Riding the Tiger (1961-1963)  26322


  • 00:00:00 Con Thien, South Vietnam, Fall 1967. John Musgrave: Listening Post assignment here was scariest thing he did. Story of signalling with keying on handset – enemy too close to communicate verbally. Still afraid of the dark. Kids found out Dad had been in war when they asked “Why do we need to outgrow our nightlights: Daddy’s still got one.”
  • 00:02:00 JFK: January 20 1961 “Let the word go forth … 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 …”
  • Jack Todd: Heroic America, best country, best democracy. Right to be in Vietnam: anything JFK thought was right, I thought was right.
  • Youngest President at 42. New day signalled by inauguration. “One form of colonial controls shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny … Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”
  • 00:04:00 Advisors: Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, his deputy Walt Rostow, General Maxwell Taylor and Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (who had given up presidency of Ford to serve country; pioneer of systems analysis). All had served in WWII: ambitious dictatorships needed to be halted in their tracks before they posed a serious threat.
  • Viet Cong trying to overthrow Diem in South. Ho Chi Minh sharing power with Le Duan. Bao Ninh: Americans no different to French. Gelb: Noone knew anything re Vietnam. Piece on a chessboard, not a place with culture and history they would have an impossible time changing.
  • USA would struggle to understand complicated country, fail to appreciate enemy’s resolve and misread how S Vietnamese felt about government. JFK caught between momentum of war and desire for peace, between humility and hubris, between idealism and expediency, between the truth and the lie. [episode title card]
  • 00:07:00 JFK: “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
  • John Musgrave: childhood in Missouri. Father a WWII veteran; all fathers and teachers, even pastor, were veterans. Wanted to be like them.
  • 00:08:30 Difficult first few months for JFK: Bay of Pigs. Khruschev summit. Berlin Wall. Non-intervention in Laos.
  • Reports that Viet Cong might be in possession of half of Mekong Delta. Gen Maxwell Taylor and Rostow to Vietnam: urged JFK to send ground troops. JFK feared it would be like first drink to an alcoholic: effect would soon wear off and there would be demands for another and another.
  • Confront and contain with flexible ‘limited war’. “New in its intensity, ancient in its origin.” Guerilla war. Hoped to use Green Berets trained in guerilla war.
  • 00:11:00 Robert Rheault: Khruschev said wouldn’t destroy with nuclear weapons, but with wars of national liberation. Commander General Staff College: maps with nuclear weapons etc. He escaped WWIII simulations to actually do things in Special Forces, and Vietnam was where to draw line.
  • JFK understood counter-insurgency not enough. Doubled funding for S Vietnamese army, and sent materiel. Authorised napalm and defoliants. Agent orange named for colour of stripes on 55 gallon drums. Number inherited advisors grew to 11,300 advisors within 2 years. Not only to train ARVN but also to accompany into battle, in violation of agreement. Build up hidden from US population.
  • 00:13:30 Journalist press conference question to JFK “less than candid with US people as to how deeply involved” JFK: “we have increased involvement … we have not sent combat troops there … in the generally understood sense of the word … we are being as frank as we can be.”
  • 00:14:20 Neil Sheehan initially believed the Communist threat. Journalist for UPI (United Press International). Worried he’d get there late and miss out on big story. Rode along on helicopter assaults in Mekong Delta. American pilots. Contour flying across the rice paddies. Thrilling; belief in what was happening, in victory and in bettering the country.
  • New M113 armoured personnel carriers capable of negotiating rice paddies and dykes. Viet Cong had nothing to stop them with at this point. James Scanlon: little resistance. He had seen the brutality of Eastern Europe, and seen evidence of Viet Cong brutality, too. Stopping dominoes as worthy cause.
  • 00:17:30 Diem policy of concentrating population into strategic hamlets. Similar to French pacification policy of 10 years earlier.
  • 00:18:00 McNamara statement on strategic hamlet policy. McNamara readying for withdrawal of advisors to be completed by 1965 – USA population believed that the goal was being achieved.
  • 00:19:00 HCM travelled to Vietnam that same summer. Ho told China that US attacks on North Vietnam imminent. Chinese promised to arm tens of thousands of North Vietnamese. All North Vietnamese to be required to serve.
  • 00:20:00 Thousands of US joining the Peace Corp and other organisations around the world. Rufus Phillips: offering something positive. Pete Hunting also went to help people in the countryside with International Voluntary Services; letter home about building a windmill with his own funds; two years after arrival, ambushed by Viet Cong and shot in head. First US civilian volunteer casualty.
  • 00:22:30 Rheault: winning hearts and minds is not a joke. If you destroy a village, you’ve created a village of resistance. Lt Col John Paul Vann: Brady says “most remarkable soldier he’d ever met.” Clear that tactics making more enemies than friends and briefed the press, inc Sheehan. Send in riflemen to clear hamlets, not bomb them. Press coverage was positive, as with previous wars. Except for younger new reporters inc Sheehan, David Halberstam of NYT and Malcolm Brown of AP, who spent time in field with officers like Vann: different in field from in office in Washington or Saigon. Sheehan: ardent in wanting to report truth because of improtance. What is progress? What will it look like? Will countryside ever trust government in Saigon?
  • Sheehan: accompanying McNamara on a visit. Looked at faces of peasants digging and ditch and they looked angry. Would cut US’s throats if they could. Resenting forced resettlement into hamlets. Corrupt officials taking funds. Blame of Diem regime for failing to protect them from Viet Cong.
  • 00:27:00 Ngoc: Saigon called it “draining water to catch the fish. they thought the revolutionary forces were the fish and the people were the water”. Ngoc was political officer writing poems, songs and slogans to inspire support. Van Mai: message was “Turn your grief into action”.
  • 00:28:00 VC rival local governmetns with tax collectors, teachers, spies, propagandists etc. ARVN troops and US now confronted by well-trained VC troops. Sheehan: You could hear the armament. In early 1962 they had one machine gun per battalion. As they captured more, built up into sound of a drum.
  • 00:29:00 Phillips: McNamara compiling statistics. Asked Edward Lansdale to look at his stats, and Lansdale said “the feelings of the Vietnamese people” were missing; couldn’t be reduced to a statistic.
  • General Paul D Harkins (head of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, MACV) generating mountains of daily, weekly and monthly statistics on over 100 indicators: more than could ever be analysed. Little tolerance for reporters like Sheehan, or post-action reports sent in by e.g. John Paul Vann. Gregg: Harkins sure of military victory in 6 months.
  • 00:31:20 British news report on villagers stuck in the middle. Huy Duc: If US demanded democracy be built on these ruins, that was unrealistic. South Vietnam more democratic, but in a violent struggle, those whose soldiers had fewer doubts and asked fewer questions would win.
  • 00:32:10 Ngoc: HCM people skills. Grew beard to look older as understood respect for elderly. Uncle Ho. Used simple language. Humble. Xuan Dai: understanding that the war could last a long time. Van Mai: S Vietnamese not as committed, with corrupt and incompetent leaders, so always had fear that Communists would win.
  • HCM had put together his best and brightest in his cave 20 years before JFK assembled his team. Vallely: More you think about US strategy, the more you realise it was never going to work.
  • 00:35:00 Rheault: On top of his game in combat. Keeping a cool head under fire. Emotional Knowing. Being very cold about what needs to be done and to stick with it. A bit distressing to realise he was at his best doing something as terrible as war.
  • More of British news report: difficulty of telling who is a Communist. Shooting those who run on assumption they have something to hide.
  • 00:37:00 Tran Ngoc Chau: US considered those in city as friends, those in country as enemy. If they killed 1 enemy, they might get 1 replacement. If they killed 1 wrong man, they get 10 enemy. “And mostly they killed the wrong man.”
  • Each of 44 provinces had own chief. Some were political appointees. Tran Ngoc Chau was different: left Viet Minh and became Major in army, promoted to Colonel and made Chief. Phillips: incorruptible, and people understood he represented him despite the undemocractic appointment. Said he could pacify province with cost of one helicopter by raising the standard of living for rice farmers and pay officials enough to not have them corrupt. Tried to win over the VC’s families and through them win over the VC soldiers: only after you fail to do that do you kill them. After he left the programme, they were more interested in the last part.
  • 00:40:00 US at home not that interested in Vietnam: watching Beverly Hillbillies and Gunsmoke on TV. Would Yankees win World Series again? Marilyn Monroe’s death.
  • 00:40:30 Some Americans impatient with slow pace of social change “Segregation is discrimination”. Zimmerman: told in 50s they lived in best country in the world. In the midst of figuring out what this meant, explosion of civil rights movement. Didn’t think they had power or could be actors in history: young black students in the south were doing exactly that “it just blew the tops of our heads off”
  • Others concerned about nuclear proliferation.
  • 00:42:15 Sheehan: If in café and Diem came on radio giving a speech, someone would get up and turn it off. Not connected to population. Phan Quang Tue: not much choice; two dictatorships, one under communism, one under a family. Control of government held by brother, Nhu. Had been architect of strategic hamlets; ran spies, sent over-investigative journalists home. Nhu’s wife: “Vietnam has no use for your crazy freedoms”.
  • South Vietnamese troops chosen for loyalty to Diem rather than for skill. Rheault: US should have forced them to clean up act. Should have understood Vietnamese desire to have own country “we did the same thing to the Brits”.
  • 00:46:00 Cuban missile crisis. 13 days. Result in exchange for private pledge to remove US missiles from Turkey. Neither side wanted direct confrontation, so limited wars in e.g. Vietnam would assume greater importance.
  • John Musgrave: grown up in shadow of mushroom cloud, and watched missile crisis. Wondered if he would ever grow up to kiss a girl. Would go anywhere his government told him. Last generation to believe government would never lie to them.
  • 00:48:30 Sheehan: VC stood and fought, and all the weaknesses in S Vietnam shown up.
  • 2 January 1963 – Battle of Ap Bac. Solid plan. Vann to observe from spotter plane. But far more VCs in area than expected: they had been tipped off to expect attack. 10 US helicopters ferried ARVN in to north, and met no resistance. On south of village, civil guards coming in on foot major firefight. 10 more helicopters ferried more in. 14 out of 15 aircraft hit. 5 destroyed, wounding American crewmen. Vann circled helplessly overhead. Scanlon, under Vann, requested his ARVN Captain to go in to rescue Americans. Took an hour to get Ba (colleague) to agree. 2 more hours to get APCs in. Machine gun fire used to be enough to get the VCs to run away. Not this time. “Like a pool table: we were on the green and they were in the pocket shooting at us.” Vann begged ARVN to make simultaneous assault with all remaining forces. ARVN refused. VC melted away overnight. 80 S Vietnamese killed. 3 advisors killed. Scanlon wouldn’t let Vietnamese touch the Americans, so he carried them out. Capt Ken Goode (one of dead) and Scanlon had worked closely together. Vann told Sheehan and Halberstam about the battle and the ARVN not listening and making the same mistakes again and again. Gen Harkins in Saigon declared victory. Sheehan and Halberstam reported differently and told to “get on the team”/.
  • N Vietnamese postal stamps of Battle of Ap Bac. Le Duan in Hanoi: showed the inherent weakness of S Vietnamese forces. Diem: saw it as temporary setback and resented American advice. Madame Nhu called them “false brothers”.
  • 00:59:00 JFK: “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.”
  • Sheehan: Diem started by alienating the countryside and then alienated the city, through reasons independent of the VC.
  • Catholicism v Buddhism. Celebration of Diem’s elder brother’s bishopric, but celebration of birthday of Lord Buddha brutally repressed. Monks throughout country demanded apology and end to discrimination by Catholic officials. Many saw Diem as threat to beliefs. Van Mai: her mother convinced that Diem was destroying Buddhist faith. Americans urged meaningful concessions.
  • June 10 1963 01:02:30 Malcolm Brown of AP got anonymous tip re 73-year old self-immolation Quan Duc, to chant of “A buddhist monk becomes a martyr” in both Vietnamese and English. Sheehan: Ordinary Vietnamese women taking off their rings to contribute to struggle. Regime over.
  • Other monks joined protest. Madame Nhu: would provide matches. Clip of Nhu: “even that barbecuing … used imported gasoline.”
  • Zimmerman: first became aware of Vietnam because of burning monk. Respect for US civil rights protesters who were prepared to undergo risk. Burning extraordinary act.
  • 01:07:00 Henry Cabot Lodge sent as new ambassador. Diem unimpressed. Promised outgoing ambassador Moulting he would take no further steps again Buddhists. Cut phonelines of all senior Americans in interim between Moulting’s departure and Cabot Lodge’s arrival. Massive night of repression of Buddhists, imposition of martial law. Closed universities when students protested. High schools and grammar schools closed when pupils protested, and arrested pupils and students including children of officials. Phan Quang Tue was a law student at the time.
  • Cabot Lodge requests Nhu to be ousted. Contacted by small group of generals inquiring as to US reaction to a coup. Rodger Hillsman Jr, assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs drafted cable as his seniors were out of town: Lodge to tell Generals that this could conceivably happen.
  • 1953 front page of Mossadegh ousted by Iranian generals: other cold war coups. Also Guatemala, Congo. Kennedy approved Hillsman’s cable in part because he thought top advisors had already approved it (they hadn’t). Phillips: decision to get rid of Diem as well as Nhu was a disaster.
  • September 2 1963 Walter Cronkite interviews JFK in garden in the Hamptons: In the end event it’s Diem’s responsibility, but would be a massive mistake to withdraw. Changes in policy and personnel required by Diem. McNamara, Maxwell Taylor, LBJ and Head of CIA cautioned against coup, as did not believe in viable alternative. Gregg: Fritz Nolding said nobody with guts and sang froid of Diem and Nhu; will be saddled with descending cycle of mediocre generals.
  • 01:15:00 Several State Dept officials believed coup necessary. JFK: administration coming apart. Instructed Cabot Lodge to say US would not stimulate a coup, but would not stop one either.
  • November 1 1963 Coup. Diem and Nhu shelter in church, agreed to surrender, but murdered in APC. Madame Nhu survived: on goodwill tour in USA.
  • Excitement in the air in Saigon. Cabot Lodge: “every Vietnamese has a smile on their face today.” Prospect for shorter war if generals stay together. Impressed by their action in the coup. JFK appalled at killing of Diem and Nhu.
  • 01:18:20 JFK tape: “I feel we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it beginning with our cable of August …  I was shocked by the death of Diem and Nhu.”
  • 01:19:20 JFK would not find out. Murdered 18 days later. Now 16,000 US advisors in S Vietnam. LBJ new President.
  • Sheehan: Thought we were exceptions to history. We couldn’t fight a bad war etc. “Well in Vietnam we proved we were not the exception to history.”



    Mean Old World
    • music by Sam Cooke
    • words by Sam Cooke
    Stand By Me
    • music by Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller
    • words by Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller
    My Country, ‘Tis of Thee
    • words by Samuel Francis Smith
    Total items: 3
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        [creative] => Array
                [0] => Ken Burns*director|Lynn Novick*director|Geoffrey C. Ward*writer|Paul Barnes*editor|Trent Reznor*original music|Atticus Ross*original music|Yo-Yo Ma*additional original music|Silk Road Ensemble*additional original music|Buddy Squires*cinematography
        [cast] => Array
                [0] => Peter Coyote*narrator|John Musgrave*Marines, 1967 / Missouri|Jack Todd*Nebraska|Bao Ninh*North Vietnamese Army|Leslie Gelb*Pentagon|Robert Rheault*Special Forces|Neil Sheehan*Journalist|James Scanlon*Army Advisor|Rufus Phillips*U.S.A.I.D.|Philip Brady*Marine Advisor|Nguyen Ngoc*North Vietnamese Army|Duong Van Mai*Saigon|Donald Gregg*C.I.A.|Huy Duc*North Vietnam|Cao Xuan Dai*North Vietnamese Army|Tom Vallely*Marines|Tran Ngoc Chau*Province Chief|Bill Zimmerman*Illinois|Phan Quang Tue*Saigon|Bui Diem*South Vietnamese Diplomat

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