Ken Burns Vietnam Review 2

by Daniel Russ on November 5, 2017

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One of the great features of the Ken Burns Vietnam series are interviews with victorious Vietnamese military leaders. In one episode, a Vietnamese commander was talking about the Strategic Hamlet plan which forcibly relocated millions of Vietnamese rural peasants from their homes into guarded military garrisons. Outside the hamlets, the unfortunate occupants watched helplessly as Communist insurgents walked as free men.

The Vietnamese commander described the Strategic Hamlet as catching fish by draining the swamp. Not realizing that when the water is gone, the fish are gone. And so many Vietnamese in the places were fed up with their new prison-like lives; they were fed up with the criminal Mafia like network from the Diem Administration to the Hamlet’s provincial leaders to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam. They escaped the compounds, and the thinly defended frontier was quite easy for Communist agitators to march into these places and hold a meeting, deliver a rousing speech and panegyric about and departed village elder and then walk out with thirty new fighters.

One elder North Vietnamese commander asks: “How Could They Win?” Paraphrasing – ‘As one might imagine, all the people who lived in cities were seen as sympathetic to the Diem regime. And those who lived in the countryside were treated like criminals or VC sympathizers. How do you tell the difference? Sometimes you don’t know. If you kill an actual VC hiding in the population, then you will probably see one man replace him. But if you kill the wrong person you will see ten enemies. Most of the time, they killed the wrong person.’

This was some of the most arrogant and ignorant foreign policy in modern history. University educated affluent westerners imagining that forced displacement of indigenous peoples will work in Vietnam when in our own country and less than a century before forced displacement of indigenous peoples was an unrelenting series of tragedies.

Madame Nhu, the horrible Rich Housewife of Diem began to crackle at critics who complained about violating people’s freedoms. “Vietnam has no use for your crazy freedoms.”

What the US managed to do was win over the villagers for the Viet Cong. Aided by the utterly corrupt Diem regime we were ham-handedly saving the South Vietnamese peasants from the horrors of Communism, and preserving the privileged royalty of Diem and his minions and his urban supporters. Americans were beginning to question whether this was a fight against Communism, or whether this was a Vietnamese civil war, a civil war transformed into a proxy war between two empires.

The Vietnam War was Lyndon Johnson’s bête noire. His presidency achieved the Voting Rights Act, Head Start, the Civil Rights Act, and expanded Medicare. None of these things would matter to historians like his decisions in the quicksand that was Vietnam. From January 1962 to December 1963 the Viet Cong began attacking Hamlet garrisons and ARVN command posts. Each attack was a poke in Johnson’s eye and both empires were forced to spend human and monetary resources to win a global pissing contest.

The corruption, the assassinations, the coup d’etats, the insurgents, all of these rendered a government with eight different leaders in less than a decade. The national symbol for the South Vietnamese government, suggested one diplomat, was a turnstile. Even Ho Chi Minh was usurped by Le Duan who felt a more aggressive military stance was needed and Uncle Ho lacked a killer instinct.

Things would only get worse from here.


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