The Documentary “The Vietnam War”: Artistic License as History
As time creeps or races by, those who experienced the Vietnam War are fading from the scene and it’s becoming increasingly important to record a history of that war that is truthful. Increasingly, the written word is being tossed aside in favor of film and the “documentary” – both allow for “artistic license” instead of facts.
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick took $30 million and ten years and used only 80 interviews that, like some others have said, tell how America was wrong, while the communist bloc with the American protestors and politicians were right all along.
Was the American soldier (using this as an all-encompassing term) always right, always moral, always politically correct (especially by today’s standards)? Of course not. Among the many things missing from the documentary were the answers to these same questions of the VC, NVA and the North Vietnamese Government who habitually violated all their agreements, including the Geneva Conventions.
The documentary cherry-picked American actions during the war – just as many predecessors have in books and films. But this was, unfortunately, predictable and expected.
Even before the first show aired, some in the press claimed the documentary to be a masterpiece, blah, blah. Now that they may have seen it, they won’t change their evaluations, egg on their faces are not something they know how to handle.
Too bad the documentary will be pushed as history – accuracy used to be something the press strove for, “but that was yesterday and yesterday’s gone.” A major problem will be in our schools, however, where accuracy will be presumed.
Just ask the 1-2.5 million persons who entered in re-education camps and listen hard for the whispers of the 165,000 who died as a result of the North’s inhumane treatment, though in the Paris treaty, they promised no retribution.
Months ago, Burns and Novick were interviewed with the last question asking if the war could have turned out differently? In reply, everything was the fault of the U.S., of course. When you set out to prove a point and you use only highly selective items to show how balanced on the subject you have been, then guess at the result.
Vietnam remains a communist country today because the military was not allowed to fight and win because the politicians knew best. Then, they sealed the fate of the Vietnamese by letting South Vietnam die on the vine, with nary a word by the press.
I think the Frontline series addressed all these points, but you had to listen carefully to catch them. Those already convinced we were wrong will probably miss them because they were not salient in series. It will also take an educated teacher to mentor students as they watch to avoid the perception of the NVA being super warriors. In fact, the contrast of a free press covering the U.S. and a state controlled media covering the NVA should be telling to observers. Frontline fell short in documenting communist atrocities relative to U.S. atrocities, so again those watching the series who have no knowledge of war or history will need a moderating voice to point out these shortfalls.
To the author's point above, it seems that none of our Presidents were committed to winning, yet didn't want to own losing. They continued to escalate, but no particular end. I don't know if unclear political aims were the only reason for a terrible military strategy focused on body counts instead of taking and controlling terrain, to include human domain. Why did Westmoreland pursue this strategy?
Comment posted on behalf of the author W.R. (Bob) Baker:
One of the major points in my brief essay was that the press prints what it wants, when it wants and how it wants to present any given issue (or character assassination, for that matter). Fake news is nothing new, just look at how things were sometimes reported during the Vietnam War (particularly after Walter Cronkite’s comments on Tet 1968). Towards the end of the war, the press seemed to feel it was almost their sacred duty to show the NVA and VC in a better light than the always bad Americans.
One of the first things I was told when I arrived in Vietnam was that the VC and NVA didn’t usually take prisoners, especially the wounded. It might have been different if the American public could have seen and read some of the accounts of how the VC and NVA treated the local populace and how they almost enjoyed killing, mutilating, and torturing villagers and Americans who were caught or captured – on second thought, these atrocities probably wouldn’t have been published though because it didn’t fit what their paper or broadcast corporation felt about the war (just look at politics today, for example, and all the “fake” news). Kerry’s testimony before Congress was widely broadcast in 1971, but he couldn’t produce anyone to substantiate what he had to say. That’s okay, it didn’t matter, his political journey was insured and the press’ self-righteousness was reaffirmed.
Perhaps it’s just that we happy few who saw how things were in Vietnam who readily defend each other and the certain knowledge that we could have and should have been allowed to prosecute the war. But, somehow, conducting war was all right for the communist North, but not for the Americans and South Vietnamese. Poor South Vietnam and the thousands upon thousands who lost their lives after their country fell to the communist North, not to mention those who were in reeducation camps.
However, there were those who climbed the ranks and became flag officers who, because politics is even more intense at these levels, forgot what their mission was in Vietnam in favor of what it took to gain or further climb the “starry ladder” of promotion, where Command Time was an absolute necessity for advancement.
During a recent interview, Colin Powell said that the North Vietnamese were “truly willing to lose whatever it took to win.” Since we didn’t isolate the North (blockade their ports, strike inside Hanoi and other areas, Laos, and Cambodia for manufacturing, troop, and supply areas, etc.), it’s small wonder that one might think we weren’t willing to win. It was common for many of us in Vietnam to wonder aloud why we didn’t do this and that. We could see many of the things that could be done and we wondered why the “brass” couldn’t. We should have also looked at the politicians, who were reading the newspapers, giving the interviews to TV news, prompting the financial donations for their (re-)elections, which were endorsed then by the press.
Responding to a question about U.S. forces employing the take-and-hold approach to get a clear victory, Powell said, “My own view was—notwithstanding what many of my fellow veterans have said—that we could not have done that.” Powell goes on to cite the DMZ as the sanctuary by which the North “poured” troops and support in their southern efforts. Further, he makes the point that troops must secure areas won, because air and naval power can’t. If you can’t bomb it, cut the C3 networks and supply lines, etc., then he’s right – fight with one hand behind your back and see what happens. It isn’t “that we could not have done that” as much as we weren’t allowed to do very much to assure much success.
After the U.S. left South Vietnam in 1973, the promise that Nixon made was to continue support, but Congress wanted nothing to do with it anymore. “That’s the view of a lot of Vietnam veterans—that it was the Congress who lost this war. I can’t buy into that,” Powell goes on to explain that we are a “people’s army” and we had lost “the will to fight the kind of war that the North Vietnamese were going to fight.” A lot of “people’s army” veterans know we won all the battles we were called upon to fight and are rightly dismayed that politics seems to have changed how some politicos now think.
Some of the scenes of the Easter Offensive remain burned in my brain. How the NVA indiscriminately shelled QL-1 (the main north-south highway) clogged with so many civilians (and ARVN deserters). The often-overlooked point was that these people were headed southward, not towards those supposedly “liberating them.” A parallel between this exodus and the Viet Minh at Tra Ly and Ba Lang during the mass exodus of Vietnamese from the North during Operation Passage to Freedom seems obvious.
There will be many in high schools and colleges who will be subject to watching this documentary because it will be taught as fact. This false narrative should not be taken as anywhere near being absolute.
None of us should be surprised that those with regional experience were ignored if their views ran contrary to the inner circle in D.C. We saw the same thing in Iraq, everything that happened after we invaded was predicted, yet ignored because contrary views were not only rejected, but those with contrary views came under attack in an attempt to discredit their character. After WWII, Asia hands in the State Department were replaced by European hands because their views on the Cold War aligned the inner circle decision makers. This is the nature of the decision making process at the national level. We spend millions developing regional experience, then ignore them if views don't align with the inner circle.
One of the officers in this study was General James Gavin which the series briefly touch's on two times in 2 different episodes. He was so disturbed by theses findings that he testified before the 1966 Fullbright hearings on Vietnam. He was a proponent of the Enclave Strategy which is not mentioned for some reason in the PBS series.
In 1954, on behalf of the Joint Chiefs, Gen Ridgway instigated a survey of VN using dozens of WW2 & Korean War veteran officers from all Arms. Over several weeks they criss-crossed all of Vietnam. They reported back to the JCoS that even using atomic weapons any intervention would fail. One of a long list of prohibitive aspects condemning any ground intervention in VN was the acknowledgement that unlike Korea, the Vietnamese were fighting to liberate their country from foreign domination and as such the nature of the conflict would be profoundly different than any other the US had ever engaged in.
I perused the Pentagon Papers as the Ken Burns series was airing. They had some interesting insights into the perceptions that shaped our involvement there. I was particularly intrigued by the Post WWII period. How tragic that we had the institutional knowledge, but it wasn't widely known, shared, or heeded.
Bill M wrote-
'The more I read, the more convinced I am that the OSS was heavily influenced by the communists. '
For all its worth further reading has had the opposite effect on me. The one thing about the WW2 combat Vets I have always noted is they are not easily taken in by bullshit - and Communism was always bullshit. I suppose being in a war wherein you suffer 400 KIA every day might have something to do with it (and we got off lightly compared to some of our allies).
In rural societies such as VN, communism's insistence on the collectivzation of agricultural land flagged disaster in every farmer's mind from day one. As it happened in Russia, China, VN - and few are aware - Afghanistan, the disasters brought on by collectivzation are what broke communism's back.
Some of the OSS Deer Team where still in the Pentagon when Saigon fell - and like the old OSS man said even though he waited for 30 years not one person came thru his office door and asked his advice regards Vietnam.
What a disgrace.
France proved to be an unreliable ally in those years, but it was deeply divided between liberals, communists, former Vichy, etc. at the time. Making a decision on French threats proved to be wrong headed in hindsight. The more I read, the more convinced I am that the OSS was heavily influenced by the communists. It is understandable, they were focused on their area of operations, and easily influenced/played by those they worked with. This syndrome continues to this day. People around the world know what we want to hear. What if we did support him, and started enforcing a strict form of communism to include mass murder of his people? Bottom line is 90 percent of the security problems we are dealing with today are due to the baggage left behind by European colonialism.
Has anyone every asked the simple question what if we had actually taken up Ho's offers for discussions and cooperation, he allowed the OSS to function under VM supervision, and he professed a deep respect for what George Washington had accomplished.
Maybe if we had played our cards differently towards the re-establishing of French control over a colony, we might have never been in VN at all.
Even when supporting France in Indochina, France left NATO in the end so we could have in theory gone our own way.
An interesting thought.
Much appreciated. For what it's worth, I often thumb replies via a device much worse than an iPhone or an Android: as with the Anabaptists were to Catholics and Lutherans in the 17th Century, my brand of tiny market share is universally reviled ;)
Happy Columbus Day...
A fair question deserving a better answer than I can thumb into my iPhone to post here. I will need a page or two to lay out the strategic questions that determine if the desired policy goals for some place can be feasibility achieved through a change of government by military means. This not a question of if we can impose our will temporarily through military power, but one of if we can create a durable sustainable condition under those terms.
Vietnam was infeasible from inception, as was Iraq and Afghanistan. By doing a proper strategic assessment this is foreseeable and the military can make that clear in advance; and either offer alternative feasible military options; or recommend policy changes that would bring the mission into a realm that is feasible.
I’ll try to have something by Monday.
My use of “intelligence” refers to it in the highest-level and broadest-possible strategic sense. To-date, the United States has suffered failures when it sought limited war and/or limited peace.
The missteps in Korea were actually much worse than the missteps in Vietnam, and both were “close-run things”.
Unfortunately, you have not made a case for why any participation in Vietnam was “doomed”, as opposed to Korea. As regards Afghanistan and Iraq, what then of Bangladesh, Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Syria (pre-2011), Turkey, etc.?
If all failures of U.S. intervention were inevitable, what then of the successes?
My observations and comments are about the strategic nature of post-WWII conflicts in Vietnam in particular, but all of Indochina in general. Also about, more importantly, the strategic nature of the US approach to Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. As you note, the facts of those conflicts are very different, but it is the inherent flaws in the very consistent strategic perspective/approach we applied to all that doomed our efforts.
Once you start talking about quality of intelligence you are no longer talking strategy, but merely analyzing the factical/tactical situations as you understand them. Interesting, important, but largely immaterial to the fundamental aspects of these conflicts that I sought to address.
To Col. Robert C. Jones:
Burns and Novick tend to focus on what American participation in the Vietnam War during the 1965 to 1972 meant to Americans – to those who served and those who did not. I completely disagree that they enabled viewers to develop a comprehensive understanding of the conflict in strategic terms or in a way that could be useful in understanding the wars against Islamists from 2001 to present.
Strategically, the harsh lesson delivered during 1972-1974 was that the United States entered the conflict with a major intelligence deficit. Yet historically, this has always been the case. I cannot think of a major conflict that the U.S. has embarked upon in which it had a surfeit of intelligence.
From late 1941 to mid-1942, Japan nearly succeeded in destroying the U.S. Navy, driving the Western powers out of the Asia-Pacific region, and rendering their return prohibitively costly. These victories were achieved despite tactical and operational intelligence superiority on the part of the Western Allies, their realistic appraisal of Japanese strategic intentions, and their overwhelming industrial overmatch of Japan. In 1946, the U.S. government only started to understand its new rival and soon-to-be adversary, the Soviet Union, even though the Soviets had regained their conquests from 1939-1940 and were expanding further. Nor were Americans able to prevent the Communist conquest in China from 1946 to 1950, despite strong Sino-American relations and an American presence since 1937. In 1950, the U.S. was wrong-footed twice: first by the North Koreans, and second by the Chinese; South Korea was nearly lost due to these blunders. Even the groundbreaking American victory in 1991 over Iraq concealed major intelligence deficits. Iraq’s conventional forces were far weaker than anticipated, and yet its nuclear weapons program was far more advanced. Yet prior to the overkill of Operation Desert Storm, there were advocates in the presidential administration who believed that the deployment and use of tactical nuclear weapons were necessary given Iraq’s perceived capabilities in 1990.
I believe that you do a disservice to the cause for making intelligence a priority, when you gloss over Indochina/Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Each region, country, administrative division and theater is different.
The peoples of East and Southeast Asia were fighting for a variety of causes from 1946 to 1979, and in no way were Chinese and Soviet-backed Communists more indigenous or independent than the states and societies they sought to overthrow. They were, however, totally committed to victory and were prepared to kill en masse for the sake of unity. Indeed, the white terrors of the period where typically an order of magnitude less than the red terrors: Ho and the Communists mass-murdered some 4% of the North Vietnamese population, before causing 10% of the South Vietnamese population to fee; the popular trope of Han Chinese conformity is less due to cultural aspects, and more to do with the fact that Mao mass-murdered 10% of the Chinese population.
As for the Middle East, Islamism is a unifying force for the Sunni Arabs as Arab Nationalism was. The latter was broken on the rock of Israel and then devolved into sclerotic tyranny. If the West wants strong and friendly states in the Sunni Arab world, it will need to make an effort on the order of what took place in Western Europe, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, where the peace is still being won more than 65 years later.
From COL Jones comment below:
"We still think about Vietnam as war story, or as social tragedy. Sure, it had those things, but it was a strategic mistake first and foremost; and we apply the same flawed logic and make the same mistakes today in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Strategically we have learned very little."
If we agree that:
a. Our strategy of the Old Cold War was "containing communism." And that:
b. Our strategy in the current era has been, shall we say, "advancing market-democracy."
Then is it not interesting to see that:
a. In places like Vietnam, communism was not contained? And that:
b. In places like the Greater Middle East, market-democracy has not been significantly advanced?
Thus, and now as per Bill M's thoughts below re: "freeing the oppressed," should we not consider that -- in both locales noted above -- there simply may not have been sufficient numbers of people who:
a. Considered themselves oppressed? Or who, while considering themselves oppressed,
b. Simply did not associate the idea of "freedom" with our way of life, our way of governance, our values, etc.? Or who, while (a) considering themselves oppressed and (b) associating the idea of "freedom" with our way of life, etc.,
c. Simply were not willing to fight and die to achieve such "freedom?"
Thus, in both the Vietnam and Afghanistan/Iraq cases, was such a thorough "sufficient numbers of people" analysis done?
Likewise, a "the strategic importance of these countries" study done; in Vietnam, re: the goal of "containing communism" and, in Afghanistan/Iraq, re: the goal of "advancing market-democracy?"
If not, were these such "analysis deficiencies" -- which might help explain why Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan were "strategic mistakes" (see COL Jones above) -- were these such "analysis deficiencies" adequately addressed in the PBS documentary? (Note: I missed the very first part.)
The Vietnamese were convinced our Domino Theory was a clumsy lie prosecuted to reimpose French colonialism. The suggestion the Vietnamese would allow themselves to facilitate Chinese expansionism was dismissed out of hand as it flew in the face of thousand years of anti Chinese hatred.
The Chinese were equally convinced nobody would be stupid enough to believe the Vietnamese would tolerate any form of Chinese hegemony and came to believe we were intent on occupying Vietnam as a prelude to an invasion of China itself.
This was why they fought with so much tenacity. The Vietnamese were willing and able to take an Ia Drang or a Hamburger Hill every week and the Chinese were ready and willing to provide the means. We on the other hand are still traumatised by these two very brief tactical events despite suffering a tenth of the KIA.
The Vietnamese wanted it more, not because they were braver or better fighters, but because our leadership's dereliction of duty led them to believe their very existence as a nation depended on victory.
McLuhan was incisive when he asserted that, “the medium is the message”. In the case of the Thirty-Four Years War in Indochina, American participation only came under both the spotlight and the microscope of the mainstream Western media when significant ground forces were committed in 1965. What of the previous decade of airstrikes and covert action?
From 1965 on, Americans at home could see and hear the war in an immersive and unfiltered way that only combat veterans could have hitherto. It became quite apparent to them that Sherman’s maxim held true. All eligible draftees had to do was turn on their televisions to fear being sent “over there”. Of course, conscientious objection to an immoral war felt better than evading one’s duty to one’s country out of fear, and all the better if resistance to the war was doing one’s patriotic duty.
Yet the enemy fought under the cover of darkness. Hanoi’s follies and atrocities would not be exposed by marauding reporters or by disillusioned insiders. I can think of no films and few photos of the 4% of North Vietnamese that Ho and the CPV murdered in order to “collectivize” the country. By comparison, the death toll resulting from Saigon’s clumsy and corrupt authoritarianism was a mere rounding error. But who will forget the clip of the ARVN officer shooting a NLF prisoner in the head brazenly in the middle of the street? When the victorious CPV caused 10% of the population of South Vietnam to flee in the years following the U.S. withdrawal, it did nothing to alter the narrative of the war in American popular culture.
It is curious that many believed in the myth of the war as a “people’s one”. That the NLF were broken in 1968, that the NVA relied upon endless materiel and protection from the Soviet Union and China - which had deployed some 400,000 personnel to North Vietnam, and which had established the densest air defense network in the world there – was lost on the public. Had the U.S. truly returned the favor in Afghanistan, the Mujaheddin would have been driving Abrams tanks, U.S. forces would be occupying the Durand Line as a firewall, and U.S. pilots would be flying F-15s and F-16s in “Afghan” markings.
Burns’ “The Civil War” was a masterpiece. However, I did not expect him and Novick to add anything new or significant to the popular discourse on the war. Today, war footage in the mainstream media is sanitized – for now obvious reasons – except for amateur YouTube clips.
You might be able to find the "truth" in the past in pinning down what time X crossed the LD or how many bombs Y dropped but sorting out the motives of people is tremendously difficult and what "could have happened" is impossible.
What is certain is that the US entered the Vietnamese war, left and then their allies were defeated.
Could the US have won? Who knows...it didn't. If the public had been more supportive. If the media were on side. If the army had been told to take Hanoi. If the Chinese and Soviets had signaled they would sit on sidelines while the US took N. Vietnam. If an expanded draft to provide the manpower for taking and holding all of Viet Nam didn't lead to massive social unrest in the US...
Helping the French and then joining in a civil war was a bad idea. Fantasizing about what might have been is pointless as is complaining that the Communists were nasty too.
To refer back to our semantic debate over “intelligence”, you will see that Bill M. refers to what I mean as “understanding”. I had also hoped that my reference to the Kennan telegram of 1946 would help put us on the same page as far as terminology is concerned.
If Ho and Mao were striving to “throw off the yoke of Western colonialism”, then one can say the same of Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and Tojo. Mao and Ho invaded and interfered in other countries, and clearly sought to impose their own variant of control: on Tibet, on Taiwan, on South Korea, on South Vietnam and on Cambodia. I do not know what “tactical” approaches you are referring to. If you are attempting to romanticize Mao’s and Ho’s willingness to sacrifice the lives of their subjects while adventuring abroad, then I would caution you that this is a symptom of brutal totalitarian states, not liberal democratic ones. There was little noble in the wars of East and Southeast Asia from 1946-1979, but the means and ends of the Communist leaders were the least noble.
You make an assertion that Stalin was promised more than Yalta or the infamous “percentages agreement”, yet you have absolutely no evidence to back up your claim other than your suspicions. Stalin was an aggressive expansionist who was only humbled by the Poles in 1920, the Germans in 1941-1942 and the Americans during 1944-1949; and unlike Hitler, Stalin’s mistakes were not fatal to either himself or Soviet Russia. You also claim that Stalin fought “the majority of the war”, while ignoring that Stalin started it as an accomplice of Hitler in the carving-up of Eastern Europe like a Thanksgiving turkey. In 1914, Russia invaded East Prussia; in 1920, Russia invaded Poland; and in 1939, Russia invaded Poland again (as well as Romania, the Baltics and later Finland). Other than in 1812, Russia has never been minding its own business and been subject to invasion from the west. As for the Eastern Front, Western Allied aid was crucial in tying down the Luftwaffe in the west and keeping the Red Army supplied: better so, than the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS. Nevertheless, Stalin’s and the Stavka’s incompetence were responsible for at least one-third of Red Army irrecoverable losses, and Russia came very close to the tipping point at which further losses could not be borne (as in 1917). As for Roosevelt, he was incredibly naïve and seemingly unaware that the U.S. government was compromised by NKVD agents, including the White House and its most-secret Manhattan Project; not that McCarthy’s persecution of ignorant sympathizers and misguided fools did anything to blunt the NKVD/KGB’s activities. Allied “payment” to Stalin would also contradict support to Turkey, the Berlin Airlift and intervention in Korea.
Ultimately, your disapproval of the post-9/11 wars is noted, but it has clearly skewed your vision of the past, to the point where you are giving truly evil people the benefit of the doubt. There is nothing particularly "strategic" about that: the same introspection occurred in the Soviet Union after Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and during Afghanistan after 1979, by the way...
Closer. What Mao and Ho (and others) sought, was to throw off the yoke of Western colonialism. It was their tactical approach that invoked our fears and created undue hardships. We tend to overly fixate on ignoble approaches and ignore their noble aims.
In 1944, FDR had cut deals for a post war world with his allies. Britain was a big loser, forced to surrender their colonial control in exchange for their national survival. Churchill was not happy, but had no choice. I suspect much of what was later portrayed as a land grab by Stalin was also promised to him in payment for fighting the majority of the war, and to secure his Western flank against this recurring vulnerability to Western aggression. FDR had a four point platform: the four freedoms(of speech and religion, from fear and want); the four policemen (IS, UK, USSR and China) replacing the League of Nations; the end of Colonialism; and the promotion of self determination. Then he died, and all of that was either unknown, forgotten or ignored. Certainly England and France had everything to gain by ignoring. If FDR had lived a bit longer their would have been no Cold war, and the UK and France would have been told to “suck it” in regards to getting their former colonies back.
So Azor’s comment is strategically moot. We violated our principles because we took councel of our fears ( and Truman was led astray by the British, the French, and internal voices as well). We fucked over the people of SEA. It is a national shame. And we apply the same logic to the post 9/11 era, with equal chaos. To replace being a beacon of liberty and self determination with being a poster child for hypocrisy and paranoia is a tragic and unnecessary turn of events. Burn’s portrayal of Vietnam is not perfect, but most criticisms are from those who cling to a flawed narrative, and who sense their is a different truth.
I agree with Azor's comment posted above,
Quote: The peoples of East and Southeast Asia were fighting for a variety of causes from 1946 to 1979, and in no way were Chinese and Soviet-backed Communists more indigenous or independent than the states and societies they sought to overthrow. End Quote
Mao sought to destroy traditional Chinese culture based on Confucianism and the Taoism to some extent. He imposed a foreign political organizing concept upon them, and the only way he could make it stick (not work) was by murdering millions of his own country men. Ho and his successor also imposed a foreign concept upon the Vietnamese people, and had to kill thousands to make it stick. Castro and Che were no better. Our problem in most cases is we backed a corrupt bastard, but he was our bastard. Any argument of may have been is counterfactual, but I'll offer one. If these bastards implemented needed land reforms the outcome may have been significantly differ, because it would increase the will of the people to resist the communists and convince the American people we were backing the right side, instead of the lesser to two evils. In sum I think your legitimacy argument has a lot of holes in it. Also contrary to what some so-called COIN experts put out, corruption can be the decisive point that our adversaries leverage to achieve their ends.
Where I agree with you is how we walked into the Vietnam conflict largely void of understanding (this is not tactics as you propose). Understanding is the bedrock of good strategy. We allowed France to pull us into their war with their threats of pulling out of NATO, which could have undermined the credibility of NATO as a viable deterrent. Regional experts in the State Department were removed if they didn't embrace the McCarthy view of communism, so nuances and factors much bigger than nuances were missed as we gradually escalated our presence and combat actions. Due to McCarthyism (based on the perceived political cost) once you have boots on the ground opposing the communist threat political leaders didn't have the moral courage to either withdraw and draw the line elsewhere, or commit to a strategy that would have defeated North Vietnam. Our political leadership was scared to provoking the Dragon and the Bear, and at the same time was scared of the political costs of pulling out and drawing the line somewhere else (Laos and Cambodia maybe). We lost a lot of good men in this limbo zone. If it is important enough to send conventional combat forces, then we should be willing to either escalate or replace the HN government that is prevents us from reaching an acceptable goal. Special Forces doesn't count in my book. SF are triple volunteers, professional, older, and normally realize we are supporting state craft, and sometimes we're working with a partner that just can't win. We can withdraw a few advisors with very little political backlash. Conventional forces committed to large scale combat is another matter. The costs in U.S. treasure and blood is much higher, and the American people want to see a return on that investment.
I too embrace the spirit of De Oppresso Liber. I just think we apply that spirit best when we are not seeking to deny to others the very rights we demand for ourselves. I think we apply that spirit best when we have not taken counsel of our fears to rationalize the compromise of our professed values as a nation.
Once we’d helped the people of Vietnam liberate their country from Japan, don’t you think that was the best time for us to recognize their right to self determination, rather than turning the entire region back over to the French?
Or, once they had defeated the French, don’t you think that was the second best time to recognize their right to self determination, rather than robbing them of their victory and creating a fiction of two Vietnams?
Our efforts to prop up and preserve the illegitimate state we created in the South were not to liberate the oppressed. They were to preserve our pride in the context of our fears.
I will always deeply admire those who fought, but we need to get real about the folly that created that fight to begin with. For Vietnam, this was a war of necessity. For America, our involvement was a war of choice. Bad choices made with deeply flawed understanding.
We can agree to disagree on the threats to our interests and what we stand for as a nation. Contrary to your claim that these extremist ideologies tend to modify over time we have seen hard core Islamism and Communism stay in power for years, resulting in millions of their own population being murdered, so these illegitimate forms of governance could sustain power. I for one still embrace the De Oppresso Liber motto, but at the same time I don't think my beliefs are justification for employing America's conventional forces into quagmires. If we deploy conventional forces, then we need to fight it to win it.
Where I agree with you to a point is that communism and Islamism are effective ideologies for organizing a resistance and providing governance to gain control of the populace, compared to our approach of running questionable elections, and then trying to make a weak, democratic government effective. That normally fails quickly, and the next thing you know the CIA is delivering bags of money to our proxy, which undermines our efforts from the tactical to the strategic level. If we're going to compete successfully in the competitive control realm, the lesson we need to learn is how to establish control in way that is moral, but not chaotic. Once the resistance is defeated or sufficiently suppressed, we can assist that government gradually transition to a democracy. This is the lesson we failed to learn in my view. Whether we should get involved in conflicts to begin with we will have little influence over, how we conduct ourselves and our strategies we can influence.
I said it was the right ideology in rice cultures for throwing off Western Colonialism, not for their future governance. History proves my point.
Similarly, Islamism is the right ideology for Muslim cultures to throw off excessive Western influence over their governance, not for their future governance. History will prove that correct as well.
We exaggerate what is a threat to us in our minds, and we take counsel of our fears. As I stated, we have not learned the strategic lessons of this conflict, and we continue to employ the same logic and make the same mistakes.
First off, I want to recognize Wolverine57's comment about Ken Burns misrepresenting the demographics of the American fighting man in Vietnam. A number of studies have dispelled the myth of the average age, racial inequality on the front lines, etc. That part of the film was very poorly done, and highly insulting to our vets. I listened primarily for a balance of reporting on the North and South, and I thought the documentary did a good job of pointing out that the North were not saints, they also were not considered legitimate by most Vietnamese, who wanted nothing to do with communism. Unfortunately, as JFK and subsequent Presidents recognized we were backing corrupt and inept governments in the South, which undermined our moral argument for being there (free the oppressed). Fighting communism was the right thing to do, it was a global movement with the stated mandate of destroying the West, so for one I thank all the Vietnam Veterans for their service. I'm disgusted with our policy makers during that time frame, with LBJ being the worst by far.
Second, to Bob's point about we failed to learn the strategic lesson. Perhaps, but the strategic lesson wasn't that Ho was a nationalist. So what? Hitler was a nationalist too. Did his vision for Vietnam threaten our interests? Arguably it did. There is no way we could have aligned with a communist and then pretend we had respect for freedom and human rights. Contrary to Bob's claim, communism is not right for SE Asia, it has never worked there. In fact, it hasn't worked any where, so this claim of legitimacy is greatly over stated. Then he extends the same argument to Iraq and Afghanistan claiming Islamism works? Really, Iraq was a secular country before we invaded. Afghanistan prior to the USSR invasion did not embrace Islamism (Taliban interpretation of it). Conditions were created in both cases, and Vietnam by the Japanese and French colonists, for extreme ideologies to emerge as form of opposition. That doesn't make them legitimate, but we do need to recognize these wars are also a competition for the human domain, and we didn't do that well. The lesson we have failed to learn lies in this competition realm. Bob seems to argue we should discard our interests in these areas and accept the emergence of radical ideologies. I'm countering by arguing if we have interest in these areas, we cannot simply win through superior military tactics, but all efforts must be aligned to win the competition for the human domain (the strategic end). It is much more complex than establishing a democracy (which may be the wrong answer) and economic development. These efforts have failed us repeatedly, so identifying the missing link is the lesson we are still seeking.
We will never learn the strategic lessons of Vietnam, if we refuse to address them. Burns does a good job of laying out facts important to understanding the conflict in strategic terms, but does not draw the strategic conclusions necessary for us to fully understand the nature of our defeat. He does not offer how we could have served our interests far more effectively by avoiding this tragedy of violence we embarked upon. He does not adequately expose our poor understanding of the nature of events unfolding in South East Asia, and the power of our fears, fueled by that flawed understanding, that grew to giant proportion in the minds of decision makers.
We see the same thing today in how we mischaracterize the nature of the conflicts raging across the Middle East, and once again our distorted fears are driving decisions that serve little to make us safer, and absolutely make the violence worse.
Yes, Mr. Burns is fueling stereotypes of the Americans who fought in this conflict. He flirts with fairness, but the overall tone is clear. Protesters were noble, and fighters were victims. No such clear lines can be drawn, and there was far more nobility in those who were willing to risk their lives for their nation, than in those who protested far more out of self interest than any holistic noble purpose. The war was an unnecessary strategic tragedy, and all those it touched were merely players.
Bottom line is that the people of South East Asia were fighting for independence, not communism. But if one is going to throw off the control of the most powerful nations on the planet, one is going to need an ideology that can stand up against all that that entails. One is also going to need the UW support of other powerful nations equally opposed to the ones you are taking on. Such an ideology must be consistent with the culture of the people, and it must be as harsh as that mission demands. That is why communism worked in the rice cultures of SEA; and why Islamism works in the culture of the Middle East. Consider how radical US governance ideology was compared to the kingdoms of Europe. One does not lead a successful revolt with a moderate message. But radical messages tend to become substantially more moderate once those fights are won.
We still think about Vietnam as war story, or as social tragedy. Sure, it had those things, but it was a strategic mistake first and foremost; and we apply the same flawed logic and make the same mistakes today in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Strategically we have learned very little.
I am a Vietnam Vet with 4 trips South. I am disappointed with the film. Sorley, "A Better War", identifies the Vietnam Vet as more prosperous, better educated, and better adjusted than the civilian counterparts. Two thirds of those who served in Vietnam were not drafted. Burns is just wrong. Contrary to Burn's account, casualties were not disproportionately poor, black service members. Casualties were representative of the population in general. Another exception I take is reference to Marines and soldiers as kids. There were no kids in our military and I resent the arrogance of those who would talk down to real men or suggest we were supporting the wrong side. Burns continually shows our combat men huddled scared, bleeding, and not knowing what to do. While, they continually show bright faced, organized NVA and VC with their female support. Now that is a great combination! I found the North Vietnamese to be some of the dumbest people on the face of the earth. The weren't liked by Southerners and I didn't like them either. They were brutal little men trying to be big by assassinating hamlet and village officials. At no time did the Southerners rise up against the government. The alternative of communism was not worth it. I never served with a Vietnamese, Cambodian, or Montagnard who wouldn't fight. He pays little attention to day-to-day activities that put 92% of the population under government control by the time we left. This film is foreign to my experiences and I will trash it.
I found it interesting that Ho believed the pro Buddhist uproar offered an opportunity to end the war without a US escalation and our leadership believed it justified an escalation. The maximus pertaining to understanding what war you are embarking on played its fateful hand at that point in time. Ho got it right and we got it wrong in 1964. Ho seemed genuinely perplexed as to why our leadership could be so stupid to think any other final outcome was remotely possible.
I wonder if Baker and I watched the same documentary? Baker may only be happy with a white washed history of the war, but in my view the series was relatively fair. It did point out the flaws of the North Vietnam, how they employed terrorism, and it pointed out that the North Vietnam government was fighting to establish a communist state, a form of government not considered legitimate by the people. The government established a very harsh communist goverment that led to the death of thousands, and a massive refugee crisis. The PBS series covered all of this. It also pointed out the flaws of our strategy, the folly of LBJ's management of the war, etc. It was a series that made all sides uncomfortable. That is an indicator it was well done, not perfect, but good.
I think it unfair to blame the way the Vietnam War ended only on the media. Our criticism seems to be limited to Americans committing war crimes, for example Kerry's claim that tens of thousands of war crimes were committed by soldiers etc. but he never personally documented specific instances or is on record as having attempted to stop them like many soldiers and officers did during the war. War crimes have been made by the American to only have applications against American forces. Groups like VVP and even some chapters of the VVA spin the war fairy tale style and advocate Communist propaganda of the period.
SOF on line ran an excellent rebuttal to the Burns PBS piece. But PBS is not anymore likely to give up its ideological positions than Kerry did.
One of my friends in College was the son of Christian Doctors who were devoted to assisting Lepers in Vietnam I still have a letter from his father thanking me for a donation to repair a jeep they needed to get from one end of their compound to another, over 10,000 patients and families. During Tet, He was murdered in cold blood by the heroic peoples army, sic. Then the NVA invaders began tossing satchel charges into the bunkers the women and children had sought safety and murdered hundreds of civilians. The lefty loons denied and still deny that lepers existed in Vietnam and ascribed the civilian casualties to the USA.
This is the slippery slope and it is not simply a media issue the media is merely the messenger it is ideologues like Kerry, Obama among others that spread lies believing history will make moot the facts.
If anyone is interested the author David Galula, quoted on the SMJ header, work on Counterinsurgency @1964 may be found on this link:
It is in a pdf format , 130 pages.
With reference to the last paragraph:
The war was actually won militarily despite both civilian and military errors, but lost on the 6 o'clock news and the college campus. However as one NVA colonel is reported to have commented, "That may well be true, but it is irrelevant."
When we purposely cut off South Vietnam from the promised support, the press said a great deal about it. They were supportive, even ecstatic that Nixon's War was lost.
At 68 I shall not live to see it, but I do hope that at some point the history will be more accurately written.