Review: Truth, agony return in ‘The Vietnam War’

(Video link)

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.

  • MikeB

    I appreciated the history lesson, putting into context each successive colossal error in judgment by US leaders. Then Donald Gregg framed it perfectly, it was the end of colonialism but we viewed it through the lens of the Cold War. The disaster that followed from that misread.

    And that we are not above repeating similar mistakes.

  • Jack

    Without the context of episode one, it makes it harder to grasp the slippery slope that providing military advisors can bring. I had no idea that Kennedy had visited in the 50’s.

    Learning a lot and getting reminders of what I did learn in my History of the Vietnam Conflict class that I took 30+ years ago.

    I highly recommend reading Tim O’Brien’s books about the war/conflict.

    • Barton

      O’Brien’s books are splendid. My copy of The Things They Carried has many a tear stain on the pages.

  • Jack

    Hey Bob! Do you have a link to the website that American Radio Works put together years ago on the Vietnam conflict?

  • Barton

    I recorded the episode last night. But about 45 minutes into it, I got a call from a relative who had fought in Vietnam. Years ago, I had tried to discuss with him the back ground of the war: Dewey, Truman, French Colonialism, Ho asking us (the US) to support independence, etc. He didn’t believe me, even with the evidence I could provide. He felt that I was basically saying his friends/companions died for nothing (I kinda was, to be honest… more like the wrong reasons).

    He called last night to apologize. Something about the way Burns told the story made it resonate, made it believable, made it true.

    I was surprised my relative watched it, actually. He is very much haunted by a particular day in 1969 (not Tet).

    • // He felt that I was basically saying his friends/companions died for nothing (I kinda was, to be honest… more like the wrong reasons).

      Thousands of kids died because thousands had already died and we didn’t want them to die for nothing.

      It was insanity. National insanity disguised as patriotism.

    • Jonathan Foster

      The crazy thing is that I wonder if we would get along as well as we do with Vietnam now if we had won the war.

      • Barton

        I doubt it. I honestly think we would treat them like a colony if we had “won.” I mean, we’d have to be stationed there full time, possibly with a large contingent of military personal, to maintain the status quo we forced down their throats. It was always what I saw as hypocrisy that bothered me the most: we fought for our independence and our democracy, but we didn’t/wouldn’t support others who did the same, all in the name of stopping communism? It makes no sense.

        • Rob

          It makes perfect, albeit twisted sense when you keep a couple of things in mind:
          · Our government’s deeds tend not to match its creeds.
          · The U.S. can be counted on to do the right thing – but only after it has run out of all other options.

  • kevins

    Thanks for the well written summary of last night’s episode. I liked the historical context as it made some parts of a complicated era make sense. I got drafted in the ’71 cohort…no student deferments that year. When I try to explain what it was like here in ’67 and ’68, I am not certain my students believe me. Hope they are watching.

  • Mike

    Those of us who are Gen-Xers grew up in the shadow of Vietnam, and in retrospect we might have been lucky that we did. I say that because it’s clear that the period between 1973 and 2001 involved very little direct American warmongering on the rest of the world. Cold War and nasty business, yes – but Vietnam definitely had a chastening effect. Since 9/11, the U.S. Empire has gone into overdrive. Imperialism is bankrupting us just like it did every empire before.

    I found the first 1.5 hours of the Burns work to be exemplary, and I plan on watching the rest. Here’s the question I hope he addresses by the end: if our cultural and historical blindness was responsible for the debacle of Vietnam, what blinkers are leading us to believe we can rule the entire world today? What makes us believe that planet-wide U.S. hegemony is both virtuous and attainable, beyond the same cultural bigotry and ethnocentrism that ensnared us in Indochina?

  • Brian Simon

    Thanks for the recap. This was new to me: “American taxpayers were paying 80 percent of the cost of the French War.”

    • Rob

      Totally worth it to repel The Red Menace…not.

  • AL287

    Knowing more about the history of Vietnam from its colonialist days helped me understand better the roots of the conflict that spanned nearly 30 years.

    If we had lost WWII and had been taken over by Germany and Japan, you’d better believe we would be fighting tooth and nail to get rid of the occupying forces.

    Nearly every major conflict in the 20th and 21st centuries has its roots in the colonialism of the late 19th and the early 20th century.

    The issues of North Korea were left hanging for 65 years until the Kim “dynasty” finally produced a mentally unhinged leader with an overblown sense of entitlement and a flair for inflammatory rhetoric.

    The real danger of North Korea is the lust for nuclear weapons will spread to neighboring Indochina countries like Cambodia and Laos and possibly Vietnam and Malaysia.

    When that happens we will have World War III.

    • IMHO the prospect of Cambodia, etc. arming-up has little chance of
      becoming reality as the only external threats to SE Asian sovereignties
      come from China. Not a likely candidate to be the recipient of any nuclear retaliation.

      But, nuclear proliferation in Asia is already a reality. That cat is already out of the bag, at least in South Asia, with both India and Pakistan facing off against each other while having stocks of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

      As recently as 1999, territorial conflicts in Kasmir between India and Pakistan have threatened to become full-blown war.

      In the meantime: “India’s military has formulated a ‘Cold Start’ doctrine to enable its forward-deployed land forces to launch an armored assault into
      Pakistani territory on short notice in response to a perceived provocation from Islamabad. This new strategy was devised after the Indian Army’s armored strike corps took three weeks to deploy to the border after the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, by which time Pakistan had already mobilized its own troops.

      “Islamabad sees nuclear weapons as its deterrent against a
      conventional attack, and Cold Start in particular. This is demonstrated
      by its refusal to adhere to a ‘No First Use’ policy. Pakistan has an
      extensive plutonium production capacity, and is estimated to possess 130
      to 140 warheads, a total that may easily increase to 220 to 250 in a
      decade, according to a report by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.”

      • AL287

        I think we are worrying about the wrong rogue nation when you consider the population size of India and Pakistan.

        There is also the danger of Islamic extremism which Pakistan has been enabling for years even thought it protests such accusation. It hid Bin Laden for several years before our Seal forces took him out.

  • Jonathan Foster

    The New York Times, in their article about this series mentioned that this would be unlike other Ken Burns projects because images of the war were beamed into everyone’s TVs (and the change from black and white to color TV during the war is striking) in nearly real time. That may be true for those around at the time, but what about the people who came later? There are people born after the war ended who have kids older than some of the soldiers in Vietnam were. For us, those born after war, Vietnam has hung around us like a fog. We know some basic facts, names and places, and have a general idea that a lot of today’s problems stem from the war. In the present though, Vietnam, the country, is a vacation destination and not an existential threat to our way of life. And what of the millions of new Americans and their families who arrived since 1975. They deal with the ramifications of the Vietnam War every day, just like we do. They weren’t here then, but this is their history too.

    I’m nearly 35, born less than a decade after the war ended, and the war was never talked about, not by my family, and not in school. US history, at least in the high school text books, essentially ended with the more triumphant moments of the civil rights movement. Some of that may have been just a matter of timing. Then there might not have been enough time to know what had really happened and what it all meant. A lot of that is because as a society we aren’t good at grappling with the darker moments of country. I hope now is the time we can make some sense of our history.

  • Posting this on behalf of reader Dan Smith III, of Marshall, Minn., whose dad, a longtime Luverne educator who now lives in Sioux Falls, sent this to his family prior to the first episode.

    As I begin watching Ken Burns’ documentary “The Vietnam War” tonight, I will be remembering and reflecting upon how that war managed to change the direction of my life in 1969, and how it had the real potential of ending my life except for a turn in the road.

    I will always be thankful to one Dr. Lee, the superintendent of schools at Central Lyon, for placing a phone call to my draft board in New Jersey to request that my draft notice of April be recinded because of my teaching contract. Although he was not successful in accomplishing that, he was able to get my induction date changed from May to July. This delay afforded me time to “shop around” to other branches of service, something the draft notice did not.

    After talking with the Army, Navy, and Air Force recruiters in Sioux Falls, I decided to accept the four years offered by the USAF, even though it meant an extra two years service time beyond the two I was drafted for. I wanted to stay stateside, and I wanted to live with my wife, both of which were possible in that branch. I had already seen my brother-in-law go across the “pond” as well as my college buddy Dennis, who had come back wounded. So that is the choice I (and Lolita) made.

    I believe that had I gone through with the May induction in the Army for two years, the odds of my ending up in Vietnam were quite likely. I also think that the chances of my not coming home were also possible, in light of what I had heard and seen on TV.

    Now as I think back some 48 years later (as of September 22), I can only begin to ponder the possibilities of all the things I may have missed. Without getting too dramatic, Mom and I would most probably have had time to have Dana in 1971, but I may never have had a Daniel U. Smith, III, or lived at 803 S. 2nd Ave., or gotten a graduate degree at Augustana College, or taught English for almost 30 years, or any of the other blessings I enjoyed.

    Such thoughts tonight will lead me to ponder heavily all the things those 58+ thousand troops will never enjoy because they DID NOT come home!

    The words of Robert Frost in “The Road Not Taken” come to mind:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

    • Erik Petersen

      Yes, it can work out that way… On the other hand, I’m here because of the cosmic timing of my father’s 1966 year in Vietnam as an infantry rifleman, he making it through, his honorable discharge and return home where he meets my mother at a particular place and time…

      Thanks LBJ!

    • Barton

      My father is very thankful that his incredibly poor eyesight and flat feet got him out of serving when his number was called in the early 60s.

    • I have a bro-in-law who, as a permanent resident, was eligible for the draft. He did get a letter from Uncle Sam, ca. 1971, and got as far as the physical. But, gosh darn it, eczema, no matter how small of an area, left untreated for a week was not something Uncle Sam was interested in having in the armed forces.

      Prior to that, there was talk of moving to Canada. How mind-blowing was it for me, still in high school, to find out my parents (who I grew up believing were closest Republicans) would endorse that decision and help with the move should it happen.

      Older bro had aged beyond draft age by the time his student deferments were used up, and had acquired a masters degree in the process.

      I turned 18 the last year of the draft lottery. My number was 162. Shortly before my birthday, though, it was announced that while 18 year olds still had to register and carry around a Selective Service card as proof, no one was going to be inducted. Instead, for the next year or two or three, all who still had to register were given a “1-H” (for “holding”) listing.

  • Jonathan Foster

    I was struck by the 30 years of off-ramps that the US had to avoid the war, and no one took any of them. The war wasn’t inevitable, and it didn’t just happen. We made the wrong choices, over and over again.

    • MikeB

      The Domino Theory being explained on the black and white map, what came to mind immediately was the arguments about Nicaragua. A small country no one really knew/card about serving as a geopolitical proxy war. The staged urgency predicting all sorts of horrors if we didn’t act now. Washington DC is trapped in this thinking, it will never go away.

      I think this series about Vietnam will help us talk about Iraq. The similarities will give us the space to better see what happened in the run up and occupation.

      • Barton

        I think it also helps explain Iran. Where we forced a Colonial appointed monarch back on the thrown (the Shah) in place of the democratically elected government that had begun to form. No wonder they hated us. (yes, this is a simplistic look, but a pattern forms).

        • MikeB

          We don’t suffer from a lack of examples. Like a Greatest Hits album set. Of disastrous decisions.

        • Rob

          It helps explain Iran and any number of other countries over the decades. The U.S. has a long and ugly history of messing in other countries’ internal politics to prop up or install undemocratic regimes friendly to the U.S.

  • Jay T. Berken

    “Burns’ 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”

    “Both had promised to stop the international march of Communism no matter where.”

    I listened to the WTF with Marc Maron podcast with Burns and Novick which in the end, Vietnam was fought by Truman through Ford to essentially get (re)elected. It is a lot like what Trump has done by labeling his “War on Coal” push to get elected. Who cares about the extent of the damage that each decision can impact us individually or as a society (i.e. stay in Vietnam to defeat Communism or Coal as a dying power source that increases climate change and impacts our heath), as long as you invoke fear and patriotism, enough people will vote.

  • Karl Crabkiller

    I grew up in the 50’s and served in Vietnam 14 months (68-69). The fear / threat of communism was ever present in the media and schools. Reports from eastern Europe and China showing tanks crushing protesters, the elimination of religion in communist countries – tales from the Gulags and re-education camps. – classroom drills in the event of an h-bomb drooping near you; the fear was inescapable in that era. It’s easy now to look back and track the serious mistakes that were made in that era – it’s almost criminal that we keep repeating them.

  • Carlos Eduarte

    I was about 13 when the Vietnam War finally ended in 1973. I vividly remember cars honking and turning on lights in the San Diego Freeway when the historic cease fire was announced.
    Some years later, I had a discussion with a roommate while I was in college. We were arguing about who would have won the war had it been extended. He took the side of the USA while I firmly believed that the Vietnamese would have persevered until the bitter end. He argued that our technology, as manifested in numerous weapons that had not been used would have tilted the war in our favor. I argued that the spirit and courage of the Vietnamese people had and would outlast the dominant technological advantage we had.
    The quote early on in the documentary about there being no winners and losers in war was especially powerful. That only people who don’t participate in war discuss who would win or lose was even more so.
    I now feel incredibly lucky to have been young enough that I didn’t have to participate in this senseless war.

  • Postal Customer

    My dad had a high lottery number. So did my father in law. Grateful doesn’t begin to describe my feelings.

  • Greg Frederickson

    Burns never mentioned the real driving force of the war. Money. But no one in the mainstream ever talks about the real thing that has always driven the history of the United States

  • 199libgrunt

    Typical America evil, communists good liberal biased documentary.
    Really didn’t expect any different from a PBS show, wasn’t disappointed.

    • You know what was evil? Nixon secretly sabotaging LBJ’s peace talks days before the 68 election to enhance his election chances and another 20,000 kids dying as a result.

      • Starting a war in another country and not telling either the American people or Congress.

        • Illegally wiretapping the phones of journalists and generals to find out how the New York Times found out about Nixon’s secret war.