Ken Burns's Vietnam Documentary Promotes Misleading History

Its first episode can be understood as a sophisticated exercise in empire denial.
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Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary on the Vietnam War began airing on PBS last night after much anticipation.

The film follows previous Burns works in providing poignant footage mixed with compelling interviews and a backdrop of good music, starting in this case with Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.

Despite the counter-cultural veneer, however, and admirable efforts to provide a Vietnamese perspective, Burns and Novick’s film in its first episode provides conventional analysis about the war’s outbreak and can be understood as a sophisticated exercise in empire denial.

The film is misleading at the outset in quoting an American soldier who recounts the pain of his homecoming, insinuating that veterans were maltreated in the United States – a trope often used to blame antiwar activists for creating this allegedly anti-veteran and divisive climate.

A voice-over by Peter Coyote subsequently claims that the Vietnam War was “started in good faith by decent men.”

However, the film goes on to recount a history in which the United States failed to allow for elections in the South after Vietnam had been divided following the French defeat at Dienbienphu. Everybody knew North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh would win the election, and so the United States set about building a client regime in the South which rigged a referendum and then massacred thousands of suspected communists.

These facts point to the United States violating the sovereignty of Vietnam and betraying the American mission of supporting democracy around the world.

After World War I, the Wilson administration refused to look at a petition by Ho Chi Minh advocating for Vietnam’s independence. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations subsequently provided extensive support in the 1st Indochina War (1946-1954) to the French who had presided over an oppressive colonial regime that exploited Vietnam’s economy and brutalized nationalist opponents.

This support was not made in good faith, but rather out of self-interested geopolitical calculation and prejudice.

Burns and Novick mislead viewers further by showing footage of North Vietnamese migrating to the South fleeing communist terror and interviewing a woman whose family fled while leaving out the fact that the CIA worked to sabotage North Vietnam’s economy, created a fake resistance movement and coerced many Catholics and others to flee by spreading false rumors about Vietminh atrocities and promising them 40 acres and a mule.

Burns and Novick depict the southern guerrilla movement as being controlled by the Hanoi Politburo when the National Liberation Front (NLF) was founded in direct response to the 10/59 law passed by South Vietnamese premier Ngo Dinh Diem that allowed for the execution of regime opponents after a military trial.

Burns and Novick also leave out some of the sinister aspects of nation building in the late 1950s, such as the police training program led by CIA advisers working under the cover of Michigan State University (MSU) who imported surveillance equipment and built up Diem’s secret police.

The film suggests that the U.S. was deceived by Diem who promoted undemocratic methods against Americans’ advice. However, MSU police adviser Arthur Brandstatter wrote to his colleague Ralph Turner that he supported Diem’s position regarding the role of the Civil Guard in “neutralizing VC activity” and “never agreed with the position that the Americans should try to help develop a democratic police force under conditions of instability and insurgency.” (See Jeremy Kuzmarov, Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century. University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, chapter 7).

These comments directly fly in the face of the film’s presentation.

According to Burns and Novick, the tragedy of the Vietnam War was a product of the political climate of the Cold War. The film makes a point of showing a map of the Soviet Union overrunning Eastern Europe and then attempting to do the same with Iran, Turkey and the Mediterranean, particularly in Greece.

This history is flawed, however, because in Greece it was the U.S. and UK that intervened militarily on behalf of royalist forces who had collaborated with the Nazis, while the Soviet Union maintained its pledge under the Yalta agreements not to back the left-wing rebels.

The USSR also only consolidated pro-communist regimes in Eastern Europe after the U.S. had implemented the Marshall Plan, interfered in election in Italy and infiltrated secret teams, led by ex-Nazi collaborators, to foment revolutions in Eastern Europe.

Burns and Novick quote Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson and other proponents of the domino theory who feared that if Indochina fell, all of Southeast Asia would follow.

Left out, however, is how anticommunist fears were used to advance a larger imperialistic policy designed to consolidate a chain of military bases from Okinawa through the Ryukyu Islands, which were threatened by the communist revolutions.

Political analyst Noam Chomsky has explained that Vietnam was never going to invade any of its neighbors. The real fear of policy makers was that successful independent socialist development in Vietnam would serve as a model to other countries, including those with key strategic value such as Indonesia and Japan.

None of this is discussed in Burns and Novick’s documentary which relies on clips from policy-makers and commentary from old Cold Warriors mixed with a balance of Vietnamese voices who do not address the war’s imperialist underpinnings on the American side.

The implications are considerable in light of the fact that the United States has been constantly at war since the Vietnam War ended and continues to be deceptive about the motives underlying these wars.

Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches at the University of Tulsa and is author of The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Massachusetts, 2009) and Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012).

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