Last night KPBS ran the second episode of Ken Burns’ latest magnum opus, The Viet Nam War: “Riding the Dragon,” dealing with the administration of President John F. Kennedy and his role in deepening the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam. No one who watches this show is going to think that Ken Burns is depicting the Viet Nam War and especially the U.S.’s involvement in it as morally ambiguous or even heroic: for Burns and his collaborators Lynn Novick and Geoffrey C. Ward, Viet Nam was a disaster from start to finish. About the only difference between the case being made against the war while it was still going on (from a peace movement I was proud, even at a tender age, to be part of: my growing up, physically and politically, is so intertwined with Viet Nam and the lessons it taught me about my country and its bias towards imperialism, as well as how badly it does imperialism I can hardly separate my views on more recent American military misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq from the Viet Nam debacle) and the one presented on this series is that Burns takes a pox-on-both-your-houses attitude to the governments of the two Viet Nams created by the 1954 Geneva Agreements, the People’s Republic of Viet Nam in the north and the Republic of Viet Nam in the south.
There was a tendency, especially as the war wore on, for peaceniks to whitewash the North Viet Namese and see them as “freedom fighters,” ignoring their atrocities and repression against so-called “political enemies” — while at the same time supporters of the war tried to present the Republic of Viet Nam as a democracy when it wasn’t. It was ruled first by Ngo Dinh Diem (and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and Mrs. Nhu, who made both figuratively and literally incendiary comments that only worsened the situation: not only did she respond to the immolation suicides of Buddhist monks in protest against Diem’s Catholic regime by saying she rejoiced at the “barbecues,” which is in Burns’ film, she publicly called on New York Times reporter David Halberstam, who had angered her with his dispatches criticizing the Diem government and the U.S. involvement, would follow the monks’ example), then after Diem was overthrown and assassinated by Viet Namese generals on November 1, 1963 (three weeks to the day before JFK’s own assassination) by a round-robin series of coups and counter-coups involving the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN)’s top generals, and finally after 1965 by Nguyen Cao Ky (who became infamous in the peace movement for allegedly having said, “I have only one hero — Hitler”) and later by Nguyen Van Thieu (about half of all Viet Namese seem to be named “Nguyen,” just as half of all Koreans seem to be named “Kim” — recently, when Charles and I were watching a PBS program and one of the donors was the Park Foundation, Charles joked, “That’s the foundation dedicated to building awareness of Koreans not named Kim”), who took over the Viet Namese presidency in 1967 and made Ky his vice-president; they ruled, sort of, until the entire South Viet Namese government fell in 1975.
The story of Viet Nam as told in this documentary is a grim tale of Americans blundering their way into a country whose language they did not speak, whose history and culture they did not understand, and which they saw through the illogic of the Cold War, which, in a theory Henry Kissinger called “linkage,” was based on the idea that every struggle anywhere in the world was ultimately part of the fight to the death between American capitalism and Soviet communism. The U.S. ignored Ho Chi Minh’s overtures immediately after World War II because he was a communist, and to U.S. policy-makers at the time (notably President Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, and special advisor George Kennan, author of the “containment” policy by which Communism would be allowed to rule where it had already taken root but the U.S. would fight tooth and nail against its expansion, especially in western Europe and southeastern Asia) that invalidated all his claims to being an independent nationalist. The U.S. got further and further into the war — by the end of the Kennedy administration it had several thousand “advisors” in the country, supposedly there just to train the ARVN and its commanders on how to fight, but they were flying helicopters, bombing suspected enemy positions and actively participating in conflict even though they weren’t yet going into battle on the ground. (That would come later, under Lyndon Johnson.) I remember in my teens and early 20’s having long arguments with friends over whether Kennedy would have cut the U.S.’s losses in Viet Nam and withdrawn if he’d lived: the Burns documentary mentions that there was a plan on the table when Kennedy died to withdraw the U.S. “advisors” gradually until January 1965, but that was predicated on the belief that by then the ARVN would have turned the corner and started winning the war. Those hopes were dashed in January 1963 at the Battle of Ap Bac, one of the “strategic hamlets” the South Viet Namese government built (and drafted forced labor from the Viet Namese peasants to build them) to isolate the rural Viet Namese population behind barbed wire and stakes to keep the National Liberation Front (NLF) recruiters from getting to them and signing them up for the other side.
What Burns’ documentary doesn’t mention was that this was an idea with an already long and dishonorable history: the first foreign invaders in a Third World country who hit on this strategy were the British during the Boer War in South Africa in the late 1890’s. Only instead of calling them “strategic hamlets,” they called them “concentration camps” — a bit of nomenclature that became decidedly politically incorrect when Nazi Germany appropriated the term (though they meant something rather different by it — first forced-labor camps and then extermination centers). The French had tried something similar in their failed attempt to reconquer Viet Nam between 1946 and 1954, only they called it “pacification” — a word spelled identically (though pronounced somewhat differently) in English and French and which the U.S. used as an alternate name for the program — either way it didn’t freaking work. It only gave Viet Namese peasants even more reason to hate the South Viet Namese government and concentrated the peasantry so NLF recruiters had an easier, not harder, time winning converts. One of the heroes (sort of) mentioned in this program was John Paul Vann, an American military advisor to the ARVN who later became the hero of Neil Sheehan’s book A Bright Shining Lie about the early days of the Viet Nam involvement (he published a book in 1972 about Vann’s role and it was filmed by HBO in 1978, with Bill Paxton playing Vann; the movie got savaged by people who still believed in the cause the U.S. had been fighting for in Viet Nam, whatever it was); Sheehan was extensively interviewed for this program and made the point that Ap Bac was the first time the NLF (or “Viet Cong,” short for “Viet Namese Communists,” as their enemies derisively termed them) staged a full-scale battle instead of just a raid, inflicted heavy casualties and had enough military supplies and modern arms (which came mostly from the Soviet Union and only secondarily from the Chinese — one thing the American war plotters didn’t understand about Viet Nam was that for a thousand years it had been under Chinese “suzerainty,” which meant they basically got to run their own country but had to acknowledge the Chinese as their ultimate overlords and pay them heavy taxes, which had given the Viet Namese a long-term hatred of the Chinese, reason enough that when the Sino-Soviet split occurred the Viet Namese took the Soviet rather than the Chinese side) to be able to fight and win a full-fledged battle and not just a raid.
Anyway, getting back to my arguments with my friends in the early 1970’s over whether there would have been a Viet Nam War — or at least a major U.S. involvement in it — if JFK had lived a normal span and served two terms as President, it’s always seemed to me that Kennedy would have pursued pretty much the same policies as Lyndon Johnson. By removing Diem in a coup (or at least green-lighting the efforts of Viet Namese generals to do that — JFK had given his O.K. to the coup as long as Diem and Nhu were allowed to leave the country alive, and when they weren’t he was not a happy camper but he regarded himself as stuck with the Viet Namese leadership, even a bunch of generals who had double-crossed him) Kennedy had doubled down on the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam. It’s hard to figure out what Diem was doing in his last months in power, when having already lost the peasantry he went after the urban masses, most of whom were Buddhist and resented the way Diem’s policies were blatantly favoring his own religion, Roman Catholicism — but then it’s often hard to figure out the counterproductive policies authoritarians of all stripes (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Chávez, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Un and, arguably, Donald Trump) fall into when they see their absolute power as being threatened. The important point is that Diem’s fall left South Viet Nam a mess and would have made it even harder for any U.S. President to withdraw — and Kennedy, who was obsessed with China and regarded the Chinese (with some reason) as being on an expansionist tear by which they hoped to conquer and/or bring under their influence all of Asia (including India, with whom they fought at least two border wars during Kennedy’s Presidency), would no more have withdrawn from Viet Nam as he would have patted the East German leaders on their backs and said, “No problem with that wall … ”