HISTORY

Two Days In October: PBS Documentary Points to Fall 1967 as the Vietnam War’s Turning Point

“To say that we are mired in a stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory, conclusion.” — Walter Cronkite, 1968

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“What hurts the most was for these men to die so young for a needless cause. It’s a high price to pay for something that’s wrong. As you look at it now we know it was wrong. We had no business being there.” — A Soldier’s Lament

Two Days in October is a documentary that aired on American Experience, a series produced for PBS. The show, produced by Robert Kenner, was based on the book by David Maraniss titled They Marched into Sunlight.

Whereas many Vietnam War historians look at the Tet Offensive as the decisive turning point in the war, in conjunction with Walter Cronkite’s February 1968 public on-air statement that the war could not be won, Two Days in October points to a slightly earlier turning point in the war.

The story goes back and forth between events in Vietnam and the University of Wisconsin, Madison during a two day period in October 1967.

IN VIETNAM we’re taken to the Lai Khe Base Camp where 140 fresh recruits begin training with the Alpha and Delta Companies of the famous “Black Lions.” As with the Ken Burns Vietnam War documentary, the story is told through interviews with the men and wives who were still alive when the documentary was produced. You are very quickly given a quick sketch of the situation, an over-confident commander who thinks “we’ll just march in their and whoop ‘em.”

In Madison, students were aware that the war had picked up considerably. The draft was on. Body counts and body bags were constantly in the news. There was a stirring taking place as students wrestled with the proper response to what was taking place.

Some students believed, “If our government says we should be there then we should be there.” Others were beginning to question the narrative of “my country right or wrong.”

The trigger incident that October was when Dow Chemical came to the campus to recruit students for employment. The newspaper reported that Dow would be present to conduct job interviews. This same Company that made saran wrap had also been producing napalm starting in 1965.

Napalm is a hideous jellied gas that burns at 2000 degrees F. It didn’t just kill you, it burned your clothes off and tortured you. Napalm had become a symbol of the war, and the manufacturer was going to be on campus.

Students got riled up when they learned the U had invited Dow to recruit. “I didn’t want to see any more pictures of children with their clothes burned off,” one student said. Chancellor William Sewell was himself opposed to on campus recruiting but gave in to teachers.

NEARLY HALF A MILLION troops were now in Vietnam. Pressure was on to win the war by attrition, to just go out and kill as many of the enemy as possible.

The U.S. soldiers could here enemy movement but never see anything. “My company was getting most of the action because I would go where the enemy was,” the company commander Terry Allen said.

But these 140 American troops had no clue what they were up against. 1200 Vietnamese troops were passing through to another location. They were not supposed to encounter American troops. This Vietnamese army hadn’t eaten in days and were looking for food, not a fight. If they’d found it, they would not have been there when the Americans showed up.

There’s also a behind the scenes matter taking place. General Hay was being told by General Westmoreland that he wasn’t being aggressive enough. So Hay put pressure on Terry Allen to go out and track down the Viet Cong. The singular purpose for being there was to make contact and beat them up.

Pressure was coming from above to the troops below. “You’re not moving fast enough.” These guys were all carrying 50 lbs. of gear. “We’re concerned about being ambushed while the generals were concerned they were going to slow,” Allen said.

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On October 16, Delta and Bravo were sent into an area where they thought they would make contact and they did.

Col. Allen said it would be a great day tomorrow. Delta will lead, Alpha will follow and “we’re going to follow this route.” It was a frontal attack on a fortified position. You just don’t do that.

One of the cardinal rules in tactics, especially that kind of environment, if you don’t go out the same way two times because the enemy will be waiting to ambush you. And a slaughter ensues.

THE STORY flips back to where the students protest inside the admin building. The school calls in the Madison police department to break things up. These off-campus police have no love for the students and begin busting heads. Tear gas is used and riots follow.

MEANWHILE, back in the jungle, the lead company is cut to shreds. They had no idea what they were up against.

Here were a few quotes from those who survived

“Normally there would be 20 helicopters moving us in and out. Only five were needed to move them out.”

“I was kind of wandering around in a daze.”

“We were not to mention that it was an ambush.”

This was another problem. What the soldiers experienced, they were not supposed to talk about. They were to spin it like it was part of some bigger battle that was successful. “It was a total fabrication of what really happened.” The American generals made it appear to be a victory.

This quote sums it up: “If that’s the way history is written, who the hell knows what really happened?”

BACK IN MADISON University newspapers came out with stories that the students were the problem, that they had attacked the police. “That was the beginning of a movement on campus. Students were saying, ‘If they’re doing that to us here, who were peacefully protesting, maybe the United States is doing the same thing abroad. Maybe the United States is the bully.”

Campus protests continued from that day forward which resulted in violence against the students for taking a position the school didn’t approve of. Chancellor Sewell was so shaken by the violence against the students that decades later, at age 90, he was still shaken.

After October 18 rioting became a routine thing. “We were going through $50,000 of tear gas a week,” one officer said. “I think the Dow demonstration was the first violent antiwar demonstration to take place on a university campus.”

For this reason, Two Days in October points to this moment as the turning point in the war. Campus protests spread, culminating in “four dead in Ohio” in the spring of 1970. From this point in time the anti-war movement couldn’t be swept under the rug any more.

The story brings to mind the manner in which two disparate battles in the Civil War — Vicksburg and Gettysburg — proved to be the beginning of the end for the South. The fall of Vicksburg closed off the South’s access to resources West of the Mississippi River, and the defeat at Gettysburg sapped the heart out of General Lee’s disruptive march North. The two battles, in different regions, occurred the same week. Though the war continued, it was essentially over at this moment in time.

Related Links

When Walter Cronkite Pronounced the War a “Stalemate”
Two Days in October (Wikipedia)
Before Going Into Battle We Must Know WWAUA
The Decisive Battle of Dien Bien Phu: How the Viet Minh Stunned the World

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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