Trump’s Illusion of Victory

October 9, 2017–Victory in Vietnam was an illusion but think–how bad will it be if a national leader feels he must exhibit a “victory” in order to show who is in charge. The last few days I’ve been pondering the wrongheadedness of President Trump’s calling out his secretary of state for attempting a diplomatic solution to the North Korea business, and labeling Rex Tillerson as short on “toughness,” as if the nation’s top diplomat is supposed to be an advocate for war. Back in Vietnam days, Dean Rusk was a supporter of force. In fact, Rusk’s falling off the wagon in early 1968 and giving Lyndon Johnson advice to halt the bombing of North Vietnam except in the panhandle area was a key passage in LBJ’s reluctant choice to give up his pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination to do precisely what Rusk had advised. In general Rusk’s posture had already led to needless delay and obstacles in starting talks about the war.

The situation today is the reverse. While a formal state of war continues with North Korea (because no “peace treaty” ever followed the 1953 ceasefire that terminated hostilities) there is no active conflict. There is no excuse for Kim Jong Un’s posturing, but neither is there for Donald Trump’s bluster. I’ve written here before of Trump’s rhetoric painting himself into a corner the only escape from which is to use force, and this week’s events look like Trump is pushing nearer the precipice. And all this only makes sense if the guy thinks he’s in a contest to show who has bigger hands.

If Trump blasts North Korea the “victory” will prove just as elusive as that alleged in Vietnam. Many South Koreans may be killed as an immediate consequence of the North’s instant response of artillery attacks. Millions of Koreans and American residents of Korea will perish from the radiation and fallout of the nuclear weapons needed to assure the destruction of the North Korean nuclear forces. Americans on Guam may die from a North Korean retaliation. There is a danger of nuclear winter (think of tripling climate change effects in just one or two years). Millions of Japanese will be threatened by surviving North Korean nuclear forces. Any surviving North Korean citizens will become blood enemies of the United States, and you can be assured will strike us the moment they obtain the means to do so–no matter who may lead America then or what their policies may be. The United States will be branded as an aggressor nation. The U.S. Congress will have relinquished its constitutional war power in an unmistakable way. And this is all about Donald Trump’s hands? This victory would be an illusion.

Gamers’ Corner: New ATO Cards for SEEDS OF DISASTER

October 5, 2017–Stephen Rawling of Against the Odds has been pursuing a serious program of upgrading ATO games with extra components, at times quite fancy ones. The latest of his company’s titles to benefit from this is the ATO 2015 Annual, Four Roads to Paris. Within that set, which includes four different designers’ visio0ns of what would be a good game about the 1940 campaign in France, is my simulation called Seeds of Disaster. In that game a set of cards injects a differential element into the history of the 1930s while the players design and develop the armed forces they will take to war. Steve’s new improvement is a poker-quality deck of these cards, many of them with background illustrations, all nicely executed. Check it out!

Rolling Commentary: Windup

September 29, 2017–Has reconciliation occurred? Ken Burns told us that has been his aim. He sought to do that by keeping his focus on the small people, taken from both sides. Maybe the lens was off kilter. He did nothing for me. I don’t think the reconciliation that needs to happen is between Westerners (I won’t use “Americans” because our land now has a significant number of citizens who came, or whose parents came, from the former South Vietnam) and Vietnamese. Probably 80 percent of Burns & Novick’s interview subjects have been Westerners. There are three axes along which reconciliation does need to happen: between former Vietnamese guerrillas (of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam) and the Northerners; between the Vietnamese diaspora and the larger polity; and among Americans (this time I use the word deliberately). None of these conflicts is assuaged by “The Vietnam War.”

Burns and Novick hardly even note the enduring sensitivities dividing southerners from northerners in Vietnam. To the degree these stem from the history of the war they revolve around the sense among NLF veterans that their efforts have been buried in the glorification of Hanoi. The Vietnamese communist party’s continuing drive for ideological conformity–whatever difficulties it caused our intrepid filmmakers–has cast a pall over Vietnamese seeking to produce an account of the American war that properly credits all participants. In the documentary practically all the voices from the victorious side represent the North. There won’t be much credit going to the NLF.

In the main (Mai Elliott and deep-thinking Vietnamese are exceptions), former South Vietnamese are certainly not reconciled to the now-Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) and its version of the 30 Year War, nor are they very happy when fellow American citizens make conciliatory moves toward the old country. Hanoi authorities are no better, imposing broad restrictions on visitation and even casual relations. The film casts the postwar years as a struggle of South Vietnamese (from boat people to regularized departures) to emigrate, the SRV’s aggressive and overblown “re-education” program, and the state-to-state hostilities that kept the United States from even recognizing Vietnam into the 1990s. All these are standard elements of the diaspora’s take on this history. There is no relief there.

As for Americans themselves, in my view Ken Burns and Lynn Novick only stoke the flames of residual enmity. Their hostility to the half of America that opposed the Vietnam war reinforces (often exaggerated or even fictional) stereotypes. Their practice of flitting from one subject, even theme, to another, without drawing conclusions, serves to keep the audience in ignorance of why the war was wrong, how it went wrong, and why the filmmakers’ offhand statement that good people started this war for reasonable purposes is way off target.

The adulation for vets exhibited here smacks of a post-modern “support the troops” mentality, unquestioning of purpose, strategy or politics; which would have served America poorly during the Vietnam war era (and has not brought us victory in today’s wars either). In this film it’s fine for the vets to oppose the war–and it was and I honor them for it–but since there are no conclusions drawn, the fact of that opposition says nothing about the legitimacy of the war. The failure to draw conclusions from the war’s strategy, tactics, or escalations creates the same vacuum about the actual war situation. That lacunae gives the advantage to neo-orthodox analysts who repeat the vacuities of Vietnam’s “Five O’clock Follies” and insist that the United States won, or was about to win, the Vietnam war, when in point of fact Hanoi’s troops marched into Saigon and not the other way around. This film will add to arguments about the war, not reconcile them. You can better use eighteen hours by reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or W. D. Ehrhart’s poetry.

Rolling Commentary 9

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.

 

Rolling Commentary 8

September 27, 2017–Continuing the saga of the camel outside the tent, here we are in the episode of the Ken Burns & Lynn Novick documentary “The Vietnam War” that covers the first part of the Nixon administration. We’re talking 1969-1970. The film still shorts Big Picture elements but is long on whatever the auteurs care about.

My Lai finally comes up–there’s an extended passage on the revelation, the military investigation by the Peers committee and others, the military justice moves to court martial participants, which ends up focused on young Lieutenant John Calley. OK. But the My Lai atrocity took place in the spring of 1968, while Lyndon Johnson was president. This episode is supposed to be 1969-1970. Vertigo again. And here’s another one– all through this series the filmmakers have valorized veterans over citizens, generals, or anyone else. But here’s My Lai and that atrocity would have gone unmarked save for the efforts of one GI, Ron Ridenhour, who forced the investigation of how South Vietnamese civilians were victimized by a run-amuck U.S. infantry unit by means of a campaign on Capitol Hill, challenging congressmen to look into what had happened at the Vietnamese village. That was heroism. Another participant, chopper pilot Hugh Thompson who averted a bit of the massacre at gunpoint, went to his grave insisting he’d only done what anybody would have, except that no one but he did do it. The helicopter crews who intervened in the My Lai incident to actually save some of the Vietnamese peasants did not push beyond a little bit for major investigations by the authorities. Anyway, amid all Burns/Novick’s valorizing of veterans, Ron Ridenhour gets maybe a little paragraph. Here’s a hero of the moment, who agonized for years after Vietnam over what had happened–a perfect candidate for the kind of coverage Burns/Novick are dishing out–who gets precious little from them.

While we’re on the question of atrocities, I must have been asleep, or else I missed the “Green Beret Affair,” which goes to the same point made here yesterday about the filmmakers not drawing links (or conclusions) from their disparate data points. There was no coverage of the Green Beret Affair so far as I could tell, yet it formed another atrocity controversy going on at the same time as the one about My Lai. So who’s picking the cherries here anyway?

I’ll pass on most of the Big Picture elements, like the peace negotiations or the supposed Nixon decisions, except to observe Burns/Novick represent Richard Nixon as strongly committed to withdrawing the U.S. forces from South Vietnam. Thus they are completely silent about the “Madman Theory,” Operation Duck Hook, and the conventional/nuclear threat against Hanoi in the fall of 1969. They skip on to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, which, if I remember this right, sounded like the U.S. following South Vietnamese forces into that neutral land rather than, in fact, Washington organizing this invasion from the ground up (South Vietnamese troops went first as a tactical matter). Because Burns/Novick resist analyzing events or drawing conclusions, they completely miss the way the Nixon strategy involved repeated escalations of the war. The antiwar movement did not miss that point. Political upheavals over the Cambodia invasion reflected that understanding, and went white hot after the Kent State and Jackson State shootings.

The documentary continues its ambivalence regarding antiwar protest. Those who did not live this history should make no mistake: every American, whether in the service (in Vietnam or not) or at home, had to face this war in a quite personal way. Opponents of the war were every bit as heroic as the soldiers, nurses and airmen lionized here. And unlike the GIs, the protesters did not receive GI Bill benefits, R&R trips, medals or promotions, retirement pay, or any of the rest of the trappings of military service. To underline that point, military veterans who turned against the war, like those of VVAW, often found themselves cut off from benefits and had to struggle to obtain them. Perhaps we’ll hear something about that tonight.

Rolling Commentary 7

September 26, 2017–The latest episode of the Burns/Novick documentary “The Vietnam War” aired last night. Several posts ago I noted that the default position for many wars, not just Vietnam, has been not to speak about it, but that in the case of Vietnam there has been another vein in which people have long been speaking of their experiences, even starting during the war itself. In that sense the filmmakers’ achievement in collecting these interviews shines less brightly. What struck me last night was how the overall film is less than the collection of its parts. Burns explains in the companion book to this film that he thinks of Vietnam as a Rashomon tale and wanted to part with conventional wisdom. Looking at the result it seems that is a rationale for the stringing together of assorted personal stories that are related only loosely by the narrative, which repeatedly fails to tie things together, so much so that I have written of newsreel coverage of the highest level of the war. Three examples for today.

First, Speedy Express. This operation by the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta basically involved a gross manipulation of the “body count” criteria for measuring success in Vietnam. In the first part of 1969 the division’s commander drove the push to post statistics to such a degree that all over its operational area civilians were being killed and counted as Liberation Front adversaries. As Burns and Novick properly record, about half the dead were later found to have been innocents. What they did not do was relate this either to the atrocity theme they brought out in Episode 5, or to the larger issue of the weakness of pacification strategy. Newsweek’s Christopher Buckley wrote about Speedy Express at the time, and Nick Turse emphasized it in his recent book Kill Anything that Moves. Neither are mentioned or covered, Turse especially puzzling because the filmmakers quote that phrase, which comes from the “Tiger Team” activities in the Central Highlands (which Turse also investigated) and which was a subject in Episode 5. Instead the filmmakers use Speedy Express as the platform for a clip with Robert Gard, who was an artillery commander with the 9th Division. Gard’s account is harrowing, of course, but the point is his information never forms a part of any more extended analysis, it lies there as another blip on the film’s arc.

Next, the same thing happens with the notorious Phoenix Program. Burns and Novick introduce this pretty well–it was an attempt to decouple the North Vietnamese from the Liberation Front hierarchy. Hanoi’s troops, after all, knew no more about the South Vietnamese when they arrived in the South than did the Americans–a point I first made in the book Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable WarWith little but their language in common they needed the guerrilla infrastructure. Phoenix aimed to neutralize the hierarchy. That meant identifying Liberation Front participants and going after them. So far so good. Good intelligence became central to the enterprise. There’s the platform. The film introduces Stuart Herrington, a U.S. intelligence officer who was a district adviser at the time and sat with counterparts on the “Phoenix Committee” in his area. At the time Herrington was quite critical of the operation of this system but the interview has him making only general comments. Criticism is left for an officer who served with the Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs), the sinister enforcers in Phoenix. That account is more dramatic, OK. But then both personal stories are not brought into any broader analysis. Equally to the point, both Speedy Express and Phoenix represent facets of the same pacification effort but the documentary does not relate them to each other either.

Third, let’s spend a moment on Merrill McPeak. Later to rise to a four-star general and chief of staff of the Air Force, at the time Major McPeak flew F-100s over South Vietnam and against the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Burns and Novick tapped McPeak for a good interview that illustrated the difficulties of flying against The Trail–as well as with film outtakes and asides for North Vietnamese participants–the problems of the enemy itself. This struck me as among the best passages in the film. Only later did I realize that, in this same episode, President Johnson halted the bombing of North Vietnam. That’s when it came to me that what I had just seen was among the only coverage of the air war–virtually nothing about the Rolling Thunder air campaign except that it had started, and nothing about LBJ turning the weight of the air assault toward Laos (and The Trail) as he turned it off over North Vietnam–a subject directly relevant to McPeak’s participation. Another disparate segment left on the table.

This coverage is combined with plenty more bullet points. Saigon corruption. Street-level stealing from the U.S. Post Exchange system (I wrote about that in Unwinnable War also), Richard Nixon’s October Surprise during the 1968 election–a nice feature is that Burns and Novick play the telephone tape where President Johnson records Mr. Nixon insisting he would do nothing with the South Vietnamese to influence the outcome of the election (a bald face lie), the Chicago Democratic convention, more antiwar protests. I still have the feeling the documentary is disrespecting the demostrators. In the next couple of episodes the protests will reach their apogee. We’ll see.

Rolling Commentary 6

September 25, 2017–Well, the vertigo is back again. The intrepid Burns and Novick indulge in such extravagant reorientations of the chronology as to call into question the status of their film “The Vietnam War” as documentary history. The one that got me most was the footage of Richard Nixon visiting with troops in South Vietnam, which was in the cut of the film broadcast here in a way that put it in the middle of the 1968 election campaign. That worked with the timeframe of this episode–January to July 1968. But it never happened. Richard Nixon visited South Vietnam only once, and that was in July of 1969. In this picture the likely locale is at Di An, the combat base of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division. Nixon visited for less than a day, after meeting with Saigon leader Nguyen Van Thieu, and early in a global tour which took him also to Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, Romania and the United Kingdom.

Similar legerdemain takes place with footage of journalist Walter Cronkite, where he is spliced in as if reporting on the ground in the heat of the Tet Offensive, but whose famous remarks re-evaluating the U.S. prospects in Vietnam took place on February 27, 1968. By then not only was Tet over but so was the Battle of Hue, which is made much of in this episode. While we’re on that subject, by the way, Burns and Novick have text in their script which (correctly) says that the outcome of Tet would have been different had the South Vietnamese not fought it out, but Hue became the battlefield where the South Vietnamese showed brightest yet the film has hardly any coverage of them. Vietnamese soldiers commenting on Hue are all Liberation Front or Northerners.

The one battle from Tet that was still ongoing by the end of February was the siege of Khe Sanh. In the Burns and Novick film that action, one of the most important of the war, ends on January 21 when the North Vietnamese shelling ignited the base’s ammunition dump. That day was before the Tet Offensive even began. There’s no fight for Khe Sanh village, no “night of the silver stars” at Lang Vei, no fights for the hill strongpoints, no attack on the combat base, the siege never happens. By the way, the Tet, Second Phase, though mentioned, is also greatly shortchanged. Burns and Novick indulge in a lengthy discussion of how Tet was a disastrous bloodletting for the North Vietnamese. They give the figures 85,000 engaged with 54,000 casualties. The Department of Defense official statistic for enemy losses in the months February and March 1968 is 34,000. You don’t get to 54,000 without including Tet II. It was the second and third rounds of Tet which made it so bad for Hanoi. You can read much more on Tet in my book Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War.

One last point for today–Hanoi. The filmmakers have been retailing the theory that Le Duan had elbowed his way to the top of the heap in North Vietnam, and that he was the big champion of Tet. Well, if Tet was such a huge disaster, where’s the price for Le Duan? This picture of leadership in the North is not complete, it does not compute.

Trump’s Shiny Objects

September 24, 2017–Another day, another outrageous remark from our president. This time it’s Trump in Alabama, stumping for a candidate but pausing for an aside where he fantasizes that football teams should fire players who show “disrespect”–in this case clearly a jab at former San Francisco 49-er quarterback Colin Kaepernick. For the record Kaepernick, in kneeling when the National Anthem was played before a game, was exercising his First Amendment right to draw attention to serious abuses–racially tinged due process. The Donald may not believe it but an act like that–at real cost to Mr. Kaepernick–was in truth courageous and profoundly respectful of the Constitution. Ironically Trump’s attack is forcing NFL team owners and the league’s commissioner to come on the record in support of Kaepernick, whom they have been ostracizing. Many more players will be taking to their knees in short order. Thus does it work in Trump-land.

Mr. Trump tootles on, throwing infuriating comments out, right and left and on twitter. As pointed out here, he’s done the same in foreign affairs, where the president’s mouth, believe it or not, has been a significant driver in stoking to near white hot a full-fledged crisis with the Democratic Republic of Korea. No wonder chief of staff Kelly holds his head in his hands when Trump speaks.

I just want to propose a thought for the day: aside from what it accomplishes, Trump’s bombast multiplies his enemies. As he crosses lines sacred to his “base” he will also cut away elements of his support. One day Mr. Trump will wake up with no support left at all. Americans will be left to patch up relations with nations across the globe who’ve been hurt by this president’s off-hand imperiousness.

Rolling Commentary 4/5

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.

 

 

Donald the Menace

September 20, 2017–Forget Dennis. For one thing, he’s an innocent. The Donald is not. Trump’s got nuclear missiles and aircraft carriers and Special Forces to back him up. The only real question is whether Mr. Trump is as full of hate as his rhetoric, or whether all the sound and fury signifies nothing. I predicted in this space a week ago that, with the United Nations General Assembly coming up, we’d hear again from Kim Jong-un. Sure enough, two days later the North Koreans held another missile test. Then, at the UN yesterday, President Trump was fire and brimstone, hurling thunderbolts of biblical language that no doubt stunned the world’s assembled diplomats. Donald Trump says he will wipe North Korea off the face of the globe, that “Rocket Man” Jong is on a “suicide mission.”

Remember all those pundits who assiduously predicted that, once become president, the rigors of the office would temper Donald Trump? Wishful thinking. How about the line that “grown ups” like Reince Priebus would hold Trump to a standard of behavior? Laughable. And the felicitous impact of the John Kelly-James Mattis-H. L. McMaster crowd? Nil. Kelly may have injected a modicum of discipline into the president’s office schedule, but he’s had little discernible effect on the president’s spewing of invective and the consequent careening of American foreign policy. The State Department is adrift, stupidly paring way back the roster of diplomats it sends to the General Assembly each year, people who could have tried to take some of the edge off Trump’s harshness. The Pentagon is upstaged, with General Mattis asserting the U.S. has force options other that all-out attack, only to be outbid by Trump’s seven no-trump threats.

Very serious dereliction of duty is underway at the White House. Intellectually disingenuous–McMaster crafted a contrived argument to accuse the Vietnam-era Joint Chiefs of Staff of not giving their honest opinion to Lyndon Johnson (they did)–on the NSC staff himself General McMaster is guilty of precisely the same currying of presidential favor. Anyone who thinks McMaster a grown up trying to rein back the president should think again. It is dereliction of duty for the general not to tell the president that unleashing war on North Korea will be a disaster for the United States. The general is an enabler.

Here Trump wants to cross the war threshold not to counter aggression but simply because North Korea tests weapons and its leader–like Trump–indulges in fervid and hostile language. I am pleased to see that columnist Fred Kaplan has picked up my “launch-upon-test” criticism as an illustration of the thoughtless so-called “policy” involved here, but the truth is that U.S. government is rolling over and playing dead on the constitutional war powers issue–Trump is in effect arguing that he can launch offensive nuclear war on his presidential authority without reference to Congress, which possesses all war powers under Article I of the United States Constitution. Our elected representatives don’t seem to be grown ups–and certainly aren’t playing them on TV. The country continues full steam ahead into uncharted waters. Take care!