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"The Vietnam War" - Documentary Or Epic Of Fiction?

Published: September 20, 2017
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Source: Moon of Alabama

 

Arte TV yesterday showed the first parts of The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. It also runs on PBS.

The first three parts of the ten part "documentary" are a whitewash of the motives of the politicians who sold the war to the public. The CIA's and military "deep state" machinations behind them is not investigated but covered up.

A comment in the first episode declares that it was a "civil war" of Vietnamese against Vietnamese. That is ahistoric nonsense. After the defeat of the (U.S. financed) French colonialists in 1954, the leader of the Viet-minh Ho Chi Min was the undisputed hero of all Vietnam. He would have won any election by huge margins. But the Russian (and Chinese) backers of the liberation war against the French did not want to walk the last mile and insisted on negotiations in Geneva. They allowed the partition of the country. It would have been interesting to learn why.

The "documentary" makes it seem as if the south-Vietnamese ruler Ngo Dinh Diem appeared from heaven instead of being installed by the CIA. It put him into his position. It helped to arrange the "election" that gave him a laughable 98.2% of the votes. It financed him. The episode has arch-imperialist Leslie Gelb, who was part of the deep state that created and ran the war, declaring that "we did what Diem said". That is nonsense. Diem was ruthless dictator but he would not have survived a day without U.S. support and protection.

Part two is a undeserved homage of Kennedy and his "brilliant" staff. McNamara is especially lauded. But his bean-counter mind lacked any capacity to judge human behavior and motives. That had catastrophic consequences. The war is depicted as fight for "liberty" and against "communism". Those were Kennedy's sales points but they had little to do with what happened. Kennedy, like Johnson after him, was mostly driven by domestic policy issues. He wanted to reach certain domestic aims. His Vietnam decisions were just a cover against attacks on him for being "weak".

Part three whitewashes the Gulf of Tonkin lie. It is mealymouthed about what really happened, but then speaks of U.S. 2retaliation". The "unprovoked attack" of Vietnamese forces on U.S. ships was fictitious. The Congress' "Tonkin resolution" which escalated the war was prepared by Johnson's staff two month before the "incident" happened. The "Tonkin" show was set up to push it through. A main motive of the escalation was to get Johnson reelected. Like Kennedy he knew that the war was fought against a national liberation movement and unwinnable. But his "response" to the "incident" made him look strong. He won in a landslide.

Altogether I am disappointed by the series. It is well done cinematography, but it lacks historic depths. There is no investigation of the deeper motives for the political decisions within the U.S. government. Instead we get a repetition of the marketing slogans that were used to sell the decisions. The military and CIA machinations, and the drug business in Vietnam it inherited from the French, are left out. The motives and the strategies of the Viet-minh get too little cover, as does the civil life in Vietnam during the war.

Moreover there is no comment at all about the motivation and thought of the countries that backed the Viet-minh. Soviet and Chinese archives are open. But nothing is said about their desires and the large amount of resources they put into the war. A real documentary on the war would include their views. "Anti-communist" and "domino theory" slogans were and are still used to sell the war to the U.S. public. Would the deliberations that took place in Moscow and Beijing contradict them?

Other critical voices on the series:

Jeff Stein at NewsweekVietnam War: New Ken Burns Documentary Dismisses the Origins of the Futile, Disastrous Conflict

Burns strives to give everyone’s strongly held, divergent views equal weight, but before long, he’s waist deep in a historical big muddy, wandering among competing theories that obscure the root cause of a war ...

Thomas A Bass at Mekong ReviewAmerica’s amnesia

By Episode Two, “Riding the Tiger” (1961-1963), we are heading deep into Burns territory. The war has been framed as a civil war, with the United States defending a freely elected democratic government in the south against Communists invading from the north. American boys are fighting a godless enemy that Burns shows as a red tide creeping across maps of Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.

The historical footage in Episode One, “Déjà Vu” (1858-1961), which disputes this view of the war, is either ignored or misunderstood. ...

David Thomson at London Review of BooksMerely an Empire

If the film seems like an epic of fiction, it’s because it is less engaged in a quest for historical truth than it is in getting closer to some verities about life and death....

Burns and Novick make it clear that despite the passionate opposition to the war, and not only among young people, the preponderance of Americans said they believed in it. They supported the Ohio National Guard for firing on students at Kent State. Their numb assent was brilliantly captured by Nixon with his phrase ‘the silent majority’. ... [I]t leaves little doubt that the cultural revolutions of the 1960s – Merrill McPeak’s ‘rivulets’ – were a liberation for a minority and one that left a schism in America still emphatically evident in the 2016 election.

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