Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary on the Vietnam War has continued its run on PBS, covering the JFK and early LBJ years in its last episode.
The film is highly entertaining and includes some rich footage and interviews with a wide array of participants.
As I discussed in a previous columm, I found the first episode to be flawed in that it fails to contextualize U.S. intervention amidst the larger drive for empire in Southeast Asia or to effectively challenge the domino theory. Furthermore, it omitted CIA programs that helped spark the war and encouraged refugees to flee to the South.
From a historian’s point of view, the second and third episodes have been better in detailing the political failings of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime, the Buddhist protests, effective “Vietcong” fighting capabilities at the Battle of Ap Bac and later Ia Drang Valley, the bravery and sacrifice of U.S. soldiers and the disastrous government decision to overthrow Diem.
Part three also has some informative discussion of internal government debates and relays the deception about the Gulf of Tonkin incident where the attack on a U.S. naval ship was provoked. The film points out that naval officers falsely reported a second attack allegedly because they mistranslated some intelligence signals.
However, since U.S. intelligence officers are technically competent, the film could have raised the question as to whether some elements of the national security bureaucracy bent on war may have deliberately skewed the intelligence – something we have seen recently.
The film seems to suggest the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was universally supported when it was opposed by Congressmen Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, a long-time anti-imperialist whom the film could have featured.
Another flaw is that the film appears to exaggerate the influence of Le Duan in the Hanoi Politburo, depicting him as a war-mongerer comparable to some of the super-hawks on the American side, who was willing to deceive and sell out his own people.
However, the Vietnamese people ardently believed in their cause more so than the American people and soldiers, and wanted to reunify their country at whatever the cost having fought against foreign invaders for decades. Thus it is bad history to blame Le Duan for the war.
For me the saddest moment of episode three was the interview with a former Vietcong fighter who recounted the death of his brother whose fiancée then tragically killed herself because she did not want to marry any other man.
Unfortunately, the same episode fails to discuss the human costs of the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam under Operation Rolling Thunder.
Rolling Thunder was inaugurated by the Johnson administration in February 1965 in order to cut off supply lines and try and force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table.
The film leaves out the fact that Ambassador Maxwell Taylor, one of the supposedly honorable men whom narrator Peter Coyote claims “led the U.S. into Vietnam in good faith,” suppressed intelligence from the most experienced analyst at the CIAs Saigon station predicting the bombing would be ineffective.
National Security adviser McGeorge Bundy – another of these supposedly decent men - claimed in Foreign Affairs that the bombing was “the most accurate and restrained in modern warfare.”
However, eyewitness reports pointed to the striking of hospitals, schools, Buddhist pagodas, agricultural cooperatives, fishing boats, dikes, and a leper colony and sanitarium, resulting in the death of at a minimum 52,000 civilians.
Nam Dinh, Vietnam’s third largest city, was “made to resemble the city of a vanished civilization,” according to New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury, despite being a center for silk and textile production, not war-related production.
Vinh (population 72,000), Vietnam’s Dresden, was subjected to 4,131 attacks over a four year period (and 4,700 overall in the war), resulting in the destruction of nearly of all of its homes, 31 schools, the university, four hospitals, the main bookstore and cinema and two churches along with an historic 18th century Buddhist pagoda that served as cultural center of the city, a museum of the revolution and the 19th century imperial citadel.
Remarkably, none of this is highlighted in Burns’ and Novick’s documentary and not one survivor is sought out for interview when the daughter of a French collaborator who sanctioned the U.S. invasion is given ample screen-time.
Following raids in Dai Lai village in the rural Thai Binh province (southeast of Hanoi) in October 1967, French journalist Gerard Chaliand witnessed men and women weeping as they swept debris from the floors of destroyed homes, recounting neighbors they had witnessed being burned alive by the fires. Bui Van Nguu, forty-six, told Chaliand he had been making brooms for the cooperative outdoors when a bomb exploded in his kitchen, burying his three children.
The only thing left of them was mangled limbs, shreds of flesh, and the ear of his eldest daughter which was found in a garden seven yards away. Rescue teams in the village dug out many other kids who had been buried alive, burned to shreds or asphyxiated in the bombing massacre which was one of many in the war.
World opinion at the time was horrified by the bombings. British philosopher Bertrand Russell set up a war crimes tribunal which focused a lot on Rolling Thunder.
Pilot Randy Floyd said that “virtually anywhere in North Vietnam was a free drop zone. We bombed the cattle because we were told that anything out there was North Vietnamese controlled and we figured that was part of the food supply.” These comments fly in the face of Bundy’s claim about surgical precision and point to the horrendous human consequences of the Vietnam War, which Burns and Novick’s account fails to fully display.
Their efforts thus represent a missed opportunity to fully educate the U.S. public on the horrors of the Vietnam War and destructive capabilities of the U.S. military machine which in 2016 alone dropped over 25,000 bombs on Muslim countries.
Jeremy Kuzmarov is author of a book on the connection between the Vietnam War and the War on Drugs and another on American police training programs. He is co-author of an essay on the Vietnam War he directs readers to. Please go to: http://peacehistory-usfp.org/vietnam-war/