After reading and hearing wildly contradictory accounts of Ken Burns & Lynn Novick’s Vietnam War documentary on PBS, I decided I had to watch the thing. I agree with some of the criticism and some of the praise.
The documentary begins with the ludicrous idea that the U.S. government had good intentions. It ends with praise for the memorial in DC and its tragic list of names, without mention of the greater number of U.S. veterans of that war who have since died from suicide, much less the vastly greater number of Vietnamese who were killed. The size of a memorial for all the dead would dwarf the current wall. The film treats “war criminal” as a nasty insult uttered only by enemies or immature peaceniks who come to regret it — but never actually addresses the question of the legality of war. The ongoing horrors of Agent Orange birth defects are almost brushed aside as controversial. The toll of the war on soldiers is given tremendously disproportionate space in comparison with the much larger actual toll on civilians. Truly wise voices that opposed the war on moral and legal grounds from start to finish are missing, thereby allowing a narrative in which people make mistakes and learn from them. Alternative proposals of what might have been done instead of the war don’t arise. No coverage is given to those who profited financially from the war. The lying of Secretary of “Defense” Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson at the time that the Gulf of Tonkin incident did not happen is minimized. Etc.
All of that being said, the film benefitted from including many voices I disagree with or whose opinions I find reprehensible — it’s an account of people’s points of views, and we should hear lots of them, and we learn from hearing lots of them. The 10-part movie also reports very openly and clearly how much the U.S. government lied about its motivations and its prospects of “success” during the course of the war — including by showing footage of network TV journalists reporting on the evil of war in a manner that they simply could not do today and keep their jobs (admittedly, often with a focus on the problem of U.S. deaths, which remains the one problem U.S. audiences are still told to care about today). The film does report on the deaths of Vietnamese, albeit with rigorous adherence to the orthodox practice of always reporting the relatively tiny number of U.S. deaths first. It does report on particular atrocities and even on their illegality. It does frame the Gulf of Tonkin incidents as provoked by the United States off the coast of Vietnam. In short, it does an adequate enough job so that any sane viewer would demand that there never again be a war like that one. However, the pretense that some other war could be totally justifiable is carefully left standing.
I want to call particular, and grateful, attention to one item that the PBS film does include, namely Richard Nixon’s treason. Five years ago, this story showed up in an article by Ken Hughes, and others by Robert Parry. Four years ago it made it into The Smithsonian, among other places. Three years ago it gained notice in a corporate-media-approved book by Ken Hughes. At that time, George Will mentioned Nixon’s treason in passing in the Washington Post, quite as if everyone knew all about it. In the new PBS documentary, Burns and Novick actually come out and state clearly what happened, in a manner that Will did not. As a result, a great many more people may indeed actually hear what happened.
What happened was this. President Johnson’s staff engaged in peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese. Presidential candidate Richard Nixon secretly told the North Vietnamese that they would get a better deal if they waited. [UPDATE: He sent a similar message to the South Vietnamese that also helped sabotage the talks.] Johnson learned of this and privately called it treason but publicly said nothing. Nixon campaigned promising that he could end the war. But, unlike Reagan who later sabotaged negotiations to free hostages from Iran, Nixon didn’t actually deliver what he had secretly delayed. Instead, as a president elected on the basis of fraud, he continued and escalated the war (just as Johnson had before him). He once again campaigned on the promise to finally end the war when he sought re-election four years later — the public still having no idea that the war might have been ended at the negotiating table before Nixon had ever moved into the White House if only Nixon hadn’t illegally interfered (or might have been ended at any point since its beginning simply by ending it).
The fact that this crime existed and that Nixon wanted it kept secret sheds light on lesser crimes generally lumped under the heading “Watergate.” The PBS documentary does point out that Nixon’s desire to break into a safe in the Brookings Institution was probably part of the effort to cover up his original treason. Burns and Novick fail to mention that Nixon thug Charles Colson also plotted to bomb the Brookings Institution.
I cannot answer what the U.S. public would have done had Nixon’s sabotage of peace negotiations been known at the time it happened. I can answer what the U.S. public would do if the current U.S. president sabotaged peace negotiations with North Korea, had the Secretary of State call him a moron, and had the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee declare that he had hurt the United States, was risking World War III, and lacked a grasp on reality. Basically, people would kick back and watch — at best — a movie about Vietnam from way back in the day when there were things to worry about.
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