PBS' The Vietnam War Miseducates America
The recent PBS ten-episode The Vietnam War, produced and directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, and written by Geoffrey Ward, is billed as a critical reexamination of the war in Indochina that claimed more than 58,000 American lives and more than two million Vietnamese lives. It is nothing of the sort. Burns, Novick and Ward do not reexamine any of the conventional liberal perspectives on the war. The shibboleths of the Left are all reinforced. The production of this new series was, objectively, a waste of time and money, for PBS had essentially told the same story in 1983’s 13-part Vietnam: A Television History.
The 1983 production was based on the liberal journalist Stanley Karnow’s book, Vietnam: A History. Like that earlier PBS series, the Burns- Novick-Ward account of the war mentions communist atrocities but emphasizes American ones. The communist leaders of North Vietnam are never described as “corrupt;” that epithet is reserved for South Vietnam’s leaders and U.S. President Richard Nixon, the chief villain of both PBS programs.
Both programs depict Ho Chi Minh as more of a nationalist than a communist, but never seriously address the question of why such a “nationalist” would wage a war of aggression against his own people in the name of Marx, Lenin, and Mao, and why the communist regime that conquered South Vietnam in Ho’s name imprisoned its perceived political enemies in gulags, sent tens of thousands to re-education camps, and produced hundreds of thousands of “boat people,” who risked and often lost their lives in an effort to flee from the communists.
Both programs never satisfactorily answer the larger geopolitical question of why stopping Soviet and Chinese-backed North Korean aggression was necessary in the 1950s, but stopping Soviet and Chinese-backed North Vietnamese aggression was not necessary in the 1960s and 70s.
Both programs also take it for granted that the war was “unwinnable” by the United States; that view goes unchallenged. The Vietnam War describes and shows the fierce fighting in South Vietnam without ever questioning whether U.S. forces should have crossed the demilitarized zone to put Hanoi on the defensive. National Review’s James Burnham had accurately attributed this unwillingness to invade the North to America’s “self-imposed strategic prison” of containment, a legacy of the Korean War.
The real heroes of the war, according to Burns, Novick and Ward, were not the U.S. servicemen, who mostly served bravely and honorably despite being led by incompetent civilian leaders like President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (and careerist generals who waged the defensive war planned by their civilian masters without public complaint or resignation), but journalists like Neil Sheehan, bureaucrats like Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers, the sainted Bobby Kennedy whose “moral” compass would presumably have stopped the war if he had not been assassinated (Kennedy’s moral compass, however, did not prevent him from repeatedly trying to assassinate the leader of Cuba, wiretapping Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr, and advising his brother the President to go along with the disastrous coup against South Vietnamese President Diem), draftees who fled to Canada, and anti-war protestors. With respect to the latter, Burns, Novick and Ward predictably highlight the views of Vietnam veterans who served honorably and subsequently became critics of the war—their voices and opinions dominate the program.
Burns, Novick and Ward, also quite predictably, save their most scathing criticism for Richard Nixon. They repeat as fact the vigorously disputed claim—not just by Nixon partisans—that Nixon and his campaign prevented successful peace talks by persuading South Vietnamese leaders to refuse to participate in those talks shortly before the 1968 presidential election, thereby prolonging the war so that he could win the presidency.
The real culprits of this story, however, are Lyndon Johnson and his top advisers who instituted a bombing halt of North Vietnam a few days before the election in an effort to swing voters toward Democratic presidential candidate Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The truth is that there was never a chance that the North Vietnamese would have engaged in serious peace talks in 1968. The only time during the war that the communist leaders seriously negotiated peace terms was after Nixon massively bombed Hanoi and mined Haiphong Harbor in 1972, actions that U.S. military commanders had been privately advocating for many years. Relentless U.S. bombing campaigns, not bombing halts, persuaded Hanoi’s leaders to negotiate.
Moreover, South Vietnamese leaders in 1968 needed little prodding to avoid “peace” talks that they feared could (and ultimately did) result in their ultimate defeat by the communist North. Viewers of the Burns-Novick-Ward “history” would be better served by reading Jack Torry’s article at RealClearPolitics or Conrad Black’s piece in the National Review. Niall Ferguson’s account of this controversy in his recent biography of Henry Kissinger is also worth reading.
Nixon and Kissinger, it is true, realized that their policy of “Vietnamization” of the war had little likelihood of ultimate success. At best, they hoped it would provide, in the memorable words of Frank Snepp, a “decent interval” before the triumph of the North. Nixon sent generous quantities of military equipment to the South Vietnamese government and pledged in a letter to South Vietnam’s president that the U.S. would use its air power to enforce the peace accords. But James Burnham was correct when he described those peace accords as nothing more than a “protocol of American military disengagement from Vietnam.” “There is no prospect,” Burnham concluded, “that Communist Hanoi will renounce its goal of taking power in South Vietnam.”
A Democratic-controlled Congress subsequently ensured the South’s defeat by lessening then cutting-off all military assistance to our longtime ally, but Burns, Novick and Ward are quite sparing in their criticism of the Left.
Notably absent from The Vietnam War is any discussion of the near-term geopolitical consequences of the U.S. defeat and the penchant for national self-flagellation among the country’s elite that hampered its willingness to shoulder its global responsibilities in the mid-to-late 1970s, which enabled a Soviet geopolitical offensive that was only halted by the Reagan administration’s tougher policies in the 1980s. President Reagan, it is worth recalling, called the war in Vietnam a “noble cause.”
But the greatest failure of The Vietnam War is its consistent message of a moral equivalence between the United States and the communists, and its skewed portrayal of the attitudes of U.S. veterans of the war. As Bing West, a Marine Infantryman during the war, recently explained in the New York Post:
This documentary succeeds in vividly evoking sadness and frustration. But that is not all there was to the story. “The Vietnam War” strives for a moral equivalence where there is none. The veterans seem sad and detached for their experience, yet 90 percent of Vietnam War veterans are proud to have served. So there’s a large gap between what we see and the attitude of the vast majority of veterans.
Their sense of pride — so vital for national unity — is absent from the documentary. And that’s a glaring omission.
There are far more informative ways to learn about the Vietnam War than the PBS series. A good start would be to read Guenter Lewy’s America in Vietnam, followed by Norman Podhoretz’s Why We Were in Vietnam. Norman Hannah’s The Key to Failure and H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty provide key insights to the early mistakes of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that set the stage for the U.S. failure in Southeast Asia. The late Col. Harry Summers’ The Vietnam War in Context brilliantly analyzes how America’s neglect of the fundamental Clausewitzian principles of war doomed it to failure. Among the best memoirs of combat soldiers of the war is James Webb’s I Heard My Country Calling. Finally, much can be learned from Richard Nixon’s compelling retrospective on the war, No More Vietnams.
Unfortunately, The Vietnam War, like its PBS predecessor, will likely continue the miseducation of another generation of Americans about that tragic war.
Francis P. Sempa is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy. He is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Publishers, 2002) and America's Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War(Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).