I just finished watching “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. While I really disliked the first episode (as it was extremely reductionist and simplistic), I found the rest of the documentary to be of much higher quality.
Ultimately, this is a movie about “America” rather than “Vietnam.” What Burns and Novick try to demonstrate is that the deep divides in American society today can be traced back to the time of the Vietnam War.
In exploring how America became divided at that time, Burns and Novick try not to privilege any single person or group in/from America by showing the complexity of each person or group, and by doing so they change how these years are often presented. For instance, almost every time that Burns and Novick discuss a famous event in the history of the anti-war movement, they follow that by noting that polls at that time showed that Americans favored the actions of the police/the establishment rather than the anti-war protestors.
There are some who will see this as a conservative distortion of “the facts,” but if the goal of this documentary is to explain why America is so divided, then contextualizing the anti-war movement in this way is helpful.
However, in their effort to look at the complexity of the diverse views of Americans, there is one topic that is conspicuously absent – South Vietnam and the South Vietnamese. In this 18-hour long documentary, the Americans who are interviewed, and the narrator, say almost nothing about South Vietnam and the South Vietnamese.
Even if this is a documentary about Americans and what they think, the war was supposed to be about protecting South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese were America’s allies. So shouldn’t Americans have something to say about South Vietnam and the South Vietnamese?
About the only thing that gets said about South Vietnam in this documentary is that the government was corrupt and the army was incompetent.
Why is that?
I can’t help but see a deep strain of racism and a double standard running through the 18 hours of this documentary that is a reflection of the collective American consciousness and view of the war.
We’re told that the South Vietnamese army was incompetent, and it is all but ignored until the Tet Offensive when we suddenly see that same army fighting very effectively.
Repeatedly we see the Americans negotiating with the North Vietnamese without even informing the South Vietnamese government of what they were doing. We are also told that the landing of the marines in 1965 was carried out without informing the South Vietnamese government.
The South Vietnamese are presented as undermining the Phoenix Program because they engaged in revenge killings (and by extension, the American military is blamed for allowing people who are obviously unprofessional to run this program), but when Americans fired on civilians after their comrades have been killed in a long fight. . . “that’s just war.”
We are also told that the Americans fought at a disadvantage because the enemy knew the terrain while the Americans didn’t. But the Americans fought in places where the South Vietnamese lived, and there must have been officers and soldiers in the South Vietnamese military who were actually from many of the places where Americans fought. They must have known the terrain. Did anyone consult them?
At the end of the movie we see US veterans making their peace with their former enemies, but we do not see any instances in which veterans engage in any kind of dialog or interactions with their former allies.
Finally, it is clear that this disregard for South Vietnam and the South Vietnamese was equally upheld by the anti-war movement. While people in this movement opposed the killing of innocent civilians in all of Vietnam, they had less interest in defending South Vietnam as an ally, and the caricature of the South Vietnamese government as corrupt and the army as incompetent fit perfectly with their critiques of the war.
Over the course of the 18 hours of this documentary there are a few instances when interviewees point out the issue that I am referring to here. Veteran Thomas Vallely states at one point (episode 8 maybe?) that Americans exaggerated South Vietnamese incompetence so that they could exaggerate their own importance.
In the final episode (episode 10), former CIA officer Frank Snepp and former intelligence officer Stuart Herrington both talked about how the US sold out its ally, a point that they have made for years. Both of these men participated in the final evacuation of Americans from Saigon in 1975 and personally witnessed South Vietnamese who had worked with the Americans for years being left behind.
Other than a few comments like these, however, South Vietnam is rarely mentioned, and if it is, it is just to repeat the caricature that it was corrupt and incompetent.
The absence of South Vietnam and the South Vietnamese in “The Vietnam War” is not the result of some bias or distortion on the part of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. To the contrary, I would argue that by not talking about South Vietnam and the South Vietnamese Burns and Novick have captured the majority American view of the war.
It was a war in which America’s ally did not matter to Americans.
Why didn’t it matter? There are undoubtedly complex reasons for that, but denigrating South Vietnam certainly made a lot of things easier for Americans.
If a US policy that was imposed with little consideration for the context did not succeed, it was easy to say that it was because the South Vietnamese government was corrupt.
When a battle that the Americans fought on their own without any consultation with South Vietnamese didn’t go well, it was easy to get angry at the South Vietnamese soldiers for being incompetent and not fighting their own war.
When an American found that he might get drafted, it was easy to criticize the entire war by characterizing South Vietnam as corrupt and incompetent and therefore unworthy of American support.
Was all of this denigration made even easier because the South Vietnamese were Asian? I know that there are many people in America who will challenge that assertion, but I’m convinced that it is an important element in understanding the war.
There were of course Americans who worked very closely with South Vietnamese, and who do not fall into the broad categorizations that I have made here. Such people, however, were the minority, and what Burns and Novick have faithfully produced is the majority view.
Until recently, South Vietnam was also not taken seriously in the academic world either. Over the past 10-15 years, however, historians have started to research about the South and produce scholarship that brings to light a world that Americans previously ignored (the above book is one example and this is another). As such, Americans today can start to move beyond the superficial understanding of South Vietnam that they have based their ideas on for decades, but it may be more in keeping with “the American experience” to simply not bother to try.
By making these comments I am not trying to reignite debates about legitimacy or how the war could have been won, etc., nor do I have any intention to criticize the views and ideas that are presented in “The Vietnam War.”
I think that Burns and Novick have done a wonderful job of demonstrating what many different Americans think about when they talk about the war. And perhaps it is because they do that so well, that what Americans “don’t” think about when they talk about the war becomes so obvious.
Finally, while one could argue that every nation looks after its own interests first, what makes this case more complex is that many of those “corrupt” and “incompetent” South Vietnamese eventually became American citizens. If Burns and Novick are seeking to help mend some of the divisions in American society by educating viewers about how they emerged in the first place, it is difficult to see how continuing to ignore South Vietnam and the South Vietnamese contributes to this.