An epic series with an Achilles’ heel

October 4, 2017

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's documentary series on the Vietnam War offers, despite its flaws, an indictment of one of the great crimes of the 20th century, writes Joe Allen, author of Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost.

FROM THE end of the Second World War to the collapse of the South Vietnamese government in 1975, the U.S. intervened in Vietnam to prevent nationalist forces led by Ho Chi Minh from coming to power.

The U.S. did this through a variety of means, but ultimately committed over half a million ground troops beginning in the early 1960s and unleashed the greatest aerial bombardment in history. The war wasn't confined to Vietnam alone. The U.S. fought a "secret war" in neighboring Laos and Cambodia, destroying both countries in the process.

In the end, the United States lost the war, with more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers dead and nearly 3 million Vietnamese killed in the process. It was the worst military defeat in U.S. history and was cheered throughout the world by those seeking to end the domination of global politics by rich and powerful nations.

The Vietnam War also produced one of the most important mass movements in U.S. history, with tens of millions of organizing against their government's policies. In many cases, opponents of the war became radicals and revolutionaries who sought a major reorganization of American society.

A mass protest outside the Pentagon against the Vietnam War
A mass protest outside the Pentagon against the Vietnam War (National Archives and Records Administration | Wikimedia Commons)

The lessons and legacies of the Vietnam War have been debated ever since, but with the military disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan during the last two decades, the Vietnam War, once an overriding issue of U.S. politics, has fallen to the wayside for most people. History, it appeared, had left it behind.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's epic PBS documentary series The Vietnam War has brought it all back for a new generation of Americans weary of war and the cost of empire in this century.

Burns became famous and something of a celebrity following his The Civil War series in 1990. Along with his partner Lynn Novick, he has produced a series of documentary films, some on controversial episodes of U.S. history such as Prohibition and Baseball, but also lighter subjects like The Brooklyn Bridge and The National Parks: America's Best Idea.

Burns' documentaries have proven to be extremely popular with a loyal following. His approach to history has also provoked great debate and sometimes outright scorn because of his impulse to seek "reconciliation" and "healing" in the subjects he's explored, as in The Civil War series.

Review: Documentary

The Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, showing on PBS stations.

Nor are Burns' motivations purely historical. He always has an eye on current politics. "Human nature never changes, and Vietnam, particularly because we live in this stew of anger and recrimination...helps us understand the present moment," Burns told the Television Critics Association earlier this summer.

Burns has set himself up as a self-appointed national therapist for interpreting U.S. history. This is hard to take at times, but the subject matter he covers usually rises above his paternalistic liberalism.

This is true of The Vietnam War, a sprawling series composed of 10 episodes and lasting 18 hours. It cost $30 million to make, and contains more than 80 interviews, 100 iconic musical recordings and 25,000 photographs. It is an artistic triumph and a must-see for anyone interested in U.S. history.

I WATCHED the series with two sets of glasses: One pair for those who have read and written about Vietnam and another for a younger generation, politicized by the Bush, Obama and Trump presidencies, that knows little of the Vietnam War.

Burns' series outlines the deep roots of deception involved in U.S. foreign policy that I imagine a younger generation will find shocking, including:

How Vietnamese nationalist and Communist leader Ho Chi Minh appealed several times to the U.S. to recognize Vietnam's right to independence, only to be ignored on each occasion.

How the U.S. financed and supplied the French recolonization of Vietnam, despite Vietnam having been an ally in the Second World War and having declared independence in August 1945.

How the U.S. supported canceling national elections in 1956 to reunify Vietnam because it knew full well that Ho Chi Minh would win them.

How Democratic President John Kennedy lied continually about the growing commitment of U.S. ground troops and engineered the overthrow of the Saigon government in a bloody coup d'etat.

How President Lyndon Johnson manufactured the "Tonkin Gulf incident" to get the legal authority to invade and occupy South Vietnam after his election in 1964.

How Richard Nixon, as the Republican candidate for president in 1968, worked to sabotage peace negotiations--an act that Johnson called "treason."

How Nixon promised to bring the war to "honorable" end, but expanded it into Cambodia, leading to a massive upsurge of antiwar activity, but also massive repression inside the U.S., including the murder of antiwar students at Kent State and Jackson State.

And the list could go on.

These policies were carried out during--at least as seen from the Trump era--the Golden Age of Democratic Party liberalism and moderate Republicanism, under presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

All of this is artfully reconstructed in the PBS series with secret White House recordings and still photographs of the era. The series also demolishes one of the long-cherished myths of the Vietnam War: that if Kennedy had not been assassinated, the tragedy of Vietnam would not have befallen the U.S.

As Vietnam War historian Chris Appy wrote:

The Vietnam War does make clear that, despite the deceptions, JFK initiated almost all the military policies that, when magnified enormously under Lyndon Johnson, would be bitterly criticized: the bombing and napalming of South Vietnamese targets (including villages), the use of chemical defoliants like Agent Orange, the forced relocation of rural peasants, aggressive search-and-destroy missions, and an obsessive reliance on statistical measurements of "progress" like the infamous "body count."

THE BRUTALITY of the American war in Vietnam gradually undermined support for it.

"We thought we were the exceptions to history," declared journalist Neil Sheehan in an interview in the second episode of the series. "History didn't apply to us. We could never fight a bad war. We could never represent the wrong cause. We were Americans. Well, in Vietnam, we proved that we were not an exception to history."

Marine Corps veteran Bill Ehrhart is one of the most important witnesses interviewed for the series. He confessed that people like him--"little guys with a chip on their shoulder"-- joined the Marines to prove themselves. Ehrhart and others, who found themselves on the toxic side of American masculinity in that era, later discovered that they made a huge mistake.

John Musgrave, another Marine veteran, gives powerful testimony about the importance of racism in military training. "Turning people into objects is an important tool when children are fighting your wars," he says.

Karl Marlantes gave up a scholarship to Oxford University to serve in Vietnam, but painfully came to understand the criminal nature of the war. "I guess," he wrote in a letter to his parents that is quoted during the series, "I'm about do something immoral...I'm going to participate in one of the great crimes of the 20th century."

Tens of millions of people in the U.S. and around the world came to see the war in the same way--but also to identify with the enemy: the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front, better known in the U.S. by the derogatory name the "Vietcong." This was true not just radicalizing students, but the most famous sports figure of the era, Muhammad Ali, who declared, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong."

Surprisingly, even a conservative military figure interviewed by Burns and Novick, former Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak, confessed, "We were fighting on the wrong side," adding, "I would have been proud to fight with those [North Vietnamese] truck drivers" who navigated the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the major supply line from North Vietnam.

It's an interesting statement on the series that of all of the major political figures depicted in it, Ho Chi Minh is the one who comes off the best.

ONE OF the important strengths of The Vietnam War is that many American will hear and see Vietnamese people for the first time. This is an important breakthrough since for a generation or more now, Hollywood has largely shaped Americans' understanding of the Vietnam War, with its vision of the U.S. as the victim and the Vietnamese as generally sadistic, evil, barely human creatures.

But there also frustrating limits and omissions to Burns and Novick's series. In the first episode "Déjà vu," narrator Peter Coyote tells us that "America's involvement in Vietnam...was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings." Yet the whole series proves the opposite at every turn.

Also in the first episode, I saw an extraordinary act of historical censorship. The U.S. plucked Ngo Dinh Diem out of obscurity in the mid-1950s and made him the president of the Republic of Vietnam, or "South Vietnam" as it was referred to.

In all of the photos of the era, standing behind him clear as day, is the lanky figure of Edward Lansdale, the CIA's man in Saigon, the man who made Diem. Yet Lansdale is never identified.

His crucial role is widely recognized. It is not a secret. In fact, Lansdale wrote a whole book about it.

Unfortunately, many people on the left in the U.S. seem to have watched only the first 20 minutes of this first episode. Disgusted by claims of "good faith" and "decent people," they didn't watch any further, though they did take to Facebook and Twitter to denounce it.

I, too, found this statement annoying, but not unexpected. After all, this is the traditional liberal understanding of the Vietnam War--an older generation would have talked about a "quagmire" to explain how the U.S. got stuck and couldn't get out of Vietnam. This analysis is wrong, but not fatal to the series.

Throughout the series, the Vietnamese national struggle is one that Burns and Novick can't make up their minds about. Was it a civil war, a national struggle for independence or an example of Cold War Communist expansion? As Chris Appy explained in one of his blog posts recapping one episode of The Vietnam War:

In the eyes of the Vietnamese victors--as for hundreds of millions of people around the world who sought to free themselves from colonial domination in the aftermath of World War II--the United States was not defending freedom and self-determination in Southeast Asia, but was waging an imperialist war of counterrevolution.

The communist-led forces in North and South Vietnam did not think they were engaging in a civil war, but in a war of national liberation to achieve reunification and independence. True, as veteran and author Bao Ninh concedes, there was intense fighting between Vietnamese on different sides.

However, for him and others who fought against the United States and its Southern allies, the key symbolic map did not feature a red tide of communism spreading over Asia and Africa, but showed instead all the new nations recently liberated from colonial rule: India, Kenya, Senegal, Algeria, Ghana, and dozens of others. For them, the Americans were simply a new version of the old colonialists, or neocolonialists, who would seek to impose their authority by proxy.

How else can one explain the enormous sacrifices made by the Vietnamese people to free their country from foreign domination during nearly three decades of constant warfare. Once the U.S. withdrew, the Final Offensive of the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front in spring 1975 routed the collapsing forces of South Vietnam in a matter of months.

HOWEVER MUCH the series may fall short on this question, though, the real Achilles' heel of The Vietnam War is Burns and Novick's disdain for the antiwar movement.

Veteran civil rights activist Bill Zimmerman is given a fair amount of screen time, but the movement against the draft is called a campaign of "self-interest" because the young men who could be drafted were at the core of it. When tens of thousands of antiwar activists attempt to shut down Washington, D.C., in one protest, Burns and Novick echo Nixon adviser Pat Buchanan in calling them the "crazies."

Barnard College antiwar activist Nancy Biberman makes a tearful apology: "It pains me to think of the things that I said, that we said. And I'm sorry."

What misplaced words could ever compare to the scale of murder, destruction and deception committed by the U.S. government? Yet what is now presented as excesses on the part of the antiwar movement is presented as co-equal. It should be pointed out that no government official ever apologizes for anything during the series.

In the final episode, "The Weight of Memory," Burns and Novick returned to the "tragedy" theme that they began the series with. For them, history is a one long tragedy that humans must endure, and they can only find meaning in their individual stories and struggles. Everything else is beyond their control or understanding.

But doesn't the Vietnam War teach us the opposite? Didn't the Vietnamese find meaning in the struggle against foreign invaders? Didn't U.S. antiwar activists--including, crucially, the combat veterans who turned against the war--find meaning in the movement to stop the war?

The confusion for many people comes in the decades following the war, when an attempt was made to rewrite the past--making it all but unrecognizable for those who lived through the Vietnam era.

The Vietnam War is a compelling, beautifully made and revealing documentary series. Burns and Novick have brought back the Vietnam War back to its proper place in our living history. Despite their limited critique of the war and their misplaced hostility toward the antiwar movement, this series should be watched and debated by all.

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