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The Vietnam War Punctures Any Remaining Myths About the Conflict

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick hold politicians (both D and R) accountable.

'The Vietnam War''The Vietnam War,' PBSThe Vietnam War. PBS. Sunday, September 17, 8 p.m.

Lt. Everett Alvarez was shot down near Ha Long Bay in North Vietnam in August 1964, flying a bombing raid in retaliation for an encounter between U.S. destroyers and North Vietnamese gunboats so confusing that it may not even have occurred. Alvarez, only the second American pilot shot down over North Vietnam, was quickly taken to military interrogators.

They, confusingly, began asking questions in Vietnamese; Alvarez, a third-generation American, confoundingly answered in Spanish. ("Don't ask me why," he shrugs. "It seemed like a good idea at the time.") But when the interrogation switched to English, it was no less bewildering. Alvarez refused to disclose anything but his name, rank and serial number, adding to his captors that he was not required to say anything more under the protections of the Geneva Convention.

"What does the Geneva Convention have to do with this?" the North Vietnamese replied. "Our countries have not declared war on one another." Alvarez gaped. "You know what?" he thought to himself. "They're right."

That anecdote, related by Alvarez, illustrates the best part of Ken Burns' massive 10-part, 18-hour documentary The Vietnam War, which starts airing on PBS Sunday: Firsthand accounts of how the men and women on the ground negotiated their way through a cockeyed, contradictory war that made little sense to either side.

In their account of a conflict that nearly tore America in two and continues to reverberate through politics and foreign policies around the world to this very day, there are a lot of things Burns and his co-producer/director Lynn Novick do very well: They trace the war back to its origins, long before the first American soldier set foot in Indochina. They introduce multiple Vietnamese points of view. They deconstruct political flim-flammery in both countries and place it in—mostly—a coherent chronology. They resist many of the easy myths about the war that the Baby Boomer chattering classes have established as God's received truth.

But for all the documentary's merits, it does its best work in ferreting out the bite-size experiences of the grunts, not just the ones in uniform but the CIA officers, junior diplomats, peasant farmer and family members back home—the people didn't make policy but were whipsawed by it. Their stories are poignant, confusing, heartbreaking, maddening, blackly funny, or cryptic, often all at once.

Sometimes they even seem like extensions of popular fiction. Which came first: a Marine's stark memory of a march in which an old Vietnamese man, certain Charles de Gaulle's army had returned to rid him of Viet Cong harassment, emerged from a hut to shout, "Vive la France"? Or the French planter haunting the jungle near the Cambodian border in Apocalypse Now like a vengeful ghost, warning Martin Sheen that the Americans are fighting for ''the biggest nothing in history"?

The old man lost in time is not the only character in The Vietnam War who might have stepped out of Apocalypse Now. With disarming candor, one former American officer recounts blundering into an ambush that killed several of his men and left the rest of them pinned down. He murmured a plea to God: If you need any more guys from my platoon, take me, don't take any more of my men. "As soon as I said it, I freaked myself out," the officer remembers. "I said, 'Holy shit, can I take that prayer back?' "

There is archival footage of senior South Vietnamese officers sitting on stage behind Robert McNamara, the whiz-kid American defense secretary, as he shouts in Vietnamese, several times, a popular Saigon slogan of the day, "Vietnam, a thousand years!" Except McNamara is speaking in the wrong intonations and saying, "The little duckie wants to lie down!"

Another South Vietnamese officer, without rancor, orders his American advisor not to stand next to him on battlefields because the man's 6-foot-plus frame is a magnet for snipers' bullets. Villagers invited to a military ceremony discover they're going to watch American planes drench a nearby mountainside in napalm while a U.S. military band plays "The Washington Post March."

An American soldier remembers watching an airstrike on a South Vietnamese village from which U.S. troops had taken some fire, while in the background the Armed Forces Radio Service broadcasts a speech by President Johnson about how Washington is winning Vietnamese hearts and minds with economic aid. As if reading the soldier's mind, Johnson observes: "This war is full of terrible ironies."

The central political thesis of The Vietnam War is hardly novel—that it was an ill-conceived part of Washington's Cold War containment strategy that quickly went off the rails but stayed in place another two decades because American policymakers were too embarrassed to admit they'd tragically miscalculated.

But Burns and Novick make the case with evidence rather than everybody-knows smugness, and they've assembled a horrifying amount of it with their unsurpassed skill at mining archives. There are countless slam-dunk moments of mendacity recorded in The Vietnam War, almost any one of which would prove the case against Washington by itself. Possibly the single most devastating is a taped phone call from Johnson to his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, in May 1964.

"The more I think about this, what in the hell, it looks to me like we're getting into another Korea. I don't think it's worth fighting for," Johnson says, then fatefully adds: "And I don't think we can get out." Four months later the president would use the fictive Gulf of Tonkin incident to win a congressional resolution that would serve as his legal authorization to pour U.S. troops into South Vietnam by the hundreds of thousands.

Holding the feet of Johnson and his successor Richard Nixon to the fire over Vietnam is like napalming ducks in a barrel, of course. But The Vietnam War is equally harsh on John F. Kennedy, who in recent conventional wisdom is said to have been planning to end the war when he was assassinated.

The documentary, however, totes up plenty of hawk-talk by Kennedy, going back to his time in the Senate in the 1950s, some of it brutally cynical. "I can't give up a piece of territory like that to the communists and then get the people to re-elect me," he complained to an aide after a battlefield defeat the South Vietnamese army by Viet Cong guerrillas. It was Kennedy's tacit support for a military coup that killed South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, that deepened American involvement in the war to the point of inextricability.

That's not the only leftist fairytale to be challenged in The Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese regime is depicted not as armed agrarian reformers but a collection of murderous Stalinist thugs who cloaked their communism in anti-colonialist rhetoric that appealed to a population that had suffered much at the hands of Chinese, Japanese, and French invaders over the centuries.

Photo Credit: 'The Vietnam War,' PBS

Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin is the author of Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA and the Contras and (with Ana Rodriguez) Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women's Prison. He writes about television for the Miami Herald.

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  • Hateful Reactionary||

    He's good at providing all the facts and missing the interpretations entirely. His Civil War was basically a portrait of state murder, with moving vignette after moving vignette detailing the murderous actions of Lincoln, and they segue without interruption into lauding that ultimate statist. Ken Burns is responsible in part I think for recent fellating of Lincoln such as that atrocious Spielberg movie which offended both history and good taste.

    Obviously I am still bitter about The Civil War but I suspect his Vietnam will miss the mark similarly.

  • GILMORE™||

    Obviously I am still bitter about The Civil War

    (cue plaintive violin)

  • Vilos Cohaagen||

    Hateful Reactionary

    Obviously I am still bitter about The Civil War

    Aww poor guy

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Lincoln fellating predates Ken burns by a few generations.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Did you mean The Civil War the war or The Civil War the TV show. I'm bitter about both.

  • SIV||

    Empire of the Air is fuckin' GREAT.

  • SIV||

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    I grew up during this war and was months away from being drafted into it or finding my way to Canada when Nixon gave us "peace with honor". Every night network news reported the casualty numbers per the DOD, 200 GIs 2000 Viet Cong. We were always winning. They counted bodies every day. Dead GIs came home in flag draped caskets on live TV. The generation responsible for all of the death and destruction grew up during WW2 and honestly believed that, having beat the Nazis and the Japs, a ragtag bunch of gooks was a slam dunk for our boys. Each succeeding warrior in chief,Truman. JFK, LBJ, and Nixon had to double down until the house of cards finally collapsed. But in those days the media, while mostly cold warriors themselves, actually did independent reporting which sometimes exposed the bald faced lies the government was selling. When George Bush the senior unleashed his "shock and awe" on Iraq, all media were "embedded" with approved military handlers and the flag draped coffins were ordered hidden from public view. To this day the media simply regurgitate government press releases and seem happy to do so. The end of the anti-war movement is often blamed on the end of the draft, but government censorship at least equally responsible. Kinda want to see this documentary but I really don't want to relive this shit so I probably won't.

  • MSimon||

    Anything in it about the Hmong and heroin?

  • Netizen_James||

    no, nothing about how the war was an excuse to give the CIA control over Asian opium production.
    (Just like how the current war is about giving the CIA control over African opium production. (note carefully that Bush2 was PRAISING the Taliban, and getting them UN aide prior to 9-11-01 (see https://www.cato.org/ publications/commentary/ how-washington-funded-taliban ) )

    I was surprised at the inclusion of the historical reality that Ho Chi Minh only went to the Soviets after US President Wilson blew him off in his search for help throwing off the yoke of French Imperialism. It shows that the real mistake was not supporting him from the get go. If we had, we'd have had a strong democratic ally in southeast Asia, instead of quagmires and piles of dead soldiers.

    Similar to the mistaken decision that led to Eisenhower approving the coup that took Mossadeqh out of Iran's leadership, and putting the brutal tyrant Shah Pahlavi back on the 'peacock throne'. That bit of bs is why the Iranian Revolutionarys took and held the US Embassy in Tehran - so that the CIA couldn't use it to base a coup from AGAIN.

    N_J

  • JFree||

    The first episode was interesting but erratic. I didn't get the occasional flash-forwards (from 1951 to 1968 and then back) at all. They just disrupted the story (with some implied 'insight' into what we saw later) in order to insert photos of US troops and 60's music and Chicago - and then back to the French-Viet war. Maybe that's to appeal to an American audience - but that same weirdness also came to mind when I heard Americans talking about the late 40's and 50's and about domino theory and the Cold War. Their complete cluelessness about local motivations - even now - reminds me of a couple of books written in the 50's and located in Vietnam - The Quiet American and The Ugly American. And none of it seems unique to Vietnam at all.

    I'm not sure that 'interventionism' is as much of a problem re American foreign policy as is the complete and utter stupidity of the entire realm of 'foreign policy experts' - both those doing it and those critiquing it. And it's hard even to explain how willfully ignorant and lazy they all seem.

  • Augustine||

    But the "complete cluelessness about local motivations" doesn't change the fact that they were only able to fight the war because of the support from the communist countries that openly bragged about using the domino theory to promote revolution and tyranny world wide.

  • PlaystoomuchHALO||

    Watching this only reinforces the view that I formed in high school (back when Carter was trying to ruin the country and fighting off killer rabbits) was that we can mostly blame the entire Vietnam debacle on the French.

  • jonnysage||

    "What does the Geneva Convention have to do with this?" the North Vietnamese replied. "Our countries have not declared war on one another." Alvarez gaped. "You know what?" he thought to himself. "They're right."

    Dropping bombs on enemies is a pretty clear declaration of war. Which is moot, because the Geneva conventions apply to ALL war, not just officially declared war.

    "In addition to the provisions which shall be implemented in peacetime, the present Convention shall apply to all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, even if the state of war is not recognized by one of them."

  • macsnafu||

    The little ducky doesn't need permission to lie down.

  • ||

    Blah, blah, blah... War is the ultimate manifestation of man's insanity. There, save ya 18 hours of TV viewing.

  • cjones1||

    A fact pertinent to today is that the Chinese government pushed the invasion of South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh was relegated to a figurehead position while Le Duan and collaborating members of the North Vietnamese ruling took o ver and prosecuted the war.
    It was sad to recount the meat grinding mistakes of our politicians and military, especially the tragedy of losing patriotic young men thrown into a conflict to stem the Communist scourge.
    I hope the Ken Burns documentary reports the millions of victims that were slaughtered, enslaved, imprisoned, disenfranchised, and forcefully reeducated by the Communists in Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos as a result of the Communist aggression masked as an anti-colonialism movement.
    Our soldiers became involved in a noble fight against oppression marred by political and military miscalculations initiated by Chinese puppets.

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