(CBSDFW.COM) – The Smithsonian Channel — a partner of CBS — came to Dallas’s Frontiers of Flight Museum to screen a documentary on the Tet Offensive, a battle many saw as a turning point in the Vietnam War roughly 50 years ago.
Tom Jennings produced the “The Lost Tapes: Tet Offensive.” He, as the title suggests, told the story through rare media reports and combat footage, much of which never made it to air or has not been broadcasted since 1968.
“You got to be an idiot not to worry,” said an American Soldier, who was responding to a reporter’s question about the enemy’s proximity.
In the few years since U.S. combat forces entered Vietnam, the Lunar New Year, or Tet, brought an informal cease fire. But in 1968, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops launched a wave of simultaneous attacks throughout South Vietnam.
The move largely caught American and South Vietnamese forces by surprise and was known as the Tet Offensive.
“And here we are at the 50th anniversary,” Jennings, the documentary’s producer, told CBS 11 News. “We needed to find stuff that was really special and stood out. And lucky for us, we found it right here in Texas.”
He tapped into recordings stored at Texas Tech’s Vietnam Center and Archive. In addition to finding journalists’ reports, he sussed out Soldiers’ audio diaries.
“Things still been quiet around Saigon, which makes it nice,” Airman 1st Class Robert G. Vogel said. “I can get some sleep at night as long as the dudes don’t stay up playing cards at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning like they do right after payday.”
There is no narrator in this documentary. The story is told through reporters and troops, aided by text, video and stills.
“All strung together in a way that allows you to experience the story almost in real time,” Jennings said.
“We were just standing here,” said a reporter in the documentary. “And it appears that a mortar or a rocket shell came in. And well, there’s blood on my pants. And I guess I’m, I’m hit.”
Jennings explained reports like the one above — from the field, not a press briefing room — helped crystallize the realities of Vietnam for Americans at home.
“But it is increasingly clear to this reporter,” CBS Anchor Walter Cronkite famously said. “That the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people, who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
“And when Walter Cronkite says that to the American people,” Jennings said, “that’s when Lyndon Johnson, the president, knew it was time to figure out how to get out.”
In 1971, President Lyndon B. Johnson authored a New York Times article on the Tet Offensive. In it, he addressed what he saw as the enemy’s goals and failures. He explained that they sought and failed to topple the South Vietnamese government and army. Nor did they spark a popular uprising as hoped. Finally, the enemy wished to erode the will of the American people.
“I wish I could report that the enemy failed as decisively with that goal as it did with the others,” Johnson wrote.
“The Lost Tapes: Tet Offensive” premieres Sunday, November 18 at 8:00 p.m. CST on the Smithsonian Channel.