- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
By Charles Krohn
Best Defense TV critic
It would be a spoiler to describe how this episode of the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War” saga begins, except to say it reflects the cinematographer’s artistry at a high level of professional competence.
This leads almost immediately to a brief discussion by Max Cleland, head and shoulders only, reflecting his debt to Victor Frankl and the book Man’s Search for Meaning. Cleland says the lesson is that to live is to suffer. “To survive is to find a meaning to suffer, and for those of us who suffered because of Vietnam, that’s been our quest ever since.”
Max and I are very close — now. We first met when he walked into a tent at Camp Evans near the DMZ in late February 1968 where I was concentrating on writing a unit award, all 6-feet-2 of him blocking my daylight. I told Lieutenant Cleland he was bothering me and to piss off. That was before he was elected to the U.S. Senate, of course.
I’d like to believe that his eight-year stint afterward heading the American Battle Monuments Commission was the partial answer to his quest. The first commission Secretary was General John Pershing.
Preparing to write this review, I was on the lookout to identify events I could challenge. For better or worse, I found little to generate any serious cringe. The theme song by Bob Dylan was mournful, but “My Blue-Eyed Son” was first released during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, unrelated to Vietnam.
The country supported the war in Vietnam until patience ran out and President Richard Nixon declared, “this tragic war must stop.” By that time 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers had died, the narrator explains, as well as about 1 million from the North. Another 2 million civilians perished in both the North and South. Much of this can be attributed to Ho Chi Minh’s belief it was better to kill the innocents than let the guilty go free. We also learn that Lenin was Ho’s life-long hero.
The 1954 battle at Dien Bien Phu was the tie-breaker. We provided some air support to the French but nothing decisive. General Henri Navarre’s proclamation that there was “light at the end of the tunnel” proved as specious as later repetitions. Three thousand Vietnamese soldiers captured afterward fighting with the French were never heard from again. This was not mentioned in the narrative, an odd omission that sent me searching other sources
This first episode claims the war was always part of Ho’s dream of an independent Vietnam built on the Communist model. Others saw it as a civil war, democracy vs. dictatorship. Ho Chi Minh did have some Western experience in New York and Paris. But he also was trained in Moscow to follow the Lenin/Stalin line. He cooperated with American OSS during WWII, using slogans that appealed to Americans, but that didn’t translate into serious endorsements of the American model as the future for Vietnam. Ike apparently favored neutrality at this point but de Gaulle was intimidating and Ike caved. Given little choice, we stayed tied to the French, in large measure to hold NATO together — the greater good at the time.
Meanwhile, Ho consolidated his support in Hanoi. The narrator reports that in 1946 Ho’s ally Vo Nguyen Giap killed 100 or so challenging his authority, by shooting, drowning or burying alive. This set a pattern for their treatment of nonbelievers that reached a climax of sorts in the Battle of Hue and post-1975 atrocities.
The basic story is well-known. After the French defeat, Vietnam was divided along the 17th Parallel, with some hope separate elections in North and South would result in unification. Diem became president and 900,000 Catholics in the North moved South to join him. It’s not surprising that a plebiscite in 1955 to unite the country was soundly defeated by Southern electors. Eisenhower, who had been cool earlier to Diem and Vietnam in general, embraced him. By October 1955 both Ike and JFK expressed non-partisan support.
In January 1961 Kennedy announced that “we will fight any foe … etc.” The rest is history.
Overall, I found the first episode fair and even-handed. We didn’t oppose unification per se, but stoutly resisted providing a fertile ground for Communist expansion in Asia. China and the Soviet Union were Ho’s dependable allies. Most American viewers understand now that as the war become more protracted, domestic patience ran out. Fear of world domination by our major adversaries no longer rang true in quite the same way. Many Americans were reluctant to pay the price to find out. Demonstrators looked for new targets.
I recognize the producers’ efforts to paint Ho and his followers impartially. I think Diem is underrated, however, possibly to coincide with later narrative. After his assassination, the fate of South Vietnam was sealed. Our role in his departure was not our finest hour.
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 his hat in Panama City Beach, Florida.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons