“History is written by the victors” has been the wisdom of the ages, restated jocularly but truthfully by Winston Churchill about his story of the Second World War. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War” fulfills this dictum once again, but with a unique twist. As Americans, they are among the losers, but their documentary exalts the winners—Communist North Vietnam. At the same time, they themselves are on the winning side in the domestic American contest between the anti-Vietnam War movement and those who saw the war as necessary in the larger Cold War struggle.
The 10-part series opens with the conclusion that “Vietnam called everything into question.” The “Sixties,” for which the Vietnam War was the linchpin, changed the country politically, culturally, socially, morally, and intellectually. Much of American history has been understood along a war-fighting timeline from the Revolution to the Civil War to the Second World War and then to the Vietnam War, which was a foreign war that fomented a domestic cultural revolution. Across this entire sweep of nationhood, the Vietnam War was a turning point. After the war, the American national character fundamentally changed.
That, anyway, is the narrative that Burns and Novick adopt in their documentary. To them, the Vietnam War is profoundly significant for our twenty-first century understanding of America’s history and destiny. And they may be correct.
The master narrative of the Vietnam War is an established and entirely familiar tale. The gist of that narrative is that the war was the worst foreign policy disaster in American history: pointless, immoral, filled with actions verging on war crimes, and senselessly carried on long after the time when the United States should have “cut and run.” All the main characters, plot lines, and images are gathered in Burns and Novick’s retelling. For fifty years, this established Vietnam story has rarely been seriously challenged and when it has—boiling oil has been poured on those who dared to differ.
Each segment in the series covers an indispensable and undeniable episode in the established narrative. But there is more, however, in Burns and Novick’s telling than a rehearsal of the familiar images and accusations. There is another plot line that emerges in their documentary. This essay will follow this newly-developed plot line which, from a critical point of view, might be titled, “The Fallacy of the Excluded Beginning, Middle, and Ending.” Burns and Novick argue that the real victors of the war were the American leftists who upended countless domestic institutions in the 1960s—and that their efforts led to a more just society.
To ensure that the audience grasps the new story behind the old history of the war, the producers feature a variety of individuals who give their testimony of what happened in Vietnam. There are grizzled American veterans who reveal themselves as heroes-in-reverse, detailing how they began their service as proud patriots until, through bitter experience, they turned against the war. There are distinguished diplomats and foreign policy experts who point out the foolish mistakes and ignorant policies imposed by uncomprehending U.S. officials. And there are the journalists, like the war correspondent Neil Sheehan, whose timely interventions exposed the moral emptiness of the war.
Taken together across the ten episodes, the voice of these witnesses play the role of the Greek Chorus in a classic tragedy, giving warnings of doleful consequences ahead. The veterans, as the producers use them, declare that American servicemen in Vietnam were scared: “I was scared of them. I hated them. I was so scared.” This becomes a series-long trope, repeatedly illustrated by silent images of Americans in or near combat, each face etched in fear. The diplomats and experts repeatedly denounce the ineluctable stupidity of American leaders. And the journalists emit expressions of “woe!”
Burns and Novick’s narrative begins with nineteenth-century French colonial rule of Indochina, allegedly a “mission civilisatrice” but actually a system of resource exploitation, racial oppression, cultural imperialism, and slave labor, all in collaboration with sinister “Mandarin” puppet emperors. Burns and Novick point out that French colonial rule was displaced in World War II by Imperial Japan’s colonial rule, and then by the restoration of French colonialism, which in turn was supported by the United States until, after the French defeat in 1954, the Americans themselves became the world’s leading imperial power.
This storyline is essential to the Burns-Novick line of argument. In their view, the Cold War plays no role in the Vietnam story. The sole international issue of the twentieth century, they believe, was decolonization, the Third World’s struggle to cast off the colonialist powers of the West, the latest of which would become the United States.
Thus the Cold War, the great global contest between international Communism and the U.S.-led free world, has no comfortable place in the Burns-Novick story where it is a vague, evanescent apparition at best. The Greek Chorus in the person of the distinguished American ambassador Donald Gregg intervenes to explain that we saw the Vietnam War as a defeat for the Free World—“a misreading of the end of the colonial era.”
With the end of the Second World War, the French indeed moved to reassert their colonial rule over Vietnam, but against the expressed will and policy of the United States, which, mindful of its own national birth, made it clear that the colonized lands of Asia should move rapidly towards independence. As early as 1943, President Roosevelt declared that he did not want France to return to Vietnam, but return they did.
In the early post-war years, Communism was emerging as a world force following the victory of the Soviet Union in Europe and Mao’s victorious takeover of China. In Indochina, Ho Chi Minh, who had joined the Communist Party in 1920 and thereafter served as a Comintern operative in Russia and China—a career unmentioned in the series—set up a coalition of nationalists, the Viet Minh, and brought it under Communist control.
Having just led the Allies through a brutal world war to defeat the Third Reich in Europe and Imperial Japan in Asia, the United States suddenly awakened to the advance of Communism—a violent ideology designed for world domination—on several continents. By the early 1950s, the American hope to “contain” the Communist advance had been powerfully tested in Germany, Korea, and China. In each case the Communist side had militarily pushed into a nation divided between the Communist “East” and the American-backed “West,” and in each case the United States had to act to maintain the divided line and defend the doctrine of containment. When the Soviets moved to take full control of four-power-occupied Berlin in 1948, the United States responded with the“Berlin Airlift. When the Korean War was launched by the Communist North’s invasion across the 38th parallel in an attempt to conquer the South, a U.S.-led coalition restored the partition of the country. When Mao’s Communist forces took mainland China, the Nationalist Republic of China, backed by the United States, held on to Taiwan.
Vietnam would be the next divided nation challenge—one that no American president could turn away from. If Communism took Southeast Asia, then Japan, which had deep economic ties to the region, would accommodate itself to the international Communist bloc. France, profoundly weakened by the Nazi occupation and on the brink of succumbing to “Eurocommunism,” was in Vietnam endeavoring to stop the Viet Minh advance. The United States gave the French Army in Vietnam minimal support—not to restore French colonialism, but to obstruct Communist forces. After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States used economic and political pressure to push France out of Indochina altogether.
The Cold War was in fact World War III, a gigantic contest over which form of world order—ideological Communism or pluralistic liberalism—would shape the future. It was “cold” in the sense that dangerous maneuvers maintained a central strategic balance that deterred a nuclear conflagration. But the Cold War was “hot” on the regional front. North Vietnam’s war to conquer the South demanded American opposition. Independently and in collusion with Communist China and the Soviet Union, the North aimed to destroy, first by subversion and insurrection and ultimately by direct invasion, any future possibility for maintaining a power balance among the states of one of the world’s most geo- and economically strategic regions.
The Burns-Novick version of the Vietnam War’s beginnings revives the left-leaning interpretation that Mao’s fighters in China really were nothing more than “agrarian reformers,” and that Ho’s cadres in North Vietnam were themselves innocuously busy with land reform. There is no doubt that giving land to the peasants was an objective of both men, but it would be done to obliterate the class enemies of the Revolution as the keystone of Marxist ideology for international transformation.
Burns-Novick’s erasure of the Cold War is the hinge in the next phase in their story. The Cold War was a mirage—decolonization was the reality, and the United States, deluded, had it all backward.
The 1960 election of John F. Kennedy seemed to promise “a new day of freedom.” But JFK was indecisive and confused by Cold War strategy. He and his team—Rusk, Rostow, Taylor, and McNamara—all had served in World War II to defeat dictatorship, yet here they were opposed to the National Liberation Front (the latest of the shifting labels applied to the Communist side) and supported the dictatorial President Diem of the South, allowing the war to be waged in hideous ways.
At the same time, there emerged a younger generation—most notably of reporters led by David Halberstram, Malcolm Browne, and Neil Sheehan, who saw the truth and dared to publish it. They would reveal that all American history up to and including the Vietnam war had been in the service of a racist, violent, oppressive, and greedy system. This would become the central ethos of the Sixties and it would displace the ethos that came before it, that of the greatest generation, which included people like JFK and his colleagues in the White House who had served in WWII. The Sixties produced the founding generation of a wholly transformed America—and this was the truly greatest generation in Burns’ and Novick’s telling.
In addition to ignoring the Cold War, the Burns-Novick story says nothing about that time’s international phenomenon of cultural revolutions in which America was embedded and which may be traced to the “Rebel Without a Cause” 1950s and enshrined in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road that, on its first page, denounced marriage, home, education, occupation, and loyalty to God, country, and society because “everything was dead.” The novel so thoroughly repudiated America that it was essentially a one-to-one refutation of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass of one hundred years before. Other “revolutions” rocked the Sixties: the “Free Speech Movement” at Berkeley, the women’s liberation movement, black power, and so on. In the middle of the decade, Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution summoned student “Little Red Guards” to overthrow “the Four Olds”; old customs, old habits, old ideas, old culture—indeed, to tear down traditional Chinese civilization itself. This inspired students in Europe where it erupted in Paris in May 1968.
The American anti-Vietnam War movement cannot be fully understood absent this context, but the series makes only glancing references to the youth movement such as naked dancing in the streets of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and the mosh pits of Woodstock. Into this maelstrom came the “New Left,” a European-British student-driven attempt to renovate Marxism after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin; elite American college students were captivated by its turn toward Maoism—which added Third World peasants to the urban proletariat as the leading proponents of the global “class struggle.”
Seen in its widest potentiality, the 1960s period was globally transformative in multidimensional ways, with the overriding theme being defiance of established institutions and traditional concepts of authority. The anti-Vietnam War cause became the linchpin of it all in that “Vietnam” was taken to demonstrate that America is racist, capitalist, genocidal, imperial, and socially oppressive. “Revisionist” historians of the time were eager to provide arguments for America’s entire past as a record of wrongdoing. By the late 1960s Students for a Democratic Society declared the United States to be the villain of the war, leading the movement to call for a Viet Cong–North Vietnam victory.
Here is the underlying meaning of the declaration featured at the series’ outset that “Vietnam called everything into question.” The established narrative of the war, and the gloss on it provided by Burns-Novick’s inner theme, is that the Vietnam War represented not only Hanoi’s victory over the United States, but, more consequentially, the victory of all of the layers of social-political-cultural-personal revolution of the Sixties. To reaffirm the anti-war movement doctrinally is to lock in all the vast changes in the American character brought about by what the documentary sees as the truly greatest generation, the radicals of the 1960s. Thus the Burns-Novick film is as much, or more, about America in the twenty-first century as it is about the years between 1954 and 1975 in Southeast Asia. That was about a political-military conflict; it became and is now about a new phase of moral superiority.
The vast Communist uprising that was Tet Offensive of 1968 may be briefly summarized as a devastating defeat for the Viet Cong but a political-psychological victory for Hanoi, owing to its immediate portrayal by the American media as proof that prior U.S. claims of the war going well had been lies.
The documentary asserts that the war should have been ended then by negotiations, an absurd idea in view of what actually happened at Tet and what would be the North’s demonstrated contempt for serious negotiations in the years ahead. The Viet Cong were virtually obliterated by the Hanoi-ordered offensive; it would take some years before the North could recast its strategy and strike again. The North would never have negotiated under such conditions of weakness.
At this point in the film’s arrangement of its story, significance is given to the charge that after the Tet Offensive, then presidential candidate Richard Nixon signaled to President Thieu of South Vietnam that better terms could be had if Thieu rejected negotiations until after Nixon was elected. This calumny was not invented until a generation later, by a professional polemicist aiming to blame Nixon for continuing the war when it could have come to an end in the Sixties. The film’s producers leave its viewers assuming it was true.
Like American journalism in general between 1969 and 1975, the 2017 film also studiously avoids reporting on what actually happened on the South Vietnamese battlefield in the war’s final years as that reality did not and does not fit their preferred rendition.
Books, articles, films, documentaries, and wartime journalism produced after 1968 have conveyed little or nothing about what actually happened on the ground. The Viet Cong were devastated; Hanoi needed time to regroup and prepare a new phase. On the U.S. –South Vietnam side, a “one-war” strategy was put into effect militarily by General Creighton (Abe) Abrams and diplomatically by Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. The growing capabilities of The Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the ARVN, went unchronicled as reporters wrote only about their desertions and corruption. The South was pacified through tactics that would later be called “clear, hold, and build,” providing security under the protective cover of artillery pieces and helicopter pads in “firebases” that began to dot the land like leopard spots. Into these securely defended territories, Vietnamese people came to settle, away from the Communist threat. The film covers none of this; its later episodes reiterate the condemnations of earlier segments; the Greek chorus is called on again and again.
I arrived in Vietnam at the start of the 1970s after turning against the war when I was a Visiting Fellow at Harvard’s East Asia Center in 1970. When the U.S. bombing and incursion of Cambodia took place to deny the North Vietnamese the sanctuary of that border area, I witnessed the Harvard student uprising which entirely shut down the university while humiliating the school’s administration and eminent professors.
When I arrived in Saigon on assignment to the Mission Coordinator’s office as a U.S. foreign service officer, I was stunned at the city scenes I saw: a mailman on his rounds, laughing schoolgirls on their way to class, shopkeepers going about the day’s work, a population that felt protected from the Communists they wanted nothing to do with. A few weeks later, two colleagues and I drove a civilian car from Saigon to Da Nang and back, unarmed, with no sign of checkpoints or danger. This was nothing remotely like the pictures of horror and devastation I had viewed on Boston television evening news. Before long, I petitioned to bring my family to Vietnam and soon my two little daughters were going to a Saigon pre-school and telling me in the evening that they had seen a “Hippa-Hoppa” (a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter) overhead that day.
The major battle of the post-Tet’68 years would come when Hanoi launched its multipronged invasion of the South in April 1972; we called it “The Easter Offensive.” It is important to understand what Burns-Novick do not tell their audience about what kind of assault this was.
Burns-Novick make the peculiar, indeed ridiculous, claim that Nixon’s February 1972 visit to China and contacts with the Soviet Union so alarmed Hanoi that the North felt it had to invade the South to attract Beijing’s and Moscow’s attention and continued support. The Easter offensive had been years in preparation and of enormous military significance; Hanoi had lost its Viet Cong insurgency strategy and as a result was compelled to launch a full-scale conventional war to conquer the South. North Vietnamese Army (NVA) division-strength troops invaded the republic of Vietnam across three international boundaries: the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the north, the Laos border in the Central Highlands, and the Cambodian border in the South where three NVA divisions drove toward An Loc, the provincial capital sixty five miles from Saigon. There were no U.S. combat troops left in Vietnam; all had been withdrawn long before; there was still American air support however and plenty of it. If An Loc fell, an entire province would be under Hanoi’s control and the South would be done for.
The invading Communist army far out-powered the ARVN. The NVA came in with T-54 tanks and with 130 mm long-range artillery. Fierce fighting raged for weeks. North Vietnam, General Abrams said, was “holding nothing back.” On the DMZ front, President Thieu installed Lieutenant General Ngo Quang Truong, South Vietnam’s best field commander, and the enemy drive was stopped. In the Central Highlands, American air power pounded the approaches to Kontum as the 23rd ARVN division inflicted heavy casualties on the invaders and the VNAF, South Vietnam’s Air Force had been, a U.S. air advisor said, “magnificent, absolutely magnificent.”
But on the most politically dangerous and dramatic front, An Loc, on Route 13 to Saigon, the situation seemed desperate in what was probably the single most important battle in the war. At An Loc, the ARVN were apparently doing nothing. Bunker, in growing frustration, went to see Thieu again and again to urge him to take offensive action. Thieu was calm, polite and reassuring. Bunker, who liked and admired Thieu, found him impossible to fathom on this occasion. One of Bunker’s principles of diplomacy was “sometimes the best thing is to do nothing.” Thieu was now asking Bunker to see the wisdom of doing nothing and Bunker found the turnabout advice hard to take. Bunker choppered to the An Loc front to see for himself and I went with him. Thieu was right. His ARVN troops were not moving forward, but they were not moving back either. They were the anvil, and VNAF and U.S. air power were decimating the Communist troops as they hammered them against the anvil. Thieu had perfected a tactic not unlike that of the Roman general Fabius Maximus Cunctator (“The Delayer”) or the boxer Muhammed Ali’s “Rope a dope.” Hanoi’s troops, at the end of a long logistics line, were in dire straits, and the Battle of An Loc was won. Hanoi’s all-out-conventional war had failed.
But politically, it was too late. When the Foreign Minister of South Vietnam, Tran Van Lam, went to Washington soon after the South’s Easter Offensive victory to discuss next steps, no one in Congress would see him. And although Henry Kissinger negotiated at Paris in early 1973 a signed agreement that could have solidified the military-diplomatic achievements of the post-Tet ’68 years, the political world of Washington would have none of it. From that point on, the outcome was fated. The ARVN ran out of ammunition. Even so, the defeat inflicted by the South on the invading force of the North had been so severe that it took the North three years before it was able to mount the 1975 invasion that brought the Fall of Saigon. This last event is covered in Burns-Novick’s film, but nothing of the “ending” years that preceded it.
“The Vietnam War” series operates on two levels: the bulk of the narrative, images, and commentary repeats in emotional and highly dramatic form the familiar, established narrative of “Vietnam” as America’s worst-ever intervention abroad. Along with this is the story of the truly great Sixties generation which turned American history and its national character upside down for the betterment of all.
The film is thus a contender in what the poet Wallace Stevens noted as an American search for a “supreme fiction.” The struggle between two conceptions of nationhood can be found in the words of two deeply involved Americans. The Vietnam veteran John Kerry, then recently back from the war, turned against it publicly, threw away his medals, and would be famed for saying, “How do you ask a man to be the last one to die for a mistake?” He spoke for us all, Senator Fulbright said.
In Vietnam as the fighting reached its climax, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker said, “No one who died for freedom ever died in vain.” Kerry’s words are featured in the series; Bunker’s are not. The film’s motto is: “There is no single truth in war.” That’s a true statement, but one to which the series does not adhere.