September 28, 2017–Well, now the Paris Ceasefire has happened. The latest episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War” picked up the story in mid-1970 and carried in through early 1973. This period is packed with big events, from the campaign in Cambodia, to the aerial assault on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to the progression and windup of the U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam. Then there are the invasion of Laos, the vets’ protests, culminating in the march on Washington known as Dewey Canyon III, the May Day protest, the Pentagon Papers, Nixon’s creation of the Plumbers, which arguably marked a significant step toward constitutional crisis; the end of the Draft, the Easter Offensive, the mining of Haiphong, the Linebacker bombing, the peace negotiations, the Christmas Bombing, and finally the ceasefire and return of the American POWs. Sound like a lot?
One way to reduce the load is to leave things out. So last time around we had an interview with a pilot (Merrill McPeak). I guess that means we can leave out the air war. Here it was represented newsreel-fashion, a couple of pictures of airplanes dropping bombs or B-52s taking off. Nothing about the sophisticated electronic battlefield the U.S. developed to guide its bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Nothing on the issues surrounding Linebacker (despite claims to its weight of attack or effectiveness, the air campaign averaged fewer attack sorties than Rolling Thunder in 1965-68). Nothing on issues that surrounded the Christmas Bombing, with a political firestorm in America and hushed-up episodes of air crews, intelligence staffs, or ground support airmen refusing duty.
All that we do get is John Negroponte, commenting that the bombing induced Hanoi to accept concessions we had already given them. At least Negroponte was a high level participant for a change, one of Kissinger’s staff at the NSC and on the peace talks. He speaks of the irregularity of Kissinger’s handling of the matter–failing to inform the South Vietnamese, translate draft proposals, etc. That sounds worth exploring. Is it? Nope.
Something else left out is the Pentagon Papers. I’m not talking about some newsreel snap of Daniel Ellsberg, I am speaking about the tip of an iceberg of government misinformation and plain lying where the authorities were caught out by revelation of the Pentagon Papers. Public trust in government has never recovered from the Vietnam war. How do you purport to be making a serious study of this history without dealing with this issue?
The filmmakers have been valorizing the vets. This timeframe includes the emergence of the protest group Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). As with all the other pieces of this history the VVAW story has a narrative arc. In Detroit early in 1971 a large number of the antiwar vets came together to testify to atrocities and other aspects of the war at what VVAW called its Winter Soldier Investigation. Here’s yet another place where Burns & Novick could have tied together the strings of the many elements they have left on the table regarding atrocities, treatment of the Vietnamese, and so on. Jane Fonda, who gets air time here that cuts into the ability to cover other aspects of the war, was even a backer of Winter Soldier. Instead the film does not even mention these events. (I give a fuller account in my book, previously mentioned, Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War.) Winter Soldier progressed to “Dewey Canyon III,” the Washington protest where the vets threw their medals back at the government. What happened to the medals? That would have been interesting. Turns out that the U.S. Capitol Police would have nothing to do with them. Officially responsible was the Office of the Architect of the Capitol. Inquiries showed the Capitol architect had no idea what had happened to them. Nothing of that in the film. Dewey Canyon culminated in the John Kerry testimony before the Senate, which Burns & Novick show, and then the vets’ story pretty much drops out of the picture.
One place the rubber was supposed to hit the road in this series was in its in-depth portrayals of Vietnamese. The vets’ protest came together as the South Vietnamese army invaded Laos at Washington’s behest. Precious little about that in the film. Of course 1972 is an even bigger deal. South Vietnamese celebrate the year they held out (backed by U.S. airpower). An Loc was a notable passage of arms. Kontum and Pleiku were saved for Saigon. The North Vietnamese celebrate capturing territory inside South Vietnam which the Saigon government never regained. Quang Tri was like Stalingrad for them, except that the southerners finally kept the city. There were not a lot of Vietnamese speaking of the 1972 campaign. Plus, Burns and Novick had resources even within their American interlocutors. James Willbanks, whom they’ve been employing in his capacity as an historian, was an Army adviser with the South Vietnamese at An Loc. Another trick missed–John Paul Vann, a character in Episode 2, died in 1972 in the Central Highlands, where some credit him with the successful defense of Kontum. Here the filmmakers could have completed one of their narrative lines.
I wish I could say I like “The Vietnam War.” Instead, watching it is a constant disappointment–missed opportunities, squandered stories, poor contextualization in everything save certain interviews, a consistent failure to bring together things already talked about, plus a near total absence of analysis or conclusion.