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.

 

 

The End in Saigon: 40 Years On

May 4, 2015–This is a bit late–and it will be posted in pieces–but there is still a lot to say, perhaps though, to a diminishing audience. The first thing I want to say is “Hurrah!” While it was going on–and no matter what side of this thing you were on–the Vietnam war was pure trauma. Tragic too, it needs to be said. It went on for years then, for that very last part, got even worse, except if you were North Vietnamese. The angst, the sadness, the heart wrenching scenes of desperation and defeat–none of it was good and its was worse if you were involved personally, as Vietnamese or American. Now it is over. For many of the boomers, that trauma came at the formative moment of their lives.

This year it is over for the 40th time. There has been a remarkable outpouring of reflections, remembrances, speculations–in the press, broadcast media, and in events such as conferences marking the occasion. I’ve participated in several of them. I have reflections of my own.

The first is to note the continued vigor of those who yearn for a different truth. Like southerners refusing to acknowledge the “Lost Cause” following the Civil War, a significant number of Americans, primarily veterans and Vietnamese-Americans (refugees and their descendants) continue to insist that America did not lose the war, even that we won–or we won but threw away the victory–or that the Congress lost the war, or that the antiwar movement lost the war, or that the media lost the war. There are many variations on the theme.

In truth the war was lost quite convincingly. Our adversaries not only marched right into Saigon, our allies collapsed. We ended by desperately evacuating Vietnamese and Americans from the city even as the North Vietnamese and Liberation Front forces took over. The argument that Congress lost the war by refusing President Gerald R. Ford’s demand for yet another aid appropriation is misinformation. Not only was that aid request intended simply to fund a last-ditch stand–not anything that could have led to a military victory–there were unexpended aid funds lying unspent in current accounts at the time Saigon fell. And it was American presidents, not the Congress, who cut the aid requests from $2.2 billion for 1973, to $1.4 billion for 1974, to $1 billion for 1975.

Lost Cause deniers present well-worn arguments, over and over, in a litany that ignores refutations. The point above has been made before. So has the point that another important causal factor in the South Vietnamese collapse was the Arab Oil Embargo, which for a time specifically intended to cut off fuel deliveries to South Vietnam, and which ultimately meant huge increases in the price of oil–with immediate consequences for the South Vietnamese military and the Saigon government. That instantly soaked up a greater proportion of the available U.S. aid. This was something that had nothing to do with the U.S. Congress, media, or the antiwar movement. No matter.

Deniers make no effort to explain how the Thieu regime could eliminate the corruption on which its leader had relied to maintain his hold on power, and which functioned to drain away another slice of U.S. aid.

Deniers deplore aid to North Vietnam from the socialist camp but fail to compare that with U.S. aid to South Vietnam. The truth is that the United States delivered more aid to Saigon after U.S. forces left the war than China and Russia together provided throughout the conflict.

Saigon as well as Hanoi conspired to tear up the Paris Ceasefire on 1973. Deniers make no effort to analyze this in a balanced way, which is unfortunate since South Vietnam’s main chance for survival at that time lay precisely in ensuring the continuing operation of that agreement. The Korean war ceasefire of 1953, which has been behind the continuing division of the Koreas, could have served as the model for South Vietnam.

The argument that the National Liberation Front was defeated and the pacification war won ignores the fact that the United States itself moved the conflict from the level of an insurgency to that of a conventional war. The various formulas for isolating the battlefield by cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail are all flawed–either the forces were not available in the moment, the logistics were not there, or the political evolution of the war had passed the point when the stated action was possible. The deniers don’t seem to care.

For the 40th time we observe the same history–that is, the North Vietnamese did march into Saigon. Our proponents of the Lost Cause, you would think, must be tired by now, since each time we revisit this history it has the same tragic and traumatic content.

A second point is that “victory” did not mean what our former adversaries thought. North Vietnamese authorities made a hash out of reunification and reconciliation, and never did escape entirely from wartime ways of thinking. The peace so many longed for was enveloped by fresh challenges from China allied with Cambodia–and the Chinese challenge continues to this day. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, meanwhile, now maintains friendly relations with its erstwhile enemy, the United States, partly to counterbalance the Chinese challenge. At the same time, the dynamism of Vietnamese of the south has come to play an important role in governing the nation and as Vietnam’s economic engine.

To learn one must start by acknowledging true conditions and developments. Our Lost Cause deniers and our North Vietnamese victors have this in common: neither group can bring itself to acknowledge truth. At their most extravagant the deniers turn history on its head and claim the war was won. The Vietnamese victors willfully refuse to admit their abuses in the postwar era. More recently, when significant capital inflows to Vietnam are coming from the overseas Vietnamese, the Viet kieu, the Vietnamese government has been slow to amend regulations that separate and divide families, or to dismantle repressive wartime ideological controls.

When the next major anniversary of the end of the war comes it would be delightful to be able to report that we have moved past these counterproductive and spiteful attitudes.