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.

Vietnam Veterans Against the War

September 16, 2017–With the sharp-edged sentimentality that seems to go with everything about the Vietnam war, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are releasing their much-heralded documentary film “The Vietnam War” with the slogan that “There is no single truth in war.” There are layers of meaning in that. Burns and Novick set up one such layer by making sure to include many Vietnamese among their witnesses. But there’s a very different meaning from the American side, where this film lays out a story line of conventional, gung-ho heroics, a World War II-style simple-mindedness that proved misplaced amid the complexities of Asia, and which the Vietnam war itself demonstrated to be foolish, even stupid. The Burns and Novick production does for film what neo-orthodox historians have attempted for the written record–to recycle the conventional wisdom of fifty years ago, the lines pushed by MACV spin doctors at the “Five-O’clock Follies,” as supposedly fresh insights from supposedly new research.

Two elements reveal how shallow is the alleged new thinking. One concerns timing. The film’s release coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Long March on the Pentagon (the second big protest there, actually), when 50,000 antiwar demonstrators showed up to denounce the conflict, putting themselves at the heart of America’s military command center. That event was important in crystalizing political opposition to the Vietnam war in the United States. To release a rah-rah praise-the-warrior-and-pass-the-ammunition pic at this moment is to throw down a gauntlet in front of the anguished citizens who had to live through this actual history.

The other element is that the Burns-Novick film slights opponents of the war. Let’s get this straight up front: the United States lost the Vietnam war. Those who opposed the conflict as an imperialist or neocolonialist action or as a military insanity were correct to do so. But the 18 hours of film here contain precious little of that. Ken Burns admits, “I couldn’t tell the difference,” when the audience at an opening at Washington’s Kennedy Center erupted in applause as thunderous for antiwar opponents as for GIs. In the documentary the difference is clear.

The Americans who traveled the furthest in this buffeting of the 60s and 70s were precisely those men and women who went to war–and came home to fight against it. These were the stalwarts of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). They too are having an anniversary this weekend, in New York and Milwaukee, the 50th year of the organization. Starting from the spring of 1967, when a tiny band of these folks marched in New York, VVAW led many in the antiwar movement. They were the first to press for recognition of PTSD, the first to devise means (rap groups) to cope with the malady, they were key innovators of guerrilla theater and creative protests. If in the Burns-Novick you see an antiwar banner hanging from the crown of the Statue of Liberty, that was VVAW. I can hardly do justice to these committed veterans here (I tell the VVAW story in some detail in my book Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War). Unlike almost any of the others, VVAW vets remained in opposition to war long afterwards, becoming the heart of Veterans for Peace and inspiring the vets who created Iraq Veterans Against the War, using VVAW as a model. Yet few of these former servicepeople appear in the Burns-Novick documentary series.

Americans should be celebrating the VVAW anniversary. Their exploits deserve honor. More than the media hype around two filmmakers and their latest documentary, this occasion deserves to be noted. I wish I could be with them to do that.

Another Spook Passes

June 15, 2017–Every so often there’s a spy story that brings back the (supposed) romance of the second oldest profession. These are the kinds of narratives that enthrall kids and make them want to grow up to be spies. It may be that the age has passed–the machine spies, the computer hackers, the drone pilots, the faceless bureaucrats of the modern spyocracy do little to evoke the foggy streets and dark alleys of classic espionage. Samuel Vaughan Wilson is today’s story. He passed away a few days ago. For someone who roamed five continents and the seven seas, Wilson made it full circle to die at 93, in the same small Virginia town where he was born in 1923. Wilson was the real thing.

It was 1940, with war clouds on the horizon and Europe already enveloped in World War II, when Sam walked seven miles in the rain to enlist in the Virginia National Guard. Soon enough the Guard were mobilized. Wilson rose to sergeant before he was selected for officer candidate school, from which he emerged in good form. The Army sent him to Burma with the 4507th Provisional Infantry Regiment, famous as “Merrill’s Marauders.” He became regimental intelligence officer to Brigadier General Frank B. Merrill. Wilson personally scouted behind Japanese lines to prepare Merrill’s first attack. When Hollywood made a movie about the Marauders in 1962, Wilson actually appeared in the film, using the name Vaughan Wilson to play Merrill’s aide.

Army troops in Burma had a very close, almost interchangeable, relationship with the spooks of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which had a unit there called Detachment 101. Wilson made his first contacts with a number of people he would encounter again later. He spent roughly a third of his career on detached service with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), starting with four years with a Russian-immersion unit called “Detachment R.” That prepped him for assignment to the CIA base in West Berlin. Wilson occupied a place perhaps just one step below the CIA’s top Soviet case officers, George Kisevalter and Richard Kovich. Wilson became the agency’s first case officer for Igor Orlov, an agent whom people variously view as either an important spy or a Russian mole. There were other espionage assignments too. In 1963 Wilson was assigned to the Pentagon office supporting the CIA and its Project MONGOOSE aimed at Fidel Castro. In his later guise as a college president Wilson recalled browsing book stalls in Paris, Moscow, Beijing, and Tokyo; and strolling through the marketplaces of Baghdad, Marrakesh, Samarkand, and Ulaan Bator.

Then there was the Army.  It sent him to South Vietnam. As a colonel when Henry Cabot Lodge was the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Wilson served as military adviser to South Vietnamese General Nguyen Khanh. In January 1964 Khanh launched a coup that overthrew the junta of the time. Colonel Wilson became the man on the spot, funneling spot reports to Ambassador Lodge on ops of the South Vietnamese airborne brigade, Khanh’s securing of the command compound at Tan Son Nhut airbase, and his schedule. When Maxwell D. Taylor succeeded Lodge, Colonel Wilson became the U.S. military attaché. Over the holidays in 1964-65 Taylor, held in high esteem by President Lyndon Johnson, assembled his country team to consider whether to support the dispatch of American troops to South Vietnam. Wilson opposed that. He returned to Vietnam in 1966-67 as head of pacification under the Agency for International Development. Successes and failures at pacification further soured Wilson on the war.

In 1971 Brigadier General Wilson went to Moscow as U.S. military attaché. Even that late in his career the general is reported to have attempted on-the-street recruitments on behalf of CIA. The Soviets did not ignore him. Wilson is said to have been the target of a Russian “swallow,” a female spy who recruits using her wiles. Returning to the United States in 1973, Major General Wilson won assignment to head the Directorate of Estimates at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Following a year there, in September 1974 Wilson returned to the CIA as Bill Colby’s deputy to liaise with the other members of the intelligence community. He held that job until May 1976, when Lieutenant General Wilson became the director of DIA in his own right. Wilson is quoted as telling his people that Sherlock Holmes had become a better role model than James Bond.

The Carter administration took office in January 1977 and it made a start on new special forces and tactics, in the style of Detachment 101 and Merrill’s Marauders. General Wilson advocated for the initiative and put in the good word. He also furnished valuable advice to Colonel Charles Beckwith, originator of Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta. That unit, the Delta Force, was in the works as Sam Wilson retired in the fall of 1977. In the Iran Hostage Crisis the Delta Force carried out the rescue mission that failed at Desert One. Sam Wilson came out of retirement to serve on the Pentagon panel that reviewed the execution of Operation EAGLE CLAW, as the mission had been known. Wilson remained in demand as a consultant, and educator, and he circled back to his boyhood town. Altogether an interesting trajectory.

Midway Mystery: Secrecy and a World War II Turning Point

June 7, 2017–Here’s a story that has everything–spies, lies, a turning point of World War II, journalists, secrecy, desperation, and right thinking. Seventy-five years ago today, this story appeared in the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune: “JAP FLEET SMASHED BY U.S.–2 CARRIERS SUNK AT MIDWAY.” The battle off Midway Island in the Central Pacific was the moment when Japan’s march that had started with Pearl Harbor was blunted. American naval forces were weaker than the Imperial Navy’s. U.S. technology, for once, was equal, not superior to the adversary’s, with some things better, some worse than the enemy’s. What the Americans had for an edge was intelligence–U.S. Navy codebreakers were able to read a series of messages in which the Japanese finalized their plans to invade Midway. Using this knowledge, Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz planned an ambush to catch the Japanese.

At first it seemed the enemy couldn’t be stopped. But then clouds opened up beneath a strike group of U.S. dive bombers and four Imperial Navy aircraft carriers were right below them. Nimitz’s forces sank all four enemy carriers, at one blow reducing first-line Japanese aeronaval strength by two thirds. That was on June 4, 1942. Over the next couple of days the U.S. mopped up, inflicting more losses on the enemy. Then came June 7 and the Tribune article.

The scary thing about the newspaper story is that its details included identifications of the Japanese warships involved at Midway, including the exact aircraft carriers that had been sunk. This suggested whomever had written the story had had access to information from U.S. codebreakers–and, indeed, Admiral Nimitz had sent a dispatch a few days ahead of the battle warning his sailors of the enemy’s strength. The Navy Department went ballistic upon seeing the Tribune story. Intelligence officer Arthur H. McCollum was able to show that the news story not only had the same information but the same errors as were in the Nimitz message.

United States Fleet commander Admiral Ernest J. King, and Navy Secretary Frank Knox told the press a cover story for why the Americans had been off Midway to meet the enemy, and they handed the leak case over to Attorney General Francis Biddle. On August 7, 1942 Biddle convened a grand jury which listened to evidence for five days. By this time Navy communications experts had traced the Tribune story to one of the newspaper’s reporters, Stanley Johnston, who had been on the aircraft carrier Lexington when she was sunk at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, and had bunked with that ship’s executive officer as both survivors were returned to Pearl Harbor. It is believed that officer, Commander Morton T. Seligman, had shown Johnston the Nimitz message.

The grand jury considered criminal charges against journalist Johnston. In the 75 years from that day to this–despite repeated governmental outrage against media and journalists for revealing leaked information to the public–Stanley Johnston remains the only journalist to come this close to indictment. But here was the thing: the Navy had permitted him to go to sea and cover naval affairs without obliging Johnston to sign any agreement that required him to submit his writings for censorship. The other aspect of the case was that the U.S. government could not have prosecuted the case without revealing more information of how it was reading the Japanese naval codes. A prosecutor assigned to handle the case had recommended, as early as mid-July, that it not be pursued. A trial would only provide opportunities for the Japanese to discover their codes were compromised. On August 20, 1942 the Chicago Tribune published another story, this time with the news that legal investigations were being dropped.

Fast forward many years. In late 2014 historian Elliot Carlson joined with the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of Information and other organizations, including the National Security Archive, to sue for release of the grand jury records from the Midway-Chicago Tribune case. Chief Judge Ruben Castillo of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled in June 2015 that the records should be opened. The U.S. government appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. In September 1916 the circuit court issued an order to unseal the records. In mid-December the government’s window to attempt a further appeal of the decision closed and the records became public. Secrecy has finally ended for the deepest mystery of the Midway leak–there are at least three versions of how Stanley Johnston obtained access to the Nimitz dispatch. Now we’ll be able to see precisely what he said to the grand jury.