By Terry Kelleher
August 02, 1999 12:00 PM

Discovery Channel (Sat., Aug. 7, 8 p.m. ET)

Show of the week

“Beware another Vietnam.” We’ve heard the refrain time and again during the past quarter-century, most recently when NATO launched its air war against Serbia. And it’s no wonder the Vietnam experience made us leery of military intervention far from home. The conflict in Southeast Asia, which this important documentary calls the “defining event for an entire generation,” cost more than 58,000 American lives, caused bitter domestic divisions and ended in defeat.

But we can’t understand the legacy of Vietnam without examining the origins of United States involvement. A Descent into Hell, narrated by Martin Sheen, devotes the bulk of its three hours to explaining how belief in the “domino theory” (if Vietnam fell to the Communists, country after country would follow) compelled Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson to lead America slowly and unsurely into a quagmire. The story may sound dry, but it’s anything but, thanks to candid interviews with key players—including former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, whose fitting last words are “We were wrong”—and startlingly clear audio tapes of Kennedy and Johnson questioning, agonizing and rationalizing in White House meetings and phone calls. You’ll want to break in and plead, “Mr. President, you’ve really got to step back and reassess this Vietnam thing.”

Bottom Line: Fascinating study of disastrous decision-making