World War II is a pole star in the American psyche. The bookending of the conflict by surprise attack on the US Navy in Pearl Harbor and the discovery of the Nazi concentration camps as Germany collapsed offered clarity. Our enemies attacked us first and they were evil. Clarity is something that is a rarity in war. The realization that particular clarity provided, that we were on the side of the angels, has contributed greatly to our self-assurance as a nation. When a person, most often a politician, talks about American exceptionalism, somewhere towards the root of what they are speaking about is World War II and the clarity it provided.
TV Recap - The Vietnam War: Episode 1, Part 1
By Mark Light
September 21, 2017
Vietnam, simply put, did not provide anything close to that clarity. It had no Pearl Harbor, with a definitive beginning and obvious justification. We were involved when it was a French war, and we had only a vague theory of what not opposing Communism in Southeast Asia would mean for the world. We believed that should communism prevail in South Vietnam, the rest of the nations of Southeast Asia would tip over as dominoes, one falling after another. And the war had no happy ending for the US where we stood victorious and proved morally superior. Communism did prevail and South Vietnam fell. Yet, the two key states we were concerned about, Thailand and Malaysia, did not fall like dominoes to the red ideology.
In this series of articles, each episode of The Vietnam War will be split into two recaps as there is so much material and ground to cover. And as is very obvious from the preceding two paragraphs, these recaps will talk about the war from an American perspective. The filmmakers, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, have included Vietnamese voices in this film, both from the former South and North Vietnams to provide their viewpoint. They have an important perspective as well, but they will mainly be used to inform our own. For though Vietnam provided no clarity, the ten-episode, 18-hour film might help answer one simple question: What happened?
One quick technical note on viewing this documentary; unless you have a familiarity with the Vietnamese language, I recommend you view it with the closed captioning turned on. I have no such familiarity. I had read scores of articles and books that referenced the North Vietnamese general Giap. I was shocked when he was introduced in the film and the narrator said what sounded like Czawp (like the first part of czar with a hard puh on the end). All this time when I read about Giap, I mentally called him Ghee-ap. The closed captioning will help if you are relatively new to the subject and read about it later. You will then know that the Czawp they audibly talk about in the film is the Giap you read about on the page. That is one example of a long list of names belonging to both people and places.
Episode one begins with an American veteran describing how no one talked about the war when he came home for the longest time. Then, to show they are going back to the beginning, the filmmakers engage in an effective technical trick, they run film in reverse. Bombs fly upwards, flames go back into the flame thrower. Political figures are shown in reverse chronological order, from Nixon, thence to Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Truman, and finally DeGaulle. All this is set to an unsettling score by Trent Reznor. It is established at the very start that we are watching what might be the most well-produced film ever on this subject.
The title is shown against a black backdrop, and then we see early morning shots of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., while Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain Is Going To Fall" plays. The soundtrack to this film will be provided by Trent Reznor, by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, and also by popular music of the era. Aspiring documentarians can learn from this technique. Music is not just something to keep the film from sounding quiet and creepy. It has a point and should be considered as carefully as the visual images of the film itself.
Max Cleland quotes Victor Frankl's "Man's Search For Meaning," and then the narrator, Peter Coyote, begins a brief summary of the war. When it ended, we had 58,000 American dead; at least 250,000 South Vietnamese troops died; over one million North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas were killed; and around two million civilians from both South and North Vietnam as well as tens of thousands more civilians from Laos and Cambodia were believed to have died in this conflict as well. Such a staggering cost in precious life alone behooves us to study this conflict, if only to somehow avoid the missteps that lead to this tragedy.
Bao Ninh, a Noth Vietnamese veteran, is next to speak. He tells us that even the Vietnamese veterans will not talk about the war. To him, who won and who lost is not a question. He feels in war that everybody loses. There is only destruction. Who won and who lost, Mr. Ninh says, is a question asked only by those who never fought.
The French attacked the port of Da Nang in 1858. It was the start of a fifty-year-long fight that left the French in control of the area known then as Indochina and is now the nations of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Here we see the understandable weakness of the film. Even though it promises to be 18-hours-long, there is so much material, so much history, that in a lot of cases the film cannot stop to ask questions. The viewer must ask the questions for themselves and to themselves. Any questions you might have about the nature and purpose of European colonialism must be tabled for your own research later. It is enough right now in the film to simply state that it happened. It has to move on.
Nationalist resentment in Vietnam was on the rise by the early 20th century. Tran Ngoc Toan, a South Vietnamese Marine veteran, spoke about their history there. Though Mr. Toan and Mr. Ninh fought on different sides in the war, they agree upon one point. Vietnam needed to be free and independent and the French needed to just leave.
We then see film footage of French rule in the early 20th century. Next, the film jumps to 1967 and footage of American troops rolls. John Musgrave, a Marine Corps veteran of 1967 talks. This is something that is done quite often in episode one. The film effectively takes a leap forward from whatever time it was to the time of peak American involvement in the war. It highlights a specific point to be made, but also one in general: the seeds of the future were sown in the past.
We return to the year 1919 and the Paris conference to draw up the Versailles Peace Treaty ending World War I. Woodrow Wilson was there to lead the American delegation. Wilson had declared that the interest of colonial peoples should be given equal weight with their European colonial rulers. One of the first great “What-If” moments of the film is brought out. A 29-year-old man with the alias of Nguyen Xi Quac presented a petition to the Americans on behalf of the rights of the Vietnamese. Though a secretary promised to give it to the president, there is no evidence that Wilson ever saw it. Nor do we know what Wilson, a confirmed racist, would have actually done if he did see it. But it is significant in that Nguyen Xi Quac would assume several more aliases before finally settling on his last alias, Ho Chi Minh. And this would not be the last attempt of Ho Chi Minh to appeal to the Americans to try to see things his way.
We are given a brief biography of Ho Chi Minh up to the year 1941. He was a socialist who became a communist when discovering the anti-colonial writings of Lenin. He went to the Soviet Union for training and was sometimes criticized for being a Vietnamese nationalist first, and a communist second.
As WWII engulfed Europe, Japan began picking off European colonies in Asia. They invaded Vietnam and rather than present a counter to the French, they left the Vichy French in place. The collaborationist French ran the country for the Japanese, who reaped the country's resources. The rice production of Vietnam was shipped in large part to the Japanese, while some Vietnamese starved. Some had hoped the Japanese would be liberators, but it turned out that they were new oppressors. Thoughts turned to independence.
After 30 years in exile. Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam in 1941. He formed the Vietnam Independence League, the Viet Minh. To build its military arm, he turned to Võ Nguyên Giáp. Giap started developing his own theory of guerrilla warfare where a smaller, weaker force can ultimately prevail against a larger stronger force. The theory utilized maxims like: "Don't fight unless you are sure you can win" and "Choose your own battle." To drive this home, the film jumps to 1966 where Mike Heaney, a US Army veteran, recounts an effective ambush of his men by the Viet Cong.
Returning to the spring of 1945, we find the American government looking for allies behind the lines in Vietnam to undermine the Japanese forces there. Ho Chi Minh contacted them, and an OSS team was dropped in to meet with the Viet Minh leadership. The OSS started supplying the Viet Minh with weapons and Ho started calling his followers the Viet American Army. The Americans considered liberators by the Viet Minh at that point. They had been former colonial subjects themselves who had liberated Europe already. Surely they would liberate Vietnam from the Japanese and the French. Well, one out of two ain't all bad.
By 1945, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were starving in the north of the country while Japanese warehouses sat full of rice. Ho Chi Minh directed the Viet Minh to break into the warehouses wherever they could and distribute the rice. Of course, this greatly increased the popularity of the Viet Minh with the civilians.
The recounting of this time of starvation is done by Duong Van Mai, whose father worked as a deputy provincial governor for the French. It is much to the credit of Burns and Novick that they not only sought out Vietnamese interview subjects who were on the Southern and Northern sides, but also the families of those who collaborated with their colonial oppressors. Also there is a horrific photo shown of a young Vietnamese boy in the grips of starvation. His skin has retracted where it could below his rib cage. As throughout the film, the images and the audio combine to impact the audience with a reach that few documentarians master.
After the news of the atomic bombing of Japan, Ho Chi Minh urged that all Vietnamese rise up and seize control of their country before the Free French returned. They did and on the same day the Empire of Japan formally surrendered to the Allies, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam's independence in Hanoi. Minh started this declaration by quoting the words not of Marx or Lenin, but those of Thomas Jefferson. HCM was calculating that the Americans would support their independence since FDR had said that all peoples of the world would determine their own form of government. But FDR was dead and Truman now worried about the Soviet Union.
We are at another of those great "What If" moments. Would things have turned out much better if we had not chosen to view the world in a simple us vs. communism dichotomy? What if we backed the Vietnamese, an unknown people to us, against our own natural allies, the French? Charles DeGaulle warned the US that if America insisted on independence for French colonies, that France might have no choice but to fall into the Soviet Union's orbit. What if we had called DeGaulle's bluff?
But history is what it is. The US chose not to confront DeGaulle on the colonies. The Vietnamese were, along with several other peoples around the world, temporarily sacrificed to make the French remain on the side of the democracies that had just liberated them from the Nazis. The US took an officially neutral position and hoped the French and Viet Minh would work things out on their own. Violence quickly erupted.
In the fall of 1945, fresh French reinforcements arrived and they quickly reasserted nominal control of Vietnam. Minh wanted independence without a war with France. He did not want to fight them as an enemy of America. Leslie Gelb, an American who worked in the Pentagon, appears in the film to tell us he has seen (as one is shown) the letters Ho Chi Minh wrote to Harry Truman. These letters were in a CIA file. They were never delivered to President Truman.
In June of 1946, HCM went to Paris to try to talk the French into upholding a promise they made to give the Vietnamese greater autonomy. General Giap took advantage of Minh's absence and consolidated communist control over rival nationalist factions. He had hundreds killed in his purge.
In December of 1946, the inevitable fighting between the Viet Minh and French broke out in Hanoi. The Viet Minh were overwhelmed by French firepower and left the city. They returned to the mountains. Ho called for a nationwide guerilla war against the French. The French responded by pouring thousands more men into Vietnam.
The French could control the cities. In rural areas, they would try to win over the populace with a program called Pacification. They built dikes, roads, schools, provided health care and education. But often when they left the villages at night, the Viet Minh would slip back into them. This should be remembered, we can predict that it will sound familiar later on in the film.
The Viet Minh would launch guerilla attacks and then disappear. The French would sometimes lose control and exact vengeance on the nearest village. They would burn homes, rape women, and execute men suspected of aiding the Viet Minh. This point is punctuated in the film by footage of the villages being burnt.
The communists became ruthless as well. They would murder their fellow Vietnamese, whom they suspected of collaborating with the French. One witness to this time states he saw them capture Vietnamese soldiers serving in the French army, strip them and bury them alive. The thought was that they wouldn't waste a bullet on them. He concludes by saying they lived under two oppressors then.
This is the end of the first half of episode one. Coming in the second, due to Cold War political calculations, the US gets involved in propping up the French in Vietnam.