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Peter Davis received an Academy Award for “Hearts and Minds,” his film on the Vietnam War. He lives in Castine.
As Congress investigates the attempt to overturn the 2020 election, it is clear that Jan. 6 casts a haunting shadow. The assault on the Capitol and brief takeover by an insurrectionist mob was powerfully reminiscent of the January 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam when, among attacks on more than 100 cities and government buildings, the Viet Cong broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon.
Like the thugs smashing windows to get into the Capitol, the Vietnamese fighters blasted a hole in the wall surrounding the embassy. They held out for almost six hours before the embassy compound was retaken by paratroopers just as the Capitol police courageously routed the insurrectionists on Jan. 6.
The Tet Offensive was a failure for the Communists because their fighters were beaten, as were the invaders at our Capitol, and because the attacks did not spur uprisings that the Viet Cong had hoped for. The brief invasion of the Capitol likewise did not spur the violent protests at state capitals on Inauguration Day that QAnon and the alt-right planned.
By the afternoon of the day the U.S. Embassy was stormed, Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded American forces in 1968, had arrived at the embassy and, like the Capitol, where Congress regrouped to verify the 2020 election results, the embassy had reopened for business.
“The enemy was on the ropes after the Tet Offensive,” Westmoreland told me while I was making “Hearts and Minds,” a film about the Vietnam War. “It’s like two boxers in the ring. One boxer has the other one on the ropes, but the man who is about to be the victor has his second throw in the towel.”
Westmoreland was right, and he was wrong. He was right that the Vietnamese Communists were defeated during Tet, just as the insurrectionists attempting a coup d’etat in Washington were driven out. He was wrong, though, that the Americans were close to winning the war. The Communists had no intention of surrendering any more than the domestic terrorists have any intention of giving up their fight against democracy and our Constitution.
Clark Clifford, who was President Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of defense in 1968, said that he asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff if Westmoreland’s latest request for more troops would be enough. “Nobody knew,” he told me. He kept asking the joint chiefs questions. “’How long do you think that we’ll still be in the war?’ None of them knew.” He continued his questioning. “’Do you find any diminution in the will of the enemy to fight?’ ‘Well,’ they said, ‘no, we guess we don’t.’” Finally, Clifford concluded, “my thinking had undergone a very substantial revolution.”
The Pentagon Papers revealed that neither the CIA nor the Pentagon ever thought the war was being won despite the optimistic reassurance leaders kept issuing. From Oval Office recordings, we know that Presidents John Kennedy, Johnson and Richard Nixon all believed the war was unwinnable but could not say so until after the next election.
Shortly after the Tet Offensive, Sens. Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy decided to run against their fellow Democrat, President Johnson. Shortly after that it was Johnson who threw in the towel and said he would not run for reelection. Nixon, who won the election that fall, continued and amplified the lies of his predecessors about Vietnam.
The lying during the Vietnam War — the lies that bind — began the long march that leads the American public not to believe our government. Tet itself triggered a lack of trust.
Obviously, no straight line can be drawn from Tet to Trump, but Donald Trump did come to power largely because enough of the electorate — a sizeable minority but enough to win the Electoral College in 2016 — had lost faith in Washington. We flew into the Vietnam War on the wings of lies that were eventually revealed, becoming the basis for enduring mistrust of the Washington establishment.
As President Trump reluctantly exited the stage, he left many millions of followers who believe his unsupported claims that he was cheated out of victory in the 2020 election. Where presidential mendacity is concerned, he has outdone all his predecessors combined.
The attempted coup Trump incited failed this time, but the Trumpians live to fight another day. Many of them act as though they believe in a monarchy. They seem to yearn for an autocrat, a man (definitely a man and definitely white) who provokes their racial and cultural hatred, who inspires nostalgia for the slave-holding Confederacy, a willingness to be mesmerized by an image of their leader as an avatar of greatness.
They do not believe in democracy any more than the Vietnamese Communists did in 1968. They will look for another season in the sun with their hero or a designated successor.
When the musical version of Donald Trump’s life is made, surely it will be called “The Lyin’ King.”