U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Quick Thought on Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War”

The final words given to the narrative voice of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s sprawling documentary The Vietnam War serve as a kind of thesis for the entire, eighteen-hour-long film:

More than four decades after the war ended, the divisions it created between Americans have not yet wholly healed. Lessons were learned and then forgotten. Divides were bridged and then widened. Old secrets were revealed and new secrets were locked away. The Vietnam War was a tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable. But meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through it. Stories of courage and comradeship and perseverance. Of understanding and forgiveness. And, ultimately, reconciliation.

This final piece of narration captures both what’s best and most successful in Burns’s and Novick’s film and also what’s least successful and most aggravating about it.

The Vietnam War does a terrific job presenting those individual stories.  Burns and Novick have found an extraordinarily wide range of interviewees, including men and women who fought on both sides of the conflict, civilians from both the North and the South, Americans and Vietnamese who lost family members in the war, and anti-war activists, among others.  The LBJ and Nixon White House tapes also allow us to hear from some of the men responsible for forming American policy in Vietnam.  All of this makes The Vietnam War compelling.

Though there are excursions to the broader politics of the day, the film focuses on the war itself. The extensive filmed record of the war makes the documentary visually compelling, as well. The first televised war remains in many ways, the most broadly televised war, with the military curating media access much less extensively than it would in the future. And Burns and Novick have taken full advantage of this wealth of footage.  Viewers of The Vietnam War leave with a good understanding of that conflict’s military history.

But look back at that closing narration that I quote above. Note all those vague, passive voice sentences that cover extraordinarily important aspects of the conflict:  “Lessons were learned and then forgotten. Divides were bridged and then widened. Old secrets were revealed and new secrets were locked away.”  This reflects the documentary’s greatest weakness. Though all the issues gestured toward in those sentence come up in the film, The Vietnam War does not discuss them in enough depth and often refuses to draw any conclusions about them.  In the penultimate episode, “A Disrespectful Loyalty: May 1970 – March 1973,” we hear some of John Kerry’s 1971 Senate testimony, on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. One interviewee, a fellow member of VVAW, who was present that day praises Kerry’s testimony as perfectly capturing the truth of Vietnam. But we then hear from another veteran of the war, who is still furious about Kerry’s suggestions about American war atrocities, accusations that he believes were entirely unfair. The Vietnam War refuses to say who was right about this important issue.

Burns and Novick’s film brings to life many aspects of the Vietnam War, especially the experience of the men and women who fought it. Its approach does indeed tell stories of courage and perseverance, understanding and forgiveness. But while it effectively suggests that the war was a tragedy and full of ironies, it ultimately fails to answer, in any deep way, what was the most salient question at the time and remains crucial if we are to actually learn the lessons of Vietnam: why were we in Vietnam?

20 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Still have yet to watch anything beyond the first episode. As the film moves into chronological territory whose details are more familiar (to me, anyway), I’m anticipating learning less in the way of specific facts that are new to me and becoming, perhaps as a result, more conscious of the documentary’s shortcomings.

    I’ll be particularly interested to see how the series approaches the details of the military history, about which there has been ongoing controversy, plus all the well-known landmarks by which one places a sort of mental grid on the course of events, from the key 1965 escalation decisions to Nixon/Kissinger’s costly (in every sense) prolongation and geographical expansion of the war in pursuit of the chimerical goal of “peace with honor.”

    One question I’d think the film can’t avoid answering, at least by implication, is whether the war could have been ‘won’ short of a full-scale invasion of the North and/or use of nuclear weapons. Was the ‘problem’, as some have argued, simply that the U.S. and S. Vietnam used the wrong strategy, or did the issues go much deeper? Why did efforts at counterinsurgency and ‘pacification’ (strategic hamlet program, CORDS) prove no more successful for the U.S. than for the French? Was the war actually ‘won’ and then the victory thrown away, as per the tendentious title of William Colby’s book Lost Victory? Then there’s the whole subject of the war’s impact on subsequent U.S. military doctrine and actions (including e.g. in Iraq) which actually I don’t expect the film to address. But if it isn’t willing to draw conclusions on some of these other questions, that’s a problem.

  2. I am only half way through — just finishing episode 4 on demand now. But I really disagree that the work is weak on answering questions of “why,” or that it’s focused on “telling stories” and giving us a sense of personal experience as opposed to painting a bigger picture. The documentary is light on analytic language, and heavy on description/narration. However, it is a filmic work, and so so much depends on editing choices. For example, episodes 3 and 4 especially make judicious use of LBJ’s telephone conversations, and they’re presented in a way that makes very clear to the viewer that the President and his military advisors kept pouring more and more into a war they knew they couldn’t win because the alternative was losing. I mean, do we need Peter Coyote to tell us that MacNamara’s obscene snake-oil sales pitches to Johnson to herd the President toward greater and greater escalation were unconscionably callous, or that Johnson’s biggest worry was not what was happening in Viet Nam but how he was going to be re-elected in ’64?

    Sometimes less is more. Sometimes you have to lay the evidence out before the viewer/reader and stop just one step short of offering a (damning) interpretation. There are people watching this documentary who really would not believe, who have not believed, that the war was unnecessary and ill-advised and careening toward disaster from very early on. I think it’s more helpful for those viewers to hear those admissions from the horses’ mouths through the footage available from the time, as well as through interviews in retrospect.

    I think some hard truths have a better chance of being heard if you allow the viewer or reader or listener to connect the last few dots. (I will have to remember this next time I go into prophetic mode!)

    • And yet the viewer is not told anything of the hard truth that is contained in NSAM 263, which is that JFK had begun the withdrawal. So how can they take into consideration or discussion something they know nothing about? Or to use your analogy: how can they be expected to connect the dots if they are given no dots?

      The withdrawal wasn’t a matter of what he would have done, it was what he was doing.

      NSAM 263 said:

      2. A program is established to train Vietnamese so that essential functions now performed by U.S. military personnel can be carried out by Vietnamese by the end of 1965. It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of U.S. personnel by that time.

      3. In accordance with the program to train progressively Vietnamese to take over military functions, the Defense Department should announce in the very near future presently prepared plans to withdraw 1000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963. This action should be explained in low key as an initial step in a long-term program to replace U.S. personnel with trained Vietnamese without impairment of the war effort.

      These recommendations were communicated directly to the American people as the secretary of defense took to the steps of the White House on October 2 to tell the press of plans to withdraw 1,000 troops from Vietnam before the year was out. Additionally, the fact that all troops were to be withdrawn from Vietnam by the end of 1965 was reported in the October 4, 1963, Pacific Stars and Stripes under the headline “U.S. TROOPS SEEN OUT OF VIET BY ’65” and details of Kennedy’s withdrawal plan appeared in 1963 Facts on File.

      How was JFK doing this? He was using what John Newman (whose book JFK & Vietnam is monumental) termed a “deception within a deception.” Essentially, Kennedy, though knowing full well how badly the war was going, used the rosy reports from his commanders in Vietnam to justify the withdrawal “We are winning, so they no longer need our advisers,” essentially.

      Roughly 220 personnel were rotated home in early December before events – the ripples of JFK’s assassination and LBJ’s issuance of NSAM 273 – overtook matters. NSAM 273, which President Johnson signed four days after President Kennedy’s murder, was extraordinarily significant given the fact that for the first time the stated goal of the U.S. was altered to be that of helping the South Vietnamese government win the war:

      ‘It remains the central object of the United States in South Vietnam to assist the people and Government of that country to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy.’

      This sort of wording was something President Kennedy had steadfastly vetoed when it had been proposed by some of his military advisors a number of times in the past. Thus NSAM 273 explicitly delineated the beginning of the reversal of JFK’s policy that had begun to take explicit shape with the signing of NSAM 263. This despite the fact that one of LBJ’s most common phrases after the assassination and during his 1964 campaign was “let us continue.” This breach was further obfuscated by such statements as “It remains the central object of the United States in South Vietnam . . . ” Such declarations indicated the discontinuity with events that were unfolding and being directed by President Kennedy prior to November 22, 1963.

      Lest LBJ”s later accounts of the war just somehow entrapping him like those who were stuck in a spider’s web and his later crocodile tears take us in, we must understand that LBJ and his backers, especially Brown and Root, had long sought a wider war with real combat troops instead of advisors, LBJ had always been a hawk on the matter.

      If one chooses to look at these events through a lens of truth, what really happened quickly becomes apparent. Lee Harvey Oswald, as he said, didn’t shoot anyone and was just a patsy. One can also see that prosecuting the war and running the cover-up was part of LBJ’s Faustian bargain with the plotters in which he was given the presidency, which he lusted after.

      But there’s much more at stake. To deny, at this late date, what the documentary record tells us is true and believe, instead, what has been put out as a phony cover story these many decades is to have skewed our understanding and accounts of the 60s to the point that they are a worthless and damnable fiction. We must begin the task of confronting the ‘60s again but do it right this time with our heads out of the sand.

      For these and many other reasons, I give the film an F.

      Peace

      • I also thnk the series is crappy, and also think that’s not surprising, given that it’s Ken Burns, and said so on a previous post here. My longform take on both the Vietnam series and Burns in general: https://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2017/09/if-youve-been-watching-ken-burns-on.html

        That said, in part because I don’t buy the myth of Camelot, I doubt JFK, had he lived, would have continued a drawdown in 1964, an election year.

        Maybe he would have after the election. But at that point, he and Bobby might well have been looking toward working on Bobby’s possible 1968 nomination.

      • The text of NSAM 263, as found at the JFK Library site, consists of three short paragraphs. See here:
        https://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/w6LJoSnW4UehkaH9Ip5IAA.aspx

        If you follow the link, you’ll see that NSAM 263 does not contain the sentences that Andrew C. Parker, in the comment above, says it does. (Those sentences may come from the McNamara -Taylor report, but I’m not sure; what is clear from the link is that those sentences do not appear in NSAM 263.)

        The following (italics added) is from the Foreign Relations of the U.S. volume covering 61-63, as reproduced at http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/context1.htm.

        “Record of Action No. 2472, Taken at the 519th Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, October 2, 1963

        “McNAMARA-TAYLOR REPORT ON VIETNAM

        “a. Endorsed the basic presentation on Vietnam made by Secretary McNamara and General Taylor.

        b. Noted the President’s approval of the following statement of U.S. policy which was later released to the press:

        1. The security of South Viet Nam is a major interest of the United States as other free nations. We will adhere to our policy of working with the people and Government of South Viet Nam to deny this country to Communism and to suppress the externally stimulated and supported insurgency of the Viet Cong as promptly as possible. Effective performance in this undertaking is the central objective of our policy in South Viet Nam.

        2. The military program in South Viet Nam has made progress and is sound in principle, though improvements are being energetically sought.

        3. Major U.S. assistance in support of this military effort is needed only until the insurgency has been suppressed or until the national security forces of the Government of South Viet Nam are capable of suppressing it.

        Secretary McNamara and General Taylor reported their judgment that the major part of the U.S. military task can be completed by the end of 1965, although there may be a continuing requirement for a limited number of U.S. training personnel. They reported that by the end of this year, the U.S. program for training Vietnamese should have progressed to the point where 1,000 U.S. military personnel assigned to South Vietnam can be withdrawn.”

        —–

        This seems a rather weak basis (to put it mildly) on which to rest the theory about the JFK assassination set out in the above comment (and similar earlier comments).

  3. I have a comment in moderation, I guess because it contains more than one link/URL. Anyway, if you search on “nsam 263 vietnam” and go to the text of NSAM 263 at the JFK Library site, you’ll see that it does not contain the sentences that Andrew Parker, in the above comment, says it does.

    • The liberals tell us now that we drifted into Vietnam, that it developed through blunder and accident. It was the liberals who drifted. They didn’t understand who Johnson was. They couldn’t tell a war policy from a peace policy even when they could hear the bombs. We got into the war not because of their drift but because there was an organized party that militantly wanted that war, that felt the war had to happen.

      – Carl Oglesby

      In NSAM 263, JFK approves what were the military recommendations as they appear in the McNamara-Taylor Report. I B (1-3). His approval was of those military recommendations and because they appear only in the report, I think one can safely assume that was the language that was approved in the NSAM. Essentially, as far as this particular language was concerned it was the same in NSAM as it was in the report.

      This was the report’s language as approved in the NSAM:

      2. A program is established to train Vietnamese so that essential functions now performed by U.S. military personnel can be carried out by Vietnamese by the end of 1965. It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of U.S. personnel by that time.

      3. In accordance with the program to train progressively Vietnamese to take over military functions, the Defense Department should announce in the very near future presently prepared plans to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963. This action should be explained in low key as an initial step in a long-term program to replace U.S. personnel with trained Vietnamese without impairment of the war effort.

      Nonetheless, the 1,000-man withdrawal was begun in early December with the rotation of 220 men home. That is and remains a documented fact. The withdrawal ordered by Kennedy had begun even though it was after his assassination.

      I will make some minor mea culpas, however, for the confusion wrought . But the fact of the matter remains that Kennedy had ordered the rotation home of 1,000 advisors in December 1963. It is an undeniable fact.

      There is much more to the story of LBJ, the presidency and his participation in the cover-up. There were many others who also benefited from the killing. They include:

      Mob
      CIA
      Military
      Multi nationals
      Oil companies
      Defense and related Industries
      The Fed

      …I really don’t know what the situation is about…Nobody has told me anything except that I am accused of murdering a policeman. I know nothing more than that, and I do request someone to come forward to give me legal assistance…No. I have not been charged with that [murdering the president]. In fact, nobody has said that to me yet. The first thing I heard about it was when the newspaper reporters in the hall asked me that question…I did not do it…I did not do it…I did not shoot anyone.

      –Harvey Lee Oswald

      I believe him.

      I also know that we know enough to understand what happened without convictions of those involved.

      Happy to talk to you abut any of this

      Peace

  4. Ben is too kind. OK, it is mostly the usual Ken Burns–moving tales by ordinary people who get caught up in history or make bad decisions. But the lack of analysis is monumental (skimpy on general Cold War background, which it seems to take as a natural event like a cyclone, lousy on antiwar movement–Morse and Gruening not even mentioned by name re Tonkin Gulf res), even too hard on Diem who seems to have been overthrown PARTLY because of his peace feelers to NVN). Plus versions of the human stories (I joined because I loved my country, had no economic opportunity, hated Communism, the uniforms looked great, etc. and then fought bravely) could be applied to any side in any modern war. As to the might have beens, there are memos and meeting minutes with JFK and LBJ implying just about any policy in the future. Real question is whether JFK actually would have let SVN fall in ’65, which became the question, not whether he would have preferred an early version of “Vietnamization.” Smart scholars, including Robert Dallek and Peter Kuznick think so but I’m still not convinced. Lesson: stay out of civil wars and regional wars (by my count, the US was involved in 4 on inauguration day).

  5. To Larry Newman, Kennedy said:

    “The first thing I do when I’m re-elected, I’m going to get the Americans out of Vietnam. Exactly how I’m going to do it, right now, I don’t know.”

    In 1963 Kennedy remarked to his aide Kenneth O’Donnell:

    In 1965, I’ll become one of the most unpopular presidents in history. I’ll be damned everywhere as a communist appeaser, but now I don’t care. If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m re-elected. So we had better make damned sure I’m re-elected.

    The fact that the beginning. of the withdrawal had begun. It was documented

    Do not know of Dallek and the other guy what are their bona fides re: JFK / assassination.

    Bureaucratese is a language of its own and takes great pains t decipher.

    remember he kept us out of war in laos, vietnam (twice), berlin, cuba (twice.) He never sent a combat troop to vietnam despite the pressure brought to bear..

    peace

  6. Leo Ribuffo:

    Real question is whether JFK actually would have let SVN fall in ’65, which became the question, not whether he would have preferred an early version of “Vietnamization.” Smart scholars, including Robert Dallek and Peter Kuznick think so [i.e., think JFK would have let SVN ‘fall’] but I’m still not convinced.

    I’m not convinced JFK would have let SVN fall either. Maybe, maybe not. Rotating 220 advisors home on a planned w/dl of 1,000. when U.S. advisers totaled about 11,000 by then (if I’m recalling the number [given in ep. 2 of the doc.] accurately) doesn’t prove it.

    JFK’s views were firmly within the mainstream Cold War consensus; his statements and actions make really no other conclusion possible. He likely did want to avoid if possible another major ground war in Asia directly involving large numbers of U.S. soldiers (as opposed to Special Forces, which JFK was very high on) and he very well might have let SVN ‘fall’ in 1965 rather than commit large numbers of U.S. soldiers. But we can’t know that, no matter what he said to which journalists about what he was going to do after his re-election, or what phased w/dl plans, contingent on SVN capabilities increasing, he endorsed.

    One thing the first two installments (esp. the first) of Burns bring out is the shift in JFK’s views from c.1946/47/48 to the mid-1950s, from his initial leanings, which seem to have been skeptical that a legitimate independent SVN was possible (following his trip there as a young Congressman) to the mid-50s, when he gives his well-known speech calling SVN “the finger in the dike” vs. the spread of Communism in Asia (actually Burns doesn’t quote that particular speech, but the general shift in JFK’s views is apparent).

    Andrew Parker: you can look up Dallek and Kuznick. You obviously have internet access, so I don’t esp. see why I or anyone else shd take the time to tell you who they are.

    • The number of advisors is usually given as 17,000. The 220 of the initial 1,000 made it out before Johnson changed orders.

      The fact of the matter is that before his death JFK had issued orders for the withdrawal of 1,000 advisors in December 1963 (220 were withdrawn before his orders were changed by LBJ) and that his plans (at that time) were to have all advisors out by the end of 1965. Those things are undeniable and are provable through documentation. It is also true that what would have happened had he not been killed will never be known.

      I don’t believe JFK’s views were within the Cold War consensus, especially as he evolved. Oh he may have had to say things for political reasons but I think it a better thing to watch what he did.

      If his views were within the Cold War Consensus then wouldn’t he have approved the airstrikes that supposedly would have turned the tables for the invaders at the Bay of Pigs and turned it into an
      American operation? He didn’t because he was adamant that it had to remain at heart a Cuban exile operation and adamant from he beginning that there would be no direct American military participation.

      It is now known that the whole operation had been engineered to fail by the CIA so as to force Kennedy’s hand concerning the air strikes and other possible military action. The reasoning being he would not accept the defeat. He did not bend as they wished him to, however, and took responsibility (even though he seethed at the treachery of the CIA.)

      Would a cold warrior had backed off in the confrontation between Soviet and American tanks at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin?

      Would a cold warrior have sought a negotiated settlement for a neutral Laos instead of sending the troops the joint chiefs wished to be deployed to stop the Pathet Lao.

      Would a Cold Warrior not have bombed and invaded Cuba because of the Soviet missiles there. His blockade idea received little support.

      Would a cold warrior not have sent the troops to South Vietnam, some under the guise of flood relief workers, that the JCS requested throughout 1961?

      Would a cold warrior have delivered the speech JFK did at American University or pressed for a nuclear test ban treaty?

      Would a cold warrior have been seeking detente with Castro as JFK was at the time of his death?

      Would a cold warrior have sought the detente with Russia that he and Khruschev were moving toward at the time of his death?

      As far as Dallek is concerned I found this paragraph about him and it tells me all I need to know:

      JFK gets much more respect today than he did during the first two decades after his death, when denial and cynicism were the norms – however, most historians today, although much more appreciative of JFK’s careful balancing of competing political forces at a very difficult and dangerous time in our history will still not admit that his death resulted from conspiracy that subject is still ‘radioactive’ to them because of its implications – disturbing implications that our society is not as wholesome as they would like to believe– so they dismiss wholesale the overwhelming evidence of conspiracy and coverup as the work of ‘conspiracy theorists’ while not not addressing any of the evidence itself. The approach of historian Robert Dallek in his otherwise excellent book An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy is a prime example of this.

      – Douglas P. Horne, Chief Analyst for Military Records, ARRB.

      As far as your styayrmnt: JFK gets much more respect today than he did during the first two decades after his death, when denial and cynicism were the norms – however, most historians today, although much more appreciative of JFK’s careful balancing of competing political forces at a very difficult and dangerous time in our history will still not admit that his death resulted from conspiracy that subject is still ‘radioactive’ to them because of its implications – disturbing implications that our society is not as wholesome as they would like to believe– so they dismiss wholesale the overwhelming evidence of conspiracy and coverup as the work of ‘conspiracy theorists’ while not not addressing any of the evidence itself. The approach of historian Robert Dallek in his otherwise excellent book An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy is a prime example of this.

      – Douglas P. Horne, Chief Analyst for Military Records, ARRB.

      As far as this statement goes: “I don’t esp. see why I or anyone else shd take the time to tell you who they are,” I most certainly would have offered my assistance on this and a host of other things. Just the way I am.

      Peace

      • It was very possible to be within the mainstream Cold War consensus and also support detente w USSR and nuclear-arms limitation agreements. JFK was not a “reckless Cold Warrior,” in John Kane’s words[*} (emph. added), but he certainly accepted the premises of containment (and a somewhat militarized approach to containment at that). Richard Walton called his 1972 book on JFK’s foreign policy Cold War and Counterrrevolution. It’s close to impossible to imagine someone w JFK’s personal history (family, education, WW2 service, general milieu of life/times) not accepting the need to contain the spread of Communism, by force if necessary and e.g. by dispatch of counterinsurgency special forces to Third World countries (which is what he did in Vietnam among other places). I would be v. surprised to find any reputable historian, regardless of political leanings, arguing that JFK rejected the basic premises of post-1947 U.S. foreign policy on the lines of the Truman Doctrine et seq.

        J. Kane, Between Virtue and Power (2008), p.267.


        Btw one can accept the view that JFK wd have acted differently, had he lived, on Vietnam than LBJ did and not accept the assassination conspiracy theories: the latter don’t nec. follow from the former.

  7. Anything is possible, I guess, so it might very well be possible to be within the mainstream Cold War consensus and also support detente w/USSR and nuclear-arms limitation agreements. Given the tenor of the times, however, there couldn’t have been many of them out in the open if they existed at all in the 50s and early 60s.

    As I said anything is possible and Kennedy may have risen above all his personal history (family, education, WW2 service, general milieu of life/times) and forge a new path for the nation (He sure seemed to be doing just that at the time of his death.

    • Withdrawal from Vietnam

    • Détente with Castro (JFK’s emissary was with Castro at the time the assassination was announced. Castro’s reaction to the news was the words “Es una mala noticia.” (“This is bad news.”) Which he repeated three times?

    • Bypassing the Federal Reserve and having the government print money again as specified in the Constitution

    • Kennedy and Khrushchev sought a better understanding of each other (hotline, special letters. (Find info on this in James Douglas JFK and the Unspeakable.) The American University speech pointed the way for this new relationship.

    • Joint U.S.-Soviet space program.

    • A nuclear test ban treaty that he had to shove down the throats of the JCS.

    The 400 Green Berets that Kennedy sent to Vietnam were ordered there as “advisors” Their mission was to train montagnards in the mountains and CIDG’s in Vietnamese villages. Remember he sent no combat troops to Vietnam. Advisors and trainers only.

    Here are four highly recommended books on JFK’s foreign policy:

    • Betting on the Africans
    • Kennedy, Johnson and the Non Aligned World
    • The Incubus of Intervention
    • JFK: Ordeal in Africa

    If you are interested in his economic policies then it’s Battling Walll Street by Donald Gibson.

    “I would be v. surprised to find any reputable historian, regardless of political leanings, arguing that JFK rejected the basic premises of post-1947 U.S. foreign policy on the lines of the Truman Doctrine et seq.”

    Even if that’s what he appeared to be doing?

    “Btw one can accept the view that JFK wd have acted differently, had he lived, on Vietnam than LBJ did and not accept the assassination conspiracy theories: the latter don’t nec. follow from the former.”

    A person can accept anything they want to right or wrong. I believe be would have acted differently than LBJ – they were too different in just about every conceivable way.

    For me the idea of conspiracy follows from the available facts plain and simple. If you can find enough credible and unassailable evidence that Oswald did it alone for no apparent reason, then I will be the first to convict him. But you’ll find that it doesn’t exist no matter how hard you try to find it. (and please don’t cite the Warren Report).

    As for me, I will continue to stand for the truth and see the war in Vietnam and the assassination as linked.

    Let’s end on this note from historian Michael Beschloss. He says “What is consistent with virtually every major serious explanation of who killed the President is that he was murdered to one degree or another, as a result of his public policies.

    In the meantime, let’s get the CIA to release the papers it holds in violation of a court order concerning the CIA’s George Johannides and the DRE.

    Peace

  8. According to Andrew Parker (comment above), JFK in pushing for a nuclear test-ban treaty was “forg[ing] a new path for the nation.” On the contrary: JFK in this respect was not forging a new path so much as building on concerns and initiatives of his predecessor as president, Eisenhower.

    From John Newhouse, War and Peace in the Nuclear Age (1989), pp. 106-107:
    “Eisenhower’s aversion to nuclear war — limited or otherwise — was matched by an anxious but persistent effort to subdue the technology and its works. In August 1953, after the Soviet Union shocked Washington by testing a hydrogen bomb, he became even more determined to find a way of moderating the arms competition…. ‘Suppose,’ he said to Robert Cutler, ‘the United States and the Soviets were each to turn over to the United Nations for peaceful use, X kilograms of fissionable material.’ … On December 8, Eisenhower stood before a world audience [at the UN] and set forth his plan for an International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], which besides storing fissionable material would devise peaceful uses for it.”

    The stockpile idea didn’t materialize b.c the Soviets decided it was not in their interest, but Eisenhower’s speech did lead to the creation in 1957 of the IAEA, “an organization the world needed and one which has functioned well, within the limits of its resources.” (Ibid., p. 108).

    On Eisenhower and nuclear policy, see also, e.g., C. Craig, Destroying the Village: Eisenhower and Thermonuclear War (1998).

  9. I think you misread my post. I offered a number of reasons why Kennedy was forging a new path – not merely one, as you seem to think. These factors are intended to be taken together, which seems clear as the following passage indicates:

    “As I said anything is possible and Kennedy may have risen above all his personal history (family, education, WW2 service, general milieu of life/times) and forge a new path for the nation (He sure seemed to be doing just that at the time of his death.

    • Withdrawal from Vietnam

    • Détente with Castro (JFK’s emissary was with Castro at the time the assassination was announced. Castro’s reaction to the news was the words “Es una mala noticia.” (“This is bad news.”) Which he repeated three times?

    • Bypassing the Federal Reserve and having the government print money again as specified in the Constitution

    • Kennedy and Khrushchev sought a better understanding of each other (hotline, special letters. (Find info on this in James Douglas JFK and the Unspeakable.) The American University speech pointed the way for this new relationship.

    • Joint U.S.-Soviet space program.

    • A nuclear test ban treaty that he had to shove down the throats of the JCS.
    (The oil depletion allowance and the war on organized crime should have been mentioned as well. My apologies.)

    As far as Eisenhower’s IAEA and JFK’s test ban treaty are concerned, I view them as apples and oranges.

    Peace

  10. To go back to Ben’s post and his conclusion that the film “ultimately fails to answer, in any deep way, what was the most salient question at the time and remains crucial if we are to actually learn the lessons of Vietnam: why were we in Vietnam?”

    Having now watched more than half of the film (first six episodes and beginning of the seventh), I think I get the point of this statement, which, it seems to me, turns on the phrase I’ve italicized.

    I’d suggest that Burns/Novick did not set out to answer that question in a deep way, and maybe, though I’m not sure, a documentary film cannot do that. The OP suggests the film has a thesis — quoting the final piece of narration about meaning being found in individual stories — but it seems to me this is closer to the absence of a thesis.

    The filmmakers faced, I’d suggest, a difficult problem: how to make an 18-hour-long film about an event that is still controversial, about which there is now an enormous historical and polemical literature (with those two categories not always distinct), and to do it in a way that captures and keeps viewers’ attention, does not presuppose a lot of knowledge, and also does not veer too much to one side or the other of certain ongoing debates; this last requirement was probably a precondition, in effect, for getting all the foundation funding they got and for the PBS imprimatur. In terms of some of the interviewees and the historical consultants (who are listed very quickly in the credits — it goes by fast but you can still glimpse some of the names), Burns/Novick seem to have been striving for some kind of notional ‘balance’ and beyond that aiming to let the facts and stories speak for themselves.

    The problem, of course, is that facts and stories never fully speak for themseIves, and they are necessarily embedded in choices the filmmakers are forced to make about which facts (and viewpoints) to include and which not to include. Yes, viewers can connect certain dots for themselves, and to some extent they should be allowed to do so, but the relevant universe of dots, so to speak, is very big, and probably the filmmakers should have been a little more explicit about their principles of selection.

    Take, just as one of doubtless many possible examples, the very concrete issue of the rifles the forces carried. The film tells us that the North Vietnamese army and NLF (Viet Cong) had AK-47s, which are contrasted with the automatic rifle carried by U.S. soldiers, the M-16, which we are told had problems with jamming and which one of the interviewees, the Marine John Musgrave, refers to as “a piece of sh*t.”

    However serious its problems (and they were apparently quite significant), the M-16 was much superior to the WW2-vintage rifle, the M-1, that the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) carried for much of the war. This latter fact, however, is not one the film tells us, at least not in the episodes I’ve watched, Burns/Novick apparently having decided that it’s not significant enough to mention. This left-out point goes to the argument that the U.S. did not do enough, esp. in the initial years of involvement, to improve the capabilities and equipment of the ARVN. (I only know this fact about the rifle the ARVN used because it was mentioned in something I happened to be reading recently.) This example doesn’t pertain, of course, to why the U.S. was in Vietnam but it does pertain to how the war was ‘managed’ and fought, something the film spends a lot of time on, as one would expect.

    In sum, based on what I’ve seen so far I think the film is definitely worth watching, but Burns/Novick should have been more candid and explicit about the inherent difficulties of the project (as noted above). One can imagine several ways this could have been done at the very start of the first episode. The short, bland statement that the narrator makes that “there is no single truth,” or words to that effect, is not enough.

    • To go back to Ben’s post and his conclusion that the film “ultimately fails to answer, in any deep way, what was the most salient question at the time and remains crucial if we are to actually learn the lessons of Vietnam: why were we in Vietnam?” (After M16 discussion)

      As for the M16:

      In 1964, the M16 entered U.S. military service and the following year was deployed for jungle warfare operations during the Vietnam War. In 1969, the M16A1 replaced the M14 rifle to become the U.S. military’s standard service rifle.

      The original M16 fared poorly in the jungles of Vietnam and was infamous for reliability problems in the harsh environment. As a result, it became the target of a Congressional investigation. The investigation found that: The M16 was billed as self-cleaning (when no weapon is or ever has been).

      • The M16 was issued to troops without cleaning kits or instruction on how to clean the rifle.
      • The M16 and 5.56×45mm cartridge was tested and approved with the use of a DuPont IMR8208M stick powder, that was switched to Olin Mathieson WC846 ball powder which produced much more fouling, that quickly jammed the action of the M16 (unless the gun was cleaned well and often).
      • The M16 lacked a forward assist (rendering the rifle inoperable when it jammed).
      • The M16 lacked a chrome-plated chamber, which allowed corrosion problems and contributed to case extraction failures (which was considered the most severe problem and required extreme measures to clear, such as inserting the cleaning-rod down the barrel and knocking the spent cartridge out.)

      The army screwed up the gun. (Bigger bullets and dirtier powder – as requested by military – the main culprits)

      I think the idea was to use up our surplus equipment, arms, uniforms etc. on the Vietnamese

      I don’t think you can cite any single reason for our being in Vietnam. That reflects the fact that the war was a tapestry woven of far too many different threads for us to see the individual parts in the whole or to fully unravel it. A Gordian knot of the modern world.

      Still that shouldn’t stop us from trying to isolate some of the factors – quantifiable and qualitative – that led to war and how they may relate to one another. Several of these are:

      • Stopping Communism/Cold War/ Domino theory – The fear that Mao’s victory along with the Korean War (w/Chinese participation) unleashed in the U.S. was tremendous. The Soviet Union’s treachery was already well known to the allies. and containment strategy.

      • Economic – Natural Resources

      Oil and Gas

      Vietnam’s potential crude oil reserves in the southern offshore area stand at about 270 million tons and are likely to increase substantially with continued exploration.

      Vietnam has potential non-associated gas reserves of more than 360 billion cubic meters. Proven associated gas reserves are on the order of 57 billion cubic meters.

      Mineral Resources

      Vietnam’s primary coal resource, anthracite, is concentrated in Quang Ninh Province in the Northeast. It has potential recoverable reserves of 7-8 billion tons of which 600 million tons are shallow (within a depth of 100 meters). The country also has an abundance of other minerals, including bauxite, iron ore, copper, gold, precious stones, tin, chromate, apatite, and building materials such as granite, marble, clay, silica sand,
      and graphite

      Other Resources

      Vietnam is also very rich in other natural resources including significant hydropower (10,000 MW), marine resources, tropical forest, and agricultural potential. Vietnam’s major agricultural areas are the Red River delta, the Mekong River delta and the southern terrace region. Vietnam is the world’s largest producer of cashew nuts, the largest producer of black pepper and the second-largest rice and coffee exporter. Its other primary exports include tea, rubber and fishery products. There are many plantations of banana, coconut, and citrus trees. Fields, groves and kitchen gardens throughout Vietnam include a wide variety of fruit trees such as banana, orange, mango, jackfruit and coconut.

      Heroin – From the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai Shek in the Golden Triangle flown to America on CIA planes.

      I would like to think that the fear of communism was real but still I believea lot of that was a cover to mask the profiteering that was fed by large military-related contracts for equipment, dredging, construction, etc.

      American National Myth / Frontier

      Initially, the jungles of South Vietnam seemed to some, at least, to hold the possibility of reaffirming the regenerative power of the wilderness for Americans. Our troops would be modern-day Natty Bumppos, Daniel Boones, and Davy Crocketts alive again in the forest and testing their wilderness skills and themselves in the defense of freedom.

      In seeking support for the war, President Lyndon Johnson even invoked a powerful and almost sacred symbol of the frontier during a December 1967 trip to Cam Ranh Bay when he told American soldiers to “nail that coonskin to the wall.” In the end, however, the Vietnam War was to subvert the myth of the frontier and, in the process, turn American values and identity topsy-turvy. The war was to bring no sense of spiritual or physical renewal to America, just confusion and the finality of death.

      Norman Mailer’s novel Why Are We In Vietnam? tried to get at the question of Why? through examining the mythos of America. In doing so his book is suggestive of William Faulkner’ novella The Bear.

      I remember reading somewhere a long time ago (maybe in Tom Wolfe’s book about the New Journalism that movies are good at showing action but not thought and the opposite is true for books.

      Peace

  11. Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War (Princeton U.P., 1992) is illuminating on U.S. decision-making on Vietnam through 1965. Among other things, he points out the considerable influence that (inapt) ‘lessons’ drawn from the Korean War had on LBJ and Rusk, especially. It mattered whether one saw the conflict as basically an instance of external aggression, as LBJ and most of his advisors did, or as in significant part an internal conflict, as, notably, George Ball did. (Also some interesting discussion of JFK admin, esp. pp. 80ff.)

    Little of this kind of analysis is in the documentary. George Ball is mentioned in passing and a picture of him is shown for a couple of seconds. Another example of choices made by the filmmakers.

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