I just tried to watch the first episode of The Vietnam War, a new multi-episode documentary by American filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novik. I didn’t expect this documentary be good, but I am actually surprised now at how bad it really is.
The core of the problem of (at least the first episode of) this documentary is that it is entirely America-centric. It is based on a fantasy that the American government can determine the fate of world affairs, and that individual Americans can influence US government policy.
The “lesson” that the documentary seeks to teach is then that there are times when world affairs do not follow the standards of American ideals, and that this is because the US government does not listen to the good ideas of individual Americans.
Let’s call this the “Americans are so stupid” self-loathing narrative.
This narrative is omnipresent in the first episode of The Vietnam War. There are the obvious “Americans are so stupid” examples of President Wilson not meeting with Hồ Chí Minh at Versailles in 1918 and President Truman not responding to Hồ Chí Minh’s letters in 1945/46.
However, the documentary introduces less well-known “Americans are so stupid” stories as well, such as the story of OSS (Office of Strategic Services) officer Peter Dewey.
Dewey was station in Saigon in 1945 when the British were there disarming the Japanese after the end of World War II. According to The Vietnam War, Dewey could tell that the Vietnamese really wanted independence, and he encouraged the British commander to not suppress that desire.
Tragically, however, this clear-sighted American was killed on 26 September 1945 when he was driving to the airport by Vietnamese nationalists, the very people whom he supposedly supported.
Again, what is the lesson here? It is that there are Americans who have good ideas who are not listened to, and that this directly affects world affairs. If only Peter Dewey had been taken seriously in 1945. . . everything that happened after that point could have been avoided. . .
That, as I said, is a fantasy. But there is something much more sinister about the depiction in The Vietnam War of Peter Dewey as a kind of American martyr, because after Dewey met his tragic death, there were multiple Vietnamese who were killed by Americans, but that is not even mentioned.
As he was driving in a jeep to the airport, Dewey was accompanied by a certain Captain Herbert J. Bluechel. Bluechel was not hit by the gunfire that killed Dewey, and in the aftermath of Dewey’s death, Bluechel fought back against the Vietnamese who had killed Dewey, Vietnamese, again, who were fighting for the independence that Dewey supposedly supported.
To quote from an affidavit that Bluechel made (and which can be found in a mouse-click from The Vietnam Virtual Archive at Texas Tech University), Bluechel stated that,
“I grabbed the carbine and attempted to shoot at several annamese who were approaching me and firing rifles. Their route of approach was along route ‘D’ as marked on the sketch. The carbine jammed and I was forced to abandon it and depend on my pistol. I was fortunate in inflicting three hits on the annamese approaching along route ‘D’, causing the remaining to take cover.”
“I noticed 10 or 15 annamites making their way south on the road in the direction of the OSS headquarters, and realized they were attempting to cut me off from my only line of retreat. I fired several shots at them causing them to take cover.”
As Bluechel then made his way along a hedge towards OSS headquarters. He then states that “I reached the end of the hedge without being hit, and can certify that I did hit five of the pursing annamese.”
If those five were in addition to the three that he “hit” earlier, then that means that Bluechel had shot eight Vietnamese by this point.
There were five people at OSS headquarters when Bluechel arrived, and he states that he had them “placed at strategic places in and around the house and ordered them to fire at any armed annamese they saw firing at or approaching the house.”
He goes on to state that “For the next 20 or 30 minutes firing was brisk, and we inflicted many hits on the annamese who had deployed themselves on the golf course which extends to the front of the headquarters. I would estimate the attacking force to number approximately 50.”
The fighting continued until eventually the Vietnamese “raised a Red Cross flag and approached the golf course to our front to evacuate their dead and wounded.”
Peter Dewey is referred to on Wikipedia as “the first American fatality in French Indochina, killed during the 1945 Vietnamese uprising.” While that may be true, why aren’t the multiple Vietnamese who were killed by Americans that same day recognized?
Is that neglect to acknowledge the American killing of Vietnamese who desired independence in any way significant?
In the America-centric world of people like Ken Burns and Lynn Novik, it is clearly not significant at all. That is one reason, among many others, why their documentary, The Vietnam War, is a total disappointment.