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What Ken Burns Left Out of the Vietnam Story

Published on: April 25, 2018

Filed Under: Burns/Novick, Connections to Today, Reviews

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This piece was originally published by the LA Progressive on April 18, 2018.

By Gareth Porter

The Vietnam War: An Intimate History by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns (Knopf, 2017; 640 pages), the companion coffee-table book to the 10-part PBS series by Ken Burns, The Vietnam War, is so closely tied to the series that it’s left ambiguous whether Ken Burns himself is the co-author or not. Burns is shown as the second author on the dust jacket but not on the title page itself.

Book and series are clearly aimed at dominating the popular consciousness about the history of the war. Weighing in at nearly 600 glossy oversized pages, the book is vast in scope, starting with the French colonization of Indochina and the Communist-led struggle against the French and taking the reader though each phase of the War. Like the series, the written version is rich in arresting details, especially about the War’s major battles.

But when it comes to the question that should still trouble Americans — how and why the United States went to war in Vietnam in the first place — the book reflects the failings of the series. Instead of citing the documentary record that by now sheds harsh light on this fundamental issue, author Geoffrey C. Ward trots out the standard myths.

According to Ward, the conflict was “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and cold war miscalculation.” To support that claim, Ward relies on Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s later explanation that the problem was a misperception of the threat from the communist world: “I saw communism as monolithic,” McNamara is quoted as saying. “I believed the Soviets and the Chinese were cooperating in trying to extend their hegemony.”  In addition, the former Defense secretary claims he believed, “The communist movement in Vietnam was closely related to guerrilla insurgencies in Burma, Indonesia, Malaya and the Philippines” and that those were “signs of a unified communist drive for hegemony in Asia.”

But McNamara’s claims about what he and other senior officials in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations believed are contradicted by the internal U.S. documents now available. Those documents show that, by early 1962 — a few years before the big troop commitment in Vietnam — McNamara and others were acutely aware that communism was not at all monolithic. They knew full well that the split between China and the Soviet Union was very serious and could be exploited by the United States in Southeast Asia.

The Domino Theory

Ward asserts that it was the “Domino Theory” — that image of one domino falling and causing each one in the row to fall, as a vivid metaphor for the loss of a whole series of Southeast Asian states to communism if Vietnam was lost — that propelled the United States into the War. But official papers and memoirs reveal that Dwight Eisenhower had ceased to believe that as early as 1953. Eisenhower propounded the falling-domino image in 1954 only for the purpose of convincing the Russians and Chinese that the United States was preparing to intervene militarily to save the French war against the Viet Minh. So the theory originated in a conscious deception rather than an unconscious misperception.

Moreover, the Central Intelligence Agency had explicitly rejected the Domino Theory for years, and had reiterated its conclusion in an intelligence estimate in March 1961. In June 1964, at the request of Lyndon Johnson, the CIA had rejected even more decisively the idea that failing to defeat the communist insurgency in South Vietnam would result in the toppling of the Southeast Asian dominoes. What the CIA said was likely to occur instead was that the United States would face a rise of neutralism in the region, especially in Thailand, where U.S. military airbases threatened China.

McNamara and other senior advisors cited precisely the threat of neutralism in meetings in late 1964 and mid 1965 as the main reason for rejecting the option of a negotiated withdrawal from South Vietnam. The refusal to negotiate reflected the policy of surrounding and threatening China with military allies, which might well have become untenable if Thailand and the Philippines went neutral.

The insistence on continuing the Cold War in East Asia was not the only political-military consideration pushing the United States toward war in Vietnam. Another consideration was the belief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that having combat troops in South Vietnam would strengthen their case for a substantial increase in the military budget, as they informed Lawrence Korb (who later became a Pentagon official during the Reagan administration), who was interviewing them for his doctoral dissertation in the late 1960s.

The fate of the 1954 Geneva Agreement’s provision for an election to reunite Vietnam in 1956 certainly deserves some space in Ward’s very long history. The author makes it clear that Vietnamese Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, who had led the defeat of French colonialism in the country, would win any honestly held election in a landslide. But the only explanation in the book for the failure to hold the elections is that the South Vietnamese government under Ngo Dinh Diem had become strong enough by 1955 to refuse to participate. That claim comes in a six-page essay by historian Edward Miller, who refers only to “the proposed elections,” as if they had not been legally binding on the government in the South that had taken over legally from the French colonial power.

What actually occurred, however, was that the United States itself determined the fate of those elections. In mid 1955, Diem was completely dependent on the economic and military support of the United States and could not afford to adopt a policy without U.S. approval. And as late as mid June 1955, the Eisenhower administration was still committed to free elections to unify Vietnam, in order to be consistent with its policy of holding free elections in other divided Cold War states, i.e. Germany and Korea. The Diem government had still not ruled out free elections, privately or publicly. Then on June 14, 1955, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles adopted a new policy that quietly approved a completely different policy of opposing the Geneva Elections. Diem quickly fell in line and refused to participate in consultations with North Vietnam on those elections.

Contrary to the conventional version of the story, then, it was Secretary of State Dulles, not Diem, who killed the best chance the United States would have for averting a violent resolution of the division of Vietnam. Had Ho Chi Minh’s government taken over a unified Vietnam, there would have been no Vietnam War. Ho’s socialist government would have been open to economic relations with the United States, since it would have viewed the United States as a counterweight to domination by China, just as it had seen such relations as a counterweight to the return of the French in 1945 — and just as it has done more recently since the end of the Cold War.

War on civilians

Ward does not blink at the fact that the U.S. war in Vietnam exhibited little concern for the lives of Vietnamese civilians. What he fails to mention is that the indiscriminate killing of civilians was consistent with the U.S. war strategy rather than a violation of it.

The author devotes considerable space to the U.S. massacre at My Lai, including a color picture of a large group of women, children, and even infants who had been shot at close range. But he repeats the conventional view that the atrocity was the result of individual officers acting on their own, and that the official policy did not permit killing civilians in Vietnam. He cites the investigation and subsequent indictment of 30 officers by Gen. William R. Peers “and the Peers Commission,” as prima facie evidence that the atrocities were a violation of command policy.

But a very substantial body of evidence shows otherwise. The U.S. commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, had indeed adopted a policy of treating civilians like armed combatants if they were living in areas under long-term control by the Viet Cong (as the Communist-led Vietnamese combatants were called). That policy was embodied in the establishment of “free fire zones” — a term that was frequently used during the War and is discussed prominently in the literature on the War but is strangely absent from The Vietnam War.  “Free fire zones” — later renamed “specified strike zones” — were large areas of the countryside in which bombing and shelling could be carried out without obtaining permission from higher echelons of the U.S. military or the Vietnamese government, on the official assumption that any population remaining was the enemy.

The Peers Commission sought to clear Westmoreland himself of culpability for My Lai, referring in its report to directives from his Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) that required U.S. soldiers to “minimize noncombatant casualties and civilian property damage.” But General Peers was deliberately misleading the public to protect his superior officer. The full text of MACV Directive 525-3 of September 1965 makes it clear that such protections for civilians applied only to populated areas where the Communist forces had either temporary control or no control at all. But areas under long-term Viet Cong control represented more than 40 percent of the rural Vietnamese population, according to McNamara’s estimate before the major U.S. troop commitment began.

In fact, Westmoreland himself stated his policy quite explicitly in his own memoirs. Once a free fire zone was established, he wrote, “anybody who remained had to be considered enemy combatants,” and operations in those areas “could be conducted without fear of civilian casualties.” Those were precisely the instructions given to troops sent into My Lai.

In 1968, journalist Jonathan Schell published a detailed account of the systematic destruction of most of the populated districts of Quang Ngai, the province in which My Lai was located, primarily through systematic attacks on villages by U.S. fighter-bombers. The destroyed villages were in Viet Cong base areas that had been declared free fire zones after dropping leaflets warning the population that they would be destroyed for having harbored or aided the Viet Cong. Schell’s account is not mentioned by Ward.

Indiscriminate targeting of civilian areas and “collective punishment” of the civilian population for support for or assistance to combatants are clear violations of the laws of war. But Ward doesn’t even focus on the use of U.S. air power in South Vietnam apart from close air support in ground battles, much less acknowledge that the U.S. military bears responsibility for war crimes.

The author’s desire to avoid ultimate judgments on the War won’t heal the rift between the two views of Vietnam held by the Vietnam War generations. And especially in light of unending and unpopular U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the greater Middle East, both Ward’s book and the Ken Burns series that it reflects have missed an opportunity to help Americans understand why such wars are a recurring theme in recent American history.

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