TV Recap - The Vietnam War: Episode 2, Part 1
When it came down to deciding what to cover on this, the last week of Shawt
By Mark Light
September 27, 2017

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In Episode One, Bill Musgrave, a US Army veteran told us how much he used to hate the Vietnamese he fought against. He opens Episode Two with a chilling description of what it felt like to be in a listening post in Con Thien. He conveys the fear he felt when he was out there so close to the enemy that he could hear them whispering to one another. He admits he is still afraid of the dark and that the way his kids found out he was in a war was when they had to give up their night-lights, but daddy still had one. It is a gripping way to open this episode.

As Miles Davis's "So What" plays, we hear JFK at his inauguration and we are taken back to 1961. Jack Todd, another interview subject, tells us that he still believes in the concept of an heroic America. He felt back then that it was right to be in Vietnam because Kennedy said it was the right thing to do. JFK was a god to him. Another clip of Kennedy at his inauguration ends with him saying that "to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the tiger, ended up inside.”

JFK surrounded himself with advisers who held his strong anti-communist beliefs, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, Deputy NSA Walt Rostow, special military adviser Maxwell Taylor, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. McNamara had been president of the Ford Motor Company and was a pioneer in system analysis. All of these men, like Kennedy himself, had served in World War II.

Unbeknownst to the Americans, Ho Chi Minh was sharing power with Le Duan who was more impatient to reunify Vietnam than HCM was. Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese Army veteran, recounts that his parents saw the Americans as invaders no different than the French and he picked up their views. In the most telling interview so far, Leslie Gelb, who worked at the Pentagon, says, "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."

Kennedy, despite the talent he had gathered around him, did not have a good first few months into his presidency. The Bay of Pigs fiasco ended like, well, a fiasco. He felt bullied by Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna. He couldn't keep the Soviets from building the Berlin Wall. He refused to intervene in a communist insurrection in Laos. He was accused of being immature, indecisive, and inadequate to facing the communist threat. Kennedy felt he could only make so many concessions and survive politically in his first year.

South Vietnam posed another problem. Reports were that the Viet Cong controlled half of the Mekong Delta, a densely populated area. He sent Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow to investigate. They came back urging him to commit US troops. Kennedy declined, saying it would be like taking a first drink. He instead turned to the concept of limited war. He looked to the Special Forces and counterinsurgency tactics with the recently developed Green Berets.

The Green Berets were dispatched to the Central Highlands to train mountain tribes to fight the Viet Cong and raid supply lines in Cambodia and Laos. He also doubled funding for the South Vietnamese army, giving them helicopters and armored personnel carriers. He authorized the use of napalm and also spraying defoliants to deny jungle cover to the Viet Cong and kill the crops that fed them. One defoliant was named for the color of the stripes on the 55-gallon drums it was shipped in, Agent Orange.

American military advisers were vastly increased. Kennedy had inherited 685 advisers in South Vietnam from Eisenhower. Within two years, that number would be 11,300. He allowed them not only to teach the South Vietnamese army, but to accompany them into battle. This was a violation of the 1954 agreement that divided Vietnam into North and South. And Kennedy's administration tried to hide this from the American public, as he feared they wouldn't support it. A clip of him giving a technically truthful but misleading answer to a reporter is played at this point in the film.

Neil Sheehan was a 25-year-old reporter for United Press International. Vietnam was his first overseas assignment. He describes how he found the experience thrilling in the beginning, as he would ride along with South Vietnamese troops on helicopter raids to fight the Vietcong. Americans piloted the helicopters. These helicopter forces would team up with troops in the new M-113 armored personnel carrier. The APC was perfectly suited for war along the rice paddies. In the early days, James Scanlon, a former adviser, recounts that they (the South Vietnamese and their American advisers) won fight after fight. They did not meet much resistance and it seemed it would be over soon.

The government of Ngo Dinh Diem started a new program to gain control of the countryside called the strategic hamlet program. It amounted to consolidating the villagers into fortified hamlets where they could keep the Viet Cong out. In 1962 things looked so promising that Secretary of Defense McNamara had the Pentagon draw up a plan for withdrawal of all American military advisers by 1965.

But also in 1962, Ho Chi Minh travelled to China to seek more help as the American buildup in the south had alarmed him. He told the Chinese that Americans attacking the North would only be a matter of time. The Chinese agreed to arm tens of thousands of North Vietnamese. Le Duan and the Politburo of North Vietnam ordered that every able bodied North Vietnamese male be required to serve in the armed forces.

Back in America, thousands of young Americans had joined the Peace Corps and other aid programs to help project American goodwill across the globe. Pete Hunting, a 22-year-old from Oklahoma City, was one of them. He worked for the International Voluntary Services, a non-profit committed to improving agriculture, public health, and education. He was one of hundreds of aid workers in South Vietnam. Two years after he arrived, he was driving in the Mekong Delta and ran into a Viet Cong ambush. He was shot five times in the head. Pete Hunting was the first American civilian volunteer to be killed in Vietnam.

Robert Rheault, a special forces veteran, speaks in an interview about how serious winning hearts and minds really is. If a military operation is successful but destroys a village, it ultimately is self-defeating. No one seemed to grasp this more than John Paul Vann, a lieutenant colonel about whom Neil Sheehan would later write a book.

Vann saw the miltary tactics they were using were beginning to turn the rural population against them. To make change, he started speaking out to the press. Young newspapermen like Sheehan and David Halberstam of the New York Times accompanied the troops out in the field. They found a war that looked far different from the stories being told in Saigon and Washington D.C. The rural population was becoming very angry.

The Viet Cong started running their own rival local governments. They also started fielding well-armed battalions of troops. They in part became well armed by taking away American weapons from the South Vietnamese Army.

Back in Washington, McNamara wanted to measure success. So he demanded all sorts of statistics that the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) dutifully supplied. General Harkins of MACV ignored the questions of reporters like Sheehan and the after action reports of officers like John Paul Vann. Anything that didn't imply that Diem's government and its US advisers were winning did not fit into Harkins' worldview.

Tran Ngoc Chau, a former province chief, describes the problem in the countryside as thus "…because the Viet Cong have no uniforms. How could they win? If they killed one real enemy, they might get one replacement. If they killed the wrong man, they would get ten enemies. And they mostly killed the wrong man."

In America, little attention was being paid to Vietnam. But the civil rights movement was gaining huge momentum at this time. In South Vietnam, Diem seemed to be the antithesis of what the US was aiming for itself. While the Communist Party was an oppressive system, Diem basically had created a corrupt dictatorship run by his family. John Paul Vann noticed that the corruption seemed to filter down to the army. South Vietnamese officers were chosen for their loyalty to the Diem regime, not combat skill. The soldiers knew this and began to be reluctant to fight.

All the flaws of the South Vietnamese were exposed in the very beginning of 1963 when the Viet Cong suddenly stood and fought in a little village called Ap Bac. A village called Tan Thoi, linked to Ap Bac by an irrigation dike, had been the site of a Viet Cong radio transmitter. An ARVN division was ordered to go in and take it. The intelligence the US and ARVN had suggested no more than 120 Viet Cong defended it.

John Paul Vann helped draw up the battle plan. 1200 ARVN troops would attack from three sides. When the Viet Cong fled, like they always did before, through the fourth side, they would be pounded by air and artillery.

But the intelligence was wrong. There were around 340 Viet Cong there. Their spies had alerted them that an attack was imminent, and they made preparations to fight rather than flee.

Ten American helicopters ferried an ARVN company to a spot north of Tan Thoi while two South Vietnamese Civil Guard battalions approached Ap Bac from the south on foot. The Viet Cong let the Civil Guard get within 100 feet before opening fire. They killed several soldiers and the rest hid behind a dike. Ten more helicopters with troops and five helicopter gunships came in to help.

The Viet Cong had set a goal of destroying 5 to 10 helicopters. They opened up and hit 14 of the 15 with machine gun fire. Five were destroyed, killing and wounding the American crewmen. They shot at ARVN trying to get out of the helicopters. They were easy targets.

Vann, circling overhead in a spotter plane, called Scanlon and asked him to move up the armored personnel carriers (APCs) to help. But both Vann and Scanlon were advisers with no authority. South Vietnamese Captain Ba had the authority to order an advance, but his superiors had told Ba to stay put. It took Scanlon and hour to get Ba to move, and it took two hours more to get through the rice paddies.

They intended to spray the treeline with automatic fire. That had made the VC run away before. But this time the VC stayed put and hit eight of the 10 APCs with their fire. Scanlon described it like a battle on a pool table. ARVN was on the green and the VC were firing from the pockets. VC hurled hand grenades at more APCs approaching. None did any damage but the APC drivers were demoralized and they retreated. While Scanlon and Vann urged them to advance, the South Vietnamese just hunkered down.

That night, the Viet Cong used the darkness to melt away. At least 80 ARVN were dead along with three Americans. Reporters arrived from Saigon before all the ARVN dead had been removed and were horrified. They tried to find out what happened. John Paul Vann took Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam aside and told them that the battle of Ap Bac had been "a miserable goddamn performance." The ARVN won't listen. They make the mistakes in the same way over and over.
Back in Saigon, General Harkins declared victory despite what Sheehan and Halberstam reported. The Viet Cong had stood and fought the helicopters and the APCs and won. This did more for their morale than anything else. Le Duan in Hanoi took the battle of Ap Bac as a sign of the inherent weakness of the South Vietnamese government.

Perhaps the biggest effect Ap Bac had on the American President, John Kennedy. He told a friend that they couldn't stay in South Vietnam, but he couldn't give it up until after the election. This creates another great "What If" question for the viewer. What if Kennedy had lived and was re-elected? Would he have pulled us out like he privately said he was going to do? Would the mistakes of the Johnson administration been avoided?

The Battle of Ap Bac concludes the first part of Episode Two. In the next recap, we finish the episode, going from Diem's repression of the Buddhists to the end of the Kennedy administration.