‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Six: ‘Things Fall Apart’

American Ms fighting off the VC who had entered the American embassy compound.

American Ms fighting the VC who had entered the American embassy compound.

I’m still a day behind — I watched Episode Seven last night — but I’ll get there eventually.

To me, this episode — which dealt with the period of the Tet Offensive — was all about the power of expectations and perception.

The offensive was, of course, a tremendous failure for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong — tactically and strategically, in terms of what they hoped to achieve.

The communists attacked everywhere, and were defeated everywhere — badly defeated. Their losses were horrific. And their strategic goal — of inspiring the people of the South to rise up and support the North’s cause — was a complete failure. None of the Southern provinces rose up. The people of the South, along with the Americans, fought back fiercely and with devastating effectiveness. The NVA and Viet Cong were crushed.

It was the sort of thing that, were you an American or South Vietnamese military commander, you might wish the North would do once a month, the result was so damaging to the North’s ability to wage war.

But that’s not how it played in America. In America, it played as “They can rise up everywhere at once? Some of them got inside the U.S. embassy compound?” The enemy wasn’t supposed to be able to do that. (And yes, American commanders’ overly rosy assessments of how the war going had something to do with that.)

That’s when, as the title of the episode suggests, things began to fall apart. The enemy launched the offensive on January 30, 1968. On March 12, LBJ suffered a terrible setback in the New Hampshire primary.

Mind you, he didn’t lose. Again, we’re talking expectations and perception. He won, but with only 49.6 percent of the vote — and that’s not supposed to happen to a sitting president in his own party’s primary.

An interesting side note here: Eugene McCarthy didn’t get 41.9 percent because that many people were antiwar. As the episode points out, he did that well “even though most of those who voted against the president actually wanted him to prosecute the war more vigorously.” Stuff is often more complicated than we remember.

But the president was expected to win 2-to-1, so that means he lost. Expectations and perception.

Four days later, Bobby Kennedy announced he would run. On March 31, Johnson announced that he was bowing out: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” (Wouldn’t it be nice if it were so easy to get Trump to quit?)

Tet, and that political defeat of the once all-powerful Johnson, made it respectable for serious Democratic politicians to be against the war. We’d fight on for five more years, but this is where the conversation that led to withdrawal started to get serious.

In a way, despite getting creamed on the battlefield, the North had achieved what Hitler failed to do at the Battle of the Bulge. He had hoped to shock the overconfident Western Allies — who had been talking about the war ending by Christmas 1944 — into losing heart, perhaps even seeking a negotiated peace so he could turn and use all his forces against the Russians.

So, defeat eventually translated to victory for the North….

19 thoughts on “‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Six: ‘Things Fall Apart’

  1. Jeff Mobley

    “It was the sort of thing that, were you an American or South Vietnamese military commander, you might wish the North would do once a month, the result was so damaging to the North’s ability to wage war.”

    I don’t think you necessarily intended this to be taken strictly literally, but if I’m remembering the episode correctly, while the offensive failed to accomplish the North’s objectives, it did do a lot of damage, particularly in Hue, which the North held for a time, and where almost all the city’s inhabitants were displaced, if they weren’t caught up in the massacre carried out by the North as they retreated from the city.

    The episode also spent some time on the Viet Cong agent who was executed by a South Vietnamese officer in the aftermath of the offensive, and the photograph taken the instant he was shot. The documentary leaves the impression that the psychological effect of Americans seeing this image was profound.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author


      I didn’t mean anyone in the actual world in that time, in that place, would want that.

      I meant hypothetically, in a purely military sense. And I probably should have said that.

      I was thinking that, in a situation in which commanders were only concerned with the military situation and were focused completely on winning a war, you’d want to see your enemy make that same mistake over and over.

      Of course, we were never focused on winning in Vietnam; our aim was to maintain a status quo — to keep the South up and running until the North quite trying to take it over. Which they weren’t going to do, which is why we couldn’t “win” as we defined winning….

      1. Bryan Caskey

        I’ve only made it through episode 5, but I’d like to know more about the role of the top generals. The high ranking military men dealing with McNamara had to be telling him all sorts of stuff. I’d like to know how much they were spinning the war to him, so I can analyze how much he spun the war to POTUS. Where did the (self) deception start to creep in – at the military level, or at the civilian level? Or is it a combination of both?

          1. Bryan Caskey

            Yeah….I guess I basically would like to dig in a little deeper on that issue. I’m certain I can find a few hundred books on it to add to my list of night table reading.

      2. Doug Ross

        “Of course, we were never focused on winning in Vietnam; our aim was to maintain a status quo ”

        Of course we were focused on winning. That’s what everyone in the White House and military command kept telling the people. Victory was just around the corner. Do you think the soldiers on the battlefield thought the strategy was “status quo”?

        The American public was spoonfed a bunch of lies to garner support and to win elections.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I don’t know what TV show you’re watching, or what Vietnam war you remember, but I’m watching the Burns series, and I remember the actual war.

          How long do you think it would have taken us to take Hanoi if we had tried, even once?

          And if you’re going to quote me, quote the whole thought: “Of course, we were never focused on winning in Vietnam; our aim was to maintain a status quo — to keep the South up and running until the North quite trying to take it over.”

          That was our aim, and of course it was impractical because the North was never going to quit. At what point in the series did you see indications that we had some other aim?

          If you want to play with the words, yes we wanted to WIN, but we defined that as the North (and the VC) going away and leaving South Vietnam alone. There was never any attempt to conquer the North; just to get it to quit. And it was not a practical aim…

          1. Phillip

            Well, I’m behind all of you on this, just through episode 4 now. I have to agree with Doug on this—a message I am getting through the series is that the idea (still popular among Vietnam War apologists and revisionists) that we “fought the Vietnamese with one hand tied behind our back” and “could have won if we really wanted to” is largely poppycock. We dropped more bombs on N. Vietnam than on Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan combined. We had hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground and though we succeeded in killing mass numbers of regular troops from the North, VC, and yes, civilian men, women, and children, we weren’t able to gain any real headway in our supposed goals of even “maintaining the status quo.”

            So to answer “how long do you think it would have taken us to take Hanoi if we had tried, even once?”—well, think of the ground invasion of Japan that Truman supposedly was trying to avoid by dropping the nukes. It would have been something like that. Plus of course China might well have entered the war, which also would have made it perhaps impossible to ever occupy Hanoi. So my answer to the question would be “Years, if ever.”

            Also, just to clarify—it wasn’t just the “North trying to take it (S Vietnam) over”—it was also the significant portion of citizens in the South itself—VC and VC sympathizers—-supporting that unification effort too, opposing the South’s government as a pawn of a foreign sponsor.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              I think you’re misinterpreting what I’m saying. What tells me that is your quote about “fought the Vietnamese with one hand tied behind our back.”

              I’m not one of those hippie-beating hard hats who believes we would have walked over the North if only the wussies and hippies and pinkos and bleeding hearts hadn’t been holding us back.

              I’m saying taking out the North was never anyone’s aim. I’ve seen no indication, based on actions, that Kennedy or Johnson or anybody had any intention of defeating and occupying the North.

              As you say, they COULDN’T contemplate that, given the roles of China and Russia, and what they might do if we actually set out to conquer the North. This was a proxy war, not a war between two countries each trying to do the other in. The North wasn’t going to invade, defeat and occupy the United States — the fact the everyone knew that was one of the big arguments of the antiwar folks. And the United States never had an interest in invading, defeating and occupying the North. It was always over keeping the North from invading, defeating and occupying the South.

              And what I’m saying here is sorta kinda an antiwar message, if you and Doug and others will hear it. I’m saying that the goal we DID have, of keeping a noncommunist South, of preserving the status quo, wasn’t doable in the long run. Why? Because our only chance at victory was for the North to give up. Which it plainly was not going to do.

              And to the extent that we could SEE that, why commit troops and resources to the doomed effort?

              Do you see what I’m saying?

              1. Doug Ross

                You brought up the word “winning” but even if the mission was to maintain status quo in South Vietnam we lost that fight as well even though LBJ was telling the public we WERE “winning” that objective. If the objective never was to take out Hanoi, then you can’t say we were trying to win that mission. But we certainly were trying to win on the battlefield and sacrificed thousands of men in that attempt.

                What has stuck with me since episode one is that in the initial introduction to the series, within the first minutes, the narrator says, “American’s involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It ended, 30 years later, in failure witnessed by the entire world.” And, since then, episode by episode, Burns and Novick have laid out the evidence using the words of those involved, that have proven that sentiment to be correct. It was a failure – a failure strategically, a failure politically, a failure by multiple Presidents to act with honor and morality.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  “we certainly were trying to win on the battlefield”

                  And we did. Over and over and over again.

                  And that was the problem. I think it took that generation of leaders a long time to figure out that you can win every battle and still lose. I think it was kind of counterintuitive for them.

                  Westmoreland thought there was a number — what you might call “peak VC.” He thought if we kept on killing 10 of them for each one of ours (or whatever the overall number was), eventually the other side would lose.

                  It didn’t work that way…

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    Oh, and McNamara was a numbers guy, too. Their failures certainly make sense to a word guy…

                    The secret of Vietnam never lay in a number. It could only be expressed in words. For instance, “They’re never going to give up.” That explains more than all the numbers in the world can…

                    1. Bryan Caskey

                      “They’re never going to give up.”

                      I’m trying to think about the similarites and differences between the American Civil War and the Vietnam War. In both instances, you have what had always been one country suddenly divided in two. One side (in both instances the “North”) basically took the position of “No, you can’t be your own country – we’re all one country.” In both instances the other side (the “South”) each essentially would have been happy to more or less be left alone by the North, and just done its own thing.

                      The similarities mostly end there. In the American Civil War, I don’t know if the North would have said “We’re never going to give up.” I think at some point, if the war had dragged on too long, the North (in the American Civil War) may have sued for peace. There is also was a disparity of firepower in the Vietnam War. The North didn’t have all the helicopters, airplanes, and other weapons the South did. In the American Civil War, although the North had a better industrial base and more people, the weapons of war brought to bear were very similar, and for the most part similar.

                      In each, the style of fighting was different. In 1861, war was still fought with Napoleonic tactics. By 1968, that had gone by the board. I’m not sure how much culture plays into it, but I think the Vietnamese culture was more receptive to the idea of a guerrilla war, as there didn’t seem to be any shame or dishonor in it. It was simply the best tactic, and they carried it out without feeling any dishonor in it. I’m not sure that could have happened in the 1860’s.

                      Some similarities, lots of differences. This is the sort of stuff I like to reconcile and make sense of.

                    2. Brad Warthen Post author

                      “I’m not sure how much culture plays into it, but I think the Vietnamese culture was more receptive to the idea of a guerrilla war…”

                      Well, yeah. I always assumed that was an East vs. West thing. We were Clausewitz, and they were more Sun Tsu.

                      When a Clausewitzian beats you in battle, he expects you to surrender. And since we kept beating them in battle, at least on some level, we expected that. But the North, and especially the VC, had not gotten that memo, and didn’t know that’s how you were supposed to play the game…

                    3. Bryan Caskey

                      The other thing that always puzzles me about the American Civil War is that Lee is always held in high regard in military matters. Now, he’s unquestionably a genius on the closer-in tactical level. However, in the larger, more “grand strategy” realm, he seems to have missed the boat. Why not let the North continually attack him? Why not let his men get behind the low stone walls and make the Union attack? The Confederate victory at Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg should have been a foreshadowing to Lee that his similar assault on the Union lines at Gettysburg would have similar results.

                      The South was content to simply be let alone. The North needed to defeat the South and bring it back into line. If Lee had not pursued his great decisive victory, I think he could have fought a defensive war with much greater success, using his lesser forces in a more efficient manner.

                      Just like the North Vietnamese, Lee just needed to keep a stalemate going until his opponent lost the will to fight. However, his desire to continually go on the offensive eventually wrecked him.

                      Don’t get me wrong, now. I’ve got lots of admiration for a great many of his qualities. However, he may not be quite the military mind that he’s been made out to be. And you can’t explain it all by his loss of Jackson, either. Yes, maybe Jackson could have taken Little Round Top on Day 2 of Gettysburg, but Lee didn’t have Jackson then, and he should have known better than to roll all his men out across that open field the next day.

                    4. Brad Warthen Post author

                      Lee was not one to sit in fortifications and wait to be attacked. So much of his reputation was about his boldness and aggressiveness. Which served him well when he split his forces at Chancellorsville, but doomed the South on the third day of Gettysburg — when he should have listened to Longstreet.

                      Sitting behind ramparts was a great idea as long as McClellan was the federal commander. But Grant would have just pounded away until he won…

  2. Phillip

    Bryan, of course the biggest difference between our Civil War and Vietnam is the factor of a third party, a completely foreign presence.

    The other difference is the presence of a major guerrilla force within the South also fighting for reunification. That would be like having large numbers in the Confederacy carrying on guerrilla warfare on behalf of the Union cause.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “The other difference is the presence of a major guerrilla force within the South also fighting for reunification. That would be like having large numbers in the Confederacy carrying on guerrilla warfare on behalf of the Union cause.”

      In which case we, the South, might have won. Which would have been a bad thing.

      But seriously, while we may not have had something on the level of the VC in our Civil War, there were still the Copperheads, a sort of Fifth Column working against the Union interest throughout the war.

      I suppose we could count George B. McClellan among them. Apparently, historians count him as a pro-war Democrat, but he certainly didn’t act like one….

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