For people like me who grew up hating everything about the Vietnam War, the politicians who gave it to us, the hard hats who insisted “America, love it or leave it”, the cops who swung their clubs at those who opposed it, the opening of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s long-awaited documentary, The Vietnam War, came out hard and relentless.
Maybe we Baby Boomers want to know what happened, as Marine Karl Marlantes (Vietnam 1969) said early in the broadcast. Maybe we’re ready to look at Vietnam dispassionately. But probably not. Maybe this film is for us, maybe it’s for those who think it’s ancient history.
We didn’t talk about Vietnam in the years since helicopters lifted off a rooftop in Saigon, but it’s not like we didn’t know what happened. We know.
Are we ready for this?
Henry Kissinger was the first face of a politician in the episode, followed by a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a village, then an image of Richard Nixon.
Burns and Novick featuring Kissinger, then Nixon, then telling us in the opening line of his script that the war was started by decent people, puts them immediately in the position of having to prove that the film can rise above the visceral reaction they, no doubt, sought from us, and send us away with the surprising new perspective of the war they say they found in the 10 years they worked on the film.
They sat the Vietnam War still leads to questions about what it means to be a patriot and whether it was all worth it?
We know that answer, however.
Fifty-eight thousand Americans died in Vietnam. For what?
“I hated them so much,” John Musgrave, a then-18-year-old Marine said while the filmmakers brilliantly weaved the black-and-white beginning of colonial rule in Vietnam with the living-color film of Americans walking through rice paddies years later.
He was talking about the people of Vietnam. I was thinking the same thing about the politicians of America.
Each of the film’s cut to the color was a cut to the present. That’s the Vietnam War; it never ended for today’s generation of old men and women.
Unlike some of past historical documentaries from Burns, this one does not favor the chronological tale in this first episode, called “Deja Vu.”
Creating Viet Minh — Independence Vietnamese League — Ho Chi Minh and his early collaborator, a man who taught Hanoi’s elite until French occupiers beat his wife to death, created a distinctive method of warfare, relying
on guerilla tactics until a full-scale military assault could take place.
Their targets were the Japanese in World War II, then the French, and eventually, us.
Cut to the color.
“I had 26 guys that day in 1965,” a Marine recalled. “My platoon was on point. and all of a sudden the very point man said ‘VC on the trail VC on the trail!’ Before I had time to digest this. He went down, shot right in the chest, and what was a very well-led ambush erupted.”
Welcome to Vietnam. And welcome back, Baby Boomers, to the first war on your television.
In his dizzying, calendar-leaping style, Burns and Novick give us multiple moments when we could have let Vietnam burn in 1945, when violence against the colonists raged in Saigon.
Col. A. Peter Dewey, who headed a seven-man OSS contingent to Vietnam to gather intelligence and represent American interests (America was officially neutral), cabled that “Vietnam is burning” and that the European allied occupiers should leave. “The French and British are finished here and the U.S. should clear out of southeast Asia,” he said.
On the way to the airport two days later, Dewey was shot and killed at a roadblock; Ho Chi Minh said it was a case of mistaken identity. The Viet Minh had killed the very man who said American interests lay in their victory.
Dewey was the first American casualty of the war in Indochina. His name isn’t on the Vietnam Memorial.
Two weeks later, the French arrived in far greater numbers to replace the British, their ruthless goal: to conquer the country.
The Viet Minh were every bit as ruthless and gave the planet a look at a new type of warfare – guerilla tactics.
“It is better to kill anyone who might be innocent,” one commander said, “than to let a guilty person go.”
The film read a 1946 letter from a soldier in Vietnam to his mother in France. “There are nights when we want to give it all up,” the soldier said.
Cut to the color: Marine Roger Harris (Vietnam 1967) recalls calling his mother to tell her not to believe what she reads in the newspaper or sees on TV. “We’re losing the war… everybody in my unit’s dying. I probably won’t be coming back.”
“You’re coming back,” Harris says his mother responded. “I talk to God every day and you’re special.”
“And I said, ‘Ma, everybody’s mother thinks their son is special. I’m putting pieces of special people in bags.”
The gut punch barely had time to register before Burns and Novick gave us historical whiplash again, documenting a 1950 decision by Harry Truman to send equipment to the French, and the election of anti-Communist president Dwight Eisenhower, whose vice president gamely tried to explain why American taxpayers were paying 80 percent of the cost of the French War.
His name was Richard Nixon.
The decision to leap from the ’40s, to the ’60s, to the ’50s to the ’70s is, no doubt, a recognition that to understand the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, one must understand the moment of its birth is the pre-World War II French colonial rule.
But it comes at a cost of great frustration to those whose blood pressure rises anew with each shift to color film, to each video of police swinging batons at the young Americans who opposed it, to each warning from a politician that Vietnam was a domino that could not be allowed to fall.
Let’s get to the color. Let’s try to make sense of killing thousands of Americans because we thought it was easier and more honorable than acknowledging it was a mistake over the course of five American presidents. Make sense of it. I dare you.
When the French were routed, U.S. politicians like a young Lyndon Johnson to an even younger Jack Kennedy saw it as a domino that would lead Communism to the shores of America.
It was a colossal misread by the politicians. It was a country achieving its independence.
Mistake after mistake after mistake followed. The United States backed a corrupt Ngo Dinh Diem who said he wanted to create a new country in south Vietnam. When President Eisenhower ended support for Diem in 1955, Diem made an assault on the crime syndicate that ran Saigon, took the city, declared himself president with 98 percent of the vote in a questionable election, and Eisenhower saw no other choice but to stick with Diem.
Two American advisers were killed in 1959, and John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in 1960’s presidential election. Both had promised to stop the international march of Communism no matter where.
Weeks later, a coalition of opposition groups in South Vietnam formed an alliance that would come to be known as the Viet Cong.
The episode ends with Bob Dylan singing “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” over a series of black-and-white photos.
The rest of the war will be in color.