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The Vietnam War (1954–75) began with the uprising of a group of Southern Vietnamese communists known as the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF), who wanted to overthrow their government and unify with Communist-run North Vietnam. As the North supported the NLF, the United States provided its ally South Vietnam with military advisors and supplies. The conflict escalated after President Ngô Đình Diệm of South Vietnam was assassinated during a military coup in 1963 and North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. The United States responded by sending troops to actively fight in the war, which continued until a peace agreement, soon to be broken, was signed in January 1973. The last US military unit was withdrawn in March 1973, yet some Americans remained until the fall of Saigon in April 1975 forced them to pull out as well—leaving the country united under Communist rule.
The war was covered extensively by the global press, and the world was exposed to unprecedented scenes of warfare as a result of the increasing availability of film and number of televisions in American homes. This heightened awareness contributed to political and social unrest in the United States and the polarization of opinions led to protests of US involvement in the war specifically and foreign conflicts in general.
The Vietnam War, and the social movement it ignited, dominated public affairs during Firing Line’s first half-dozen years. The program, hosted by William F. Buckley Jr., began broadcasting as US military involvement in Vietnam escalated and political unrest under Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon increased across the country. Firing Line’s debates about the war and its impact on the home front feature some of the program’s sharpest exchanges, reflecting the divisiveness of the Vietnam War.
"Civil Rights and Foreign Policy"
Floyd B. McKissick
August 22, 1966
At the time of this episode, lawyer and civil rights activist Floyd B. McKissick (1922–91) was the new director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a prominent civil rights organization that was pivoting to a platform based on the “Black Power” movement under McKissick’s leadership. During the episode, Buckley’s concern about the inclusion of communism in the tenets of the civil rights movement sparks much of the conversation with McKissick, who dismisses the possibility of communist manipulation. Buckley and McKissick move on to discuss the relationship between the civil rights movement and American foreign policy. McKissick sees an inherent connection between the political disenfranchisement of Black Americans and their lack of influence on foreign policy, and subsequently, their role in armed conflicts such as the Vietnam War.
“We believe that the two primary issues In the world today are peace and racism, that we should direct our struggle towards peace and we should direct our struggle toward the abolishment of racism.”
— Floyd B. McKissick
July 8, 1967
“I don’t believe that we can stop the spread of communism by sacrificing the principles of democracy, which is indeed what we did do in Vietnam in 1956, when we stopped the elections.”
— Robert Vaughn
Robert Vaughn (1932–2016) was an actor, well-known at the time of his appearance on Firing Line for his starring role as CIA agent Napoleon Solo in the popular TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Vaughn was also an outspoken critic of America’s role in the Vietnam War. The root of the problem, as he saw it, was that the US government had enabled South Vietnam’s president Ngô Đình Diệm to sidestep democratic elections in 1956. Throughout the conversation, Buckley and Vaughn struggle to agree on appropriate conditions for the United States to intervene in foreign affairs.
"Vietnam and the Intellectuals"
April 3, 1969
Noam Chomsky (b. 1928)—linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and activist—first came to national attention for his 1967 essay against the Vietnam War, titled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” which depicted the war as an act of American imperialism. His antiwar activism landed him in jail several times and earned him a spot on President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” Chomsky turned his famous essay into a 1969 book, American Power and the New Mandarins, the publication of which prompted an invitation to appear on Firing Line. In introducing him on the program, Buckley remarked that Chomsky was “listed in anybody’s catalogue as among the half-dozen top heroes of the New Left.” What ensues is a clash of political and philosophical opposites.
“Since the Second World War, we have become the world’s major imperialist power. And Vietnam is simply one piece of an attempt to construct a very large integrated world system.”
— Noam Chomsky
"How the Vietnam War Was Lost"
Nguyễn Cao Kỳ
September 14, 1975
“On many occasions when I talked with the Vietnamese as well as American officials I said, ‘We need help from America but, now, to use the aid effectively in the fight against the communists, we need a big change within the South Vietnamese system and leaders.’ In other words, ‘We need a very effective clean, honest leadership in South Vietnam.’”
— Nguyễn Cao Kỳ
Nguyễn Cao Kỳ (1930–2011) became the prime minister of South Vietnam in 1965, appointed to the role by military leaders after years of political upheaval, including several attempted coups, and years of political upheaval. He served in that role until 1967, when the South Vietnamese leadership transitioned to an elected government. Kỳ then served as the vice president of the Republic of Vietnam beside President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu but became increasingly critical of Thiệu’s leadership. Kỳ retired from politics after withdrawing from the 1971 presidential race, but he remained critical of Thiệu’s administration until the end of the Vietnam War in April 1975. Less than six months later, Kỳ was invited as a guest on Firing Line to share his thoughts on how the Vietnam War was lost. Throughout the episode, Kỳ points to the corruption of Thiệu and the South Vietnamese government as a key factor in losing the war against the Communists.
"Human Rights in Vietnam"
Joan Baez and Ginetta Sagan
September 6, 1979
Musician and activist Joan Baez (b. 1941) is joined by Ginetta Sagan (1925–2000), human rights activist and founder of the west coast branch of Amnesty International, in this episode of Firing Line. Although the two are invited to the show to discuss human rights in Vietnam, the majority of the conversation revolves around pacifism and nonviolent activism. Buckley attempts to pose theoretical situations for Baez and Sagan to consider, but the two guests—whose ideologies are so deeply entrenched in alternatives to violence—struggle to remain within the confines of these hypothetical cases. Baez encourages Buckley and the audience to think creatively about solutions to problems that don’t resort to violence, while Sagan uses her experiences as a member of the Italian resistance movement during World War II to illustrate the ways nonviolent activism can be effective.
“I think it takes some forethought to carry out intelligent activity. And when we mean peaceful activity of that kind, again, we don't mean passive activity. We didn’t need passive resistance. We were very active.”
— Ginetta Sagan
Other Notable Episodes
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