Are PBS and Ken Burns about to Rewrite History Again?

PBS is planning to run a new documentary series this September on the Vietnam War, produced and written by Ken Burns.  Burns is a left-wing "historian" and documentary film producer with a history of having his politics shape the narrative of the story he is telling, with a number of resulting inaccuracies.

Ken Burns correctly identifies the Vietnam War as being the point at which our society split into two diametrically opposed camps.  He is also correct in identifying a need for us to discuss this aspect of our history in a civil and reflective manner.  The problem is that the radical political and cultural divisions of that war have created alternate perceptions of reality, if not alternate universes of discourse.  The myths and propaganda of each side make rational discourse based on intellectual honesty and goodwill difficult or impossible.  The smoothly impressive visual story Burns will undoubtedly deliver will likely increase that difficulty.  He has done many popular works in the past, some of which have been seriously criticized for inaccuracies and significant omissions, but we welcome the chance of a balanced treatment of the full history of that conflict.  We can only wait and watch closely when it goes public.

The term "Vietnam War" itself, although accepted in common parlance, would more accurately be called "The American Phase of the Second Indochina War" (1965 to 1973).  The U.S. strategic objectives in Vietnam must also be accurately defined.  There were two inter-related goals: 1) to counter the Soviet and Red Chinese strategy of fostering and supporting "Wars of National Liberation" (i.e., violent Communist takeovers) in third-world nations, and 2) to defend the government of the Republic of (South) Vietnam from the military aggression directed by its Communist neighbor, the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam.

Arguments offered by the so-called "anti-war" movement in the United States were predominantly derived from Communist propaganda.  Most of them have been discredited by subsequent information, but they still influence the debate.  They include the nonfactual claims that:

1) the war in South Vietnam was an indigenous civil war,

2) the U.S. effort in South Vietnam was a form of neo-colonialism, and

3) the real U.S. objective in South Vietnam was the economic exploitation of the region.

The antiwar movement was not at all monolithic.  Supporters covered a wide range, from total pacifist Quakers at one end to passionate supporters of Communism at the other.  There were many idealists in it who thought the war was unjust and our conduct of it objectionable, as well as students who were terrified of the draft, and some who just found it the cause of the day.  But some of the primary figures leading the movement were not so much opposed to the war as they were in favor of Hanoi succeeding in the war it had started.

The key question is whether the U.S. opposition to Communism during the Cold War (1947 to 1989) was justifiable.  The answer is that Communism (Marxism) on a national level is a utopian ideal that can function only with the enforcement of a police state (Leninism) or a genocidal criminal regime (Stalinism).  It always requires an external enemy to justify the continuous hardships and repression of its population and always claims that its international duty is to spread Communism.  When Ho Chi Minh established the Vietnam Communist Party in 1930, there was no intention of limiting its expansionist ambitions to Vietnam, and he subsequently changed the name to the Indochinese Communist Party at the request of the Comintern in Moscow.

The people of Vietnam today live in one of the most corrupt and despotic regimes in the world, with one of the worst records in upholding basic human rights, as documented by several international agencies.  Laos and Cambodia are vassal states of Vietnam, and Hanoi has many powerful agents in each, with enormous influence on events there.  When the tanks of the North Vietnamese Army rolled into Saigon in 1975, the "anti-war" movement congratulated itself on facilitating that victory.  In the U.S. cultural media and academia, that same self-congratulatory mentality is reinforced despite the fact that more people were killed in the ten years following the North Vietnamese takeover of South Vietnam than in the preceding fifteen years of war.  Infant and maternal mortality doubled under Communist rule, and well over a million people went into concentration camps, some for up to 18 years.  Under the Saigon government, despite corruption and favoritism, there was a free press, with many publications thriving.  All that stopped dead in April '75.

Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden both expressed their belief that if the diminutive Vietnamese could defeat the Americans, they could do so as well.  The antiwar faction should take responsibility for the wars we have had to fight since Vietnam because of their encouragement of our enemies.

There is a profound difference between being defeated and forfeiting a game.  That is what happened after Kissinger brought back a less than ideal, but politically acceptable, peace accord in 1973.  It was fundamentally flawed in several ways, such as allowing 150,000 NVA to remain in South Vietnamese territory, but its main valid points were the promise of the North to never invade the South and the promise of the USA to support the South as needed to offset Communist strengths.  In 1972, the North trashed their promise and invaded with multiple divisions in fully conventional warfare, and the USA kept its promise by supplying the air power that gave the ARVN an even chance to defeat the invaders – which they did, in larger battles than any ever fought by U.S. forces.  Vietnamization had worked.

But then Congress undermined the agreement by cutting the replacement material promised to our ally and codified in the agreement.  That same Congress further nullified the accords by forbidding the use of any U.S. air power to punish egregious North Vietnamese violations of the agreements.  Those members of Congress should have known what the result of their actions would be but never acknowledged it.  Thus, the North Vietnamese leader boasted then that "the Americans will not come back now even if we offer them candy."  With massive support from Moscow and two years of very detailed preparations, the fate of South Vietnam was sealed.

Historians and serious viewers of Burns's narrative should study the factual history of the Second Indochina War to detect any misleading implications and factual omissions that may be found in his visual narrative.  PBS would do well to offer more than a token effort to promote Burns's wish for open discourse on this important and extremely relevant subject.

Stephen Sherman is the series editor for the VVFH publications on the Second Indochina War.  He served as a civil affairs/psy-ops officer with 5th Special Forces Group (Abn) in Pleiku and Nha Trang, Vietnam, 1967-1968.  He acts as an archivist and historian to document the efforts of Special Forces in Southeast Asia, 1954-1975.  He has also been a frequent presenter and participant in the Vietnam Symposia at Texas Tech University.

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