diem had jailed for calling for greater democracy.
PHAN QUANG TUE: I was and I'm still a Catholic, not a very good Catholic.
I don't practice religiously.
But I'm a Catholic.
I was rightly arrested because I did participate in demonstration.
And I was interrogated and briefly tortured, beaten a little bit.
HERLIHY: Henry Cabot Lodge took over as U.
S.
ambassador in the midst of the turmoil.
And he has reported to have demanded that President Diem's brother Nhu be ousted or U.
S.
aid to Vietnam will be cut.
NARRATOR: In the wake of the pagoda raids, a small group of South Vietnamese generals contacted the CIA in Saigon.
Diem's brother Nhu was now largely in control of the government, they said.
What would Washington's reaction be if they mounted a coup? President Kennedy and his senior advisors happened to be out of town, so Roger Hilsman, Jr.
, assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs and a critic of the Diem regime, took it upon himself to draft a cable with new instructions for Ambassador Lodge.
The U.
S.
government could no longer tolerate a situation in which power lay in Nhu's hands, it said.
Diem should be given a chance to rid himself of his brother.
If he refused, Lodge was to tell the generals, "then we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved.
" The president was vacationing at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.
Undersecretary of State George Ball read part of the cable to him over the phone.
Since the early 1950s, the United States government had encouraged and even orchestrated other Cold War coups in Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, and elsewhere.
Kennedy decided to approve Hilsman's cable in part because he thought his top advisors had already endorsed it.
They had not.
And somehow, because of a cable that came out from Washington, Lodge decided that the only solution was to get rid of not just Ngo Dinh Nhu, the bad brother, but also of Diem himself.
And that started us on this whole business of promoting a coup.
And it was not a good idea.
I just had a feeling of impending disaster.
NARRATOR: On September 2, 1963, Labor Day, Walter Cronkite of CBS News interviewed President Kennedy.
The president used the opportunity to deliver a message to President Diem.
Mr.
President, the only hot war we've got running at the moment is of course the one in Vietnam, and we've got our difficulties there, quite obviously.
I don't think that unless a greater effort is made by the government to win popular support that the war can be won out there.
In the final analysis, it's their war.
Hasn't every indication from Saigon been that President Diem has no intention of changing his pattern? If he doesn't change it, of course, that's his decision.
He has been there ten years and, as I say, he has carried this burden when he has been counted out on a number of occasions.
Our best judgment is that he can't be successful in this basis.
But I don't agree with those who say we should withdraw.
That would be a great mistake.
That'd be a great mistake.
I know people don't like Americans to be engaged in this kind of an effort.
47 Americans have been killed.
We're in a very desperate struggle against the communist system.
And I don't want Asia to pass into the control of the Chinese.
Do you think that this government still has time to to regain the support of the people? I do, I do.
With changes in policy and perhaps in personnel, I think it can.
If it doesn't make those changes, I would think that the chances of winning it would not be very good.
NARRATOR: Despite the cable, Kennedy and his advisors were sharply divided about a coup.
Robert McNamara, Maxwell Taylor, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, and the head of the CIA all cautioned against it, because, while none of them especially admired Diem, they did not believe there was any viable alternative.
GREGG: Fritz Nolting was called in.
And he said, "As difficult as they are to deal with, "there is nobody with the guts and sangfroid in Vietnam "of Diem and his brother Nhu.
"And if we let them go, we will be saddled by a descending cycle of mediocre generals.
" And he was absolutely correct.
NARRATOR: But several State Department officials believed that without fresh leadership, South Vietnam could not survive.
The debate intensified.
"My God," the president said, "my administration is coming apart.
" In the end, Kennedy instructed Lodge to tell the renegade generals that while the United States does not wish to stimulate a coup, it would not thwart one either.
The generals laid their plans.
(GUNFIRE) On November 1, 1963, troops loyal to the plotters seized key installations in Saigon and demanded Diem and Nhu surrender.
REPORTER: The battle for the city went on for 18 hours and most of it was centered on the presidential palace.
Just after 6:30 in the morning Saturday, the shooting ceased.
(PEOPLE CHEERING) NARRATOR: Diem and Nhu escaped, took sanctuary in a church, and agreed to surrender to the rebels in exchange for the promise of safe passage out of the country.
They were picked up in an armored personnel carrier (GUNSHOT) And murdered soon after they climbed inside.
(GUNSHOT) Madame Nhu survived the coup.
She was on a goodwill tour in the United States.
PHAN QUANG TUE: The system was overthrown on November 1.
I was released November 4.
And it was the most exciting moment in the life of Saigon.
The excitement, you could feel it in the air.
DUONG VAN MAI: I was thinking that, yeah, it's a good thing.
Diem was making it impossible to win the war because people were so against him that the war would be lost if he stayed in power.
My father was a bit worried because he didn't know who was going to replace Diem.
NARRATOR: Ambassador Lodge reported to Washington that "every Vietnamese has a smile on his face today.
" "The prospects are now for a shorter war," he said, "provided the generals stay together.
"Certainly officers and soldiers who can pull off an operation like this," he continued, "should be able to do very well on the battlefield if their hearts are in it.
" President Kennedy was not so sure.
He was appalled that Diem and Nhu had been killed.
Three days later, he dictated his own rueful account of the coup and his concerns for the future.
KENNEDY: Monday, November 4, 1963.
Over the weekend the coup in Saigon took place.
It culminated three months of conversation, which divided the government here and in Saigon.
I feel that we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of August in which we suggested the coup.
I should not have given my consent to it without a roundtable conference.
I was shocked by the death of Diem and Nhu.
The way he was killed made it particularly abhorrent.
The question now is whether the generals can stay together and build a stable government or whether public opinion in Saigon will turn on this government as repressive and undemocratic in the not-too-distant future.
NARRATOR: Kennedy would not live to see the answer to the question he had asked.
He was murdered in Dallas 18 days later.
There were now 16,000 American advisors in South Vietnam.
Their fate and the fate of that embattled country rested with another American president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
(DISTORTED ROCK MUSIC PLAYING) SHEEHAN: We thought we were the exceptions to history, we Americans.
History didn't apply to us.
We could never fight a bad war.
We could never represent the wrong cause.
We were Americans.
Well, in Vietnam it proved that we were not an exception to history.
(DISTORTED ROCK MUSIC CONTINUES) ("MEAN OLD WORLD" BY SAM COOKE PLAYING) This is a mean old world to live in all by yourself This is a mean old world to live in All by yourself This is a mean world to be alone Without someone to call your own This is a mean old world to try and live in All by yourself I wish I had someone, someone Who'd love me true I wish I had someone who loved me true If I had someone who loved me true Then I know I wouldn't be so blue This is a mean old world to try and live in All by yourself Lord, I find myself dreaming I found a love Sometimes I find myself dreaming I found a love Sometimes I dream I've really found a love Someone who loved me true as the stars above For this is a mean old world to try and live in All by yourself.
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ANNOUNCER: Major support for "The Vietnam War" was provided by members of the Better Angels Society, including Jonathan and Jeannie Lavine, Diane and Hal Brierley, Amy and David Abrams, John and Catherine Debs, the Fullerton Family Charitable Fund, the Montrone Family, Lynda and Stewart Resnick, the Perry and Donna Golkin Family Foundation, the Lynch Foundation, the Roger and Rosemary Enrico Foundation, and by these additional funders.
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