I have an undergraduate and Master’s degrees in History, and taught college-level courses at a major Midwest university for three years, including “The United States & The Vietnam War.” While I naturally love history, most of my students thought it boring, taught by too many football coaches masquerading as high school history teachers, and they were only in my class because of some mysterious requirement needed to eventually graduate. I told my charges, however, that there was no such thing as boring history, only boring history instructors, and I would tell them a great story in an interesting and entertaining manner!
Around this same time, Ken Burns released his landmark, nine-part series on The Civil War on the Public Broadcasting System. He must have listened in on my opening remarks, because no one presents history in a more interesting and entertaining manner than the man now known as America’s Storyteller! Now he and his associates tackle perhaps their most ambitious project in their 10-part examination of The United States in its long war in Vietnam.
The opening episode, “Déjà vu,” debuted on WGCU on Sunday, September 17, and continued the next five evenings in 90-minute to 2-hour episodes at 8 p.m., with frequent replays. The final five installments will be Sunday through Thursday evenings, September 24 to 28.
Burns opens the series with a stunning visual display, running news tapes back, not only in time from the mid-1970s to the late 1940s, from the fall of Saigon to the first monetary allocation issued by President Harry Truman, but he literally plays the films backwards as well, providing the viewer a true feeling they are moving against the flow of time and events. These clips not so subtly remind those watching that Vietnam was the first “Television War,” supported by the memorable music of that era, where over 200 journalists eventually lost their lives covering the conflict that would claim over 250,000 South Vietnam soldiers, over 1 million North Vietnamese troops and gorillas, 2 million civilians, and more than 58,000 Americans.
Frustrations abound when experiencing the first episode. You want to scream as the film makers explore and explain the French War in Vietnam prior to US involvement, as our nation repeats the same, mistake after mistake, proving history is doomed to repeat itself for those who do not understand its consequences. The French troops bemoaned that they would like to give up the conflict in 1953 because of the indifference to the war at home, where civilians were horrified by the brutality of their actions, particularly in their use of Napalm, and when French soldiers disembarked upon returning home, longshoremen unions would pelt them with rocks over their “dirty war.”
Equally as frustrating is following the efforts of Ho Chi Minh, the founding father of Communist North Vietnam, who for decades tried to befriend the United States, only to be rebuffed over and again. He attempted to speak to Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Talks to conclude the First World War I in Spring 1919, only to have his communique kept from the President; tried to form an alliance with the US in Spring 1945 against the Japanese; praised America in its efforts to end colonial rule; had a US medic save his life, sent his sympathies when the first American died by mistake in his country; admired Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his belief that the postwar world must respect the right of all people to choose the government under which they will live; sent letters to Harry Truman saying that ‘we believe in the same things,’ though the CIA kept these from that President as well; and on September 2, 1945, with hundreds of thousands of people jamming Hanoi to hear him proclaim Vietnamese independence, with a CIA officer nearly, Ho quoted The Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
All this set the stage for a series of American miscalculations in Vietnam. “We did not see it as the end of colonialism, which it was,” explained Donald Gregg, “but we saw it in Cold War terms, and that was a total misreading of a pivotal event, and it would cost us dearly.” Or, as Huy Duc said, “We as Vietnamese were willing to sacrifice to the last person; the Americans were not, and they never understood that until it was too late.”
Burns tells the compelling tale of the most divisive period in America since The Civil War, and does so in a fascinating way; examining why everything went bad, who was to blame, and whether it was all worth it. “Vietnam” leaves more questions than it answers, proving that history may again be doomed to repeat itself.