Exclusive: The PBS 10-part Vietnam War series offers valuable insights into the horrific conflict but still treads lightly on U.S. leaders’ guilt as they lied and connived to start and extend the slaughter, as war correspondent Don North describes.
By Don North (Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated that the PBS series did not address the issue of Nixon’s sabotage of Johnson’s 1968 peace talks. The topic is mentioned.)
Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen observed in his 2016 book, Nothing Ever Dies, that “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” That is surely true of the Vietnam War, which – although it ended four decades ago – continues as a battle of memory, history and truth.
And, the stakes are still high since honest narratives about important past events can shape the future, even national destinies, and – perhaps most importantly – whether there will be more wars or possibly peace.
When PBS announced that it was broadcasting a 10-part, 18-hour series, entitled “The Vietnam War,” I wasn’t sure what to expect. As a network news correspondent who covered the war for five years through many of its bloodiest chapters, I have had mixed feelings about some of the other attempts to recount and explain the war.
Many of the previous efforts were colored by the political pressures of the moment, especially from policymakers and journalists who had career stakes in how assessments of the failed war would make them look. So, with some trepidation, I watched the entire 10-part series and read the companion book by writer Geoffrey C. Ward over the past week. To my pleasant surprise, I found many reasons to applaud the effort and my criticisms were relatively minor.
In my view, the PBS series, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, represents the most honest and thorough account available to the general public. Over those 18 hours, the series reveals so much duplicity and mendacity that this real history makes even the most cynical movies about the war, such as “Apocalypse Now,” and “The Deer Hunter,” look tame by comparison.
I think that all Americans and Vietnamese who experienced the years of that war will find watching the series at least an educational experience, at best an inspiring one, and for some of us – who witnessed, fought or protested the war – a profoundly emotional experience as well. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has recognized the series may bring up such stressful memories for combat veterans that it has offered a crisis line for counseling at 1-800-273-8255.
A Clear Narrative
The cement that holds together the interviews of some 80 participants is a clear narration written by Ward and performed by Peter Coyote without the “voice of God” style used in so many documentaries. Ward’s prologue to the first program is a sort of mission statement for the series, which I would criticize mostly because it still contains a residue of the longstanding desire to put a well-meaning gloss on the war’s justifications even when the evidence points elsewhere:
“America’s involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It ended thirty years later in failure witnessed by the entire world. It was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and cold war miscalculation. And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than to admit it had been caused by tragic decisions, made by five American presidents, belonging to both political parties … For those Americans who fought in it, and for those who fought against it back home – as well we those who merely glimpsed it on the nightly news – the Vietnam War was a decade of agony, the most divisive period since the Civil War.”
Yet, when you hear some of the secret telephone recordings of White House conversations by President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, you’re not left with the impression that there was so much “good faith” by “decent people.”
For instance, one phone conversation between Johnson and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy reflected how Johnson really felt about Vietnam, contrary to the optimistic assessments that he was selling to the public and belying his assurances that the blood and treasure were worth the cost.
Johnson: I don’t know what in hell … it looks like we’re getting into another Korea. I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. And it’s just the biggest damn mess.
Bundy: It is an awful mess.
Johnson: What in hell is Vietnam worth to me? What is it worth to the country?
Past the Talking Points
The PBS series interviews some 80 people on camera, including about 20 Vietnamese from both North and South. Drawing heavily from writers and poets, the series presents intelligent thoughts from all sides of the conflict. Novick, who is reported to have conducted most of the interviews, succeeded in getting people to go beyond the usual talking points.
When I returned to Vietnam shortly after the war to interview Vietnamese participants, there was always a government “minder” present. The results were hours of hearing Communist party dogma of little news value. That control seems to have broken down.
Foremost among the Vietnamese interviewed in the PBS series is Bao Ninh, a former North Vietnamese soldier and author of The Sorrow of War, a brutal and emotional novel about the war in the jungle and his bitter re-entry into society.
Bao remembers, “At the recruiting station they had singers and poets, working up the spirit of those signing up. There were two types of people – those full of anti-American spirit. And those like me. We were told to go and went.” Of 500 recruits in his brigade sent to fight in the South in 1969, he is one of ten who survived.
Duong Van Mai, now Duong Van Mai Elliot, was the daughter of a high official in the French colonial administration in Hanoi before fleeing south with her family after North and South were split. Mai later studied at Georgetown University and became an American. She is author of Sacred Willows: Four Generations of a Vietnamese Family.
One of the most articulate and compelling American witnesses is former U.S. Marine John Musgrave, so badly wounded in Vietnam that doctors rated him as expected to die. We follow Musgrave from his early training through battle, dropping out, alcoholism and war protesting, a veteran who still struggles with effects of his wounds.
Another Marine, Roger Harris, who pops up in almost every program, served in the deadly Con Thien base adjacent to the Demilitarized Zone. Harris recalls: “You go over there with one mind-set and then you adapt. You adapt to the atrocities of war. You adapt to the killing and dying, whatever. … When I first arrived I questioned some of the Marines. I was made to realize this is war – and this is what we do.”
Karl Marlantis, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, dropped out of school to join the U.S. Marines and led a platoon near the DMZ. Marlantis wrote Matterhorn, a Vietnam War classic. His frequent interview segments are articulate and thoughtful as when he discusses his anger: “I can understand policy errors that kill a lot of people by mistake, but my bitterness is with the lying. Robert McNamara knew by 1965 the war was unwinnable and covering up killing people for your own ego and that’s what makes me mad.”
Secretary of Defense McNamara is often portrayed as a villain, but a very poignant interview is included with McNamara’s son Craig who recalls his appeal to his father to provide him with information for a college debate supporting the war. He never receives it and concludes his father didn’t believe in it himself.
Lack of Accountability
Tim O’Brian, another writer and author of The Things They Carried, served in the U.S Army’s Americal Division and was familiar with the village the troops called “Pinkville,” which became the scene of a massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. O’Brian is critical that no soldiers involved in the massacre were ever sent to prison.
Lt. Commander Everett Alvarez, flying from the carrier USS Constellation, was the first American pilot to be shot down over North Vietnam and the first POW.
“When we approached the target coming down from altitude,” recalled Alvarez, “it was obvious they could pick us up on their radar. I was a bit scared. But once we went in and they started firing at us, the fear went away. My plane, an A-4 Skyhawk, was like a ballet in the sky, and I was just performing. And then I got hit.”
Alvarez spent eight years as a POW in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” In 1990 on a visit to Hanoi, I found that ironically a new Hilton Hotel had been built over what remained of the prison. Walking into the hotel bar, I was hailed by a middle-age man sitting on a barstool.
“Hey, you’re an American aren’t you?” he said. “Let me buy you a drink. I’m sitting over what used to be my prison cell for eight years.”
The anti-war movement merits substantial time throughout the series and features many articulate protesters. Bill Zimmerman carries the protesters narrative from 1963 when he was a senior at the University of Chicago and member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) working for civil rights in Mississippi.
“We had watched the civil rights movement in the South to stand up against injustice, allow yourself to be beaten up or hit by a policeman,” he recalled. “Then one day we saw on TV a picture of a burning monk in Saigon. I asked myself what were we doing in Vietnam. Ending the war in Vietnam became my constant pre-occupation.”
The anti-war movement is not always portrayed in a favorable light, particularly in later years when bombings occurred and violent demonstrations became frequent. The hostility of many Americans toward the protesters is also captured in an interview with Jan Howard of Tennessee who describes her reaction to a student demonstrator asking her if she would join an anti-war march:
“I said … my son is dead. One of the reasons he died was so you’d have the right to do this, so go ahead and demonstrate. Have at it. No, I won’t be joining you. But I tell you what, if you ever ring my doorbell again I’ll blow your damned head off with a .357 Magnum.”
The series succeeds in cutting through the fog of the often secretive North Vietnamese leadership. Although the series includes interesting footage and photos of Ho Chi Minh, considered the father of modern Vietnam, and General Vo Nguyen Giap, the hero of Dien Bien Phu, the battle which effectively ended French colonial rule, the real power later shifted to Le Duan, a hard-line Communist of the Politburo and mastermind of the Tet offensive.
Newsweek reports that powerful figures in the Hanoi government are not happy with the series to such an the extent that they ousted foreign ministry press officers who helped Burns and Novick set up interviews. The leaders’ primary complaint is reported to be that the series exposed the dissension and rivalries throughout the war at the top levels of the Hanoi regime.
They are also annoyed that several Vietnamese who were interviewed spoke frankly about the massacre of civilians in Hue during the Tet offensive. In the past, the North Vietnamese blamed the deaths on American bombs and artillery. (Although PBS devoted considerable time and expense to create a Vietnamese-language version of the series, no one expects the government to allow it to be shown in Vietnam.)
Despite how ambitious the 18-hour series is, there were a few subjects and individuals conspicuous by their absence. For instance, you see Colonel Edward Lansdale meeting with South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon but no mention of Lansdale’s years running a psy-war program against the North Vietnamese.
Also, missing is a thorough examination of Nixon’s decision to have 30,000 American soldiers and 50,000 South Vietnamese troops storm across the Cambodian border in April 1970, an invasion that contributed to the Khmer Rouge’s overthrow of the Cambodian government and the unleashing of one more Vietnam War-related tragedy, the deaths of as many as two million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979. Nixon’s decision to expand the war merited only 2 minutes and 50 seconds in episode six.
But even in an 18-hour series, editorial judgments must be made about what works toward telling the necessary narrative and what doesn’t make the cut (though I would disagree with some of those choices). I also found it confusing when Burns succumbed to some film school techniques, such as “foreshadowing” in episode one entitled “Déjà Vu” that juxtaposed black-and-white archival footage of the failed French colonial occupation of Vietnam with later color film of American troops on patrol.
But a powerful element of the series is the impact of photographs and film from both sides of the conflict. Most film in Vietnam was shot silent, so the sound of bombs and gunshots was mixed in along with popular music. Vietnam, after all, was the first war fought to a rock ‘n roll beat. [Full disclosure: I provided some photographs for the series.]
There is no identification of the photographers who at great risk took many of the photos. Apparently, the producers thought jamming the screen with constant credits for photos and film would be distracting. But the classic photos, many of which have become icons of the war, are readily recognized as the work of Horst Faas, Larry Burrows, Eddie Adams, Tim Page, Don McCullin, Henri Huet and Nick Ut, among many others.
The war claimed the lives of 135 photojournalists. A special tribute to Vietnam photojournalists is included in the closing credits.
For the past month, directors Burns and Novick have spearheaded a massive publicity campaign to promote the series. Last week, the Kennedy Center Opera House was filled for an advance screening of program highlights followed by a panel discussion. Before the screening, Burns asked anyone who served in the military during the war to stand and be recognized with applause. He then asked anyone who protested Vietnam to stand. At that point, two of the war’s most famous veterans, Sen. John McCain and former Secretary of State John Kerry, joined in applauding the anti-war demonstrators, too.
It was a moment that set the tone of reconciliation and harmony the series producers said they had hoped for in documenting one of the most divisive chapters in American history. In the ensuing panel discussion, the 81-year-old McCain, who was a bomber pilot shot down over Hanoi and held as a POW for more than five years, said, “Maybe we can look back on Vietnam and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again. We can learn lessons today because the world is in such turmoil: Tell the American people the truth!”
Winston Churchill once said, “The longer you look back, the farther you can look forward.” That would surely be true for any careful study of the Vietnam War, an unwinnable war fought against a country that Americans knew virtually nothing about and in which the U.S. had no vital interests. It was a lesson in how arrogance, ignorance, ideology and political cowardice can be a deadly mix.
The war took the lives of more than 58,000 American soldiers. Although Vietnamese casualty estimates vary widely, the Vietnamese government tallied more than 1 million soldiers dead along with 2 million civilians.
In 2001, I interviewed historian Arthur Schlesinger at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba and asked him if we were learning from our history. “History is an argument without end,” Schlesinger told me. “No historian would use the word definitive because new times bring new preoccupations and we historians realize we are prisoners of our own experience. As Oscar Wilde used to say ‘One duty we owe to history is to re-write it.’”
As upsetting as the Vietnam War series may be, it holds out hope that we might still learn from history.
Don North is a veteran war correspondent who covered the Vietnam War and many other conflicts around the world. He is the author of Inappropriate Conduct, the story of a World War II correspondent whose career was crushed by the intrigue he uncovered.
Please clarify if the 1 million Vietnamese soldiers and 2 million Vietnamese civilians from the Vietnames government are only the North estimates of the deaths?
Maybe I missed it but were the CIA’s Phoenix program or the Provincial Interrogation Centers (PICs) mentioned anywhere in these 18 hours. Or the SVN prisons on Con Son Island? Or the CIA’s contract officers stationed at the “Embassy Houses” throughout the country? Or the CIA sponsored Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs)? Maybe the producers might have interviewed John Cassidy, a CIA officer stationed in the delta who wrote an interesting novel, “A Station in the Delta”? What about the MACV predecessor, Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) at one point commanded by general Charles Timmes? Or, Tucker Gougleman, a CIA man who refused to evacuate VN when it fell, and died there?
I was 20 in 1964; many friends and family, including ex-husband and present husband, went to Vietnam (one in 1968 Pleiku, truck driver, medevac unit; other, a helicopter pilot/mechanic in VIP unit, 1970-72); this was my generation’s ” WWII, but it wasn’t the same, as we all knew as we lived through the nightmare of it. My family was “lucky”…our loved ones came back…many of my friends didn’t.
Burns/Novick “The Vietnam War” episodes were gripping throughout, gut-wrenching and heartbreaking to watch, and infuriating to realize the lies we were constantly told by our government/TV coverage.
My simple question now is (and can’t seem to find in any of the articles/interviews), when were the participants, mainly John Musgrave, interviewed? In recent pictures, he looks older and somewhat gaunt. I agree with prevailing comments about his recollections being some of the most gripping and poignant presented; I wish him the best, and thank him from the bottom of my heart for his service, then and now. “We endured…”
hello Please tell me who did the song tell me the truth on sunday series thank you great program 5star
I cry uncontrollably every time I watch an episode, but I can not watch. I am 71 years old and Vietnam was very much a part of my life when I was young. The lies we were old make me sick. I am not able to watch an episode every night because I become so upset. I am so fortunate I married in 1966 and raised my child, lived in a small town in Utah and was sheltered from what was really happening from what was really happening in our world. Seeing it in hindsight makes me sick, but I am so glad that I know it know.
I still believed in our country but I now we have faults (just look at our President and political system), but it is still the best thing we have going.
Looks like Kenny B. Is up to ole miss information an phony facts of history? You think he learned his lesson after his Civil War Doc ? Wonder what his pay off / salary was $
I served in South Vietnam from Sept. 1967- May 1969 with the Marine Corps. But the most emotional experience I had was as a civilian when I returned with my wife to help evacuate her family. I saw first hand the culmination of all our efforts to be a tragic failure.
Could not possibly comment on everything I read. But I am afraid we have not learned from history.
I was there,I don’t see the Nam I was in.I see a made for TV program,that tries to be fair and accurate but doesn’t quite make it.I don’t see any of the good things that was commited by the US GI’s,only atrocities.Granted it’s made for TV,gotta get the ratings.
Scenes documenting various development and construction programs, vaccination programs, and other activities carried out to improve the quality of life of the Vietnamese people by American soldiers and civilian personnel were included in the documentary.
Still, it was mostly a war. Complaints about the documentary’s lack of emphasis on humanitarian activities are misplaced.
The war was very winnable. If the military leadership had insisted the political leadership do the things necessary to win, I would never have spent 1971 an 1972 over there.
That comment is a model of unclarity.
Which political leadership are you referring to- the US or South Vietnam?
If the military leadership starts giving orders to the political leadership, doesn’t make them the real political leadership?
“Things necessary to win”- like what? Make your recommendations explicit. The readers shouldn’t have to guess about that.
It is possible that Dr. Rhoos has made his comments due to reading others depiction of how The Vietnam War handles the Tonkin Gulf Incident, rather than actually watching that documentary. Burns and Novick make it very clear that the response of the North Vietnamese PT boats was caused by South Vietnamese attacks on islands in the North’s waters–a clear provocation. They also make it clear that the second “incident” involved no actual attacks by NV PT boats. That the resolution that the Johnson Administration asked Congress to pass had been prepared in advance, just in case the opportunity arose, is also mentioned. And an Administration official is quoted how the resolution “was like a night-shirt, it covered everything” that Johnson wanted in order to pursue the war. In short, Burns and Novick make clear how cynical and immoral the whole thing was. This is not exactly a white-wash of the history of the Tonkin Gulf resolution. That many commenters are saying that Burns and Novick perpetrated a white-wash seems to be based on reports about The Vietnam War documentary that are just not true. How ironic.
If you are going to critique you better learn to start with getting the name correct of the person you’re critiquing. Screwing up the name you already have blown 25% credibility and haven’t even started yet.
Some more of acquaintances I have discussed with over the years while working worldwide.
Thank John Pilger for exposing for what it is:
• a propaganda POS, meant to reinforce the myth of American “exceptionalism,”.
As for the Vietnam war
• “was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War misunderstandings”.
• The Gulf of Tonkin incident was the false flag pretext for the Vietnam war,
It was ginned up by the Johnson Administration, disseminated by a compliant press, and led directly to the deaths of several million people.
For Vietnam War documentaries John Pilger’s The Quiet Mutiny and Hearts and Minds.
John Pilger expose, The Secret of the Bikini Islands and Marshall Island Peoples, their ongoing exposure to radiation from US Atomic testing, is a masterpiece…
Next, to the point, it was that king of mendacity, that Texas personage, Lucifer’s lieutenant, the Senator from the Pentagon-LBJ, who was solely responsible for garnering senatorial support, with their consent to launch a war against Vietnam.
Yes, US genocide * is the bipartisan consensus of American bought-out loony demagogues.
• * Ever since “Pilgrim Fathers” who were forced out by their own English brothers and sisters who were not interested in their extreme religiosity had moved to Holland and settled in Delft whose citizens quickly came to the conclusion that after having won the 80-year War with Spain – which bankrupted Spain – to convert the whole of Nederland to Roman Catholic, that they also were not interested in the fanatic religion of the newcomers who had arrived at the Rotterdam Harbor complex and had moved into Delft, told them to “Keep Trucking” in other words, thrown out of Holland and set sail for the New World from Delfshaven the Rotterdam Harbor specializing in New World shipping, (with a stop at Plymouth to pick up more of their kind) then heading westerly southwesterly so as not to arrive at New Amsterdam, Dutch territory, where they also would not be welcome, they stepped ashore at a rocky coast which they named after their mother country, Plymouth in England, they had sailed from, and named it; Plymouth Rock and in no time at all started killing to steal the country from the indigenous who had lived there for centuries.
Loading the “Pilgrim Fathers” on to the Dutch is one of so many American History stupidities, like, Columbus Discovered America, he went 3-times and neve did see America, the third time he was brought back to Madrid in chains for dereliction of duty, and died a pauper who Americans every year have a national holiday for. Next, American history screw-up, Amie and Quaker being Dutch, they are not. These people are Schweiz and Deutsch and speak Deutsch who came floating down the river Ryn, Waal, Merwede into Rotterdam Harbor Delfshaven specializing in human animal shipping to the New World, where they where asked, “where do you come from” sounded to them “waar comen from” and they said, Deutschland, “Ha, you are Dutch” the stupid American said, and the newcomers said, “Ja, Ja”.
It is only since the advent of computers that you can find the real meaning of this “Pennsylvania Dutch” bullshit.
I’m not going to waste anymore of Robert Parry’s webserver space on a person playing the Alphabet game, typical American behavior. Where I come from when we have to say something we are taught to say it under our name, not a couple alphabet letters to hide is it a male, female, etc., etc.
I have watched Vietnam documentaries and movies over and over. Ia Drang, I know it from the heart. I inherited my great grandfather war bug (he taught strategy and ballistics at Military School) and Vietnam became my obsession since I was a child. Over time I could clearly tell that the VC had a signature pincer tactic they applied over and over again against American troops and it always worked. Why didn’t American commanders see it and other signature battle tactics? because Westmoreland and his echelon were never in the battlefield and the 19 year olds who were could not see anything beyond their fear.
At any rate, watching the PBS Vietnam series fills me with grief. Not because of the dead, those I’ve already seen but because of the immense deceit that was woven over our people.
The lies have not diminished Mr.Paul E. Merrell, J.D.> but many newer more secretive, better focused methods to construct and present such lies have been developed. Most Americans have already been engaged by the electronic algorithm machines used by the corporate information giants to reduce mankind to caged rats in the corporate controlled electronic surround-sound-like information cage. The end game is corporate use of government to abuse mankind in all sorts of ways. Mankind has had to fight the war for his independence of mind, human rights and physical freedom on many fronts. Mankind learns from experience. All recognized experience (the information environment) results in the understandings humans have and those understandings determine how we humans think and behave. Until now mankind has not been victimized by algorithmic warfare. Corporations have developed and are now deploying weapons of mass control[WMCs]. WMC mediate man: machine interactions, pitting super smart algorithms against the human mind. Such algorithms are meant to control the thoughts and behaviors of mankind. Mind control algorithms represent a very significant challenge to human rights, independent freedom of speech and thought, and freedom of movement.
That screed is entirely too Pavlovian for me to buy into.
Yes, I notice people trying to work me. From all sorts of angles. Let them try.
Burns and Novick are known for producing films of emotion-laden “stories” and here they are getting themselves involved with pro-war propaganda / indoctrination on behalf of the Pentagon to turn important, fundamental facts about the US war machine into a story of the “history” of the war in Vietnam, which is the realm of “documentary” filmmaking with world renowned documentary filmmakers John Pilger and Andre Vltchek, between them possessing a century worldwide experience in the world’s trouble spots, backed by world roving reporter Pepe Escobar, Dr. Peter Koenig, Prof. James Petras, to name but three. By now Burns and Novick have already lost 50% of their credibility. Next, learning that the finances for their film was bankrolled by Bank of America and the Koch Bros. the other 50% of their credibility has blown out the window. This film is a farce making me feel sorry for the people worldwide watching it while being completely bamboozled again-and-again-and-again by Hollywood under American Pentagon direction.
Not going to critique the whole film, just the most blatant, “The Gulf of Tonkin”.
I was there (TechRep civilian), were you, if so, more the better for understanding.
“Retaliation” for Gulf of Tonkin?
Framing the US attack on North Vietnam as “retaliation” in this film, which supposes to tell truths about this horrific war, is false. And raise the question of why, after all these years – and when the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin “incidents” has been known for years – Ken Burns and Lynn Novick engage in pro-war propaganda for the US war machine. Are they to turn actually important, fundamental facts about the US war into a “story,”
Three days after the “second” of two supposed “incidents” in the Gulf of Tonkin, the LBJ administration got its rubber stamp in the US Congress for the infamous “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,” which would be used forever after justifying continued US military intervention in Vietnam.
Just three weeks after these alleged “incidents,” I. F. Stone had already reported in his I. F. Stone’s Weekly, based on well-informed remarks of Senator Wayne Morse in the US Senate.
Wayne Morse of Oregon, was one of only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; the other was, Ernest Gruening, of Alaska.
As it turns out, the US CIA had been conducting “covert” attacks against the shoreline of North Vietnam for months (OPLAN 34-A). Finally, in early August 1964, a mid-level North Vietnam (NV) naval officer has been responsible for ordering NV patrol boats to pursue the USS Maddox into international waters, the Maddox had a special NSA surveillance unit on board, and was also engaged in “DeSoto Patrols,” moving into and out of territorial waters of North Vietnam.
These US/CIA attacks were designed to test and gain information about North Vietnamese radar and air defenses.
There were, repeated coastal aggression by the United States, which could then be used as the pretext for the broader intervention top US “policy-makers” were seeking. Because of the advanced surveillance by the NSA unit aboard the Maddox,
Two days later, on the night of August 4, 1964, a “second attack” supposedly occurred, this time including the USS Turner Joy.
However, there was no second “attack.”
Analysis of the Evidence
Concerning the August 4, 1964 incident. More than 40 years after the events, that all changed with the release of the nearly 200 documents related to the Gulf of Tonkin incident and transcripts from the Johnson Library.
These new documents and tapes reveal what historians could not prove:
• There was not a second attack on US Navy ships in the Tonkin Gulf in early August 1964.
Furthermore, the evidence suggests a disturbing and deliberate attempt by Secretary of Defense McNamara to distort the evidence and mislead Congress.
I.F. Stone was actually onto this story years before some historians were able to use belatedly and reluctantly released classified documents to confirm the lies, deceptions and misrepresentations.
-I. F. Stone’s Weekly, following further “testimony” from McNamara in 1968.
Turbulent water may have been either misinterpreted – or misconstrued – as a North Vietnamese PT boat torpedo launch. James Stockade, later an Admiral was flying missions over the Maddox and reported seeing zero evidence of any alleged “attack.” Stockdale would later emphasize that he would have had a far better view of the any alleged “engagement” from the air, in any case.
(human nature b.k.a. manure), if you’re interested in telling “stories,” you may not focus too carefully on the facts of the history and the context in which these “stories” took place.
But shouldn’t people of the world demand that Burns and Novick get something as important as what did or did not happen in The Gulf of Tonkin – and was used as the pretext for ten years of war – right?
So far (3 episodes) the most maddening and irritating thing in this Vietnam documentary is the narration constantly referring to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong as “the enemy”. We were “the enemy”. I suspect this propagandistic “tic” will continue throughout the program. But then I guess it is conventional to refer to all who oppose our international big-footing, blundering, bullying and flatout murder & mayhem in their country as “the enemy”.
John McCain is quoted as saying, “Maybe we can look back on Vietnam and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again. We can learn lessons today because the world is in such turmoil: Tell the American people the truth!”
Like you, I assume, I almost vomited when I read that. I am a vet who will not watch this Bank of America/ Koch brothers funded spectacle.
This program is a strange sugar-coating of the war, which was one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed. While it does show the horror and atrocities very graphically, it does it in that phony journalistic “balanced” way: That is, that both sides did it and that’s just what happens in the fog of war.
Also, most of the interviews and stories about veterans focus on those that volunteered, not those who were drafted and served as cannon fodder for these war criminals.
Ultimately, I don’t think this series will succeed in educating the public on the greed and insanity of U.S. foreign policy. Especially since it continues to this very day.
The failure to include the true issue behind the Watergate break-in, which led to the prolongation of the war, death of perhaps millions, and the resignation of a sitting president, cannot be attributed to “what works.” The Burns/PBS elimination of such a crucial part of history cannot be dismissed away so easily, as in fact , it will now be wrtten into the “official story.”
I was there with the Marines in 69-70 when the war was for all intents and purposes over except for the dying to come. I thought I saw some strange shit while there until I saw the part of Burns documentary about the Air Force making an announcement to the Vietnamese peasants that they were going to bomb a mountain and valley where the V,C were located. Then he showed the mountain being blown up by aircraft while the air force band played stars and stripes forever for the Vietnamese. All I could do was shake my head
It would be good to know how many Americans are actually watching this series, considering how propagandized the nation has been since the Middle East invasive wars have been going on for so long. Despite flaws and omissions of the overall Vietnam War events in this series, war has become so detached from the average American that I can only hope more people are watching than I might expect. Any wake-up call to the horrors of war can be welcomed. Millennials and younger folks have only a shadowy concept of this soul-searching period of American history, unless they have family members who have discussed it with them.
I hope there are a lot of Americans watching but I doubt they are. Like the war itself most Americans were apathetic unless they were in danger of getting drafted or had a loved one in country.
While I admire their bravery, I am a little unclear what those poor fellows saved us from.
@ turk151: “While I admire their bravery, I am a little unclear what those poor fellows saved us from.”
Amen, brother. Nothing gives me quite the urge to go ballistic like having someone mouth that, “thank you for your service,” unless it’s the “thank you for protecting our rights.” It wasn’t service, it was slavery. And it did nothing for the folks back home except raise their taxes.
Bravery? Most were just trying to survive, or save their friends. The longer I live the more I realize the brave were those who said no those Chickenhawks running our government and went to prison, or Canada; unfortunately, I did not have that courage, nor do I have their peace of mind.
All Vietnam Veterans are owed a great debt of gratitude, not just for what they did in uniform. ..but for making sure that NO veteran would be treated by our government or it citizens, the same way they were, when they returned from thier honorable service.
Excellent review. Brings our experiences and memories into sharp focus. Thoughtful and true.
The whitewashing of the origins of the war and the Gulf of Tonkin incident renders the whole project a propaganda effort, particularly in comparison with the Stanley Karnow based effort of the ’80s which reveals the extent to which “public television” has degenerated into propaganda for the “deep state.” The fact some of the interviews are not as slanted as the basic approach of the series does not change the fact that it is basically another contribution to the regime’s propaganda effort.
Good that you mentioned Karnow’s series on the Vietnam War. I am surprised little mention has been made of it or Stanley Karnow. Here is some information about Karnow from Wikipedia:
“…After serving with the United States Army Air Forces in the China Burma India Theater during World War II, he graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in 1947; in 1947 and 1948 he attended the Sorbonne, and from 1948 to 1949 the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris. He then began his career in journalism as Time correspondent in Paris in 1950. After covering Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (where he was North Africa bureau chief in 1958-59), he went to Asia, where he spent the most influential part of his career. He was friends with Anthony Lewis and Bernard Kalb.
He covered Asia from 1959 until 1974 for Time, Life, the Saturday Evening Post, the London Observer, the Washington Post, and NBC News. Present in Vietnam in July 1959 when the first Americans were killed, he reported on the Vietnam War in its entirety. This landed him a place on the master list of Nixon political opponents. It was during this time that he began to write Vietnam: A History (1983).
He was chief correspondent for the 13-hour Vietnam: A Television History series, aired on PBS’s American Experience; it won six Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, a George Polk Award and an DuPont-Columbia Award. In 1990, Karnow won the Pulitzer Prize for History for his book In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines. His other books include Mao and China: From Revolution to Revolution, which was nominated for a National Book Award; and Paris in the Fifties (1997), a memoir history of his own experiences of living in Paris in the 1950s. He also worked for The New Republic and King Features Syndicate.
Later in life, he tried to write a book on Asians in the United States. A book on Jewish humor progressed only to an outline. He also contemplated a memoir to be titled Interesting times or Out of Asia.,,,”
Author North has the advantage of having seen this and other shows about Vietnam, so he is probably correct with this assessment. That doesn’t mean it is without substantial flaws.
A more critical review is at the Moon of Alabama site.
Alabama is all I need to see.No thanks they’re all still fighting the civil war
Nothing to do with George Wallace. It refers to the Berthold Brecht song(music: Kurt Will, English lyrics: Elisibeth Hauptman) also covered by The Doors and David Bowie. Moonofalabama is an excellent site and you’re really missing out if you do not read it.
Viet Nam Redux, Again, and Again and Again
Ambivalence is such a pale word to represent the utterly conflicting emotions the name Vietnam evokes in so many of us, a price so high from which to have learned so little.
Vietnam, the war that wasn’t a war but in which millions died, including 58,200 Americans, some my friends, some among the best people I’ve ever known. Many friends fought there and suffered there and changed there and became what they are today, for good or ill there. Many who sacrificed there came home, not just to an ungrateful nation but to a nation that despised and deprecated them, a nation that couldn’t understand what had happened or why. And for good reason. Apparently there was no real justification for what happened, but to those who paid the unconscionable price for their leaders’ criminal folly, the additional price extracted by those who suffered only pangs of conscience from their comfortable homes or dormitories or coffee houses or bars was as bad or worse. Not that the critics were wrong, they just misplaced their criticism, criticism which should have been directed at their political leaders on a bipartisan basis, the political leaders for whom both soldiers and protesters were no more than political chips with which to gamble away real lives. The political leaders who, never having to pay a price, sheltered by their media buddies and contributors and sycophants, never seem to change, unless for an instant when they find it politically suitable.
And the public?
Putty in their hands.
PBS, the Public Broadcasting System, is taking a shot at again reviewing what happened in a new series, “Vietnam War”, a ten part series that just aired its first episode, one that being far from home I haven’t seen. I have seen several reviews, informal reviews shared by Citadel classmates who fought there and formal reviews from people like Don North (PBS’ ‘Vietnam War’ Tells Some Truths), a veteran war correspondent who covered the Vietnam War and many other conflicts around the world. A river of reviews will probably flow to join the ocean of articles and essays and studies and books and movies, none adequate to express what happened or why it keeps happening, or the layers and layers and layers of prices paid; or the lives ruined or the lives salvaged, or the changes made in myriad psyches.
I generally shed tears every time I see anything that touches on that epoch, or experience art forms that manage to evoke the psychological trauma involved for everyone involved, one way or another: tears of pride for my classmates and of grief for the suffering and of shame because I did not share in their experiences and of relief because I’ve yet to have to kill another human being. I was in a car accident coming home for Christmas break my senior years and so, rather than drop bombs and dodge antiaircraft fire, I served as a liaison officer and instructor at a military academy watching my students go off to war and usually return. I recall echo taps at the Citadel before I graduated when one of our graduates paid the ultimate price for politicians’ follies and after graduation, the letters letting us know when others had died, and finally, taps again when one of my students too was gone, long, very, very long before his time. But none of that touches on what it had to be to have been there, or to have returned expecting something different, or to have sucked it up and made something meaningful of my life, no matter what had happened or why, or to have given up and lost it all.
The war seemed to have changed the United States, at least for a while, for both better and worse, on every side. As in the case of the Civil War now reignited for political gain by the worst among us, politicians, pundits and journalists, it seems a war without end, without resolution, without lessons learned; polarization still inchoate and I wonder how we’ll react to this new series, or to the next, or to the next; after all, prequels and sequels blending propaganda and entertainment always seem to sell. I wonder just how much more polarization we can afford right now and whether anything good will ever come of it. Or whether we’ll just sink into the dustbins of history, swept there by our own hubris and bad faith, or rather, that of those who again and again move us towards our dooms on their ornate checkerboards of fate.
“All the world’s a stage” Shakespeare wrote “and each must play a part”. I don’t really care whether or not there’s a Heaven really, I’m at best a questing agnostic, but I do know that I hope there’s a Hell for politicians and financiers and journalists and government functionaries who so deftly and without regrets send us to fates neither we nor our victims deserve.
Here’s to Lucifer, the Roman god of truth and light, may he know just how to deal with them.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2017; all rights reserved. Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.
Guillermo Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia although he has primarily lived in the United States of America (of which he is a citizen). Until recently he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales. He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies). He can be contacted at [email protected] or [email protected] and much of his writing is available through his blog at http://www.guillermocalvo.com.
Good post Guillermo – You didn’t have to go to Nam in order to understand it – especially when your friends/students/loved ones never came home. We were in the ” dirty ” part of Asia – SE Asia, so I guess it was OK to kill all those people , just like it’s Ok to kill all those in the ” dirty ” Middle East. I haven’t read any books on the rebels war in Columbia but I know the US has backed the Col. gov. – that’s probably another story – Weaselton doesn’t seem to learn much from these stories except that wars make them money.
I don’t understand why the enlightened and highly knowledgeable historians that made this series would consistently refer to the National Liberation Front as the Viet Cong. This was always a derogatory term designed by the American architects of the war to undermine the legitimacy of the united front for national liberation in South Vietnam. I’m frankly shocked that they would use it at all.
This was explained accurately and detail in an early episode of the series.
I think the best explanation for the use of the label “Viet Cong” by the filmmakers is the familiarity of American audiences with that tag, along with its brevity. As such, the phrase is employed chiefly to distinguish the local guerrilla forces in South Vietnam from the more well-armed and well-organized North Vietnamese Army, or NVA.
Very few Americans know what “Viet Cong” means- the episode that provided the definition explained that “Cong” was a contraction of a phrase meaning “communist traitors”, applied to anti-government insurgents by the South Vietnamese Diem regime. The series doesn’t exclude references to the names preferred by the guerrillas and the North- the National Liberation Front and Provisional Revolutionary Government; the NLF is mentioned frequently, primarily in relation to its activities as a political movement. The label “Viet Cong” is reserved for battlefield soldiers. I don’t find any particular intent to mislead in that narrative decision, personally.
This series is by far the most even-handed historical treatment of the Vietnam War that I’ve ever seen. It’s made quite clear that the North Vietnamese and the anti-colonial and anti-RVN insurgents had their act together, and the various South Vietnamese regimes did not; and that in the effort to shore up the Saigon government, the top-level American policymakers repeatedly made inexcusable moves driven by a staggering level of hubris, obduracy, and denial. That self-deception led them to deceive the American people in turn. The result was a war commitment by the US that unleashed a ghastly level of death and destruction, to no justifiable end.
The Indochina ‘Old Hacks’ who covered that controversial war up close and personal still have strong attachments as to how that war is presented by historians. The Lynn Novice & Ken Burns PBS documentary series on Vietnam deserves the same level of scrutiny by these distinguished journalists as any other effort that has been completed since the days of the Canadian Broadcasting System’s forerunner “The 10,000 Day War”. No one is better qualified to analyze such a all encompassing endeavor than Don North. Trust is becoming a more difficult quality to find in these days of alternate facts and misinformation in our ever broadening expanse of online media news sources. Read and evaluate the analysis from someone who lived that war up close and personal and understood the larger forces at work.
Are you part of the problem by implying that online news sources are part of the problem re our trust in news sources. Are you not aware of the ‘fact’ that MSM beat the drums of war leading the public into the Vietnam War and the 911 lies that led us into Afghanistan the Iraq War and on to the seemingly endless illegal wars in which our puppet government is involved; this is not to mention all the incursions into many of the countries of our own hemisphere and the criminal “war on drugs” which continues to fill the “beds” of our corporate/private prisons? I call bs on you.
I found the first episode most interesting, particularly the part where there is mention of the OSS (precursor to the CIA) gave its support to Ho Chi Minh in the 1940s when he was looking for assistance to defeat the Japanese. It is a fascinating parallel to the U.S. operations that gave arms to the mujahideen in Afghanistan.
History repeats itself but apparently no one in Washington learns.
From the Counterpunch article:
“Framing the US attack on North Vietnam as “retaliation” in this PBS documentary, which purports to tell truths about this horrific war, is a fundamental, serious, and consequential defect, one which must raise the question of why, after all these years — and when the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin “incidents” has been known for years — Ken Burns and Lynn Novick would engage in this kind of (albeit strangely belated) pro-war propaganda. (Or is it better understood as indoctrination.)”
Note that the article includes extensive links to back up the argument that — like the Iraq War — our politicos relied on outright lies to get us into the Viet Nam War.
Nb., I was a combat soldier in Viet Nam from April of 1968 through August of 1970. I am still very bitter about the lies, albeit I believe I became a better person for having lived through that war.
Paul, I watched episode 3 last night and the documentary clearly said that there was no second attack at Tonkin. They then hedged and said the communication of the non-event was garbled to the point where Johnson gave the go-ahead on a “it probably happened.” Disingenuous at best. The show further implied strongly without stating it that Johnson eat all saw this as an opportunity. I read the Counterpunch article and it overstated.
Thanks for being alive and willing to state your thoughts.
After reading several severe critiques of the film series and knowing a lot of the factual history of the Vietnamese Independence Project that began at Versailles at WW1’s end, I must admit this essay didn’t provide me with any justification for watching it. Indeed, it actually promotes those essays arguing the films could easily have been more truthful.
This is what I expected when I saw the Don North by-line, based on other pieces by him I have read on this website, which have shown a fairly unreconstructed U.S.-sympathetic view of the war against Vietnam.
I’m not sure why he appears here: maybe a personal friend of the eds.
Not to be cynical but I find today little learned from Vietnam. The damage from this war immeasurable
Nick’s statement is one of the best ones I’ve heard since i left Nam in 71 ! Thanks – if only we had a President that read and used the great information available, to be a better leader and promote peace and prosperity for all . And to put his ass on line like we had to — for America – the real America.
I agree with you re nick’s statement; but, so far as the peace bit goes there is no money in peace. The history of our country as it has been taught us is one big fraud. The rich have only gotten richer with some of those families’ fortunes having been around since the beginning, even going back to their European ancestry. The United States of America is not a Democracy, nor is it a Democratic Republic. Unless of course you consider voting for candidates who are forced on you as being a Democracy. “They” tax us, then hand out “our” money to places like Israel which then uses “our” money to buy military arms from US arms manufacturers which makes the CEO’S rich, stockholders gain monetarily (does that include you or anyone you know?) arms factory workers get paid and pay taxes which keeps the “perpetual war machine” grinding on and secures empire and control over others’ resources in the hands of American plutocrats. Peace is not profitable. War is.
To be cynical, a lot was learned from the ‘Nam. The US government learned to censor all subversive news coverage, to find better justification for imperialist wars, learned how to lie better, how to discredit any reports that indicate that the “goals” aren’t being achieved, and lying about civilian casualties. Although to be fair these reports are usually skewed to make the allied forces less costly and have been ongoing for many decades. The government and their imperialist masters could care less about the costs of human suffering either by deaths, reintegration in society, broken families and the pathos the lives in in collective memory. Wars, all wars are based on lies and the propaganda that follows to get common folk to enter the meat grinder for “noble” causes.
There will be no end to this until all of these people that are still alive and responsible for all these war crimes and carnage are tried and punished to the full extent of the law. I am not a supporter of the death penalty, but in these cases…..?
Any or book that tries to explain the causes of wars in the 20th and 21st century without mentioning the role of international finance is not worth seeing in my opinion and just serves as a cover to the real motives and players.
The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes.”
– Benjamin Disraeli
The conversation between Johnson and Bundy shows plainly that this war decision was not Johnson’s. Let’s contemplate that. So he was coerced. Who had the power to coerce Johnson? We know Johnson interfered with the rescue of the USS liberty from Israel’s attack on it, and effectively scuttled the investigation into that attack, against the advice of his senior military men, aiding the Israelis on both counts.
How would Israel have such control over Johnson? Johnson’s own lawyer from his Texas days (Barr McClellan) believes, and has written a book detailing the case, that Johnson was involved in the JFK assassination. The Israelis may have known all about it.
And it’s now well-known that JFK was trying to block Israel’s nuclear bomb program, trying to make the American Zionist Organization register as an agent of a foreign government (which would have gotten Israeli money out of American politics), and was upset with the way Zionist campaign donors intensely pushed to control America’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
Also, war has always been a major profit center for the Zionist Israelis e.g. “War Profiteers and the Roots of the War on Terror”.
So what would Agatha Christie think?
“Free Truth” is absolutely correct! Financial interests in any war SHOULD be strenuously explored by historians. American and some British historians largely fail to recognize this key factor. Continental European historians are more insightful and many include the financial status in any war.
It is no surprise that Ken Burns fails completely in this regard. I knew that from the brief clips shown and recognizing Ken Burns as part of Ameri-centric thinking. He’s nearly as mainstream as the rest of the ignorant, illiterate Americans who are not part of the elite financial club of the US.
Now we learn who funded this series: Koch & BofA THAT merely tells it all, doesn’t it?
And don’t tell me about the Koch’s funding Frontline. That show has been watered down into a placid little puddle on a street.
100% correct Free Truth.
It is a monumental docu. and is a must-see. But be careful with it, it was funded by the Koch bros and Bank of America.
Koch brothers fund a lot of PBS programs including Frontline the conservatives worse nightmare.No one is all bad or good
The Koch brothers are sociopathic domestic terrorists.
They won’t be happy until 95% of the United States working population is slaving away six days per week for 12 hours per day with absolutely no labor union protections or occupational health and safety measures. The Koch bros champion an Ayn Randian nightmare in which environmental protections would be eliminated and consumer protections would be non-existent, the investor class will reign supreme over a huge impoverished mass forced to rent themselves out on the labor market to survive on a mere pittance.
If the Koch’s had their druthers they’d completely eliminate Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Unemployment Compensation, and any potential for some eventual “Medicare-for-All” would be a total impossibility.
The Koch’s are the embodiment of Powell’s early 1970s regressive memo.
The Real Reason the Vietnam War Lasted so Long
Plaudits to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and their staff for digging up so much moving/factual film footage detailing one of America’s most indiscriminate wars. All those civilian casulties. All those young, innocent American boys that tried to do their “duty” and instead, following the corrupt orders of General Westmoreland and LBJ, to destroy Vietnamese villages, were they, themselves, killed or worse yet, crippled for life.
The question that Burns and Novick failed to ask is….why?
Why, did Lyndon Johnson drag this immoral war out so long?
The writers failed to bring to their viewers the real
reason the Johnson Crime Family dragged this thing on and on. The Answer: LBJ’s longtime pals and business partners George and Herman Brown ….Brown and Root Construction….were making BILLIONS with their construction projects….Cam Ram Bay port facility….and the big Da Nang Airbase. Furthermore their fellow Texans Bell Helicopter Consortium ….and Texas based General Dynamics jet fighters…and oh, yes, there is Lady Bird’s brother Jack Taylor’s (Southland Corporation) lucrative contracts for foodstuffs and heavy construction equipment.
A war that destroyed our military draft, bankrupted the United States, saddled us with perpetual debt and yet Burns and Novik neglected to identify the real Vietnam War Criminals….Johnson, Nixon, Jack Taylor, Lady Bird Johnson, Herman and George Brown, and a host of other war criminals, the names of whom we will probably never know!
George Meredith MD