Ken Burns’ “Vietnam” Lacks Critical Consciousness
By S. Brian Willson (September 29, 2017)
I am interested in history, and recognize the importance of story telling as part of the process of understanding people’s history. But it is important as well to distinguish between the art of story telling, and the critical historical analysis of structural patterns and causes.
US policy in Viet Nam is well established in the historical record, and it is unambiguous. As Noam Chomsky has long concluded, the US intended “a conscious application of principles of imperial planning” immediately following Japan’s surrender in WWII, enabling re-establishment of French colonization.
And correspondingly, the record is clear that the Vietnamese intended to assert their independence even a few days BEFORE Japan’s announced surrender in August 1945, which had occupied Viet Nam during the war, after more than a century of French occupation.
So, the historian’s task is to frame the record from the evidence in which the interesting and important story telling occurs. In Viet Nam the historical record is very clear:
On June 22, 1945, six weeks after Germany’s surrender, and almost eight weeks before the increasingly expected Japanese surrender, President Truman issued a policy statement supporting France’s efforts at re-colonizing Viet Nam following Japanese surrender, in opposition to aspirations of self-determination.
On August 11, 1945, learning Japan was planning to announce surrender on August 15, the Vietnamese began preparation for retaking Hanoi from the still present Japanese, and by late August was re-seizing other areas of Viet Nam.
In late August, 1945, French General and head of the then Provisional Government of the French Republic, Charles de Gaulle, met with President Truman in Washington, DC, at which time discussion included a revived post-WWII France, including the future of its Viet Nam colony wherein US interests would be preserved in the future of a French Indochina.
August 29, 1945, the Vietnamese established their first national, provisional government.
August 30, 1945, long time Vietnamese leader of the Vietnamese independence movement, Ho Chi Minh, sent the first of eight letters to President Truman requesting support for Vietnamese independence. All letters went unanswered.
September 2, 1945, before 400,000 people in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh announced establishment of Viet Nam’s independence. Guest included several US OSS officers who had worked with Ho’s guerrillas at the end of WWII rescuing downed US air crew, while also providing the US intelligence on Japanese military activities.
By mid-September, President Truman was providing weapons to the revived French military inside Viet Nam. On September 22, the US-armed French attacked Saigon seizing it from the Vietnamese who had begun to re-claim areas throughout the country.
October-November 1945, Truman provided as many as a dozen US military troop ships transporting thousands of US-armed French and Foreign Legionnaires to assist France re-colonizing Viet Nam.
And this pattern of US criminal and immoral invasion, occupation, and destruction of Viet Nam to thwart genuine Vietnamese aspirations for the simple goal of self-determination, continued until April 30 1975.
So, I find Burns and Novick’s promotional comments for their PBS series, “The Vietnam War” – that they wanted a “fresh eyes” about the war, that there is “no single truth” about the war, that they wanted to “be strictly neutral” about the “civil” war – to be disingenuous. They frame the series as a war “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings”, and that “we are all searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy”.
This is ahistorical framing that sets up the viewing audience to overlook the silence of the great lie of the war – that it was needless in the first instance, and all the suffering and misery and mass murders were for naught except for one very clear cause – that of the intent of the US to thwart Vietnamese independence by any and all means necessary.
Thus, the grotesque immorality and criminality of the US, that began in the genocide of the Indigenous Americans masked by our divine predestination for being the good guys, continues. The shame is just too painful to acknowledge and honestly face.
Of course, the 18 hours of footage reveals historical, riveting graphic war footage, complemented by many interviews with Vietnamese and US persons. The viewing audience is provided with a variety of perspectives to discuss, and reflect upon about the long war. So, there is voluminous important history to provoke national conversation on the war.
But the critical question that is obsfuscated in the intriguing 18 hours of this momentous documentary has been omitted – the Lie that led to the greatest crime of the latter half of the 20th Century. We escape again into perpetual war, into silence.
In conclusion, I submit the PBS series is severely misnamed. Its honest title might be “The Vietnam War from many perspectives”, or something similar. But it is not about “The Vietnam War” – it is about the war from many perspectives, absent the historian’s analysis of the structural causes of the needless suffering due to the behavior of the US.
The critical “search for meaning in this terrible tragedy”, the search for “healing”, the desire to “inspire thinking and talking about Vietnam…in an entirely different way”, is again an opportunity lost.
It does inspire more needed conversation about the war, as it omits the critical framing that could potentially radically alter the US American consciousness – that our cultural consciousness has always been self righteously imperial, and has been accomplished with virtual impunity. We are not the good guys, and never have been. We are in perpetual war as we watch TV, as we shop, as the government bombs, and the war-makers make obscene profits.