Ken Burns and the Vietnam War: Ten Items to Watch For


W.J. Astore

On September 17th, a new TV documentary series on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns (famous for past series on the U.S. Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, among others) and Lynn Novick begins its run on PBS.  Airing in ten parts over 18 hours, the series promises a comprehensive look at the war from all sides, with the catchphrase “There is no single truth in war” serving as a guiding light.  Initial excerpts suggest the series isn’t looking to provide definitive answers, perhaps as a way of avoiding political controversy in the Age of Trump.

I’ll be watching the series, but I have ten points of my own to make about America’s war in Vietnam.  As a preamble, the Vietnam War (American version) was both mistake and crime. What’s disconcerting in the U.S. media is the emphasis on the war as an American tragedy, when it was truly a horrific tragedy inflicted upon the peoples of Southeast Asia (Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians). Yes, American troops suffered and died in large numbers, yet Southeast Asian casualties were perhaps 50 times as great. Along with wanton killing came the poisoning of the environment with defoliants like Agent Orange; meanwhile, mines and unexploded ordnance from the war continue to kill people today in Southeast Asia. In a sense, the killing from that war still isn’t over.

With the caveat that we should reserve judgment until we’ve seen the series, let’s keep these ten points in mind as we watch:

1. To most Americans, Vietnam is a war. And war is a distorting and limiting lens through which to view cultures and peoples. Will Burns recognize this distortion?

2. The series talks about hearing voices from all sides of the conflict. But will the Vietnamese people, together with Laotians and Cambodians, really have as much say as Americans?

3. The U.S. suffered nearly 60,000 troops killed. But Vietnamese killed numbered in the millions. And the destruction to SE Asia — the spread of the war to Laos and Cambodia — was on a scale that rivaled or surpassed the destruction to the American South during the U.S. Civil War. Will that destruction be thoroughly documented and explained?

4. Whose point of view will prevail in the documentary? What will be the main thread of the narrative? Will the war be presented as a tragedy? A misunderstanding? A mistake? A crime? Will the “noble cause” and “stabbed in the back” myths (the ideas that the U.S. fought for freedom and democracy and against communism, and that the U.S. military could have won but was prevented from doing so by unpatriotic forces at home) be given equal time in the interests of a “fair and balanced” presentation? Will these myths be presented as alternative truths of the war?

5. Which American war in Vietnam will be presented? Even when we talk of the American part of the Vietnam War, there were at least four wars. The U.S. Army under General William Westmoreland fought a conventional, search and destroy, war. The Air Force wanted to prove that airpower alone, specifically bombing, could win the war. The Marines were more interested in counterinsurgency and pacification. The CIA and special ops types were engaged in psychological warfare, assassinations, torture, and god-knows-what-else.

6. The American presence in Vietnam became so overwhelming that by 1967-68 the Vietnamese economy was completely distorted. We brought American materialism and profligacy to a nation that was, by comparison, impoverished and “backwards” (from our perspective, of course). Material superiority bred and fed cockiness.

Consider Meredith Lair’s book, “Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War” (2011).  It details the non-combat experiences of U.S. troops in Vietnam.  Here’s a telling book blurb written by historian Christian Appy: “Meredith Lair’s fascinating analysis of rear-echelon life among American G.I.s dramatically challenges our most common conceptions of U.S. military experiences in Vietnam. From steaks to steambaths, swimming pools to giant PXs, the amenities provided on large bases not only belie conventional images of that war, but also stand as dramatic testimony to the desperate and unsuccessful effort of American officials to bolster flagging troop morale as the war lurched toward its final failure.”

Will this orgy of American-driven materialism be documented?

7. Anti-war protests and serious unrest within the U.S. military led to the end of the draft and the creation of an “all-volunteer” military. Has this decision contributed to a more imperial U.S. foreign policy facilitated by a much more tractable military of “volunteers”?

8. Short of nuclear weapons, the U.S. military used virtually every weapon in its arsenal in SE Asia. The region became a test/proving ground for all sorts of weapons and concepts, from “smart” weapons and electronic fences and sensors to horrendous pounding by conventional bombs to war on the environment using defoliants and massive bulldozers to … well … everything. All sorts of pacification theories were tested as well, along with COIN and “small wars” and unconventional tactics to search and destroy to Vietnamization to … well … again, everything. SE Asia became a laboratory and its peoples became lab rats. Will this reality be fully documented?

9. It’s essential that people realize President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, knew the war was a lost cause no later than 1969. (Their conversations on tape prove this.) All they were looking for was a “decent interval” between a peace treaty (“peace with honor”) and what they saw as the inevitable collapse. They got that (in)decent interval of roughly 2.5 years. The Congressional decision to cut off funding to South Vietnam was convenient for the Nixon/Kissinger acolytes, since it allowed them to shift the blame for South Vietnam’s collapse in 1975 to Congress as well as to the usual “suspect” elements in American society, i.e. the peace movement.

Will the duplicity and hypocrisy of Nixon/Kissinger be adequately documented?

10. Finally, an important aspect of the Vietnam War was the breakdown in discipline within the U.S. military, which helped to drive the eventual elimination of the draft. Part of this breakdown was driven by drugs, a trade in which the CIA was implicated. At The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill interviewed Alfred McCoy, who wrote the book on this drug trade. Here’s an excerpt from their recent interview:

Alfred McCoy: And in 1970 and ’71, there were rumors that started coming back from Vietnam, particularly 1971, that heroin was spreading rapidly in the ranks of the U.S. forces fighting in South Vietnam. And in later research, done by the White House, [it was] determined that in 1971, 34 percent, one-third of all the American combat troops fighting in South Vietnam were heavy heroin users. There were, if that statistic is accurate, more addicts in the ranks of the U.S. Army in South Vietnam than there were in the United States.

And so what I did was I set out to investigate: Where was the opium coming from? Where was the heroin coming from? Who was trafficking it? How is it getting to the troops in their barracks and bunkers across the length and breadth of South Vietnam? Nobody was asking this question. Everyone was reporting on the high level of abuse, but nobody was figuring out where and who.

So I started interviewing. I went to Paris. I interviewed the head of the French equivalent of the CIA in Indochina, who was then head of a major French helicopter manufacturing company, and he explained to me how during the French Indochina war from 1946 to 1954, they were short of money for covert operations, so the hill tribes in Laos produced the opium, the aircraft picked it up, they turned it over to the netherworld, the gangsters that controlled Saigon and secured it for the French and that paid for their covert operations. And I said, “What about now?” And he said, “Well I don’t think the pattern’s changed. I think it’s still there. You should go and look.”

So I did. I went to Saigon. I got some top sources in the Vietnamese military. I went to Laos. I hiked into the mountains. I was ambushed by CIA mercenaries and what I discovered was that the CIA’s contract airline, Air America, was flying into the villages of the Hmong people in Northern Laos, whose main cash crop was opium and they were picking up the opium and flying it out of the hills and there were heroin labs — one of the heroin labs, the biggest heroin lab in the world, was run by the commander-in-chief of the Royal Laotian Army, a man whose military budget came entirely from the United States. And they were transforming, in those labs, the opium into heroin. It was being smuggled into South Vietnam by three cliques controlled by the president, the vice president, and the premier of South Vietnam, and their military allies and distributed to U.S. forces in South Vietnam.

And the CIA wasn’t directly involved, but they turned a blind eye to the role of their allies’ involvement in the traffic. And so this heroin epidemic swept the U.S. Army in Vietnam. The Defense Department invented mass urine analysis testing, so when those troops left they were tested and given treatment. And what I discovered was the complexities, the complicity, of the CIA in this traffic and that was a pattern that was repeated in Central America when the Contras became involved in the traffic.

These ten items highlight just some of the complexities of the Vietnam War and its effects throughout Southeast Asia.  How many of these will be tackled honestly in Ken Burns’s new series?  We shall see, beginning in two weeks.

Where’s the Anti-War Movement?

Thousands of people with signs of peace gather on Library Mall for the start of an anti-war rally protesting a potential United States-led war against Iraq. Protesters later marched up State Street to the Wisconsin State Capitol Building. ©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: Jeff Miller

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, Ira Chernus had a stimulating article at in which he noted the present lack of an American anti-war movement.  When it comes to war and foreign policy, Americans face a Hobson’s choice: the Democrats with drones and Special Ops and bombing against evildoers, or the Republicans with even more drones and Special Ops and bombing against even more evildoers.  The American master narrative, Chernus noted, is essentially all war.

He’s right about this, and I think it’s mainly for five reasons:

  1. The military draft is gone, so our youth can safely (they think) ignore America’s never-ending wars. In Vietnam, with the draft, most of our youth didn’t have the luxury of apathy.  Today, our youth have little personal incentive (as yet) to push back against the prevailing war narrative.
  2. Militarism.  Creeping militarism has shifted the American narrative rightwards.  In the Vietnam period, General Curtis LeMay’s “bomb them back to the stone age” was a fringe opinion; now it’s mainstream with “carpet bombing” Cruz and Trump and Rubio, the “top three” Republican presidential contenders after the Iowa caucuses.
  3. The Democrats have also shifted rightwards, so much so that now both major political parties embrace endless war. War, in short, has been normalized and removed from partisan politics.  As Chernus documents, you simply can’t get an alternative narrative from the U.S. political mainstream.  For that, you have to look to much smaller political parties, e.g. the Green Party.
  4. The U.S. mainstream media has been thoroughly co-opted by corporations that profit from war.  Anti-war ideas simply don’t get published; or, if they do, they’re dismissed as unserious.  I simply can’t imagine any of today’s TV talking heads coming out against the war on terror like Walter Cronkite came out in the 1960s against Vietnam. There is simply no push back from the U.S. media.
  5. Finally, a nebulous factor that’s always lurking: FEAR.  The popular narrative today is that terrorists may kill you at any time right here in America.  So you must be ready to “lockdown“; you must be ready to “shelter in place.”  You must always defer to the police and military to keep you safe.  You must fully fund the military or YOU WILL DIE. Repeated incantations of fear reinforce the master narrative of war.

Chernus makes many good points about how America’s constant warring in the Middle East only feeds radical Islam.  In short, it’s vital to develop a new narrative, not only because the current one feeds war and death, but also because it’s fated to fail.

I doubt pacifism will fly in warrior corp USA.  But why not containment?  Containment worked against the Soviet Union, or so most Americans believe.  If it worked against the far greater threat posed by the USSR, why shouldn’t it work against radical Islam?

Containment suggests several concrete actions: American troops should pull out of the Middle East.  Bombing and drone strikes should stop.  Establish a cordon sanitaire around the area.  Lead a diplomatic effort to resolve the conflicts.  And recognize that violent civil and ideological wars within Islam may need to burn themselves out.

One thing is certain: Because violent U.S. actions are most likely to act as accelerants to radical Islam, we need to stop attacking.  Now.

Yes, the U.S. has a responsibility to help the peoples of the region.  American actions helped to create the mess.  But you don’t “solve” the mess by blowing more people and things to smithereens.

Containment, diplomacy, humanitarian aid.  Not a chest-thumping course of action celebrated by the likes of Trump or Cruz or Clinton, but a new master narrative that would be more likely to spare lives and reduce the chaos in the Middle East.

How the U.S. Could Have “Won” the Vietnam War (1982) — Updated

The look of defeat: Saigon, 1975
The look of defeat: Saigon, 1975

W.J. Astore

Much like my father, I can be a pack rat. Going through old files, I found a “blue book” exam that I took as a college freshman in 1982. The essay question I had to answer was whether the U.S. could have won the Vietnam War.  Recall that in 1975, South Vietnam had fallen to the communist North Vietnamese invaders, with U.S. diplomats ignominiously escaping by helicopter from the roof of our embassy in Saigon.  In the 1980 Presidential Election, Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, with Reagan declaring that the unpopular Vietnam War had been “a noble cause.”

I have not edited my answer (except for a few additions, in brackets, for clarity), which follows below. This is what one U.S. college freshman thought about Vietnam and the U.S. involvement in that war seven years after the defeat in 1975.  (You can’t even call it sophomoric, since I was only a freshman.)  I think my answer reflects a certain naivete as well as can-do optimism: That we were fighting for the right reasons but in the wrong way, and if we had followed a better strategy, and bossed around the South Vietnamese more, we could have, in some sense, “won.”

Today, I don’t believe the Vietnam War was winnable, and I lament the enormous amount of destruction we visited on the Vietnamese and their country, which I’ve written about in other articles, here and here for example.

Update (8/27/2014): Having watched the recent HBO documentary Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words, it’s now glaringly obvious that the Vietnam War was unwinnable.  Indeed, that’s precisely what Nixon and Kissinger (secretly) concluded.  As they talked publicly about “peace with honor,” Nixon and Kissinger were privately conceding that the war was lost.  They were looking only to deflect blame from themselves, for “a decent interval” between when US troops withdrew and when South Vietnam collapsed, which is exactly what they got — roughly three years, by which time Nixon had resigned in disgrace due to Watergate.  Nixon and Kissinger also cast about for scapegoats; at the time, they planned to blame the inevitable defeat on the corruption of South Vietnamese leaders.  

Why did the U.S. lose in Vietnam?  A big reason, I think, is the dishonesty of our own government in consistently misleading the American people about the war and the region as well.  This dishonesty started just after World War II and extended to LBJ and Nixon as revealed in “The Pentagon Papers.”   In other words, Nixon’s “silent majority” wasn’t silent because it supported his policies.  It was silent because it had been lied to by Nixon and his predecessors.  If the U.S. government had had the guts to level with the American people, the worst of the war may have been averted.  Even Watergate would have been averted, since you can draw a clear line from Daniel Ellsberg and “The Pentagon Papers” to attempts to “get” Ellsberg to the “dirty tricks” of the Nixon Campaign in 1972 that ended in his resignation.  Lies begat crimes that begat more lies that begat more crimes…

[Winning the Vietnam War, as written in March of 1982]

The Vietnam War was a costly struggle involving over 500,000 U.S. troops [at peak deployment strength] and billions of dollars of equipment.  The war was attacked both at home and abroad, and when the U.S. finally did pullout in 1972, the South Vietnamese government and the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] collapsed in three years.  The Vietnam War was a failure of U.S. foreign policy making, but if other alternatives had been pursued, the results would have been much better for the United States.

The U.S. became involved in Vietnam to contain communism, to prevent the takeover of South Vietnam by North Vietnam, and to contain China.  Unfortunately, the U.S. underestimated the strength of the North Vietnamese will, and turned a local civil war between two conflicting ideologies into a major conflict.  The U.S. believed that South Vietnam was a vital area of American interest, but it really wasn’t.

The South Vietnamese government was politically inefficient and corrupt.  Most of the natives did not support the government, which was why the Viet Cong were able to succeed the way they did.  U.S. foreign policy concentrated on defeating the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, not realizing that the reform of the South Vietnamese government and the pacification of the local villagers were of more importance.

What could we have done, then, to “save” South Vietnam from North Vietnam?  The answers are not concrete or exact.  Most people believe that if the U.S. Army had had fewer restrictions and more men, North Vietnam would have lost.  This pedestrian view is wrong for two basic reasons.  One is that the U.S. Army fought the wrong type of war.  Instead of conducting counterguerrilla activities, the U.S. Army adopted tactics intended for conventional warfare in Europe.  The U.S. tried to defeat North Vietnam by sheer firepower, but superior numbers and materiel lose their advantage against a determined guerrilla enemy.  Employing hit-and-run tactics, the Viet Cong fought only when they wanted to fight, and on ground of their choosing.  Cincinnatus [Cecil B. Currey], in his book Self-Destruction:[The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army during the Vietnam Era] stated that the U.S. Army could not have won the war because of the way they fought it.

The second reason is that each escalation of American troops in Vietnam could be easily matched by North Vietnam.  Each year over 200,000 men [in North Vietnam] became eligible for the draft.  When General Westmoreland asked for 200,000+ troops to launch a major counteroffensive after Tet [in early 1968], he was denied them on the grounds that more numbers would have had little or no effect in ending the war.

What can one conclude from this?  A definite conclusion is that U.S. tactics were totally unsuited to the type of war fought in Vietnam.  This suggests one change in our policy that would have improved the result.  If we had pursued a policy of counterguerrilla warfare, and if we had protected the local villagers better, then we could have concentrated on the main problem—reforming the South Vietnamese government and creating an ARVN that didn’t lose every battle they fought.

The Vietnamization policy [under Nixon] was a step in the right direction, but it was implemented haphazardly and inefficiently.  U.S. foreign policy should have recognized that the support of the government by the people was of paramount importance, but needed reforms [in South Vietnam] were not carried out and the people became disillusioned and bitter.  If the government cannot protect us, the people thought, what good was it?  The U.S. should have forced the various South Vietnamese governments to implement reforms, and it also should have pursued a more vigorous pacification program.

The handling of ARVN was also a mistake.  ARVN came to rely upon the U.S. Army to great extent, and when the U.S. Army withdrew, the ARVN desertion rate reached an all-time high.  The U.S. should have realized that giving the South Vietnamese billions of dollars in equipment and, among other things, the fourth largest air force in the world, was not enough.  It did not cure the disease that afflicted ARVN, which was corruption and the lack of experienced officers.

What conclusions can be reached?  U.S. foreign policy was definitely flawed, but we could have attained better results if other policies were implemented.  A more effective pacification program, combined with counterguerrilla activities and increased defense of local villages, would have eroded the support of the Viet Cong, since a guerrilla war needs the support of the populace to succeed.  The most basic flaw in U.S. policy, however, was ignoring the faults and corruption of the South Vietnamese government.  Needed reforms of the overbearing totalitarian government would have gained the support of the South Vietnamese people, and this more than any other factor might have changed the results of 1975 and “won” the war for the United States.