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Watching Notes: Episode 6

Jan 1968 - Jul 1968

9.30 “Tens of thousands of NV troops were now in place in South Vietnam.” But again no mention of VC numbers


17.40 Dr Kushner in a helicopter crash. We come back to Hal Kushner’s experiences again and again. His suffering was real but so was the suffering of prisoners held by the US and South Vietnamese, about whom we hear next to nothing.


21.45 A rare interview with a Viet Cong as opposed to NVA fighter.


35.30 Assassinations during Tet. Note how the coverage is far more graphic than the coverage of the assassinations of the Phoenix Programme, or Diem’s political killings.


41.20 “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”. Nothing on civilian casualties at Ben Tre, the town destroyed.


52. 6,000 civilian losses in Hue. 110,000 had lost their homes. 

Numbers of contemporary commentators, including Paul Vann, commented on the excessive use of firepower by the US in the course of putting down the Tet offensive. Burns does not mention it but the US devastated large areas of Saigon in the course of this fighting.


55.00 More on the sufferings of Hal Kushner the captured doctor. It’s a curious piece because Kushner describes being treated for his wound then asks “What else could they do to me?” as if he had just been tortured rather than cared for. And why put this piece in the middle of the section dealing with Tet?


1.00.45 An ARVN officer says he didn’t know why VC thought people would rise up. This is the only time someone from the ARVN speaks between the time the US land at Danang and the time they leave.


1.02.00 Journalist, John Laurence, says US army saw this as a victory, and it was, but that the US people had been told it was nearly over so they lost heart.

1.02.45 It broke the will of the American nation, Philip Brady 

1.04.30 Cronkite gives up. 

Tet is an important subject because if forms the basis of a US version of the stab in the back mythology developed in Germany after World War One. The US version is that Tet was a catastrophic defeat for the Viet Cong and NVA and, if only the public hadn’t been persuaded all was lost by journalists who failed to see the victory for what it was, everything might have turned out very differently. Burns doesn’t directly endorse this view but he does omit two aspects of the story that contradict that version of events.

First, Noam Chomsky discusses in some detail the impact of reporting of Tet on American public opinion and argues that contemporary data show a steady decline in public support in the months leading up to Tet, a spike in support during the actual fighting, followed by continued gradual decline. There is no evidence of Tet marking some great shift in US public opinion.

The other aspect which Burns does not address is that, while the VC and NVA suffered serious losses, they also regained control of much of the countryside. The CIA estimated that government control of rural areas had shrunk to levels last seen before the Americans deployed.

And if Tet was such a victory, why was the US not able to win a complete victory in the several years that followed under the allegedly superior leadership of Abrams?

1.09 "On March 26, the Wise Men, a group of veteran cold warriors who had earlier urged the president to hold steady in Vietnam, now advised him to change course. Dean Acheson, Harry Truman's secretary of state, spoke for the majority.
"We can no longer do the job we set out to do in the time we have left," he said,"

What Burns omits is that this time they were given the more accurate estimates of enemy strength. Given how fundamental the miscalculation and misrepresentation of enemy strength was to this story it is extraordinary that Burns has nothing to say on the subject.

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