Like a lot of Boomers, I’ve been riveted by the the 18-hour PBS documentary, “The Vietnam War”. I’m surprised, because I was so immersed in opposing the war back in the 1960s that I figured I knew pretty much everything worth knowing. No Ken Burns recap would tell me anything new, I assumed.
Was I wrong. I think the biggest revelation has been just how much relevance the Vietnam War years have to today’s polarized political landscape. The documentary brought me back to the obsessive focus of those days on politics—the endless discussions, debates and disagreements among friends, co-workers, and within families. For the war or against it? The war seemed to permeate all aspects of our lives, to an exhausting, and exasperating, degree. Just like today, where it’s gotten so bad many people no longer want to talk politics.
I was an undergraduate majoring in political science at the University of Chicago during the middle and late 1960s, and I remember sitting in a lecture by one of the giants of international politics, Hans Morgenthau. He was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and the ultimate political realist. One day in the winter of 1966, in a lecture based on his classic text, Politics Among Nations, he was explaining how countries get into wars based on protecting what they determine to be their vital national security interests.
After making that general point, I recall him pausing, and looking out at about 100 of us in the lecture hall. ”I keep trying to understand America’s vital national interests that are causing us to go to war against Vietnam. I can’t identify them. Maybe we are after Vietnam’s rice?” Another pause. “I don’t even like rice. I like potatoes.”
The class broke into laughter, one of the few lighter moments I can remember from any discussions about the Vietnam war, and one of the few connections to food that came out of the war. But his point was well taken. No one that I heard then, or now in the Ken Burns documentary, has been able to offer a cogent argument for what vital national security interests of the U.S. were at stake in Vietnam.
During those Vietnam war years, I could never fathom why intelligent leaders like John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson could be so single minded in their support of the war effort, as misguided as the entire adventure appeared nearly from the beginning of American involvement, in the early 1960s. In fact, I convinced myself after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 that he never would have let the situation get as much out of hand as it eventually got under Johnson by 1966 and 1967. But watching the documentary, I’ve come to realize that Kennedy was never close to giving up on Vietnam when he died (although five years later, his brother, Bobby, had given up on it).
The Burns documentary argues that the main rationale for staying in Vietnam, and building up involvement there to the point where by 1967 the U.S. had more than 500,000 soldiers there, was as simple as it was amazing: Neither of these presidents wanted to be known as the one who “lost Asia to the communists.” But that’s how serious the anti-communist tenor of the times was–to those Democrats, the Republicans were simply lying in wait, wanting to blame them for “losing” Vietnam to the communists.
The guiding theory of those days was the “domino theory”—that if we lost Vietnam, the communists led by the Soviet Union and China would take over there, and then in many other countries of Southeast Asia like Cambodia, Laos, and even Thailand. So each time it looked as if North Vietnam was close to winning and taking over South Vietnam in the early and mid-1960s, we threw more soldiers and weapons into the conflict, simply to prevent an imminent loss.
If the smart guys from Harvard and the top generals from World War II advising Kennedy and Johnson were so wrong, who could we trust to get things right? I think that question has haunted us since Vietnam, through our adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya in the years since Vietnam, and helped bring us to Donald Trump and the rank amateurs he is relying on to run foreign affairs. Much of today’s public thinking goes this way: How much more could these new guys screw things up?
The documentary also reminds us of the media’s key role in digging out the truth of what was happening in Vietnam—beyond the positive spin of exaggerated “body counts” of the enemy being put out by the politicians and the generals. The documentary reveals how President Johnson became as enraged as Trump has become at times about the media. When CBS’ Morley Safer reported on how American soldiers were indiscriminately burning down Vietnamese villages, Johnson called the president of CBS to try to get Safer fired. CBS refused, and the probing reporting continued, not only from CBS but from other media as well.
The documentary also helped me remember the terrible divide between those men fighting in Vietnam, and those who, like me, accepted refuge on college campuses or, when that time ran out, seeking medical deferments from afflictions exaggerated by anti-war physicians. I personally felt awful that other young men were putting their lives on the line, while I and many others were able to escape serving. In the documentary, a number of veterans recount their horrible experiences of war, and how abandoned they felt because of both the antiwar movement and the bungling politicians and generals at home.
The documentary does a great job of pulling the veil back on one aspect of the war no one in the U.S. could fully appreciate at the time: the mindset of the North Vietnamese, who were seeking to take over South Vietnam and unite their country. What’s amazing to me about the former North Vietnamese soldiers and commanders interviewed is both their absence of hatred, and their determination to win. They had plenty to be angry about, most notably that the U.S. was dropping more bombs on their country than had been used in all of World War II, and along with the bombs attacking with huge firebombs of napalm and defoliating huge segments of jungle countryside with Agent Orange.
Here was this tiny Asian country of less than 50 million people, with no air force to speak of, up against the full force of the world’s greatest superpower, which had complete control of the skies, and it was winning. As always in war, there was torture and brutality on both sides. Here, Americans seemed to have the upper hand, periodically burning down hamlets and executing unarmed peasants suspected of supporting the Viet Cong, as the South Vietnamese guerrilla group came to be known.
Watching “Vietnam”, I found myself again asking, in exasperation, How could we have so badly misjudged what was going on in Vietnam? How could we have sent more than 50,000 of our young people to die there, and spent so many billions of treasure?” The only explanation I can think of is one that several observers put forth in the documentary—that we tried to apply the lessons of World War II about standing up against aggression, and misapplied them in Asia. In Vietnam, we weren’t dealing with a conquering dictator, but rather a real war of liberation, similar in certain respects to America’s own revolution.
You can’t help but wonder as you watch the documentary whether the Vietnam War was the beginning of the end of American world dominance and oversized influence. It’s well worth watching, and it can be live-streamed if you’ve missed it or haven’t been able to record episodes for your TV.