Thomas A. Bass’s review of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary blockbuster The Vietnam War caused quite a stir when it came out in August. It was by far the most read and most commented-upon piece we’ve published in two years. In the week when we put the article in front of the paywall on our website, as a “free to read”, it clocked up more than 30,000 readers. Hundreds of readers, mostly from the United States, talked about and commended it on social media. It even garnered a mention in Newsweek and the New York Times.
When I recently thought about Ken Burns and his upcoming documentary series on Vietnam, much went through my mind about that divisive war. I covered that story between 1966 and 1973 in South Vietnam as Saigon bureau chief for NBC News and then many years after that, the Paris Peace Talks from my base in London.
I have read more than a dozen reviews about the series, including the extensive and thoughtful critique in the Mekong Review by Thomas A. Bass in which he questions Burns’ weak understanding of the war, its origins and its effect on geo-politics. Other equally critical reviews written by mostly well-informed people, make me believe there is absolutely nothing new in Burns’ vision, insight, and reporting, which is usual for all Burns’ films whatever the subject.
The Vietnam War will never die. Almost no one today has any doubt that America had no right to launch and fight a war not only far from home, but one that many eventually realised was unwinnable. People of good sense knew the war was wrong. Saying it again, even to a potentially fresh audience, changes nothing. Stating that good intentions started the war is meaningless. In the minds of those who start wars, their goals are never bad. Might always makes right for aggressors. The end they project always justifies the means. To have Burns and Lynn Novick fight the Vietnam War again for eighteen hours on PBS defies reason.
New York City, USA
As the opening of The Vietnam War states, the war was started in good faith by decent men. How, then, can we be so critical of what transpired in Vietnam, even if all did not go well? The documentary seems to support this view.
The difficulty accepting the exculpatory summation about decent men acting in good faith is highlighted within the documentary itself. After the French surrendered to the Vietnamese led by Ho Chi Minh in 1954, there was to have been an election for a new Vietnamese leader. Ho Chi Minh was the clear favourite, but he was a communist. The “decent men” then began to devise ways to cancel the promised election and thwart Ho Chi Minh and the popular will of the Vietnamese. Solution: create a South Vietnam and support it with US resources and eventually soldiers. Was this just? If the Vietnamese wanted a communist leader, then so be it. But that was not acceptable to the United States. What followed was an extremely sordid intervention that left hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and 58,000 US soldiers dead. The number of wounded was much higher.
By its actions in Vietnam, the US violated principles of self-determination enshrined within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a 1948 document to which the US agreed as part of belonging to the United Nations. The plain truth is that the US was wrong in its intervention in Vietnam and needs to accept this without reservation. What to do?
During the late 1970s I lived in (West) Germany, and was intrigued by the debate then going on about the horrors committed by the Nazi government thirty years earlier. Young Germans claimed that they had never known the extent to which the Nazis had exterminated Jews and others. I found this claim somewhat specious because bookstores were full of exposés of the Nazi period. But schools were not teaching the Nazi period. I asked a high school history teacher how they covered the Hitler government and war crimes. He responded that his class began with historical roots of German society and progressed through the 1800s and then World War I. But after World War I, there just wasn’t any time left to go any further. Ridiculous? Of course. But is this any worse than trying to cover up our own history of horrendous deeds with detailed analysis that, in the end, only muddies the water further?
Oddly the showing of a US miniseries called Holocaust on German television, along with some German writers, got the ball rolling. The effect was cathartic. The discussion about the Nazi period became much more open and policies were established to make sure that the crimes of the Hitler period were no longer swept under the rug. Germany today mandates education about the Nazi period, including tours of former concentration camps like Dachau near Munich. Some Germans may complain that they no longer have a need to be confronted with Hitler and his horrible deeds. But for many, a continued education about that period has allowed them to move forward and not be obsessed with their past.
Murphysboro, Illinois, USA
A terrible lie
Born in 1986, I have no memory of the Vietnam War or the Soviet Union. Furthermore, as a documentary filmmaker, I have studied multiple Ken Burns films as a practitioner and as a typical television viewer.
It bears mentioning that the documentary genre in America was undeniably shaped by the Cold War and the Vietnam War. Training films for troops and newsreels created for the period prior to the proliferation of television were not the first documentaries ever, but they did create many motifs of the genre. This is important because we should see Burns and his work here as a new entry in an extremely long line of documentaries produced for and also about the Vietnam War. In this spectrum, Burns has produced a rather typical conservative ideological offering.
The ideology of the first episode, which offers a very skewed history of the Vietnamese and Ho Chi Minh, is very clearly influenced by program financier David Koch. This story of French Indochina and Ho’s patriotism is clearly indebted to father Fred Koch’s vision of the red menace that he proliferated through the John Birch Society. Burns absolutely fails to articulate that Vietnam was the logical conclusion and capstone of a propaganda offensive launched against Americans in 1945 by the forces within American society that were opposed to preserving the wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and America. The phantasm of international Communism Burns presents is totally at odds with what Joseph Stalin’s party promoted. The most telling moment of this is comes when the narrator says Ho was more a nationalist than a Communist. Such a dichotomy is not Stalin’s socialism in one country, it is Trotsky’s permanent revolution.
The racism in the film is subtle, significant, and disturbing. It is created by the way Burns insists that this was a civil war rather than a national liberation struggle in a post-colonial land.
The undeniable shame of this is that Burns has opted to present the train of events according to a narrative arc that is extremely typical of American historiography in the past seventy years. He has refused to open the discussion with a very clear and undeniable fact: the reason for the war was always a terrible lie.
Providence, RI, USA