TV Recap - The Vietnam War: Episode 3, Part 1
By Mark Light
October 19, 2017
As Bob Dylan's "With God On Our Side" plays, episode three opens up with the story of the childhood of Denton "Mogie" Winslow Crocker. Mogie was an intelligent young boy who loved books about American history and American heroes. His mother recalls that one evening before he went to sleep, she read to him the St Crispin's Day speech from Shakespeare's Henry V. She says that it was that sort of thing that made Mogie want to be part of something important and brave.
While comforting in the aspect of this being a typical Ken Burn's touch in a documentary, telling the story of an average citizen, it is also unsettling. Why is the mother speaking of him in the past tense? What was the fate of Mogie Crocker?
The screen cuts to a reel-to-reel tape recorder playing as the credits flash over it. We hear the voices of Lyndon Johnson and his National Security Adviser, McGeorge Bundy. Johnson recounts to Bundy that he couldn't sleep the night before as he kept thinking about Vietnam. He didn't think it was worth fighting for but at the same time he couldn't see a way to leave. Both men express worry about the domino theory without calling it directly by its name. Johnson says, "It's damned easy to get into a war, but it's going to be awfully hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in."
Johnson became President in November of 1963 after JFK's assassination, but he would not feel fully in charge until he won the election in his own right the following year. His hero was FDR, and he had lots of plans for America just like FDR. Johnson's vision was called "the Great Society." During his time as president, he would oversee the passage of 200 important pieces of legislation. These included the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Head Start, and numerous other programs designed to eliminate poverty.
But unlike domestic issues, Johnson felt unsure about foreign affairs. So he retained all of Kennedy's foreign affairs and national security team. "I want the South Vietnamese to get off their butts and get out into those jungles and whip the hell out of some communists. And then I want them to leave me alone, because I've got some bigger things to do right here at home."
The coup that killed Ngo Dinh Diem had made things worse. The Viet Cong felt emboldened by the assassination and were making attacks through out the countryside, including a two week period that saw 400 attacks. The Viet Cong effectively controlled 40% of the countryside and 50% of the population of South Vietnam. The generals who staged a coup had started arguing among themselves. There was then a series of coups with each government less effective than the one before.
In January 1964, General Nguyen Khanh became the head of state. Desperate for some stability in South Vietnam, Johnson ordered public American expressions of support of Khanh. In March, Robert McNamara travelled to South Vietnam. He and Khanh went on a speaking tour of the country trying to win the South Vietnamese populace over. Khanh gave a long speech at one location ending with him repeating (in Vietnamese, of course), "Vietnam, a thousand years." McNamara leaned into the microphone and said the same words of Vietnamese. What he didn't grasp is that Vietnamese is a tonal language with different intonations changing the meaning of words. So to the delight of the crowd listening to them, McNamara said something like "the little duck, he wants to lie down."
Khanh lacked popular legitimacy so he too was replaced in a coup. Between January of 1964 and June of 1965 there would be eight different South Vietnamese governments. With the government in Saigon foundering, so too was the war against the communist insurgency.