Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf ? –The CIA

October 22, 2017–The Big Bad Wolf, in this case, is the set of documents related to the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, long kept secret, which by law must be released–declassified in full–by a date certain that is coming later this week. The Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, passed in 1992, provided a 25-year extra shield for those documents that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and others could convince a board were so sensitive and so secret they should continue to be classified. That protection runs out this week. There is a narrow exception provided in the law for agency heads to appeal to the president for continuation of secrecy.  Yesterday in a tweet, Donald J. Trump declared that he was going to open the files. With typical Trumpian two-facedness the president made that declaration “subject to the receipt of further information.”

By several accounts CIA director Mike Pompeo has been lobbying Prresident Trump almost daily to keep up the secrecy. What’s so secret? Philip Shenon, a former New York Times reporter who has written about the Warren Commission investigation of Kennedy’s assassination, provides a fascinating clue. As reported by Ian Shapira in today’s Washington Post, Shenon believes CIA is especially concerned to keep secret papers written in the 1990s. Of course, Kennedy’s murder took place in 1963. The various permutations of evidence, and chains of logic bearing on the CIA, the FBI, Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassination, and the rest have been burbling around for years, even decades. In the 1990s Langley–the CIA–sought extra secrecy for its operations against Fidel Castro, in Mexico and Central America, it’s private knowledge of what Cuban exile plotters were up to, and so on. Langley’s paladins fought hard–the Kennedy Records Board could hardly get the agency to admit there was such a thing as a “station.” Ultimately Langley conceded the existence of several individual ones but burped at admitting the whole.

In 2017 such issues are moot. What are Langley’s concerns about documents originating in the 1990s? Those are the papers that concern CIA’s dealings with the Kennedy Assassination Records Board. The documents show that the agency’s Office of General Counsel initially advised CIA components that they had a statutory responsibility to produce a wide range of records to the Board, which would decide what to open or keep secret. Langley’s fiefdoms, especially the Directorate of Operations balked. Soon the CIA lawyers, gunslingers, were narrowing the scope of their cooperation with a Board that had lawful access to those records. During the later phase of this scorched document policy Langley’s point man in its fight with the Kennedy Board was none other that Robert J. Eatinger, who has recently acquired notoriety in the CIA torture scandal. Eatinger, whose name reportedly was mentioned more than 1,600 times in the Senate torture report, was the person who attempted to get the Justice Department to investigate the Senate for secrecy violations, and who supervised CIA’s countersurveillance operation against the Senate’s own investigators of Langley’s torture program.(Read more in my book The Ghosts of Langley.)

Basic regulation of the secrecy system in the United States is accomplished by presidential regulation. The current authority here is Executive Order 13526 of December 2009. Only a few categories of information qualify for secrecy protection. These include intelligence activities, sources or methods; and cryptography. Information can only be considered for classification if “unauthorized disclosure could reasonable be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security” of the United States. Moreover, no information can be kept secret for the purpose of avoiding embarrassment to an agency or concealing illegal activity. The CIA’s dealings with the Kennedy Board fall precisely into that category.

It is not national security Langley seeks to protect. In 2017 the CIA wants to hide the extent to which it disputed the mandate of a lawfully constituted national board that had the power to open secret records. Plus there is the direct connection, in the person of Robert Eatinger, between that series of events and Langley’s struggle to suppress the Senate torture investigation. These are not security issues, they are fundamentally political. You cannot find national security grounds to justify this secrecy. The Big Bad Wolf of final declassification is barking at the door and the CIA is donning the costume of national security anyway, thinking everyone will fall into line. Don’t be fooled.

 

John Kelly Update

October 22, 2017–John Kelly, the man who forgot his station, abandoning it so as to enlarge the circle of dereliction surrounding Donald J. Trump, has imitated his boss, disappearing from view instead of apologizing to the congresswoman he slandered. Almost needless to say, the White House spokesperson followed up by representing any questioning of Kelly’s outrage as something highly inappropriate. The Trump White House plays politics while pretending it is above challenge. That is not admissible. Here is a short pause to expand on my post on Friday.

Kelly harked back to a childhood when certain things were sacred. Women were “looked upon with great honor.” Ironic today, amid a flood of revelations of powerful men abusing their stations to harass women. And guess what? One of the first, most embarrassing instances occurred when a videotape showed Donald J. Trump literally bragging about exploiting his status to chase women. That man is John Kelly’s boss. The general talked about Life, “the dignity of Life.” As Homeland Security secretary during the months before he went to the White House Kelly showed no dignity at all to the Muslims he sought to keep out of the United States or the Latinos he tried to eject from it. President Trump’s scrawny response to Puerto Rico’s torment by Hurricane Maria also betrays no sympathy for the dignity of Life. Religion? I wouldn’t be the first to say the only religion facing difficulties in America today is Muslim. Gold Star families? It was Donald Trump–again–who picked a fight with the family of Khizr Khan who, like General Kelly, had lost an officer son to the wars of today. Suffice it to say that Donald Trump, the boss, has been battering practically all the things General Kelly laments losing. Yet he joins Trump in heaping opprobrium on an elected representative of the people who simply reflected the hurt felt by a soldier’s wife when the commander-in-chief called–only when prompted by public questioning of his lack of a response to loss–with hard-hearted “condolences.”

One more thing–what was missing from General Kelly’s lamentation? Truth–palpably, since Kelly prevaricated about Representative Wilson’s remarks at a 2015 event. Justice.  –There is no justice at the Trump White House. The American Way–which is not the province of Mr. Trump’s nativist base. Apparently Truth, Justice, and the American Way are not worth lamenting. As I say, the circle of dereliction is widening each day.

Trump White House : Circle of Dereliction Widens

October 20, 2017–John F. Kelly’s tears are real in one sense, but they are also those of a crocodile. Kelly lost a son in the current wars and remained notably reluctant to talk about it–until President Donald J. Trump dragged his chief of staff into yet another of those contrived public squabbles that have become the mainstay of his presidency. Suddenly Kelly is on the White House podium, asserting that President Barack Obama never telephoned him to express the nation’s regrets, extoll Mr. Trump, and condemn Representative Frederica S. Wilson (D-FL) as being “that empty a barrel” as to think a president’s words worth repeating to the public, indeed for sitting in on Trump’s conversation with Myeshia Johnson (whose Ranger husband, Sergeant La David T. Johnson, had been killed in an ambush in Niger), and for breaking the “confidentiality” of the president’s words. Make no mistake about it–this was a political attack.

First off, General Kelly–for he is a general–as a military officer is responsible to civilian control of the armed forces. Congresswoman Wilson represents that civilian control. Kelly multiplied his disrespect in calling her an “empty barrel.” Representative Wilson faced a segment of the American people to be elected. John Kelly has no constituency beyond five officers on a promotion board.

Second, the congresswoman was riding in a car with Mrs Johnson when the president phoned up. The fact Wilson was present when Mr. Trump called had nothing to do with her. Plus Kelly was present with the president when this conversation took place. If it was wrong for Representative Wilson to be there, what do you say for General Kelly?

Third, there was no breach in repeating the president’s words. That is made up from whole cloth. Mr. Trump’s conversations are not–and have never been–secret just because he participated in them. That is the same spurious claim Trump is trying to make for his firing of FBI director James Comey, and identical to the ridiculous position Attorney General Jeff Sessions took at an oversight hearing yesterday. The business of government will grind to a halt if this attitude toward information continues. The president’s words are secret–classified or more–when he speaks of specific national security subjects in council. The secrecy depends on the information, not who said it. The Trump White House’s effort to cloak every aspect of its operations in secrecy will, without doubt, lead to deeper abuses.

All of this was by way of defending Mr. Trump for yet another disastrous performance. He said nothing about the soldiers lost in this African ambush for nearly two weeks. Questioned about it, Trump suggested he had already talked to the families of the deceased–when he had not–and drew a contrast with previous presidents, who he asserted had never done so, then asserted they had rarely done so, then that they may or may not have done so and he was saying only what people had told him. After that is when he got around to calling poor Mrs Johnson, whose name he did not know, nor the name of her husband the soldier man–and his remorse is to say that Sergeant Johnson had known what he was signing up for. That is what John Kelly is defending, and he is doing it by attacking a member of a co-equal branch of government.

On several occasions here we have explored how General H. R. McMaster, who accused the military under a previous president for dereliction of duty–in the United States military a court martial offense–is doing the same thing as Donald Trump’s national security adviser. John Kelly has now joined this crew. These men seem to have forgotten their oath is sworn to the Constitution, not to a man (Trump himself seems equally unaware of this). They function as enablers. You would be right to have a bad feeling about this.

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.