Vietnam: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick take a long look at the war that took our sunshine away
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's new Vietnam War documentary is an opportunity to reexamine the noble intentions behind America's poorly executed war effort.
By Charles A. Krohn
Best Defense TV reviewer
Before our Vietnam experience, most Americans trusted their leadership and stood behind decisions to halt Communist expansion in Asia, much as we stopped the reds in Europe from expanding their empire westward. By 1973, however, after years of fighting without conclusive results, Americans turned against the war and no longer respected nor trusted our government in quite the same way again.
Make no mistake — pulling our forces out of Vietnam while promising “peace with honor” was an illusion that misled the American public and corrupted confidence in our political establishment.
I dislike doublespeak as much as I deplore sentimentality or apologies for acting stupid. Rage as a political strategy fits into the same category. Ditto painting traitors as heroes. Nostalgia merely numbs.
Integrity, on the other hand, tops my list of traits to admire, regardless of the speaker’s persuasion. National survival and prosperity depend upon it.
English journalist William Shawcross is a case in point. What he first wrote about the war was wrong but he later recanted with dignity. I don’t recall Halberstam or others making similar noise.
“Those of us who opposed the American war in Indochina should be extremely humble in the face of the appalling aftermath: a form of genocide in Cambodia and horrific tyranny in both Vietnam and Laos,” he wrote in 1994:
Looking back on my own coverage for the Sunday Times of the South Vietnamese war effort of 1970-75, I think I concentrated too easily on the corruption and incompetence of the South Vietnamese and their American allies, was too ignorant of the inhuman Hanoi regime, and far too willing to believe that victory by the Communists would provide a better future. But after the Communist victory came the refugees to Thailand and the floods of boat people desperately seeking to escape the Cambodian killing fields and the Vietnamese gulags. Their eloquent testimony should have put paid to all the illusions.
It’s too late for aging antiwar demonstrators to retract the impact of their rage and the self-loathing chants that paralyzed campuses across the country and soiled the face of America.
While many who served on the front lines in Vietnam now understand there was deception at the top about what General Westmoreland called “light at the end of the tunnel,” we also believed Khrushchev was serious when he said he would “bury” the West. Europe cringed throughout the Cold War. Our presence in Vietnam was therefore not understood as the “American imperialism” claimed by the scruffy protestors, but in the context of blocking Communist expansion in the East.
Whatever Westmoreland’s failings, a greater one preceded him after we naively backed the coup that ousted President Diem in a maneuver largely managed by U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge. As historian Mark Moyar says, “Supporting the coup of November 1963 was by far the worst American mistake of the Vietnam War.” Afterward, writes Moyar, things went from not-so-bad to much worse:
These changes would help propel Hanoi toward a strategy of seeking a decisive victory through the destruction of South Vietnam’s armed forces, which in turn would eventually force the Americans to decide either to introduce U.S. ground troops or to abandon South Vietnam.
I hope the Burns/Novick series heals rather than re-opens old wounds, but it’s a noble challenge. Much depends on how even-handed the material is presented. Aside from a few generalized promotional snippets I’ve seen on TV, I can’t predict what my reaction will be.
What I’ve learned recently from historians examining archived records is the war was badly directed and if not badly, clumsily, based on wishful thinking and political posturing in Washington and Saigon. Soldiers and Marines fought well and sacrificed plenty, but not always against the right targets. Hanoi prepared for attrition warfare yet we carried on as if time didn’t matter. Time was our real invisible enemy, unrecognized until we were exhausted and American support collapsed. Westmoreland in particular failed to understand the clock was running out, often drawing the wrong conclusions from battlefield successes that turned out not to be the victories we celebrated.
Meanwhile, youthful demonstrators danced in the street, along with some of their older mentors.
Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win.
1-2-3-4 we don’t want your fuckin’ war.
5-6-7-8 we don’t want your fascist state.
I wasn’t traumatized by the war. I don’t claim injury by Agent Orange or seek counseling for PTSD. Many veterans are suffering, however, and I know several quite well. I realize many draftees resented the prospect of being drafted and deployed. Others avoided military service in Vietnam by shifty means, including Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Trump. Most draftees, however, went along with their nation’s calling and served without any intention of making a career of the military, as their fathers had before them. Few talk much about the war in their waning years.
I watched The Civil War on PBS and still think it’s the best TV I’ve seen. Burns and Novick are accomplished artists and I harbor no doubt about their ability to create an entertaining and informative product. I hope The Vietnam War is educational and therapeutic as well.
Nearly 50 years after the war, I’ll acknowledge that the NLF was smarter than we were, but more ruthless. Comparatively, we were more compassionate, but mentally we finished second place.
LTC Charles A. Krohn, U.S. Army (ret.), is the author of The Lost Battalion of Tet, and a former deputy chief of public affairs both of the Army and the American Battle Monuments Commission. He now hangs in Panama City Beach, Florida.
Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration