TV Recap - The Vietnam War: Episode 1, Part 1
By Mark Light
September 21, 2017
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.