September 23, 2017–The latest episodes of the Burns-Novick film “The Vietnam War” are an improvement, in the sense that the vertigo of the first one is replaced by more straightforward storytelling. But this film, the product of a decade of research and interviewing, still demonstrates major flaws. One is its reliance on what is just a level up from newsreel footage to give the viewer her/his entire picture of the top level decisionmaking in the conflict. It’s nice to have a scene of Lyndon Johnson with his NSC ranged around him, and cut to a session of the Fulbright Hearings of 1966, but that’s like being given a whiff of a much deeper narrative without the ability to access it in any way. James Willbanks is a fine historian–and a friend–but he is overused here as the all-purpose commentator. Same with Joe Galloway, whose main knowledge is from 1965. That is also true of the Vietnamese officers interviewed, though on their side, where a “tour of duty” lasted for the entire war, there is some rationale. John Musgrave’s story is heart-wrenching, but, to pull back to a bigger frame, you need to realize that the 9th Marines at Con Thien are here made representative of all Vietnam combat action just as, in the previous episode, Hal Moore and The Cav at LZ X-Ray stood in for everything that happened in 1965. Burns and Novick do nicely at projecting their microcosms, but it’s the bigger picture that suffers.
That’s even graphically apparent. In one scene or another, flashing across the screen are phrases like “body count,” “attrition,” and so on, each a huge subject that could be explored in an entire documentary, here rushed past in seconds, at most with the brief appearance of a talking head. The documentary touches on the hot topics from Vietnam, atrocities and Tiger Teams, search & destroy, Liberation Front local militia, military exaggerations, and so on. It portrays a version of Hanoi’s decisionmaking for the Tet Offensive that is currently popular, but for which we have no actual evidence.
The antiwar movement is again portrayed monochromatically–as a virtual social event of spring and fall when masses of citizens would converge on either New York or Washington, capable of being hijacked in October 1967 to march on the Pentagon instead of listen to music and speeches. That’s a slight to every individual who, at personal cost, went to participate in these events, as well as to the activists who worked long and hard to organize a specific march on the Pentagon, not a jamboree. Indeed, Burns and Novick trot out Leslie Gelb, who was working inside “The Building” that day on the Pentagon Papers, and Gelb recalls that DOD secretaries were frightened of protesters invading the building to rape them. Robert McNamara would tell a later interviewer, “How could you not be afraid?” Daniel Ellsberg was also there, also working on the Pentagon Papers. He is notably missing from this narrative. In any case, the activists were serious, they were against the war, and, as a movement they were neither communists nor hippies. At Con Thien John Musgrave and his Marine buddies got a copy of Playboy and fantasized about the hippies and the “summer of love,” but those elements of the counterculture were apolitical, tuned out, not available to antiwar organizers. The communists provided the antiwar movement with office space, a modicum of donations, and a certain number of individual protesters, but communists were never the ideologists of the movement nor its leaders.
Burns and Novick are also on thin ground with an aspect of the siege of Con Thien. They frame it as one of a series of “border battles” which Hanoi launched as distractions for American General William C. Westmoreland (“Westy”) as the North Vietnamese prepared their Tet Offensive–which Episode 5 of the film extensively prefigures. The only thing about Con Thien related to the Border Battles was that the post was located on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the boundary between North and South Vietnam. Con Thien was one strongpoint of what was dubbed the “McNamara Line,” and the North Vietnamese were seriously challenging the defense system–as they had done at Khe Sanh earlier in the year. Westy was always especially sensitive about I Corps–the part of South Vietnam below the DMZ–and Hanoi was taking advantage of his proclivities. The Con Thien siege went on too long and was conducted too fiercely to have been anything other than an independent operation.
The filmmakers are simply wrong where they record that defense secretary McNamara’s December 1967 memorandum to President Johnson warning of an unwinnable war and advising that it be cut back never received any reply. As a matter of fact, on December 18 Lyndon Johnson committed to paper one of the only written memoranda he ever created about Vietnam strategy and his aim was at McNamara. LBJ recorded that he had studied the McNamara paper “with the utmost care” and he had consulted with “certain advisers”–in fact Johnson had demanded written responses from the entire top level of his NSC, plus General Westmoreland and the ambassador to South Vietnam. President Johnson specifically stated that he was reluctant to send U.S. forces into Laos or Cambodia, that he saw no basis for increasing troop levels, but that he would not halt or cut back the bombing of North Vietnam. This key passage in Washington decisionmaking on Vietnam is entirely missing from the Burns-Novick film and there is no excuse–it has been written about, even within the span of the research for this documentary. Its absence shows the fallacy of “newsreel coverage” of the top level of the war.
That’s enough for today.