Marc Raskin Acquitted, He Wanted a Retrial

January 7, 2018–I want to mark the passing of Marcus G. Raskin, a long-term fighter for progressive causes, who died at home on Christmas Eve. The teaser in the headline refers to a famous passage in the political struggle against the Vietnam war, where the Draft was the vehicle the United States used to fill many of the ranks of those sent to the front. Under U.S. law it was a requirement (mostly honored in the breach) to have on your person a “Draft Card” that identified you and specified your status in terms of being called up for military service. The card was considered property of the United States. While the possession clause was largely ignored, deliberately destroying a Draft Card was a definite no-no.  Needless to say, destroying Draft Cards soon became a symbol of resistance to this arbitrary system of filling the armed forces. Marc Raskin and four colleagues–the famous baby doctor Benjamin Spock, the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr., chaplain of Yale University; author Mitchell Goodman, and grad student Michael Ferber–were put on trial in Boston for burning Draft Cards (most, but not all, their own). All the participants except Raskin were convicted at trial (overturned on appeal). Raskin was acquitted. He wanted a retrial!

That was a time when principles were real and citizens deemed civil disobedience necessary to rein in an increasingly imperial presidency. I’ve wondered what Marc thinks about the times through which we live today, but it’s been increasingly difficult for him to express himself. I last saw him about eight months ago and just held his hand. To the earth we all shall return.

But Marcus Goodman Raskin accomplished a number of important things in his time among us. His greatness was prefigured at an early age. His father a plumber, his mother a seamstress, Marc became a concert pianist–good enough for Juilliard, to attend which he dropped out of high school. But Marc was always about convictions. He began in piano at age 4, but at 16, in 1950, Marc decided the nervous tension, even playing just for himself, was too much. Abandoning the piano–though he took a year off after college, in Italy extending his talent–Raskin decided to attend the University of Chicago. There he ran into the future composer Philip Glass, then a student, who asked his help learning the piano. Convinced he saw talent and yearning, Raskin became a coach and helped Glass develop a real technique.

Yet it was in the nation’s service that Marc Raskin really achieved his metier. A Milwaukee boy, Raskin joined the staff of Wisconsin congressman Robert W. Kastenmeier, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1958. By then Marc had a doctorate in jurisprudence from Chicago. Kastenmeier joined the Liberal Project Group in Congress, an informal circle that commissioned essays, then met to discuss them, attempting todevise policies that were consistent with liberal thinking and solved real problems. Raskin took notes. When the group published a book, The Liberal Papers, Marc contributed an essay and help edit others. That brought wider attention.

When John F. Kennedy won the 1960 elections he needed to staff his administration, including the National Security Council (NSC) staff, as head of which he appointed McGeorge Bundy. Raskin and JFK had shaken hands once, at some congressional function; but Carl Kaysen–Bundy’s right-hand man, and David Riesman, a Harvard social science guru, knew Raskin better. They pushed for him. Kennedy also wanted to build a bridge to liberal Democrats like Kastenmeier. As a result Marcus Raskin was offered a post on the NSC staff.

Raskin’s office was in the Old Executive Office Building, next to one the Mac Bundy occupied before he moved across to the West Wing. Marc’s portfolio was to help with Congress, the United Nations, disarmament issues, and later added the UN trusteeship in Micronesia, Albania and Yugoslavia. Introducing Raskin to his then-NSC deputy, Walt Rostow, Mac Bundy had said, “Marc is going to be our conscience.”

But while these were formal roles, nothing kept Raskin from commenting where he thought some point needed to be made. Early after his inauguration President Kennedy presided over the disastrous CIA invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. That travesty was naturally followed by multiple inquiries, post-mortems, and investigations. All of them included CIA participants among the principals. The most important one, the “Taylor Board”–named for General Maxwell D. Taylor, to whom JFK had taken an especial liking–included CIA director Allen W. Dulles. On May 1, 1961 Raskin wrote a memo to Mac Bundy: “It seems to me that we should have some other kinds of people on the panel which is presently looking into the operation of the CIA.” Marc warned that the inquiries were going to take an operational or tactical view–seeking to optimize techniques, not asking questions like “What is the relation of an outfit like the CIA to a free society?” “How is such an organization going to be held accountable?” “How do we make sure that so-called para-military outfits don’t so completely change the nature of our society and what we want to do internationally that we wind up being as unstable as the Weimar Republic?”

All good questions. All very uncomfortable. None likely to endear Marc to his White House colleagues. Pressures for conformity were great.

Another 1961 episode, quite notorious, concerned U.S. nuclear war plans. There was a terrible moment when the Joint Chiefs of Staff briefed the president on the scenarios in the nuclear plan, responses  that would automatically go into effect if Kennedy ever approved a nuclear strike. The generals estimated that Russia and China would be devastated and the world suffer between 325 and 525 million deaths. Kennedy was horrified. He demanded changes. Today Dan Ellsberg is taking credit for sparkplugging reductions in the war plan that took China, at least, off the target list, but the truth is that the push for more limited options came from right inside the White House. There was a basic national security policy paper (BNSP) drafted at RAND in the fall of 1961, but it could be read either to justify big war or limited strikes. A rewrite at the Pentagon, where the issue of limited options became confused with the option of an early, counterforce strike to disarm the Russians, sounded to Raskin like a formula to start a nuclear war. Raskin had been attending all kinds of meetings on this matter in his capacity of NSC specialist on disarmament. Carl Kaysen had headed the White House team, and the latest rewrite of the BNSP paper sounded like Kaysen had had a hand in it. Raskin went to Kaysen to object that the BNSP looked like a first-strike war plan. Kaysen demurred. Raskin then asked how Kaysen thought the United States was different from the people who had loaded the boxcars for Auschwitz. After that day the two men hardly spoke again.

Meanwhile The Liberal Papers actually appeared in print, and though Mac Bundy had induced Raskin to take his name off of it, it came out that Marc had had a lot to do with that project. To get Raskin out of the White House he was packed off to Geneva, to the U.S. delegation at negotiations for General and Complete Disarmament, which had largely devolved into a propaganda forum where the communist bloc and the West hurled charges at each other. A year of that soured Marc Raskin on changes from within the government, and that is when he joined up with a similarly disillusioned ex-State Department fellow, Richard J. Barnet, to create the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS).

Most of the obituaries and commentaries on Marc Raskin have centered on the IPS years. That’s fine, because IPS really became lodestar–for Raskin and Barnet both. But these early stories are important because they show the man of principle. I’ll tell one more story. It’s about the Pentagon Papers. By 1970 Dan Ellsberg–like Marc himself–was fighting against the Vietnam war. Ellsberg had tried to get Congress to take heed of the revelations in these important documents. Importantly, he had taken them to senators like J. William Fulbright and George S. McGovern. On The Hill, congresspeople were sympathetic to Ellsberg but then never followed through. That’s when Ellsberg began approaching the media. He also went to IPS. The Institute did not get a full set of the Pentagon Papers but it got enough of the 7,000 pages to fill a banker’s box–and the IPSers did not sit on them. In early 1972 they hit with a book in preparation from before the big scandal broke in June 1971. Raskin joined with Barnet and Ralph Stavins to publish Washington Plans an Aggressive War. The title was a play on the Nuremberg Principles, for Germans and Japanese had been sent to prison–and the gallows–for planning and waging “aggressive war” in World War II. Marc’s piece in the book dealt with Congress permitting the erosion of its power, the presidency dangerously out of control, and–following his passion for disarmament– the possibilities for a political system loosely based on the post-World War II measures to demilitarize Japan (in particular) and Germany.

To the end Marc Raskin remained a man of principles. The contrast to today’s enablers in the White House, from John Kelly to “Appropriate Dereliction” McMasters, are palpable. America needs more like Raskin, not like them.

Is John F. Kennedy a CIA Ghost?

November 21, 2017–On the eve of the fifty-fourth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy this question is worth asking. I have a book out right now called The Ghosts of Langley,  in which I use the metaphor of a ghost to signify a character whose example, for good or ill, stands out so prominently that successors take their cues from her or him, trying to emulate or to avoid the same sorts of behaviors. Langley in the title, of course, is the geographical location of Central Intelligence Agency headquarters, and my metaphoric ghosts are from the CIA, highlighting an agency in its 70th year. But there’s no reason why the ghost couldn’t reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

As a matter of fact there is also no reason why President Kennedy cannot also be a CIA ghost. His claim to be a spirit flows from his zealous pursuit of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. In The Strategy of Peace, his political testament book working up to the 1960 presidential campaign, Mr. Kennedy lamented that the United States had for so long supported Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, and speculated that Castro might have acted differently had he been received more enthusiastically in Washington. In actuality just a few months after Kennedy’s declaration President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a CIA plan to overthrow Mr. Castro, one accepted by Kennedy when he entered office, and which led to the Bay of Pigs disaster. But rather than giving up the ghost, JFK redoubled U.S. efforts to depose Mr. Castro.

This piece of history has President Kennedy acting through the CIA in a top secret project called MONGOOSE. It is usually passed over by history with a few sentences about CIA assassination plotting, or the episode where one MONGOOSE infiltration team almost triggered war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the Cuba program went way beyond that–and Jack Kennedy stood at the center of it. Journalist Tad Szulc and Senator George Smathers both had conversations with Kennedy where the president mentioned assassination. Szulc went off and actually discussed a plan with some Cuban exiles. Kennedy showed his concern over the CIA program by creating the “Special Group (Augmented),” a unit of the interagency panel that approved covert operations whose function was specifically to monitor MONGOOSE. This device the president used to put his brother Robert, then the attorney general, in position to oversee CIA action. Kennedy was never satisfied with the pace or progress of MONGOOSE. Prodded for something more aggressive, the CIA crafted a “Phase II” plan in 1962. That was still not enough. Later in 1962 came Phase II Plus. The Cuban Missile Crisis forced JFK to rethink his approach, and afterwards Kennedy dismantled the CIA unit, Task Force W, responsible for the covert operation. But that meant nothing. President Kennedy actually elevated Cuba covert planning to a higher level of the National Security Council, an NSC Standing Group, where Cuba discussions focused during 1963. That summer the NSC Standing Group approved a whole new Cuba plan. In the meantime Langley had created a fresh unit, the Special Affairs Staff, to carry out the anti-Castro operations. Its deputy chief was the same individual who had been deputy to the chief of Task Force W.

Just ten days before his murder in Dallas, President Kennedy personally met with his CIA Cuba team, heard a full briefing on the anti-Castro program, and approved the next set of targets for exile raids. Looking at the anti-Castro operations journalist George Crile once called them “The Kennedy Vendetta,” and he was right.

In the years since Jack Kennedy’s death there have been a plethora of theories, conspiracy theories, speculations, and plain explanations for why JFK was assassinated. They show why, at a certain level, Kennedy is a Ghost of Langley. One theory is that Castro reached out and retaliated for the CIA’s murder plots against him. That is largely speculation–the CIA had a dedicated counterintelligence operation it ran against the Cuban DGI and G-2, and had both Miami and Mexico City wired for sound. The FBI had an even more intense program. They recorded reactions to Kennedy’s death but no preparations for an attempt against him. Another theory is that the CIA murdered the president. That seems unlikely. Yet another is that it was the Cuban exiles, furious at their betrayal at the hands of Kennedy and the CIA. The exiles were not aware of the inner workings of JFK’s intense vendetta against Castro. Then there is the Mafia, said to be  enraged their Havana clubs and hotels had been nationalized without a U.S. response. Lee Harvey Oswald, the putative assassin, was also acutely aware of Kennedy’s Cuba policy.

I shall leave it to Kennedy assassination historians to unravel the skeins of all these threads. There are two important points to carry away: First, all these threads revolve around CIA operations from one side or the other–Kennedy as a Ghost of Langley. Second, all the CIA assassination plotting that the Rockefeller Commission and Church Committee uncovered and investigated in the middle 1970s–all of it ended with Kennedy. Presidents after John F. Kennedy never involved themselves, or the CIA, in assassination planning. Even Ronald Reagan, who called Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega a “dictator in sunglasses,” and ordered the CIA out to mine Nicaraguan harbors, never entertained any plan to murder the Sandinista commandante. Subsequent presidents took a lesson from the Kennedy experience. Ghosts of Langley.

New Kennedy Assassination Papers

October 26, 2017--Today the National Archives is supposed to release the final tranche of papers reviewed back during the period from 1992 to 1998 by the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Board. As the result of a law passed in 1992, the Board, composed of prominent citizens and historians appointed by Congress, on the one hand, and the president on the other, enjoyed exceptional latitude in what it could release. The Board itself had the power to declassify documents. That reversed the usual situation, where people apply to government agencies for the latter to release material. The CIA, FBI, Secret Service, and other haggled with the Board to keep stuff secret. Sometimes the Board agreed, sometimes it didn’t. Most of the material was released, with some deletions, in the 1990s.

Documents the Board agreed to hold back were put into a basket to be released 25 years on–that is the benchmark we reach today. The National Archives and Records Administration made a start at the task over the summer, putting out the first of hundreds of thousands of documents. Today is the moment of suspense for the rest.

I expect the Kennedy documents will contain big piles of information about Lee Harvey Oswald, the events in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and issues surrounding President Kennedy’s security. They will also contain a great deal about the Soviet spy Yuri Nosenko, who defected to the United States claiming to have special information about Oswald. Because the Records Board had a wide jurisdiction it also looked into CIA covert operations, especially those aimed at Cuba’s Fidel Castro, which I covered most recently in my book The Ghosts of Langley (The New Press).

Over the next days and weeks you should expect to see some of the posts here focus on what we learn from the new Kennedy Board documents. Clearly historians will be grappling with this material for decades to come, but at least you’ll get a whiff of what’s new.

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.

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.

 

 

Rolling Commentary 1 : Someone Else’s Vietnam

September 18, 2017–Lyndon Johnson, a font of political aphorisms, used to tell a story of a camel and a tent. It was a lot better, he would say, to have the camel inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick could have used that advice. Their wide reading and wide consultation in the elaboration of this project appears to this historian to have been far narrower than advertised–and indeed intended to fuel a certain vision of the Vietnam experience. My phone never rang. As author of eight books specifically on the Vietnam war, with parts of four others devoted to it as well, I would have been a good resource. Perhaps I was relegated to the ranks of former high ranking government officials, who Burns and Novick deliberately chose not to interview. More likely, I am an exponent of a vision of Vietnam war history the filmmakers preferred not to hear.

So I will exercise the camel’s prerogative to piss into the tent. In keeping with Lyndon Johnson, who ran his bombing of North Vietnam under the nickname Rolling Thunder with numbers to distinguish the successive aerial assaults, we’ll run these as numbered entries of “Rolling Commentary.” Today I’ll make one general point and two specific ones.

This film was either cut to induce vertigo or to set up the viewer to absorb without questioning some key argument farther down the way. That is, any claim to be detailing this conflict chronologically is just that–a claim. The film hops back and forth across the history with dizzying speed. Geneva 1954 jumps to the late Diem period, Indochina 1945 to the Versailles peace conference of 1919, Dien Bien Phu to the American war and back again, with pauses throughout for participants to relate experiences. –But not experiences necessarily related to the moment the film is describing. David Marlantes gets as much face time to talk about how he and his dear friend never spoke of the war for more than a decade–certainly a post-Vietnam experience, as Burns and Novick devote to the entire origins of the Vietnamese revolution. In an 18-hour film they could have done better. Use of the interviews is also uneven. Mai Elliott’s memories describe specific experiences of her father and family in a way nicely related to the narrative, while Lam Quang Thi–not explicitly identified as a lieutenant general in the South Vietnamese army–is drawn upon merely for a generic comment on Vietnamese facing revolutionary conditions. Since Thi, as a young officer in the French-dominated Vietnamese National Army, had broad relations with Nguyen Van Thieu, who eventually emerged as South Vietnam’s military strongman, the opportunity to gain key insight into a major figure is lost.

On to the specific. The filmmakers’ asserted purpose is to furnish an account of the war that is a people’s story, not an overarching history of the clash of nations at arms. (Thus the avoidance of interviews with senior officials.) There’s an implication here that people have avoided talking about the war, and that presentation of this material is an advance in the story. Actually, look at World Wars I and II, or the Korean war and you will find that not speaking of the horrors of war has been the norm, not the exception. You might even make a case that many young Americans marched off to the Vietnam war precisely because their fathers had not spoken to them clearly of the horrors of war. But in Vietnam, talking about the war began while the guns were still shooting–with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which started in 1967–and continued throughout. At colleges throughout the country clusters of students using their GI Bill stipends had the war with them all the time. High school and college classes regularly have veterans in to tell their stories. Former South Vietnamese, striving for recognition in America, are all about the war too. Today you can go into anyplace where Vietnamese books are sold and find armloads of material on the war and the old country. It is no achievement to get participants to talk about the Vietnam war.

Finally, for today, one point of history. The first episode of the Burns and Novick film, in its coverage of the French war in Indochina, has left wing labor unions in Marseilles mount protests in which members throw stones at soldiers debarking from troop ships returning from the war. Actually the Marseilles dockworkers were guilty not of throwing stones but of refusing to load supplies aboard ships bound for Indochina. Those are two very different things. You can readily appreciate that the stoning charge sets up a parallelism with allegations later in the American war that protesters spat at GIs coming home. The latter charge continues to be controversial today. Establishing parallelism for it represents an attempt to enhance credibility. If this is the way this film is put together it adds up to the very opposite of objectivity. This is someone else’s version of Vietnam, not mine.