Vietnam War and our aversion to truth

Vietnam 1967 — AP photographer Horst Faas, with his Leica cameras around his neck, accompanies U.S. troops in War Zone C. Photo courtesy of PBS

We’re three episodes in to Ken Burns abd Lynn Novick’s outstanding series, The Vietnam War, and among the more compelling debates to come from its airing is the question of whether there really is no such thing as a “single truth” in war.

Chuck Turchick of Minneapolis, in his letter to the Star Tribune today, says Burns, specifically, is wrong to believe there isn’t.

To this day in Germany, there are Holocaust deniers, but that doesn’t mean there were “many truths” about World War II. We Americans are adept at denying our history, our motivations, our intentions, how we act among the nations of the world.

The notion that there are many truths about the war in Vietnam is so reminiscent of President Trump’s statement about the “many sides” who engaged in violence in Charlottesville, Va. It is a context-free and dangerous rendition of history.

Perhaps upcoming episodes will expand upon the idea of whether Burns and Novick believe there are many truths to war, or whether there are many versions of the truth.

Because so far there are many truths, as last evening’s episode showed us.

There was no point during the Vietnam War at which the United States was “winning” the war, for example.

And there’s this truth, also revealed in last night’s episode: Walter Cronkite’s report from Vietnam was an overrated historical moment, inflated over time by the dubious story that President Lyndon Johnson had watched the broadcast and remarked, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

Cronkite, however, wasn’t the first CBS reporter to assess that the war couldn’t be won. Morley Safer was three years earlier. Middle America didn’t want to hear it.

Johnson, a president who knew almost from the time he took his oath of office on Air Force One that once the U.S. put troops on the ground it wouldn’t be able to get them out, refused to tell the American people the truth about the war. Neither, by the way, did his vice president, Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey.

Instead, Johnson ushered in the era of distrust of journalists who show America the truth, and are called unpatriotic for doing so.

Then, as now, truth to Americans is whatever they want it to be.

In that context, maybe Burns and Novick
were right.