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September 18, 2017

Ken Burns, "The Vietnam War"

Last night I watched the first episode of Ken Burns's new documentary, The Vietnam War. Nine more episodes will air on PBS over the next two weeks.

I was eager to begin the series. Though not without a few criticisms, I enjoyed—and continue to dip into—his equally extensive Civil War documentary, which originally aired in 1990. And I was therefore immediately intrigued when I learned he was doing a Vietnam film.

Among the reasons for my curiosity and longtime personal interest in the Vietnam War are that (1) it was one of the worst atrocities of the post-1945 period, (2) my country was responsible, and (3) few Americans to this day (my observation) seem to understand even the basic political realities of the conflict—and therefore recall the event with deficient moral clarity.

Much of what exists in the popular imagination regarding Vietnam is a reflection or parallel of the narrative captured by Hollywood: the United States tried to virtuously fight the spread of communism, played "referee," got "sucked in," made "mistakes," a few bad apples did bad things (e.g., the My Lai massacre), and we ultimately lost. The end. (I discuss Hollywood's treatment in greater detail in my "review" of the film American Sniper.)

This version of the history offers a more acceptable story. For one, we end up the well intended injured party. For another, the experience gets reduced to common sense: Vietnam was a series of tragic decisions, "that was then," America is wiser now.

Burns and co-director Lynn Novick seem to have made an effort at correcting, if moderately, these nationalistic impressions and misbeliefs.

Over its 90 minutes, episode one traces the almost century-long story of French colonialism in Vietnam, Vietnamese resistance, the 1954 Geneva Accords that partitioned the country into North and South, and ends with the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. Along the way, some sound discussion (and excellent footage) offers important background on Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese desire for independence.

Though it would be easy to nitpick the beginning of an 18-hour documentary, I feel the episode pays insufficient attention to US motives in supporting the French in their war against the Viet Minh and the suppression of Vietnamese self-determination. Concepts such as the domino theory (prevention of the spread of communism) do get mentioned. And one CIA operative does correctly state that what was going on in Southeast Asia in general in the 1950s—movements seeking self-determination—was simply the beginning of the post-colonial era in the region; that Washington was looking at these developments through the Cold War lens that divided the world into good and evil.

This doesn't go far enough—suggesting a kind of naivete on the part of planners, as well as forgetting US foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere well before the Cold War—but at least someone in the film said American policymakers were wrong.

In a follow-up piece, I will briefly discuss a few of the points I feel would have deepened the episode and provided better, crucial context for understanding what followed. Specifically, the importance of the domino theory: the central US motive to prevent Ho and the Viet Minh (who were not seeking to become a satellite of China or the USSR) from running the country, and instead design a Vietnamese "independence" suitable to White House strategists.

That said, a fairly good start. The opening remarks about the war being "begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation" are unfortunate and more of the same. Yet, at its best, the film so far is a small step toward history. And as mentioned, the photography and footage are impressive. But where are the historian interviewees?

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