Review: The Vietnam War: Riding The Tiger (1961-1963)
– Episode 2 of Ken Burns 2017 PBS Vietnam documentary

By Ray McGinnis

“The most ominous danger we face comes from the marginalization and destruction of institutions, including the courts, academia, legislative bodies, cultural organizations and the press, that once ensured that civil discourse was rooted in reality and fact, helped us distinguish lies from truth…” Chris Hedges

On August 4, 1964, the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy were said to have been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin by North Vietnamese gunboats. On August 7, 1964, the U.S. Congress Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized America to go to war in Vietnam. In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara admitted that nothing happened on August 4, 1964. [1] The USS Maddox was not attacked by North Vietnam. The lies and half-truths of the Vietnam War told by American politicians and its military leaders continues to haunt America. In the fall of 2017 I was on a trip. Eight of the households where I stayed were watching The Vietnam War, an 18-hour PBS documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The documentary was advertised as the definitive chronicle of The Vietnam War. It was heralded as a way for viewers to bring closure to a chapter that continued to haunt America.

Having read over a dozen books about the Vietnam War over the decades, I was very interested. But viewing episode 2 of The Vietnam War, “Riding the Tiger”, I knew I was watching propaganda. I sensed something was terribly wrong with the chronicle Burns and Novick were offering to the public. “Riding the Tiger” concerned the Kennedy administration and its policy in Vietnam, impressively presenting archival footage and music from the times. Both Vietnamese and Americans narrate The Vietnam War. The documentary attempts to be evenhanded. Yet, it avoids focus on colonial aspects of the war, of France and next America, in Vietnam. While making an attempt at healing, the series airbrushes and distorts chronology. Geoffrey Ward’s script is often misleading. Here are some examples from “Riding the Tiger”.

Minute 2 – “JFK was God”
“Riding the Tiger” viewers are introduced to Jack Todd of Nebraska. Todd says “I was sure that we were right to be in Vietnam, you know, because it started under Kennedy. And to me, JFK was God. Anything that he thought was right, I thought was right.” But one needs only to have watched Episode 1 of this PBS series to know that “Vietnam” didn’t “start under Kennedy.” By the time John F. Kennedy became President there were already nine U.S. personnel who’d died in Vietnam between 1957 and 1960 while Eisenhower was president. And as noted above, General Maxwell Taylor recalled that John F. Kennedy was the “one man” who was “strongly against…sending ground troops to Vietnam.”

Burns and Novick should have detailed how often President Kennedy shot down proposals to send U.S. combat troops to Vietnam by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

  • JFK shot down one proposal for combat from a JCS memo on May 10, 1961.
  • JFK shot down another JSC proposal to send in combat troops to Vietnam on October 11, 1961.
  • JFK shot down another JSC proposal to send in combat troops to Vietnam on November 22,1961.
  • JFK shot down a fourth JSC proposal to send in combat troops to Vietnam on January 13, 1962.

On November 26, 1963, the day after John F. Kennedy was buried Lyndon Johnson authorized, for the first time, attacks by U.S. forces against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. This was consistent with LBJ’s views at his first meeting with advisors on November 23. Johnson told Bill Moyers after the meeting that day, “I’m not going to let Vietnam go the way of China. I told them (State Department, Pentagon) to go back and tell those generals in Saigon that Lyndon Johnson wants them…to get off their butts and get out in the jungles and start whipping the hell out of some communists.” [2]

Minute 6 – Who is Leslie Gelb?
At this point in the episode viewers meet Leslie Gelb, with the caption “Pentagon.” But Gelb was not just anyone in the Pentagon. Leslie Gelb was the director of the project that produced the controversial Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War that Daniel Ellsberg released to the New York Times in 1971. [3] [4] In the Pentagon Papers one of the bombshells that the Pentagon didn’t want the American public to know about was President Kennedy’s plan to withdraw all U.S. personnel from Vietnam, originally with a complete withdrawal by the end of 1964. The plan was revised for a phased withdrawal to be completed by Christmas 1964. However, throughout Episode 2 there is no indication that the scriptwriter, Geoffrey Ward, is aware of the revelations of the Pentagon Papers or the plan to withdraw all U.S. personnel from Vietnam. The plan to withdraw all U.S. personnel from Vietnam was the policy President Kennedy was actively pursuing, and had authorized in October 1963. [5]

Minute 8 – Losses and Victories in Berlin
Here, a narrator tells viewers “For all of John Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric… he was unable to keep the Soviets from building the Berlin Wall.” It’s true that the Berlin Wall was built. Yet, the episode omits mention that in 1961 Kennedy had stood up to Khrushchev. On July 25, 1961, Kennedy gave a speech carried by NBC, ABC and CBS stating “we cannot and will not permit the communists to drive us out of Berlin, either gradually or by force.” Kennedy reported that he’d asked Congress to increase appropriations for the U.S. Armed Forces to raise their numbers from 875,000 to one million in West Germany. [6] Kennedy sent U.S. tanks into Berlin and at Checkpoint Charlie on October 27, 1961, with American and Soviet tanks less than 100 yards apart. When Khrushchev finally realized Kennedy would not back down, the Soviets backed off and Vice-President Johnson was on hand to welcome American tanks as they rolled into West Berlin. By omitting mention that Kennedy’s action had saved West Berlin, Episode 2 depicts a presidency ineffective and devoid of any victories in the Cold War in its first year. Kennedy’s actions in October 1961 were not an inconsequential victory, at least not for the people of West Berlin.

Minute 9 – Kennedy’s position on Vietnam obscured
Next in “Riding the Tiger” the narrator tells us that Kennedy sent General Maxwell Taylor to Vietnam. The general came back with a recommendation to send in ground troops. What the narrator doesn’t tell the viewer is that JFK instructed General Taylor, at the NSC meeting of October 13, 1961, to return with a recommendation to withdraw U.S. personnel from Vietnam. Kennedy reminded Taylor, “In your assessment you should bear in mind that the initial responsibility for the effective maintenance of the independence of South Vietnam rests with the people and government of that country.” It is clear from the minutes of the NSC meeting of October 13, 1961, that Kennedy had decided against sending in U.S. combat troops. In fact, Kennedy was so upset with Taylor’s recommendation (which he did not accept) that he planted a story in the New York Times where the “Grey Lady” reported that General Taylor had returned from Vietnam recommending to the president withdrawal of U.S. personnel from Vietnam. [7]

Minute 10 – Meet Robert Rheault
At minute 10 “Riding the Tiger” introduces Robert Rheault, identified as “Special Forces.” He’s one of the talking heads interviewed with a zoom lens and black backdrop. Burns and Novick omit informing viewers that Rheault, as a Colonel in the Vietnam War, took command of 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam. In May 1969, Rheault and his unit were charged with seeking out leaks in a CIA-directed espionage ring as part of Project GAMMA. Rheault, along with six of his Special Forces officers and a sergeant were arrested by the U.S. Military under the orders of General Creighton Abrams and threatened with court-martial charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder, arising from the alleged extrajudicial killing of Thai Khac Chuyen. The prosecution provided testimony showing that Chuyen was shot by Rheault’s officers and his body dumped into the South China Sea. Further, they argued that Rheault was most certainly aware of the provisions of the Third Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war and Article 118 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Rheault approved the execution of Chuyen, and also approved the cover story that Chuyen was lost on an undercover mission designed to prove his loyalty to South Vietnam and the United States. [8]

Minute 11 – Use of Napalm: A change of Policy 
Next, a narrator contends “Kennedy also authorized the use of napalm” and “agent orange.” However, it was the Dow Chemical Company who manufactured napalm B for the American armed forces. Dow’s contract to manufacture napalm for the U.S. military was from 1965-1969. Under President Lyndon Johnson U.S. bombers started dropping napalm on Vietnam. Mentioning napalm and Agent Orange and Kennedy in the same sentence, Episode 2 raises the specter of images from 1972 showing nine-year old Kim Phúc running naked down her rural village road, while she was still burning. But, the first napalm bombs dropped in Vietnam were on March 13 and 14, 1965, by U.S. Air Strike Missions 8658 and 8670, followed Air Strike Missions 7399 and 8706 by March 15 and 17, 1965. The New York Times reported on March 20, 1965, “The United States…in a change of policy, is using napalm in aerial strikes against North Vietnam.” [9] Footage of these March 1965 missions is what Burns and Novick show viewers in their 1961-63 episode. As a result, the documentary succeeds in blurring the chronology for when napalm and Agent Orange were introduced during the Vietnam War.

Kennedy’s NSAM 115 of November 30, 1961, called for “a selective and carefully controlled joint program of defoliant operations in Viet Nam starting with the clearance of key routes” the Viet Cong held under the advisement of the government of South Vietnam. What JFK was being told by the U.S. leadership (military and embassy) in Saigon was that “chemical defoliants and herbicide weapons… were safe, inexpensive, effective, and might thwart the Communist advance on South Vietnam, or at least hinder it enough for the establishment of a functional non-Communist government.” [10] This also reflected an idealization of science and technology at the time.

In “Riding the Tiger” viewers are told a half-truth: Kennedy did introduce the use of herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam. But Kennedy was assured they were intended for non-lethal purposes. These were for clearing key army routes for a hoped-for advance by the Army of South Vietnam. Permission at the end of November 1961 to use defoliants and herbicides laid the groundwork for the U.S. military to successfully lobby President Johnson to switch up its lethality in 1965 and introduce napalm and Agent Orange in bombing raids

President Kennedy authorized the U.S Air Force to form the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron, which arrived at Bien Hoa Airfield in November 1961. Starting on January 13, 1962, Kennedy gave the go ahead for Operation Farm Gate. The 4400th used older,propeller-driven aircraft to train South Vietnamese Air Force personnel and Helicopter companies. Farm Gate pilots began flying reconnaissance missions and providing logistical support to U.S. Army Special Forces units. The rules of engagement for these missions dictated that American pilots only fly missions as training exercises for the South Vietnamese. This included being able to quickly bring soldiers to a ground area for training and for gunners to open fire against a hostile enemy in response to an attack.

American bombing operations of the Vietnam War all took place after President Kennedy was assassinated.

  • Operation Pierce Arrow: 5 August 1964
  • Operation Barrel Roll: 14 December 1964—29 March 1973
  • Operation Flaming Dart: 7 February 1965—24 February 1965
  • Operation Rolling Thunder: 2 March 1965—2 November 1968
  • Operation Steel Tiger: 3 April 1965—11 November 1968
  • Operation Arc Light: 18 June 1965—15 August 1973
  • Operation Tiger Hound: 5 December 1965—11 November 1968
  • Operation Commando Hunt: 11 November 1968—29 March 1972
  • Operation Niagara: January 1968—March 1968
  • Operation Menu: (consisting of Operations Breakfast, Lunch, Snack, Dinner, Dessert, and Supper): 18 March 1969—26 May 1970
  • Operation Patio: 24 April 1970—29 April 1970
  • Operation Freedom Deal: 19 May 1970—15 August 1973
  • Operation Linebacker I: 9 May 1972—23 October 1972
  • Operation Linebacker II: 18 December 1972—29 December 1972

Data on when these bombing operations by U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, when they took place and what they involved, have been a matter of public record for decades. Yet, The Vietnam War contends that under Kennedy a great bombing campaign was underway.

Minute 13 – JFK and Secretary McNamara misled
A narrator tells viewers “The administration did it’s best to hide from the American people the scale of the buildup that was taking place on the other side of the world, fearful that the public would not support the more active role advisors had begun to play in combat.” But viewers don’t learn that President Kennedy and Secretary McNamara were, themselves, being mislead by their own military and intelligence in Vietnam about the actual involvement of U.S. military advisors in Vietnam. Kennedy and McNamara were being told by General Harkins in Saigon that the U.S. military advisors were there to train South Vietnamese to fight the Viet Cong. Kennedy and McNamara had authorized only training and specifically forbade combat of U.S. personnel. Meanwhile, General Harkins and Colonel Winterbottom in Saigon withheld crucial information from Kennedy and McNamara that U.S. personnel were leading air strikes with South Vietnamese pilots riding in the back of the aircraft. These airstrikes primarily involved Army Light Helicopter Companies. These were equipped with machine-guns and autocannons with gun-pods on the helicopters, but bombs. [11]

“Riding the Tiger” shows President Kennedy being asked at a press conference if he is being candid with the American people. Kennedy responds: “we have increased our assistance to the government, it’s logistics. We have not sent combat troops there. Though the training missions that we have there have been instructed, if they are fired upon, they are ~ of course ~ fire back to protect themselves. But we have not sent combat troops in the generally understood sense of the word, so that feel that we are being as frank as we can be. What I have said to you is a description of our activity there.” Kennedy said this to the press because this was what he was being falsely assured was accurate by his Ambassador Frederick Nolting in Saigon, and the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) Commander, General Harkins, in Saigon. [12]

Minute 18 – Strategic Hamlet Program
At this point in the documentary episode, there is a clip where Secretary McNamara makes statements at a press conference about the Strategic Hamlet Program in South Vietnam. McNamara tells the press “President Diem’s Strategic Hamlets’ Program is making substantial progress. About sixteen-hundred of the fourteen thousand hamlets have been fortified to date.” What viewers of Episode 2 are not told is what McNamara’s commander back in Saigon was airbrushing the story. Specifically, McNamara didn’t know the Strategic Hamlet Program involved resettling the peasants, forcing them off of their ancestral lands and into camps where their social fabric disintegrated. This contributed to the failure of the program. Further, McNamara wasn’t told the program was being implemented in South Vietnam under the leadership of General McGarr who was directing “all the hamlets in the region be moved bodily into new locations.” This meant no one in these strategic hamlets was familiar with their new territory.

In addition, General Harkins, who was providing rosy assessments of the Strategic Hamlet Program asserted that the arming of these Strategic Hamlets had forced the infiltrating Viet Cong to retreat. This was a lie. In addition, numbers of Strategic Hamlets were being built in operational areas that were devoid of Viet Cong. But McNamara, who was relying on Harkins and McGarr for trustworthy field reports, didn’t know he was being lied to. McNamara’s statements to the press were based on the false information he was fed by his officers. [13]

Burns and Novick correctly report “by the summer of 1962 news from South Vietnam seemed so promising that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara made sure that the Pentagon was prepared to implement a plan for withdrawal of American advisors to be completed by 1965.” However, it would’ve been useful for the documentary to inform viewers that at the Sixth DECDEF Conference on July 23, 1962, General Paul Harkins bragged that 2,400 strategic hamlets had been built and that 6,000 would be in place by the end of 1962. Secretary McNamara was impressed with this development since there’d been no strategic hamlets at the start of the year. Given the impression of successful South Vietnamese military and civilian offensive against the Viet Cong, McNamara asked Harkins “how long would it take before the Viet Cong could be eliminated as a disturbing force?” Harkins replied “one year.” McNamara didn’t know most of the “strategic hamlets” Harkins included as allied with the Diem government were actually Viet Cong strongholds. McNamara authorized that these strategic hamlets be given weapons. Consequently, America provided hundreds of Viet Cong fighters with free brand-new American weapons that were later used against American soldiers once President Johnson ramped up the war after the Gulf of Tonkin. Relying on General Harkins statistics, Secretary McNamara went ahead with a Comprehensive Plan for South Vietnam that included American withdrawal of all military and intelligence personnel assisting South Vietnamese government forces. [14]

Minute 20 – Meet Rufus Phillips 
Next, Vvewers are introduced to Rufus Phillips, identified as “U.S. AID.” What they don’t learn is that Phillips was a CIA officer and protégé of Edward Lansdale, an Air Force General working in the Office of Special Operations for the Department of Defense (1957-63) and the CIA. Lansdale was the real-life CIA agent that inspired Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, set in Saigon in 1952. As a CIA agent in Vietnam, Lansdale arranged for the CIA to arm renegade General Trinh Minh Thé’s militia with American weaponry who instigated a series of terrorist bombings in Saigon. The bombings were dishonestly blamed on the Viet Cong, and sewed animosity and suspicion between the Vietnamese people. Rufus Phillips was part of the ultra-right wing of the CIA. Phillips was part of the General Curtis LeMay contingent in Washington D.C. who wanted nuclear bombs dropped on the enemy in southeast Asia, including China. [15]

Minute 21 – Death of Pete Hunting
Viewers of episode 2 next learn about the story of International Voluntary Services member Pete Hunting. He was the first American volunteer to die in Vietnam. Since I was watching an episode about 1961-1963, I assumed Hunting died while John F. Kennedy was president. JFK is blamed in the episode for Hunting’s death. I went online and read an excerpt from Jill Hunting’s book Finding Pete: Rediscovering the Brother I Lost in Vietnam. Pete Hunting served with the IVS from late July 1963 to November 1965. He died in the Mekong Delta on November 12, 1965. [16] I wondered, what could account for this chronological fumbling. A report about the death of Pete Hunting, two years after JFK was assassinated, was inserted into Episode 2 (1961-1963). Surely President Johnson’s reversal of JFK’s plan to withdraw from Vietnam (starting in December 1963), the false flag in the Gulf of Tonkin, and Johnson’s escalation of war were catalysts contributing to Pete Hunting’s death in November 1965.

Minute 29 – More omissions
At minute 29, Rufus Phillips recalls that Edward Lansdale told Secretary Robert McNamara that his statistics didn’t include the feelings of the Vietnamese people. Yet, the documentary doesn’t include any mention that it was Lansdale who sabotaged Kennedy’s first initiative in 1961 of tying any U.S. military aid to the South Vietnamese army for training with a requirement for democratic reforms by the Diem regime (which included some statistical measurements). Lansdale assured Diem he wouldn’t need to go ahead with reforms. Reports to Washington falsely offered rosy estimates of progress on democratic reforms to assure JFK democratic reforms were being implemented, though Lansdale knew they weren’t. American historian and scholar on Vietnam, Thomas Bass, points out that Rufus Phillips was one of General Edward Lansdale’s “black artists” who worked for many years in psychological operations and counterinsurgency. Edward Lansdale, of all people, could care less about the feelings of the Vietnamese people. [17]

Minute 30 – Donald Gregg airbrushed
Next up, Burns and Novick offer viewers a quote from Donald Gregg, accurately identified as “CIA”. But Gregg’s role as CIA Advisor to the agency’s Operation Phoenix Program is not mentioned. Central to Phoenix is the fact that it targeted civilians and not soldiers. By the CIA’s own estimates at least 41,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed under the Phoenix Program. This operation was launched under President Johnson. Later, Gregg was also one of the principal players in the Iran-Contra Scandal along with Oliver North and Robert McFarlane. Though Gregg was not indicted, he was adjunct staff to Robert McFarlane and drafted much of the plot. McFarlane was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. Gregg is a controversial interviewee, but this is not disclosed by Burns and Novick. [18]

Minute 30 – Why Statistics Matter and Order of Battle estimates omitted in episode
Viewers learn that General Paul Harkins, commander of MACV in Saigon, produced statistics that Secretary McNamara was asking for at the SECDEF (Secretary of Defense) Conferences during 1962-63. The PBS narrator tells viewers “at the request of Secretary McNamara, Harkins and his staff generated mountains of daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly data from more than a hundred separate indicators, far more data then could be adequately analyzed.” Burns and Novick give viewers the impression there was so much data it was impossible to summarize it or draw any conclusions.

But why did McNamara want statistics? The filmmakers fail to mention why McNamara wanted statistics for Order of Battle estimates. An Order of Battle estimate is a request by a commanding officer of the assessment of the armed force participating in a military operation or campaign. An Order of Battle shows the hierarchical organization, command structure, strength, disposition of personnel, and equipment of units and formations of the armed force. This is estimated for both one’s own armed force and the armed force of the enemy. The Order of Battle estimates were prepared by a team for the MACV and sent to the Pacific Command (PACOM) and the Secretary of Defense Conference briefings for Secretary Robert McNamara. The members of the Order of Battle Team included George Allen, Analyst for the DIA (1962-63); William Benedict, Analyst for Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence, Army, Directorate of Foreign Intelligence from 1961 to 1962; Sam Dowling, Staff Security Officer, MACV, 1962 to 1963; Lou Tixier, Intelligence Analyst at USARPAC (U.S. Army, Pacific), 1962; and Jim Harris, Intelligence Analyst, MACV J-2, from 1962 to 1963. Their field research lasted six weeks. [19]

The Order of Battle Team completed their study by mid-April, 1962. After they had visited all 44 South Vietnamese provinces, the Order of Battle study estimated the number of Viet Cong fighters was in the range of 40,000 to 50,000. However, the Order of Battle Team were commanded by MACV Intelligence Chief, Colonel James Winterbottom. He ordered the Order of Battle Team to bring down the figures in their report for the Viet Cong estimate to 20,000. Once the Order of Battle Team’s estimate was reduced from 40,000 to 50,000 down to 20,000, it was brought to General Harkins. Next, Harkins demanded the Order of Battle Team to reduce their estimates again from 20,000 to 17,500. After the Order of Battle Team submitted this further revision the study was printed. In the printed version the Order of Battle team was astonished to discover their report showed an estimate of the strength of the Viet Cong in April 1962 at 16,500, not 17,500. [20]

The Order of Battle Team were unhappy with the reduced estimates from 40,000 to 50,000 down to 16,500. Knowing this, Col. Winterbottom put the members of the Order of Battle Team under house arrest in Vietnam. He wouldn’t let them return to the USA until after the Order of Battle study had been reviewed in its doctored form by at the upcoming Fifth SECDEF Conference in Hawaii. Winterbottom and Harkins were afraid the Order of Battle Team members would expose these commanders’ deception as fraudulent. Several members of the Order of Battle team did try to blow the whistle on the fraudulent statistics when they returned to the Pentagon and the State Department in Washington D.C. However, senior staff in DC, at the bureaucracy, were ready to prevent any effort to expose the deception. [21]

Another aspect of the revised Order of Battle Team report was that General Harkins ordered the estimates of the casualty figures for the Viet Cong be inflated by 30% and the casualty figures for the South Vietnamese Government be artificially reduced by 30%. Harkins also knew that the problem of Viet Cong infiltration was massive and that the Self Defense Corps in South Vietnam were suffering a combination of losses (1,000 per month) and defections (200 per month) to the Viet Cong. As the slap-dash training of Self Defense Corps members was less than 1,000 per month, they were shrinking while they faced an ever-growing Viet Cong army. [22]

The Third Secretary of Defense Conference took place in Honolulu on February 19, 1962. General Harkins told the generals and Secretary McNamara that his initial exposure to the situation in Vietnam revealed a “spirit of optimism and growing confidence with the Vietnamese and U.S military and civilian circles.” Ambassador Nolting echoed the General Harkins, stating “a spirit of movement is discernable in the land.” McNamara questioned how this could be so, as previous US Intelligence reports had estimated the strength of the Viet Cong at 12,300 in July 1961, a figure of 17,000 in December 1961 and just one month later in January 1962 an estimate of 25,000. This represented a doubling of Viet Cong forces in a mere six months. How, one month later in February 1962, McNamara wondered, could there be reason for optimism and confidence in the South Vietnamese situation? Ambassador Notling, demonstrating how clueless he was, added that the estimate of Viet Cong sympathizers at 100,000 was too low, adding “there are millions of people in VC controlled areas.” [23]

The map used to brief McNamara at the Fifth SECDEF Conference in May 1962 was called the Measles Map because of all the red spots on the map. What McNamara was shown was a falsified map. When General Harkins did his rehearsal the night before the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) Conference, he had the revised study for the Order of Battle showing not the original estimates of 40,000 to 50,000, but the made-up figure of just 16,500 Viet Cong. However, a map had been produced by the Order of Battle Team that was nicknamed the Measles map. Looking at that map it would be clear to anyone that the Viet Cong were winning the war. When Harkins saw the map he said, “Oh, my God. We’re not showing that to McNamara.” And so, in front of the entire US Command, before McNamara arrived, General Harkins ordered Colonel Winterbottom to peel off numbers of Viet Cong areas on the map shown in red. Together, they covered these selected red areas over with white areas representing South Vietnamese controlled areas. All the US Command saw this including William Colby the CIA Station Chief in Saigon and Dr. Thomas Glenn III who was the Department of Defense Special Representative (technology representative for the NSA) who both told John Newman, author of JFK and Vietnam, about their eyewitness accounts of Harkins and Winterbottom’s action to falsify the map. “In all, Harkins and Winterbottom removed about one third of the enemy controlled areas, and converted about half of the neutral areas to government control.” [24]

In addition, the SECDEF presentation of the Order of Battle report of actual Viet Cong incursions into South Vietnam was only given for a three-week period. The South Vietnamese incursions into Viet Cong territory were based on a six-week period. By fiddling with the statistics in this way, Harkins revised Order of Battle report to Secretary McNamara. Harkins statistical slight-of-hand omitted mention of the largest Viet Cong offensive of the war between 1955 and April 1962. In this way McNamara was deceived and misled regarding the actual game on the ground.

So, while Burns and Novick PBS documentary gives the impression that Secretary McNamara was lost in a sea of statistics, it fails to responsibly report McNamara was knowingly being given falsified, doctored, statistics by General Harkins and Colonel Winterbottom. This was being done with General Maxwell Taylor’s knowing approval. The implications of this bureaucratic deception should have been significant enough to warrant a mention in this episode. In June 1962, MACV, under General Harkins direction, estimated the Viet Cong had suffered 30,000 casualties, while the Viet Cong had increased their numbers from 17,600 to 24,000. The CIA offered a separate assessment “that the casualty figures are exaggerated or that the Viet Cong have a remarkable capability ~ or both.” While losing 30,000 killed in action, the Viet Cong, according to Harkins, had grown from 17,600 men to 24,000 and would have had to recruit 37,000 men in less than twelve months. [25] But Burns, Novick and Ward don’t mention the critique of MACV’s statistical analysis from the CIA, or elsewhere. They don’t mention the impact of the doctored statistics given to McNamara that shaped policy through 1962 in the Kennedy administration. Instead the narrator in Episode 2 sighs that McNamara’s request for statistics generated a “mountain of paper.”

Minute 35 – Confessions of a Psychological Operations and Counterinsurgency Operative
Robert Rheault gets another cameo appearance and states, “to me it’s a little bit distressing to realize that I was at my best doing something as terrible as war.” How terrible? Rheault worked for many years in psychological operations and counterinsurgency. The day that Nixon pressured the U.S. army to drop criminal charges against Rheault was the same day Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers. “I thought: I’m not going to be part of this lying machine, this cover-up, this murder, anymore” wrote Ellsberg in Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. [26]

Minute 72 – Public Statements vs. Behind-the-scenes actions on matter of Withdrawal from Vietnam
At this stage in the episode, Burns and Novick play footage of a Labor Day, 1963, interview with the JFK by Walter Cronkite. In the interview Kennedy states, “In the final analyses it’s their (the South Vietnamese’s) war…. I don’t agree with those who say ‘we should withdraw’ that would be a great mistake.” JFK’s statement is revealing of what he was prepared to tell the press about his plans for Vietnam withdrawal, not of what was actually unfolding behind the scenes. Burns and Novick don’t inform their viewers Kennedy had, by March 1963 at the latest, concluded the MACV reports from Saigon were a deception. Kennedy was making public statements, like the one he made to Cronkite, to keep the Joint Chiefs of Staff and anti-communists in the State Department off guard. Kennedy didn’t want them to suspect his real policy for withdrawal; Or that JFK’s policy for withdrawal was already being put into effect, with plans for its execution being drawn up starting in March 1963 – in secret.

The key factors convincing Kennedy of the need to withdraw from Vietnam included:
a) a pessimistic report his own advisors brought back at the end of 1961
b) the reaction by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith’s April 1962 suggestion that U.S. personnel should withdraw from Vietnam
c) Senator Mike Mansfield’s report to the president in the fall of 1962 recommending American withdrawal from Vietnam
d) The Hilsman-Forrestal report of February 1963
e) the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) statistics regarding losses in 1962 for the South Vietnamese Government (34,276) and the Viet Cong (32,269)

JFK no longer trusted General Maxwell Taylor, the commander who General Harkins reported his Vietnam statistics to and passed on to the president. Kennedy correctly suspected Taylor was part of the deception. Burns and Novick omit mentioning that Kennedy scheduled a meeting with Senator Mike Mansfield in early March 1963. JFK planned this meeting to advise Mansfield that he was now completely in agreement with Mansfield’s report to him when they met in the fall of 1962. According to Kennedy’s aide, Kenneth O’Donnell who was present at the meeting, Kennedy told Mansfield he wanted to proceed with a complete military withdrawal from Vietnam. But he told Mansfield he couldn’t do a complete withdrawal until he was re-elected. [27] Any attempt to completely withdraw from Vietnam before a second term would ensure a Republican sitting in the White House. According to polling in March 1963, it looked like a Republican victory in 1964 would result in electing either a President Barry Goldwater or President Nelson Rockefeller.

According to presidential aide, Kenneth O’Donnell and Oregon Senator Wayne Morse, Kennedy did confide to a small circle of people it was his plan to gradually withdraw America from Vietnam. This confirms what Montana Senator Mansfield stated publicly again in the mid-70s when asked about JFK’s plan to withdraw from Vietnam. Kennedy also confided in Secretary McNamara. Together they had a plan in place by April 1963 for a phased withdrawal of all the American personnel beginning with withdrawal of 1,000 advisors and troops in December 1963. Kennedy was prepared to maintain public statements to the press about not withdrawing in order to throw off supporters of massive U.S. intervention (within the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA, the State Department, Democratic Party and Republican Party). Arthur Schlesinger defended Kennedy’s decision to hide his plans for withdrawal from Vietnam in this way: “In any event, would it have been better to have lost in 1964 to a presidential candidate who agreed with General Curtis LeMay that North Vietnam should be bombed back to the Stone Age (with nuclear weapons)?” At the same time, Kennedy did not share his plans for withdrawal with Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, or Vice-President Lyndon Johnson. Mansfield knows that JFK did confide in his brother, Attorney-General Bobby Kennedy. [28]

President Kennedy did inform General Taylor in the fall of 1963 of the plan to withdraw 1,000 U.S. personnel in December 1963. JFK and Secretary McNamara instructed Taylor to follow through with that plan, as the general was overseeing the Vietnam War in his capacity as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Without informing Dean Rusk about the larger plan for a complete withdrawal from Vietnam, JFK did inform Secretary Rusk about the specific plan to withdraw 1,000 military advisors in December 1963. Kennedy also told Saigon Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge about the specifics of the 1,000-man withdrawal. According to the minutes from the 519th NSC meeting of October 2, 1963, JFK made clear that reporting to the press about the withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. personnel was not intended to simply put pressure on Diem to make reforms in South Vietnam. Kennedy stated, “The U.S. program for training Vietnamese should have progressed to the point where 1,000 U.S. military personnel assigned to Vietnam could be withdrawn.” What the American public was told on October 2, 1963, was that “the U.S. program for training Vietnamese should have progressed to the point where 1,000 men could be withdrawn by the end of the year.” The plan was offered to the American public pitched in terms of battlefield success. [29]

The generals in Saigon, Hawaii and in the Joint Chiefs of Staff  meetings in Washington DC had painted a rosy picture of battlefield success to Secretary McNamara and JFK. This had been designed to stop Kennedy from withdrawing. The creators of the battlefield success deception worried a collapse on the battlefield could result in a U.S. pullout, given the president’s prohibition against the introduction of U.S. combat forces in Vietnam. But Kennedy jumped on the optimistic reports coming out of Saigon to justify getting out of Vietnam. The President put a secrecy order on the 1,000-man withdrawal. Kennedy didn’t want the Pentagon to make any statement or interpretation about what the 1,000-man withdraw foreshadowed. Kennedy wanted only his statement and Secretary McNamara’s statement to be the only public comments about the 1,000-man withdrawal in December 1963. This was to prevent any leaks that Kennedy and McNamara had a timetable for complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces “by the end of 1965.” [30]

Earlier in September 1963, when General Maxwell Taylor was first informed of the plan for 1,000 U.S. personnel withdrawal, Taylor had proposed that he create a special unit of 1,000 men in the fall of 1963 and send them to Vietnam and then withdraw them at the end of the year. But McNamara and JFK wanted to draw down from the current 16,000 U.S. personnel on the ground in Vietnam, not create an illusion of withdrawing by means of a shell game of troop rotation. On November 12, 1963, President Kennedy did tell the press more about his plan to withdraw all U.S. personnel from Vietnam: “It is our objective to bring Americans home, permit South Vietnamese to maintain themselves as a free independent country and permit democratic forces within the country to operate.” JFK had the Pentagon Major General Charles Timmes brief the press on November 16, 1963, about the withdrawal of troops. The New York Times headline that day read: “1,000 Troops to Leave Vietnam, December.” [31]

Three days prior to the assassination of President Kennedy, General Taylor secretly gutted the 1,000- man withdrawal plan issued by JFK on October 2, 1963. Taylor did this without telling Secretary McNamara or JFK. Instead, Taylor told Admiral Felt and others on the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he was not taking any action on the Kennedy’s orders. The Pentagon Papers show that “more than a thousand U.S. personnel did leave (in December 1963), but many of these were part of the normal turnover cycle of rotation, medical evacuation or administrative reasons” and “replaced by additional deployments.”

In direct opposition to President Kennedy’s plans for withdrawal, General Taylor set in motion by September 9-11, 1963, for covert operations against North Vietnam. These plans became what military planners referred to as OPLAN 34-63. This was done without Taylor telling Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that he and Major General Krulak had set the stage for a large influx up U.S. combat troops. OPLAN 34-63 included over one hundred different operations on the ground, land and sea. Johnson ordered General Krulak to proceed with OPLAN 34A that listed 2,062 separate operations against North Vietnam. After Kennedy was assassination, President Johnson approved OPLAN 34A on January 16, 1964, and ordered it to commence on February 1, 1964. General Taylor’s OPLAN 34-63, included “selected actions of graduated scope and intensity to include commando type coastal raids.” The plan called for the direct use of U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy. These coastal raids led to the Tonkin Gulf incidents in August 1964, and resulting congressional blank check to escalate the Vietnam War. [32]

According to Arthur Schlesinger in his book, Robert Kennedy: His Life and His Times, General Taylor when asked to reflect on conversations about 1963 for American military involvement in Vietnam, Taylor said, “I don’t recall anyone who was strongly against, except one man, and that was the President. The President just didn’t want to be convinced that this was the right thing to do…. It was really the President’s personal conviction that U.S. ground troops shouldn’t go in.”  [33]

If President John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated, he would have delivered a speech at the Dallas Trade Mart on the afternoon of November 22, 1963. A passage from that undelivered speech included these words: “We in this country, in this generation, are ~ by destiny rather than choice ~ the watchmen on the walls of freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of peace on earth, good will…” [34]

In a January 17, 2008, Letter to the Editor in the New York Review of Books, Francis Bator, the former Deputy National Security Advisor to President Lyndon Johnson, wrote, “there was a plan to withdraw US forces from Vietnam, beginning with the first thousand by December 1963, and almost all of the rest by the end of 1965…. President Kennedy had approved that plan. It was the actual policy of the United States on the day Kennedy died.” [35]

Minute 75 – Politics behind cable to Saigon
Viewers are next told “…Kennedy instructed (U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam) Lodge to tell the renegade generals that while the United States does not wish to stimulate a coup, it would not thwart one either.” However, it was not JFK who sent a cable to this effect but the CIA. The CIA sent a cable to Ambassador Lodge on October 9, 1963, stating “while we do not wish to stimulate a coup, we also do not wish to leave the impression that U.S. would thwart a change of government or deny economic and military assistance to a new regime if it appeared capable of increasing effectiveness of (the) military effort…” Having a narrator read an excerpt of a cable by the CIA at this point in Episode 2 and attributing the words to JFK, the PBS documentary misleads its viewers.

A cable was sent that JFK signed off on. But “Riding the Tiger” scriptwriter, Geoffrey Ward, omits key details about how Kennedy even agreed to the cable that was sent adding his name as co-signer, along with Deputy Secretary of Defense, Dr. Thomas Gilpatrick III, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, CIA director John A. McCone and General Maxwell Taylor. Kennedy didn’t believe that all of these people would be in unanimous support of a coup in South Vietnam and wanted everyone to sign on in supporting a coup before he would agree to having a cable sent to Ambassador Lodge.

In his book, JFK and Vietnam, John M. Newman details the politics behind obtaining President Kennedy’s signature for the cable. National Security Council staff member, Michael Forrestal, took advantage of the dynamics regarding a coordinated decision about a coup in South Vietnam over an August holiday weekend. President Kennedy was in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Secretary Dean Rusk was in New York City. Rusk’s Undersecretary, George Ball, was playing golf at the Chevy Chase Club in Wheeling, Illinois. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, was climbing a mountain in Wyoming,.Deputy Defense Secretary Dr. Thomas Gilpatrick III was at his farm in Maryland. While McGeorge Bundy, Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, was on a weekend vacation.

Michael Forrestal was charged with discovering what the opinions were of the officials President Kennedy wanted consulted about sending a cable to Ambassador Lodge regarding any opinion about a coup in South Vietnam. Forrestal, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and Chairman of the Special Group Counterinsurgency, Averell Harriman and Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Roger Hillsman, all supported a coup in South Vietnam. Hilsman and Harriman sent a cable of a draft to Ambassador Lodge in South Vietnam. They asked Lodge to send a cable with their suggested text to the U.S. State Department. Lodge agreed and sent a cable to the U.S. State Department in support of a coup in South Vietnam. Hilsman and Harriman did this without informing Secretary of State, Dean Rusk. Once the cable from Ambassador Lodge was received by the U.S. State Department, Michael Forrestal phoned JFK in Hyannis Port and read him the cable from Henry Cabot Lodge. But Kennedy was not in a rush. He told Forrestal to consult with CIA Director John McCone. [36]

Forrestal next phoned Major General Krulak to inform him that President Kennedy was in favor of a coup in South Vietnam. Forrestal next let Kennedy know that Major General Krulak had contacted General Maxwell Taylor letting the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff know about the cable that was to be sent and that Taylor had told Krulak that he had no objections. Forrestal knew he was lying to Kennedy. Meanwhile, Forrestal phoned Deputy Secretary of Defense, Gilpatrick, to tell him that President Kennedy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Under Secretary of State, George ball all favored sending a cable to Ambassador Lodge conveying their support for a coup in South Vietnam. Actually, President Kennedy and Secretary Rusk had indicated that only if all parties consulted were unanimous in support of a coup that a cable was to be sent with that opinion to Ambassador Lodge. Gilpatrick was upset with the idea of sending this cable and told Forrestal he “did not like it one bit.”  But based on what Forrestal told Gilpatrick, the Deputy Secretary of Defense said he would not stand in the way of the cable being sent. Gilpatrick also phoned General Taylor expressing how upset he was about a policy supporting a coup in South Vietnam.

Meanwhile, CIA Deputy Director of Central Intelligence for Plans Richard Helms, knew CIA Director McCone didn’t support a coup in South Vietnam. So Helms decided not consult with McCone over the weekend. Instead, Helms signaled CIA approval of a cable being sent to Ambassador Lodge in support of a coup. Helms kept McCone out of the loop about the existence of the cable being sent to Saigon with the signatures of Kennedy, Gilpatrick, Rusk and Taylor. Helms also authored the cable the CIA sent to Ambassador Lodge that the Burns-Novick documentary cites and pretends as the words of President Kennedy. Later that night, over at the White House Situation Room, Forrestal told Major General Krulak that the cable had been approved by all key signatories and sent on for Kennedy’s final approval. Forrestal added “he had just finished discussing it with Mr. Gilpatrick by telephone, and that Mr. Gilpatrick was in accord with its content.” Then Forrestal phoned Kennedy to report that “the coordination was complete and that all had concurred.” This is what led to President Kennedy’s signature on the cable. [37]

Yet, historian, Geoffrey Ward, tasked by PBS to advise Burns and Novick on “Riding the Tiger”, omits this and other well-documented key developments that led to the cable showcased here in Episode 2.

Burns and Novick have plenty of fans in the media. Reviewing The Vietnam War in The Guardian, reporter Tim Dowling writes “the Burns brand carries with it a sense of trustworthiness; of a project undertaken with humility, but without an agenda beyond the truth.” [38] Jeremy Kuzmarov, Professor of American History at the Henry Kendall College of Arts & Sciences in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after watching the PBS series wrote “the Burns-Novick Vietnam documentary promotes misleading history. It… can be understood as a sophisticated exercise in empire denial.” [39]

“The Vietnam War: Riding the Tiger” episode in the Burns-Novick documentary series looks impressive at first. But, instead of helping Americans (and the Vietnamese) come to terms with the war, it circumvents examining the painful truths of that march of folly. Viewers are left with the impression of President John F. Kennedy as the catalyst for the Vietnam War. JFK’s plans to withdraw personnel in December 1963 and exit Vietnam are never mentioned. Blame for the Vietnam War is pinned on the long dead assassinated president. Viewers are invited to engage in denial and snack on half-truths about key decisions and the consequences of a failed war.

Who’s interviewed, who’s not

Vietnam scholar Thomas Bass, Professor of English and Journalism at the State University of New York, University at Albany, notes that aside from documentary footage, Daniel Ellsberg, who is still alive, is not one of the people interviewed for the series. Instead, the documentarians repeatedly feature someone who joined them on tour to promote their film. She is first identified as “Duong Van Mai, Hanoi and then later as Duong Van Mai, Saigon. This is the maiden name of Duong Van Mai Elliott, who has been married for fifty-three years to David Elliott, a former RAND interrogator in Vietnam and professor of political science at Pomona College in California. Since going to school at Georgetown University in the early 1960s, Mai Elliott has lived far longer in the United States than in Vietnam. Elliott, herself a former RAND employee, is the daughter of a former high government official in the French colonial administration.” [40]

Bass details how after France left Indochina in 1954, Duong Van Mai Elliott moved with her family from Hanoi to Saigon. However her sister stayed up north and joined the Viet Minh. Former RAND employee, Mai Elliott draws on her story of her family being torn apart by politics to refer to the Vietnam War as a “civil war”. Thomas Bass clarifies that “The war divided families like hers, but anti-colonialist fighters arrayed against colonialist sympathizers do not constitute a civil war. No one refers to the First Indochina War as a civil war. It was an anti-colonial struggle that shaded into a repeat performance, except that by this time Lansdale and Diem had created the facsimile of a nation state. Americans loath to help France re-establish its colonial empire in Asia could feel good about defending the white hats in a civil war. Elliott, an eloquent and earnest victim of this war, embodies the distressed damsel whom US soldiers were trying to save from Communist aggression.” [41]

Missed Opportunity

Nearly sixty years since the U.S. Congress authorized America to go to war in Vietnam, the nation is still searching for closure regarding Vietnam. Instead of providing healing, The Vietnam War documentary series sabotages an honest accounting of what happened and what went wrong. Five years ago, Thomas Bass asked “what if the film had reminded us that US special forces are currently operating in 137 of the planet’s 194 countries, or 70 per cent of the world?” [42] How could an honest account of the Vietnam War be of use to correct the excesses of a nation that is always off to war, whether covertly, by proxy, preemptively or by an act of Congress?


  1. Morris, Errol, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara2003. (Excerpt: Robert McNamara admits nothing happened in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, 1964).
  2. Wicker, Tom, JFK and LJB: The Influence of Personality Upon PoliticsPenguin, 1968, p. 205.
  3. Gelb, Leslie, The Pentagon PapersOffice of the Secretary of Defense, 1969.
  4. Ellsberg, Daniel, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and The Pentagon Papers, Penguin Books, 2003.
  5. Galbraith, James K, “JFK Had Ordered Full Withdrawal FroM Vietnam: Solid Evidence,”, September 26, 2017.
  6. Kennedy, President John F., “Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Berlin Crisis, July 25, 1961,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
  7. Gravel, Senator Mike, ed. The Pentagon Papers: History of the United States Decision Making on Vietnam, Vol. 2, Beacon, 1971, p. 82.
  8. The “Green Beret Affair” Project GAMMA, A Massive Snafu for the Army,” Chiến Sĩ Vô Danh Việt Nam blogspot, August 8, 2017.
  9. Raymond, Jack, “U.S. Fliers Using Napalm in Raids; Air Strikes in North Vietnam Aided by Fire Bombs,” New York Times, March 20, 1965.
  10. National Security Action Memoranda [NSAM]: NSAM 115, Defoliant Operations in Vietnam,” Secretary of State, Washington D.C., November 21, 1961 to February 2, 1962.
  11. Newman, JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue and the Struggle for Powerpp.185-196, 214-222, 238-265.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid, p. 194.
  15. Gravel, The Pentagon Papers…, p. 176.
  16. Hunting, Jill, Finding Pete: Rediscovering the Brother I Lost in VietnamWesleyan Press, 2009.
  17. Bass, Thomas, Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World, University of Massachusetts Press, 2017.
  18. Verlo, Eric, “Colo. College guest Donald Gregg, the man who hired the man who killed Che,”, April 13, 2011.
  19. Newman, JFK and Vietnam…  pp.240-245.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid, p. 234.
  22. Ibid, pp.188-189.
  23. Ibid, pp. 253-257.
  24. Ibid, pp. 254-257
  25. Ibid, pp. 176-180.
  26. Ibid, pp. 292-296.
  27. Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir…
  28. Newman, JFK and Vietnampp. 329-334.
  29. Douglass, James W., JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died & Why It Matters, Orbis, 2008, pp. 182-184.
  30. Ibid. pp. 180-190.
  31. National Security Action Memorandum 263,” White House, October 11, 1963.
  32. Newman, JFK and Vietnampp. 384-386, 463-466.
  33. Schlesinger, Arthur, Robert Kennedy and His Times: 40th Anniversary Edition, Houghton Mills, 2018, p. 761.
  34. Kennedy, President John F., “Remarks Prepared for Delivery at the Trade Mart in Dallas, TX, November 22, 1963 [UNDELIVERED],” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
  35. Bator, Francis, “Vietnam Withdrawal?,” New York Review of Books, January 17, 2008.
  36. Newman, JFK and Vietnampp. 353-365.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Dowling, Tim, “The Vietnam War review – Ken Burns makes a complex story immediately comprehensible,” Guardian, September 26, 2017.
  39. Kuzmarov, Jeremy, “Ken Burns’s Vietnam Documentary Promotes Misleading History. Its first episode can be understood as a sophisticated exercise in empire denial,” Huffington Post, September 18, 2017.
  40. Bass, Thomas A., “America’s Amnesia,” Mekong Review, July 2017.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Ibid.