Ken Burns’s Vietnam War

Trump Maladministration

I watched the first episode of the PBS Vietnam War series and thought it was good so far. I don’t think anything was said I didn’t already know, but a lot of it was stuff most people don’t know.

I was a bit dismayed to find people on social media trashing it, some of whom apparently didn’t even watch it. One person decided to not watch it because one of the sponsors was Bank of America, and she was certain it wouldn’t be any good. Others assume it will be a whitewash of U.S. crimes and refuse to watch.

I left a comment somewhere that the first episode (which covered the beginning of French colonialism to 1961) was accurate, and got a response from someone named Doug Zachary — “Barbara you are the perfect fascist citizen. fall in line. smile, really BIGLY!” I take it Doug has Issues.

Of those who claimed to watch it and who dissed it as propaganda, my impression is that they won’t accept anything that isn’t an anti-American polemic. The problem with that is that they seem to want to think that Americans in the 1950s and 1960s went to Vietnam just to napalm Vietnamese children for kicks and grins, and don’t want to hear how mostly well-meaning people talked themselves into thinking that the war was the right thing to do, even though it wasn’t.

To me, that last part is the most important part of the story, and the part of the story that people need to understand. Because that’s how evil works. Most people who do wrong things don’t recognize they are doing wrong things at the time. They persuade themselves they are doing the right thing. We keep doing wrong shit because people get worked up into thinking that the wrong shit is righteous and necessary, and then when it all goes bad nobody wants to look back try to understand how they could have been so mistaken. Well, here’s a chance. Those of you who are too young to remember Vietnam could apply this same lesson to several more recent misadventures, like Iraq.

Tonight’s episode covers 1961 to 1963. I expect to see the corruption of the Diem regime and Kennedy’s signing off on Diem’s assassination. This article in Newsweek contains some pans of some of the episodes that haven’t been shown yet. So we’ll see.

See also “What Trump Needs to Learn from Vietnam.”

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  1. Swami  •  Sep 18, 2017 @6:06 pm

    I watched it also..I thought it was good.. I did learn that the French were the first to use napalm in Vietnam..I always thought that the Americans with the help of Dow Chemical were due credit for that lovely military aid. I think I must have confused napalm with Agent Orange..

  2. priscianus jr  •  Sep 18, 2017 @11:23 pm

    “Because that’s how evil works. Most people who do wrong things don’t recognize they are doing wrong things at the time. They persuade themselves they are doing the right thing.”
    Very true.

  3. bernie  •  Sep 18, 2017 @11:50 pm

    Ken Burns used to irritate me with his historical documentaries.  Of course any history has generally irritated me for a number of reasons.  I have grown more tolerant of Burns’ work lately, and, so far, must compliment the incredible effort on this product.  He does entertain the idea of mistakes being made as we waded into this dreadful war.  As with more recent conflicts, (Iraq for sure)  ignorance about the culture and our lack of understanding of their history and the people’s views of their situation are noted as critical in causing these errors.  

    I recall an Economics professor who insisted that the United States was in this war for economic reasons, and that economic reasons were always the real underlying reason for any war.  His contention was that great oil reserves were postulated as highly likely offshore of Viet Nam.  Every few years, I hear some supporting evidence that this might have been a factor in our involvement.  I was hoping of some discussion of this nature from Burns but found none.  Only the domino theory was posited as the reason for the war.  It seems today as it seemed back then, as more of a cover story than the underlying reason.  But, perhaps notions like this could have been one of the many minefields Burns needed to avoid.  

  4. maha  •  Sep 19, 2017 @8:31 am

    bernie — I never believed the economic theory; I think your professor was out to lunch. The rumor that was going around during the war years that I remember wasn’t about oil but about some mystery mineral They needed for military purposes. Whatever.

  5. c u n d gulag  •  Sep 19, 2017 @7:43 am

    Since I was born in early 1958, The Vietnam War and its affects here shaped my childhood and early-mid teen years.
    I felt a great relief when the draft for it stopped in the early 70’s.
    However, after this stupid, wasteful, and needless war, and Watergate, distrust of government also shaped my mid-teen years until… well…. today.
    In the Spring of ’75, after we had left Vietnam, my family saved up money for a 10-day trip for me to take with my German class in my Junior year. I had also save money for this trip by working summers and breaks with my father at the Machine Shop where he was foreman.
    As we were circling NYC on the way to land at Kennedy, our pilot announced that North Vietnam had re-invaded South Vietnam.
    I was devastated. What would I do? I fully expected us to go back there again, and try to do what we could to stop the newest Domino Effect attempt.
    Should I was until I was drafted?
    Volunteer in the hopes of getting duty far from the war?
    Claim I was a Conscientious Objector – something tough to claim, when you lettered in Football and Wrestling?
    Run to Canada – which I decided I could do – the old Slavic thing about “bringing shame on your family.”

    To my surprise, we decided to sit this newest war out.

    I love reading about history. ALL kinds of history.
    But I especially was interested in how we got into that mess in Vietnam. I read a number of great books.
    One of the most interesting ones was “About Face,” by Col. David Hackworh. He was a highly decorated US soldier who was one of the first ones to turn against the war. And it cost him dearly.
    I highly recommend it! Not only did he live it because he served there, but he turned out to be a great writer – sadly, he died in 2005, at the height of “Dumbaya’s & Dick’s Folly” – or else he might have written another informative and entertaining history.

    I haven’t seen the first episode, but I’ll be sure to watch the whole thing later, when it’s presented in a X-hour block format.

    Burns is pretty meticulous. But he can’t cover EVERYTHING! I look forward to see what be does choose to present to us.

  6. c u n d gulag  •  Sep 19, 2017 @7:46 am

    Sorry, I decided I could NOT run off to Canada…

  7. Tom  •  Sep 19, 2017 @3:33 pm

    I thought the first episode was good also and was in line with what I already knew. The article you linked to at Newsweek struck me as a muddled mess, as if the author really wanted to criticize Burns but had to parse so hard he never quite pulled it off.

    I think it would be impossible to catalog all the nuances of that conflict, all the shifting rationales for involvement and the changing conditions in the US at the time.

    I do want to note that attitudes in the US, especially among draft age young adults, changed drastically after the draft lottery was instituted. I initially went to college primarily to have my 2s deferment but that went out the window when the lottery happened. We then all waited nervously to see what numbers would be called to serve and once past that hurdle the weight was lifted and a new generation of young people moved on to Disco and eventually became Yuppies. The gulf between pre-lottery and post-lottery young Americans was pretty wide. It will be interesting to see if he delves into that aspect of the war’s impact.

  8. elkern  •  Sep 20, 2017 @9:21 am

    I was first year with no Draft (lottery) – HS class of ’72, and glad of it. Always looked up to the “hippies” a few years older whose protests helped end the Draft (and the “war”?). I’ve long said that the Democrats got us into VN out of fear of a repeat of the “Who Lost China?” BS that the GOP used against them a decade earlier.

    My TV broke a few months ago; I’ve been thinking I need to get one in time for (baseball) Playoffs, but I think I’ll go get one today.

    Re: Economic Theory (of Everything) – yeah, that’s a problem with Socialists – they tend to think that the evils of Capitalism explain everything. They’re wrong. (though it does explain a lot).

  9. goatherd  •  Sep 20, 2017 @1:20 pm

    I was born in ’51. One of my first memories about the situation was my third grade teacher filling us in about what we could expect out of life. “When you graduate from high school, the boys will go into the army and the girls will get married and start a family.” I took her word for gospel, and it resurfaced in my mind fairly often for years afterward when Vietnam started to heat up. It seemed to me that my classmates and I were on a sort of infernal conveyor belt that would dump us into the cannon fodder bin before our graduation caps hit the ground. By the time I was old enough to register for the draft, the necessity to serve in the military was so ingrained, it was nearly impossible for me to consider an alternative. I was more afraid of the consequences of evading the draft than I was of taking my chances. But, I was lucky enough in the lottery.*

    If it hadn’t been for the counterculture, I’d have probably wound up there. A lot of my friends did which underscores one of the difficulties of writing a good history. Everyone’s experience is different, people came back complaining about the incessant boredom, some people about horrible things they saw or did. I’ve worked with a lot of vets who wound up using wheelchairs. One of my friends spent nearly a year sleeping on my sofa. He was pretty hard to get along with and he had two Purple Hearts among other medals. One morning after a big costume party in Ybor City he lamented that he had worn his medals as part of his costume. “I lost one of my Bronze Stars, I feel bad about it, but at least I didn’t loose my Silver Star.” I never got to hear the story behind it.

    One of my room mates was working on his doctorate in history. He was a big, slightly comical person, he always reminded me of Woody Allen, but he was 6′ 4″. He go into heroin over there. The thing that was the most poignant for me was that he was the type of person who would NEVER have gotten involved with heroin, if he hadn’t been shipped off.

    So how do you tie all of those stores and myriad others together to make sense? One thing for sure, you can’t just settle for the account of the first person you meet or the account that appeals to you the most.

    God, I loved Col. David Hackworth, who was the primary model for Robert Duval’s character in “Apocalypse Now.” I used to read his blog every day. He died on May 5th if I’m not mistaken, I was at a Cinco de Mayo party when he died. I miss him almost as much as I miss Joe Bageant, and that’s saying a lot. I think of him every time someone mentions CdM.

    *Ironically, we still have my father’s draft card from WWII around somewhere, his draft number was 58. A lot of you have probably seen the archival footage of the lottery to decide who was to get called up first. A man puts his hand into a bowl filled with numbers and draws out the first one, “58.”

  10. bernie  •  Sep 20, 2017 @1:30 pm

    My favorite line from last nights Burns’ Vietnam was the old Vietnamese who was said when seeing the lines of American troops marching by his rice paddy, crying out Viva la France.  It was explained that he was a bit confused, and thought the French had returned.  

     I too am getting a bit long in the tooth and resemble that confusion at times.  I also forget that those younger than I may not have the same experience base as I do.  For those who missed it, our elementary school would show movies (If the teacher could work the projector) showing the black hand of Communism grabbing country after country.  These were usually shown, as I recall, on the days when we had our duck and cover drills, though memory fades with time.  I suppose it is possible that this education/indoctrination/propaganda /training was a sufficient motivation to get us involved in Nam.  The ongoing conflict with North Korea, which seems to be currently  straining it’s fragile cease fire status, had, at that time, recently gone to  the cease fire pause stage of course. I did not know till watching Burns’ Nam that Eisenhower coined the domino effect rhetoric.

  11. Swami  •  Sep 20, 2017 @2:08 pm

    bernie…Were the movies produced by the 7-UP bottling company?. I remember the little ditty that was modeled after the Pepsodent commercial that went: You wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent. The variant ditty was directed at the communists in the Soviet Union( the Russians), it went: You wonder where your parents went when they talk against the government.

  12. bernie  •  Sep 20, 2017 @3:24 pm

    Just blank on any memory of sponsor or studio.  Blank on  that jingle too, though it is funny and fits the cinema graphic style that I vividly recall.   This style was compelling, riveting, entertaining, and award winning NOT, and reminded me much of the Army training films I used to try to sleep through.  It is really hard to get back to sleep in the front leaning rest position.  This is the lesson I best remember from those army training films.

    Do you think that iron curtain they kept talking about is anything like the wall Trump wants to build in south Texas?  As  I recall that is something one does not want to get behind.

  13. Swami  •  Sep 23, 2017 @2:16 am
    Here’s a picture of me just before my departure from Vietnam. I was short and glad of it.

  14. maha  •  Sep 23, 2017 @12:44 pm

    Swami — the war must have taken a lot out of you. I hope some of you grew back!

  15. Swami  •  Sep 23, 2017 @1:32 pm

    Maha, I think I grew a brain since Vietnam. But that’s debatable. When I see what Dotard is doing in Afghanistan by allowing the generals to decide what our policy will be by increasing our military presence I get so frustrated. It’s a small scale repeat of Vietnam.. but Dotard can’t find the courage to just get us out of there.. Basically, the American men and women who die there will have died in vain…with the only salvageable virtue being that they died in service of their country…If that counts for anything?

  16. maha  •  Sep 23, 2017 @1:34 pm

    Swami — Yeah, he’s doing the same thing LBJ and others did — keep an unwinnable war going indefinitely because he doesn’t want to be the one who gets blamed for losing it. If people die for his ego, that’s okay with him.