Ken Burns Vietnam. Review 1.

by Daniel Russ on November 5, 2017

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Madame Nhu

 

Ken Burns has produced one of the best narratives of the Vietnam War that the last two American generations have no recollection. I lived through it and I worked on military marketing accounts in the aftermath of the war. In typical fashion, as applies to the previous work of Ken Burns it is spectacular. It is a thoroughly done documentary on how the war was fought in Vietnam, Hanoi, Beijing and how it was fought at home. The Vietnam War tore the country in half and exposed an undercurrent of deeply held but diametrically opposite philosophies in our culture.

 

Burns interviews living US diplomats and journalists, and he interviews North Vietnamese and Viet Cong combat commanders and UDS combat veterans. During the Kennedy Administration, US and South Vietnamese commanders were reacting to a inexorable rejuvenation of the Communist insurgency especially in South Vietnam where they were out gunned and out number by ARVN and US Forces. Commanders created a method of keeping the peasantry of South Vietnam and the Viet Cong apart.

 

Introducing one of the worst ideas, or possibly the very worst experiments in social engineering during a conflict. About 85% of the population of South Vietnam lived in the rural woodlands, estuaries and wetlands. So geniuses built over a thousand small villages and reinforced them like military garrisons. That meant Vietnamese who had lived on the same land for centuries were forcibly removed from their homes and forced into military redoubts with a western version of schools, western food all inside heavy guard.

 

Throughout their history, like the history of all Vietnam, Invaders came and looted and oppressed them from the Mongols, the Ming Dynasty, the Dutch, the Manchus, and the French. The Americans were just another in a long succession of muscular military incursions bristling with aircraft and naval and armor firepower. What exacerbated the problem was that South Vietnamese president Diem was a self-absorbed delusional autocrat. He was despised in the North and in the South. One US ambassador complained that despite all the monetary and strategic support America was providing, Diem was dictating to the Americans. We were kowtowing to this tinplated dictator and his Cruella DeVille wife: Tràn Lê Xuân or Madame Nhu.

 

When Buddhist Monks were burning themselves alive on the street in front of them, she scorned them contemptuous and glib about Buddhist priests making toast.

 

 

The Left and the Right supported the war, like today’s neocons on both sides of the aisle. Today the neocons see the Grand Enemy of civilization is Radical Islam. In the 1960s, it was the notion of a monolithic and radical world Communism movement. In the power vacuums in the aftermath of World War II, Communisn did quite well. Some of the largest empires of the world, France, Spain, Russia, and Britain all lost many holdings, and many of these holdings went to the other side and grew into Communist regimes or Socialist regimes. One of the last redoubts of Western mercantile values, Southeast Asia was being wooed and armed by hardline Chinese Communists and by Russian Premier Nikita Krushchev. Also Ho Chi Minh frankly was a charismatic leader highly regarded by poor rural countries in Malaysia and Vietnam and the Philippines. So the US and NATO allies were not doing well against the Warsaw Pact were seeing their influence stall.

 

The True Believers from Kennedy to Goldwater believed that Vietnam was a price worth paying to keep Maoist Communism from advancing westward towards Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos, Burma and India. It was young full-hearted idealistic American men and women who signed up to keep poor countries from suffering the horror of Communism. Western propaganda rarely mentioned that lots of the countries who went Communist went that way because they chose it. This is not to say that Communism wasn’t often foisted upon people as a grinding despotic tyranny. The Khmer Rouge and the Pathet Lao were both perfect examples of Communist insurgencies writ as idealism and more like a heavily armed and organized street gang. About a third of the old Dragnet TV series episodes were Hollywood calumny of Communism.

 

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