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Is there a more painful game of “what if?” that Americans could play than to wonder what the 1960s, and today, would look like if the United States had avoided military catastrophe in Vietnam?

The pivotal moment may have been in early 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson realized he was trapped in the early days of an escalating war the United States probably couldn’t win. He knew the intensifying conflict would distract him from his prized agenda of creating “the Great Society” at home. But he also felt he had no choice but to proceed, because he’d won election in 1964 to a full term as president by promising to lick the North.

Oh, the power of hindsight, and the tragedy of hubris. Both are powerfully demonstrated in Ken Burns’ 10-part, 18-hour PBS documentary. Burns, co-director Lynn Novick and their team worked for 10 years to tell the story, interviewing dozens of witnesses, including combatants on both sides. It was worth the effort. One of the most important points the series makes is that Johnson clearly understood the risk of beginning a major bombing campaign in the North and committing U.S. ground troops to the conflict. If only he’d listened to his own taped telephone conversations, which Burns uses to strong effect. Ever eavesdrop on someone making a terrible decision? That’s what watching “The Vietnam War” feels like.

The background: In late 1964, the documentary explains, North Vietnam pulled off its first stunning battlefield victory of the war, sending Viet Cong troops deep into the South to Binh Gia, where they annihilated several companies of South Vietnamese army rangers, killing 200. Five American military advisers died. Soon after, the North Vietnamese blew up a hotel occupied by American military personnel, killing 23. If the Viet Cong troops could penetrate so deeply into the South, this said something important about the war’s trajectory.

Johnson knew. In March 1965, he shared his concerns in a phone call with Sen. Richard Russell who told the president there appeared to be “no way out” of Vietnam. Johnson responded: “A man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere, but there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam, there’s not a bit.” Yet Johnson chose to fight, unleashing Operation Rolling Thunder, a sustained bombing campaign, and ordering the first U.S. ground troops into the conflict. The war would last 10 more years. In all, more than 58,000 Americans would die, and several million Vietnamese.

The Vietnam era was polarizing and it was agonizing, spawning political upheaval and a cultural revolution in the U.S. Burns believes the war unleashed an era of partisanship the nation reckons with today.

Print Headline: Vietnam back on TV

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