From Vietnam Veterans Against the War,

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Establishment Account of the Vietnam War

By Roger Carasso

After having watched all 18 hours of the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, The Vietnam War, it is apparent that those who rule us, and therefore the great majority of the public, are not ready for the truth about the nature of the Vietnam War. Neither are Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in their documentary, which was partially sponsored by David H. Koch. That says a lot.

In the first episode, the narrator tells us that the war was "begun in good faith [sic!] by decent [sic!] people out of fatal misunderstandings [!]"

Generally speaking, has anyone heard of a dominant imperial or hegemonic power, like the US, winning its empire by relying on "decent people" of "good faith?" That would apply neither to the Roman empire, the British empire, the French empire, etc., nor ours. Hegemonies are built by aggression, conquest, and dishonesty.

Just how "decent" and "well-meaning" was President Eisenhower when he overthrew the democratic Iranian regime of Mohammad Mossadegh (1953), the democratic Guatemalan regime of Jacobo Arbenz (1954), and together with the Belgians, orchestrated the assassination of populist Congo leader, Patrice Lumumba (1960)? He then "decently" involved the US in establishing and propping up a corrupt puppet or quisling regime in South Vietnam.

It's not that the documentary is without merit. To its credit, it gives a hearing to the Vietnamese/communist side. It shows that war protesters can be patriotic. It condemns French colonialism and stresses the corruption of the puppet governments we supported. It gives good coverage of our My Lai massacres and rapes. It exposes Nixon sabotaging the peace efforts of President Johnson so that the Democrats would lose the election. Just the same, it misses the big picture of what our aggression in Vietnam meant.

  1. We largely financed the French colonialists and we didn't want them to stop the war or participate in the 1954 Geneva Accords, which ended the war. French foreign minister, Georges Bidault, stated that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, took him aside, and asked him, "What if we gave you two atomic bombs?" "Not one, two," stressed Bidault (you can see this for yourself in the best documentary I've seen on Vietnam, Peter Davis' Hearts and Minds. It was not mentioned by the Burns/Novick documentary).
  2. The 1954 Geneva Accords which ended the French-Indochinese war stipulated, among other things, that Vietnam would be temporarily divided, but both Vietnams were forbidden to join either the Soviet or American side. We immediately created SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) which extended its umbrella to South Vietnam, in gross violation of the 1954 agreements. This is not even mentioned in the documentary.
  3. We also violated the agreements' stipulation that both Vietnams were to be united in 1956 through free elections. The documentary mentions this but omits mention of how we deliberately sabotaged the elections because we knew the Communists, led by hugely popular Ho Chi Minh (who is given sympathetic treatment by the documentary) would win by a landslide, which Eisenhower later admitted.
  4. Mentions uncritically the "domino" theory which was one rationalization for our intervention, lest Vietnam become the first falling domino. In fact, whatever foreign power controlled Vietnam in the past 150 years was in a mess. France conquered Indochina in the 1880s when France was in decline; it had been defeated by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Japan took direct control of Vietnam when it was on the ropes. The "domino" theory didn't work too well for either of them.
  5. When we compelled the partition of Vietnam, we tried to have all the North Vietnamese Catholics flee to South Vietnam. Under the leadership of Colonel Edward Lansdale, the CIA started a mass propaganda campaign to terrify Catholics into leaving North Vietnam, warning of persecution, rapes, murders, anything to frighten them into leaving, which half of them did - not mentioned by the documentary.
  6. Our soldiers are again and again depicted as valiant, dedicated, heroic, trying to "save" Vietnam. "How does America produce young men like this?" proudly exclaims a former veteran.
  7. It mentioned Martin Luther King finally condemning the war in 1967, but carefully omits his most telling words about the US being "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." That wouldn't mesh with "good faith" or "decent people."
  8. It vastly underplays the CIA-led "Phoenix Program" (1965?-1972), a terrorist program meant to gather intelligence through starvation, murder, rape, corruption, and torture. One example: putting a 6-inch dowel into the canal of a detainee's ears, and tapping it through the brain until he died. Phoenix operatives neutralized over 80,000 suspected National Liberation Front members, or falsely and profitably accused members.
  9. It mentions commanding general William Westmoreland, but omits his smug, arrogant comment that "Life is cheap in the Orient." It's not the "Orientals" who killed millions of Indo-Chinese victims. He represents a sort of crass ethnocentrism which certainly did not help win over the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese.
  10. It continues the old Cold War canard of frightening Soviet expansion, whereas it was the US which, in fact, was expanding its influence globally.
  11. It lauded the courage and dedication of the ARVN (our puppet troops), yet one of their interviewees conceded that "we all knew the ARVN couldn't face" the Vietnamese. Towards the end of the war, some 20,000 puppet soldiers were deserting monthly.
  12. It quotes a couple or more times John Negroponte, presented as a life-long career diplomat/expert. However, it doesn't mention that Negroponte (ambassador to Honduras, 1981-85) was a sponsor of death squads in Central America whom he supported and financed, and involved in the Phoenix program.
  13. It mentions how Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon viewed the war through the prisms of not losing the next election. An example of "decent, well-meaning" men??
  14. It sentimentally glorifies the Vietnam Wall, and therefore, the war.
  15. It concludes that the war was a "tragedy." The killing of millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians is more than a tragedy. It is a horrible crime of aggression against small countries posing no threat whatsoever to our country.

That is the greatest weakness of the documentary. It nowhere suggests how our aggression against Vietnam fits into our long history of imperial aggression and domination. This failure accounts for President George H. W. Bush boasting, after the Gulf War, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all" (1991), that is, we can feel ever freer about committing aggression. We have often scolded the Japanese for not admitting more frankly to their World War II (and before) crimes. They could easily have cited our example of dishonesty about the Vietnam War. It's unlikely we'll ever be honest about this shameful war until we change the nature of our society.

Roger Carasso served in the army (1954-56), then got his PhD from Princeton University. He has taught at the University of Wisconsin, Northern Illinois University, Purdue University, and California State University, Northridge (CSUN). His special interest is classical political theory.

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