Ken Burns latest documentary series "Vietnam" leads with the claim that the US war in Vietnam was a mistake, a tragic miscalculation. In fact it was a crime that cost 3 million lives.
I’ll get around to seeing Ken Burns series on the war in Vietnam some time soon. It will be kind of a chore, something I’m really not looking forward to. That’s because I’ve already heard that the Ken Burns documentary declares the war in Vietnam a “tragic mistake” based on “misunderstanding” of something or somebodies by other somebodies. In a way that’s enough for me. I understand the war in Vietnam as not a tragic mistake, but a vast and heinous crime, a crime wave really, lasting 3 decades from 1945 to 1975. During the last third of that time alone more than 3 million people lost their lives.
The bloodletting began at the end of World War 2. Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese Communists led the fight against the Japanese occupation forces and cooperated with US and Allied war aims. Vietnamese fully expected US support for their independence from France after the war. Instead the US and British forces sent to Vietnam to accept the Japanese surrender re-installed the French colonial regime. The Vietnamese fought a bloody nine year war against a French colonial army entirely provisioned and supplied by the United States. When the Viets surrounded and defeated the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 President Eisenhower offered France nuclear weapons, but the French declined.
Convinced that Uncle Ho as the Vietnamese called him and his party would win the 1956 elections, the US created a brutal puppet government in the southern half of Vietnam to cancel the election and “request” US military aid against so-called invaders from so-called North Vietnam. In the final decade of the long Vietnamese war more than half a million US troops were deployed, more bombs were dropped than in all of World War 2, and millions of civilians mostly Vietnamese perished. It’s the final decade of the 30 year bloodbath that most now think of as the American war in Vietnam, Vietnam the mistake, Vietnam the tragic misunderstanding.
Only it wasn’t a mistake, and certainly not a misunderstanding. The Vietnamese and other colonial subjects had been insisting on their independence for decades. Ho Chi Minh showed up at Versailles back in 1919 when the terms of the treaty ending World War 1 were being drafted. Ho demanded independence for the African and Asian colonies of France, Britain and other European powers. The Vietnamese knew from the very beginning what they wanted to do with their lives and resources in their country. The so-called misunderstanding was that the US political and military establishment, and 5 US presidents over 30 years imagined they could torture, bomb, invade and slaughter their way to some other outcome.
Ultimately they could not. 58 thousand Americans and 3 million Asians perished. 3 million dead is not a mere mistake. It’s a gigantic crime, after the world wars, one of the 20th century’s greatest. Crimes ought at least to be acknowledged and owned up to, if not punished. Pretty sure Ken Burns is not at all about that. At best Burns seems to be about a species of healing and reconciliation that limits itself to Americans agreeing with and forgiving their trespasses against each other, and dutiful acknowledgements of the valor of fighters on both sides.
The series has not yet concluded, so we’ll have to wait and see whether Ken Burns ignores or buys into the discredited lie propagated by our country’s war propaganda industry that unaccounted for Americans prisoners were somehow left behind and missing at the end of the Vietnam war. They were not. But the little black flag and ceremonies for the imagined “missing” in Vietnam are standard now four decades after the war’s end.
I didn’t go to Vietnam. Vietnam came to me, or tried to. I was lucky enough to live in a big city, Chicago, and to connect with the antiwar movement, which included black soldiers and marines returning from Vietnam. Some of them frankly confessed to taking part in all sorts of atrocities and war crimes and we took them from high school to high school in the fall and early winter of 1967 to repeat those confessions, and to tell other young black people like us it was an unjust war we had a duty to resist.
I thought I was risking prison when I sold Black Panther newspapers at the armed forces induction center on Van Buren Street and refusing to be drafted like Muhammad Ali. But by then so many young people were resisting the war that Uncle Sam’s draftee army became useless. In that era there were not enough cells to lock us all up, and many white Americans were declaring themselves ready for revolution, or something like it. US policymakers learned that part of their lesson well. They ended the draft and most white antiwar protesters went home.
Noam Chomsky has it exactly right when he declares that Vietnam was not a mistake or tragic error. It was an example that said to the world – THIS is what you get when you defy the wishes of the US ruling elite. You get bombs, you get rivers of blood and you get your country’s economic potential set back half a century. Seen that way, Vietnam wasn’t some tragedy the US blundered into by mistake. It was an example. And a crime.
For that reason it’s going to be a chore and a bore at best to sit through Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary. Maybe I’ll just watch Game of Thrones again instead.
For Black Agenda Radio I’m Bruce Dixon. Find us on the web at www.blackagendareport.com.