“Riding the Tiger” (1961-1963) The Vietnam War, Episode 2


In this episode, the documentary focuses on a two-year period (1961–1963). First, however, Burns and Novick take us to 1967 and the terrifying experience of U.S. Marine John Musgrave who was sent out with two other soldiers from his base at Con Thien to set up an all-night “listening post.” Enemy soldiers came so close “you can hear them whispering to one another.” It was his scariest time in Vietnam and a half century later, Musgrave confides, he still needs a night light to fall asleep.

The out-of-sequence inclusion of this poignant anecdote is another reminder that U.S. veterans are the heart and soul of this project. Musgrave’s frequent appearances are worth tracking, in part because Ken Burns has said that if all except one of his interviews were stolen, he would most want to keep Musgrave’s.

Back in the episode’s stated time frame, we move from John F. Kennedy’s inauguration to his assassination. Along the way, we trace the gradual increase in the American military commitment to Vietnam from several hundred soldiers to some 16,000. JFK’s administration routinely deceived the American public by claiming that its troops were merely advising South Vietnamese forces, not engaging in bombing missions and ground patrols, and the film could have been more critical of the lying that would only grow worse with each administration. However, The Vietnam War does make clear that, despite the deceptions, JFK initiated almost all the military policies that, when magnified enormously under Lyndon Johnson, would be bitterly criticized: the bombing and napalming of South Vietnamese targets (including villages), the use of chemical defoliants like Agent Orange, the forced relocation of rural peasants, aggressive search-and-destroy missions, and an obsessive reliance on statistical measurements of “progress” like the infamous “body count.”

We also hear from some witnesses who were deeply critical of the indiscriminate use of firepower by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. One of them, Tran Ngoc Chau, was himself an idealistic South Vietnamese official who believed that winning the political loyalty of the people was the only way to provide a worthy alternative to the communists. “If you kill the wrong man,” he says, you produce “ten enemies, and mostly they [the U.S. and the South Vietnamese militaries]killed the wrong man.” The point is echoed by a former Green Beret officer Robert Rheault, who says, “If you destroy a village, you’ve created a village of resistance.” Oddly, Rheault does not reappear in the episode that covers 1969–1970, a time when he became briefly famous as the Special Forces commander charged with ordering the execution of a Vietnamese double agent (the court-martial was shut down by the Nixon administration).

One of the most impressive segments of Episode 2 is about the battle of Ap Bac, a hint that the larger documentary will give serious attention to military history. The story of Ap Bac has been told well and at length in Neil Sheehan’s magisterial A Bright Shining Lie, and Sheehan offers commentary here as well, but the archival footage and photography is as stunning as you might expect from Florentine Films. Most of the images Burns and Novick use have not been seen in lots of other documentaries on the war. The battle of Ap Bac was significant, in part, because it proved to the Viet Cong that it could achieve success against sophisticated American technology and firepower, including helicopters (five of which were shot down by guerrilla forces). It also demonstrated the weakness and timidity of major portions of the South Vietnamese government and military. Equally important, the U.S. military command insisted, against all meaningful evidence, that the battle was a South Vietnamese victory.

A few months later, a Buddhist uprising would show just how deeply and widely South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem’s unpopularity ran among his people. President Kennedy soon gave the green light to a group of South Vietnamese military officers to overthrow the man the United States had supported for nine years. Kennedy was shocked that the junta ordered the murder of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. A few weeks later, JFK himself was assassinated.

A color photograph shows a soldier standing above a man sitting on the ground. The soldier holds a knife and the seated man appears frightened.

South Vietnamese soldier threatens a Viet Cong suspect. 1962. Courtesy of Larry Burrows/Getty Images.

In some ways, “Riding the Tiger” is Neil Sheehan’s episode. Sheehan covered the war in the early 1960s as the UPI’s bureau chief in Saigon. He was then a great believer in the U.S. cause. His reporting never questioned the legitimacy of U.S. intervention, only the effectiveness of its policies. He is given this episode’s final words. As we look at images of napalm strikes and U.S.-backed troops intimidating Vietnamese villagers and prisoners, we hear him say, “We thought we were the exceptions to history, the Americans. History didn’t apply to us. We could never fight a bad war. We could never represent the wrong cause. We were Americans. Well, in Vietnam we proved that we were not an exception to history.”

These words stand as evidence that whatever “vaccine” Burns and Novick may have intended to produce in the form of this documentary, it does not completely omit some of the most searing critiques of the American War in Vietnam.

Christian G. Appy is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts. His next post, about Episodes 3 and 4, will appear following the latter’s East Coast broadcast on Wednesday, September 20. He is the author of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (2015), Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (2003), and Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (1993). He also serves as an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.



  1. What is also portrayed in at least some of its horrors is the regime of Diem and his psychopathic brother and sister-in-law all of whose terrible mistreatment of their own people (Buddhists first and foremost, but so may other “political prisoners”) had catastrophic effects on the strategy of winning “hearts and minds”. That the U.S. supported such a misbegotten regime of corruption and cruelty was yet another enormous nail in the coffin that was the American War in Vietnam. Kennedy’s “private” comments along with Sheehan’s revelations show how both men knew that what was going on in Vietnam was truly hopeless as early as 1962 and yet, there we remained for another 13 years. Yet another lesson unlearned as perpetual war is waged in Iraq and Afghanistan…

    • Thanks for you comments Tom. Great points. Wish Diem’s Law 10/59 had been explored, with its summary executions by roving tribunals using a guillotine.

      • Dear Mr. Chris Appy,

        I’m happy I stumbled upon this blog. My name is Tran Ha Nguyen and I met you when you visited Vietnam for your book, The Patriots. I later worked as a journalist for Tuoi Tre newspaper and once contacted you for your opinion on the Winter Soldier rerun in the US. Then I lost contact.

        I know this comment is off topic but I hope to reconnect with you. My email is tranhanguyen@gmail.com, please drop me a line at your convenience. I really appreciate it.

        Tran Ha Nguyen

  2. One of the most disturbing aspects of Ep2 is the narrator noting that ‘Viet Cong’ is the made-up name the National Liberation Front was given by their enemies (US and Saigon govt). Then in almost the next sentence, the narrator and everyone interviewed uses VC, and repeatedly (at least 20 times) from there to end of the episode. I’m led to expect that’s the last time we’ll hear NLF for quite some time in this dreary series, if ever.

    • Jeffrey Sokolow on

      I fully agree. In episode 3 we repeatedly hear of “the Vietcong” and “the enemy.” OK, so let’s not expect them to call the NLF/PAV forces “the patriots” and the Saigon troops as “the puppet forces,” but such language is meant to situate viewers as being on “our” side. Imagine if in the Civil War series Burns had referred to Confederates as “the secessionists” or “the traitors,” terms that while loaded are accurate.

  3. Glad to discover your blog/commentary and finding it very interesting, and indeed necessary. I experience great trepidation at any and all of the heavily promoted “Ken Burns presents…” versions of (PBS and Corporate funded) American history, and wonder at the particular selection of the talking heads and whether their comments are spontaneous, scripted, or edited and to what extent the overarching narrative is bent or slanted this way or that way by writers and producers–so the end result is always a hodgepodge, as you put it so accurately in your first commentary, with some incredible footage and fascinating revelations (like, Ho Chi Minh was an anti-Colonialist first and foremost–and maybe a “communist” out of necessity?) and some things that are questionable or myopic. I find it ironic that the narrative voice of “The Vietnam War” is Peter Coyote, a radical lefty anti-war anti-govt counter-cultural figure from the 60s turned actor, Zen master, and voice-over artist. Yes, he has a great voice, but I think they might have found someone a bit more “Cronkite.”

  4. The damning thing is that the national television networks that depend on licensure to operate on the publicly owned airways have been allowed to totally disregard almost all measures of public interest broadcasting. Since approximately 1965 and certainly since 1968 there has been virtually a total blackout of explaining national issues. From 1968 to 1975 there was not an average of one primetime documentary per YEAR about Vietnam from any network except PBS. That blackout of national issues is still the case and is largely the cause of how we now find ourselves absurdly arguing about what are “real facts” and what are “alternative facts.” This is one of the most destructive legacies of the Vietnam war. Burns is showing us, imperfectly, where facts were clear the military command didn’t want to admit to them, politicians didn’t want to know them, and the country foundered and continues to founder without them.

  5. I have a few random comments and questions.

    I read A Bright Shining Lie years ago and got lost in the weeds of the story of Ap Bac. This episode gave a good summary. I hope it was accurate.

    Did Kennedy lie when he said 47 US soldiers had been killed? Was that a cover up or was that the truth?

    Can this episode be called balanced? We see vivid imagery of dissent being repressed in the South, yet we hear nothing about the fact that there was no dissent iin the North because it was a totalitarian state with no free press to report on brutal repression.

    Again there is the basic question of whether the people were better off overall, politically, socially, economically under Diem or Ho.

    Burns leaves us with the impression that JFK might have gotten us out? Is that accurate? He was burned by the military and the CIA on the Bay of Pigs and might have been more likely to overrule them than Johnson. Maybe JFK would have have kept just enough troops in to look good for the 1964 election the way Bush 2 did to make things look less disasterous in Iraq when he left office.

    I didn’t remember about Diem’s crackdown just before his overthrow and I now wonder if I forgot it because of the Kennedy assassination which came so soon after was so traumatic.

    So far the series supports my long held opinion that the war was a mistake and we learned nothing from it.

    We did not understand the culture of Vietnam and it was a mess. We learned nothing and went into Iraq with no understanding of Iraqi culture and got into another mess.

    As Vietnam Veteran I am fed up with the phony Welcome Home stuff and I am sick of the POW/MIA flag which is a constant reminder of our national blunder.

    All I want is a Joint Resolution from Congress stating that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was a mistake and that in the future Congress will not send Americans off to die in wars that are not in our immediate, vital national interest.

    My regards to Gunther Lewy and Luther Allen.