[Editor’s Note: The following contains an image of graphic violence below, a photo taken during the war that is being discussed in context with the documentary and the Tet Offensive.]
At the halfway point of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War,” the documentary series reaches the Tết Offensive, one of the biggest military offensives by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong that turned the tide of the war, even though it was deemed a failure. Episode 6, titled “Things Fall Apart” is one of the most relentless and graphically violent installments of the series so far, but is absolutely essential viewing to understanding how both the Vietnamese and Americans viewed the war going forward.
One of the biggest contributors to the American perception of the war occurred early on during the Tết Offensive, on its second day. After Northern Vietnamese spy Nguyễn Văn Lém is suspected of having violated the rules of warfare, Nguyễn was captured and then executed by South Vietnam’s General Loan. The image of the execution was captured by photographer Eddie Adams at the moment Loan’s bullet hit Nguyễn’s head. Adams later went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for the photo, while the moment was also filmed by NBC television cameraman Vo Suu.
“One of the most unforgettable images, perhaps the most… important image of the entire war is the photograph by Eddie Adams, of General Loan executing the Viet Cong suspects on the streets of Saigon,” Novick told IndieWire. “If you’re familiar with this history, people may think they know [the photo] and they’ve seen it, but it’s also important to remember that for people who don’t know it and haven’t seen it, it’s extraordinarily shocking.
“We had a screening of this episode when it was still in the edit room,” she continued. “One of our interns basically broke down crying, trying to talk about what he had seen, and he said, ‘I’ve grown up with video games and violent movies and pretending to kill people, and I just realized watching that, that guy died right there in that moment.’”
After watching a man die in front of their eyes on TV and through the photo, Americans suddenly questioned if the South Vietnamese were the right people to back in the war. But as with most moments taken out of context, the situation surrounding it is far more complex.
“Even I myself didn’t really understand what were the circumstances under which that picture was taken,” Novick said. “What had happened before? What happened after? And what the impact of the picture was in the moment, and long after? So we’re able to situate it in real time and then pull back, and hopefully help the audience see what it all means. There’s many misconceptions and misunderstandings about the circumstances under which that picture was taken, under which that happened. We have people describing what is happening. We also have a context of what’s going on in Saigon.”
Nguyễn’s alleged crimes involved the killing of not just a military officer, but several of his family members as well, according to what General Loan had said he had been told. Novick explained, “Part of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong battle plan was that they thought they were going to take over all of South Vietnam with quick military strikes, but in order to do that, they also planned to assassinate or neutralize the people who were in charge of running the government everywhere in South Vietnam and the head of the military. There were assassination squads running around Saigon and Hue and other places, targeting South Vietnamese officials, military officers, and it broadened from that into people’s families, and women and children. There are photographs of all of this.
“And at the same time, you have the South Vietnamese military and police also trying to find the people who were doing this and attack them,” she continued. “There are assassinations going on in both directions. There’s no trial, there’s no judicial due process in the heat of battle. People who are not wearing uniforms, who are not soldiers per se, are being killed. And so that’s the context in which that event happened.”
While most people today have looked at the iconic photo, seen below, the footage of the actual execution has been seen by very few beyond what aired on American TV in 1968.
“NBC was willing to let us license the footage,” said Novick. “They rarely license it, and it was because of our producer Sarah Botstein worked very closely with NBC and a team of producers to determine exactly what was shown on television of that moment to the frame, so that we represent what the American people saw at home, which was truly shocking. It remains shocking. I don’t care how many times you see it. It’s unbearable to look at, but if you want to understand the Vietnam War, you should have to look at it.”
This was just one moment of the Tết Offensive though, which had its share of misconceptions, beginning with the Northern expectations on how the offensive would play out.
“There was a kind of wishful thinking, or hubris in some sense, in that Hanoi really felt that there would be this massive military offensive and at the same time a general uprising of the people of South Vietnam and that the war would be over,” said Novick. “And the soldiers that we interviewed in Vietnam on the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong side remembered being told, ‘This was the last battle. The war is going to be over. You can destroy your jungle camp because you’re not coming back to the jungle after this battle. You’re going to have new uniforms. This is the end of the war. This is it. This is the thing we’ve been waiting for a thousand years, and this is the moment.’ And so they went off onto this offensive greatly optimistic that this would be the end.
“That did not turn out to be the case. There are many paradoxes and ironies in the Tet Offensive because it was militarily not terribly well planned,” she said. “We’ve read many interesting after-action reports, self-critical analysis done by the North Vietnamese army after the fact, a number of years later of what went wrong. Many, many, many things went wrong militarily. Nothing went according to plan: They didn’t have reserves, they didn’t have enough supplies, they didn’t have a Plan B when there were counter-terror attacks, and they couldn’t possibly match the South Vietnamese and American military power once those forces understood what was happening and started to fight back. So it was a military disaster and the losses were catastrophic. And the people didn’t rise up, and there was no end of the war the way that the leadership had unrealistically expected.”
Despite this huge loss for the North, the South suffered blows also — not just from the widespread death and destruction, but also because their allies began to waver even more in the face of what increasingly looked to be an unwinnable war.
“In a sense, it was a great political victory even though it was a military defeat, because the American public lost faith in our own leaders to be upfront and honest about what was happening,” said Novick. “We had been told shortly before that the war was almost over, that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong … were basically about to give up. And when the Tet Offensive happened, it didn’t look that way, it didn’t feel that way, and so there became this explosion of questioning. ‘What are we doing? Are they telling us the truth? When is this going to be over?’”
Episode 6 of “The Vietnam War” airs Sunday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS. The remainder of the series airs nightly at 8 p.m., Monday-Thursday, Sept. 25-28.