The Counter History of the Vietnam War as seen by Burns, et al.
The Counter History of the Vietnam War as seen by Burns, et al.
I was reflecting on all the events of the past ten years, since I first became involved in studying and then contributing to the detailed history of the Viet Nam War. This has taken a tremendous amount of time for me but I have not been alone in this work. There are many veterans who are historians, and some historians who have been very sympathetic to the views many vets have about their service and the war in general.
But unfortunately, academia was invaded during and right after the war by those who were against the war, and the commonly publicized history of the war from the great majority of writing done from about 1965 through 1985 centered on what I will call “The Narrative.” And those antiwar professors trained others in their way of thinking, so academia is now heavily spotted with the second and even third generation historians who support “The Narrative” the way a preacher supports the Bible.
What is “The Narrative?” Well, it consists of a bunch of "accepted" or "well known" talking points, which go like this.
- - the conflict in Viet Nam was between the true liberators from the French and the corrupt southern part of the country, which was ruled by an unelected power elite who were resisting the unification of the nation out of various selfish motives
- - as a civil war, the USA had no business being there in the first place, and the excuse that it was about stopping international Communism was just propaganda
- - the involvement of the USA was based on blatant lies such as the false reports of attacks on US warships and false theories like the Domino Theory
- - fighting against the many true nationalists of the South, who were then aided by the aroused and committed brother patriots of the North, while the ARVN were never really able to fight well, was an impossible military situation, so the war was unwinnable from the start
- - American meddling never did anything except worsen the situation for the Vietnamese people, and America's gross overuse of weaponry devastated much of the country irresponsibly, and caused deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents
- - American troops were disproportionately minorities, and the general bad attitudes of both the officers and men resulted in the routine occurrence of atrocities that were covered up
- - in the end, the brave Vietnamese patriots, an irregular group of guerrillas with old weapons and few resources, outfought the world’s biggest and best equipped army
- - all of this could have been avoided if only the USA had lived up to the commitment made in the Geneva Accords for the holding of country-wide elections, which would have peacefully resolved the situation and unified the country under Ho Chi Minh
Every one of those points is false, and actually easily disproven by facts, records, and the personal testimony of those who were there, not just Americans, but plenty of Vietnamese as well. Yet the great majority of Americans, and foreigners for that matter, generally believe some or most of those points. And the media have done a great job as well in supporting “The Narrative.”
Fighting against this are a comparative minority of historians and witnesses to history, like myself. I spent all of '68 running up and down I Corps, working with various grunt units, but also seeing things from the viewpoint of other units, like the HST teams, the pilots, the S-6 scouts, and others. I sure don't know everything, but I sure know we were not raping and pillaging and murdering every day, and in fact we were doing medical aid visits to every little village we stopped at. (And I have the pictures to prove it.) And we were certainly not outfought by either the VC or the NVA, although they were damn good fighters at times.
Since the war I have met many other vets, and some of our POWs, and many Vietnamese who were in the fight and survived to come here to live. I've ready many good books on events of the war, and cross-checked them with other books and sometimes with the people who were there for the events described in the books. So I have become a fairly decent amateur historian, and even wrote a booklet for students to help them avoid being led astray by The Narrative. (Whitewash/Blackwash: Myths of the Viet Nam War)
I do lectures at high schools and colleges, and sometimes meet in the audience some antiwar people, and then the discussion gets a bit warm. I don't argue feelings, but stick to facts and logic, usually facts the other side has never heard, or chooses to disbelieve, and they aren't always too good with logic. And they invariably get angry at me, and things go downhill, and I get accused of being biased or lying or just really stupid. Most of the people listening to all this tend to start looking at me like I actually know something, and looking at the other guys with rejection in their eyes. But it never slows down the antiwar people, they are like committed disciples of Hanoi, and nothing makes a dent in how they see things. They just get more passionate as they argue, until they get really mad.
But if I really help educate some people, change some minds, it seems like adding a drop of water to a dirty ocean. It takes up a lot of time, but more than that, gives me a lot of frustration and concern at a pretty high level.
And far, far too often, I get the terrible feeling that all of us still working at the true history of the war are fated to be Don Quixote, tilting at the windmills of academia. That the sheer momentum of that triple-damned Narrative cannot be overcome, or even dented seriously. It is a truly sickening thought. But why do we go on, why must we go on?
Two reasons: The second is that it is a continuing part of our service to the nation, to try to get the real history studied and understood, so that we can eventually reap the benefits of really learning the lessons of that war. Or conversely, to help the nation avoid the disasters that will continue to accrue by accepting the false lessons of the war. This is no small matter.
But the first reason is all those names on The Wall, and all the others who served, and suffered. I include in that our brothers in arms of the ARVN and the Montagnards, some of whom still suffer to this day.
Long, long ago I had to memorize a WWI poem, In Flanders Fields. Still applicable, still poignant. And the last verses echo today. "If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep."
I cannot but think of all those men, especially those I knew, whose faces are still bright in my all too declining memory, or those I saw die and held or carried, whose blood congealed, sticky, on my arms and hands. I cannot let their memories be trampled and sullied by these arrogant fools and enemies of the Republic. So regardless of the discouragement, the deep worries, the time my wife says I can't afford, I'm in this for the long haul. It will end only when they close the lid on me, and I am back with those I knew in those awful times.
I want to say that I am proud and honored to be part of this group who are fighting to keep the truth alive. We are perhaps another band of brothers in another battle, one that is so terribly important. I salute them all on Memorial Day, and all the other vets still standing proud for their service; and perhaps we will yet knock over one of those cursed windmills. Semper Fidelis RJ Del Vecchio
What we told Ken Burns in 2016
At the LBJ Library "Vietnam War Summit" in April 2016, we passed the linked draft brochure to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick through the event organizers. If they received it, they offered no response to the concerns that we voiced. We decided to wait and see what Burns did before releasing our notes. Re-reading the draft, after viewing the ten episodes, showed that our concerns were fully justified. While we offer this wiki in response for Burns' call for discussion about his video and the Vietnam War, we will see if he is any more forthcoming with a response than he was towards our earlier comments. The draft "Pre-Sponse" is here.
Are PBS and Ken Burns about to Re-write History Again?
- Historians and serious viewers of Burns's narrative should study the factual history of the Second Indochina War to detect any misleading implications and factual omissions that may be found in his visual narrative. PBS would do well to offer more than a token effort to promote Burns's wish for open discourse on this important and extremely relevant subject.
A Short Review of the Burns/PBS video by Lewis Sorley
Delivered at the CSIS panel 28 September 2017
Now we have seen the Burns Vietnam epic, or at least some of us have. What are we to think of it?
+ The story line is not very complicated:
- War is hell.
- Americans who opposed the war: good.
- Americans who fought in it: inept, pitiable.
- North Vietnamese: admirable.
- South Vietnamese: hardly worth mentioning.
- War is hell.
- Let’s all make nice.
Probably didn’t need 18 hours to tell that story. But there was always one more explosion to feature, one more bloody body to examine, one more anti-war riot to recall.
Had there been somewhat greater economy in telling the Burns version of the story, there might have been room to recall that:
- It was aggression by the North Vietnamese communists that led to all this bloodshed and agony.
- The communist way of war deliberately featured bombs in schoolyards and pagodas, murder of schoolteachers and village officials, kidnapping and impressment of civilians, indiscriminate rocketing of cities.
- Under communist rule today Vietnam is one of the world’s most repressive and corrupt societies.
- The “boat people” and other émigrés now living in America and elsewhere in the free world have with great courage and industry made new lives for themselves and their families.
- This list could be extended almost indefinitely.
+ What of the filmmaker’s outlook?
Burns and his associates have appeared at a large number of preview events. At one such session at the Newseum here in Washington (billed by them as an “influencer event”) one could not help but be impressed by their self-regard and self-satisfaction. They apparently now view themselves as the premier historians of the Vietnam War. And they are candid in stating their most basic conclusions.
“You can find no overtly redeeming qualities of the Vietnam War,” Burns opined. I hope I may be forgiven for stating my own conviction that he is in that profoundly wrong, as he was in referring disparagingly to what he called Americans’ “puffed-up sense of exceptionalism.” Clearly Burns does not much like America, an outlook that permeates his work.
+ What of the research? We are told the Burns team spent ten years on this project, and that in the course of it they interviewed more than 80 people. I know writers, working alone, who have interviewed several hundred people for a single book. The Burns team averaged 8 interviews a year, an interview every month and a half, over the decade. Not impressive, at least to me, certainly not comprehensive.
Crucial omissions are a damaging flaw in the Burns opus. The great heroes of the war, in the view of almost all who fought there (on our side), were the Dustoff pilots and the nurses. We don’t see much of them. Instead we see repeatedly poor Mogie Crocker, who we know right away is destined to get whacked. We see over and over again the clueless General Westmoreland, but learn nothing of his refusal to provide modern weaponry to the South Vietnamese or disdain for pacification. We see precious little of his able successor, General Abrams. We see (and hear) almost nothing of William Colby. And so on. These are serious failings in a film that bills itself as “a landmark documentary event.”
Burns and company are said to have made a decision not to interview former government officials for the film. That’s like going to an opera and listening only to the chorus, and them one at a time, with the diva and the tenor silenced and ignored. How does that contribute to an understanding of the war writ large?
Burns repeats in all the materials he distributes the mantra “There Is No Single Truth in War.” But there is such a thing as objective truth, elusive though it may be. What we have here is preferred “truth” as seen through the Burns prism.
Finally, the idea that this deeply flawed version of the war and those who fought it might somehow facilitate “recon-ciliation,” as claimed by Burns, can only be viewed as fatuous. There is no middle ground, and the Burns film demonstrates, if nothing else, how deep and unbridgeable the divide remains.
Why the divergence?
How could the Vietnam War polarize our nation? Simply by what is taught in our schools and universities, which, like Burns and Novick, consider the "emotional reality" to be more meaningful than historical facts. In 1961, Kennedy's Inaugural Address energized "a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world." Half a century later, a recent study suggests that a quarter of our millennials prefer Communism to Capitalism, idolize Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho, Fidel and Che, and perceive the United States to be the source of the evils in the world. They get this from what they are being taught in their schools. They accept those teachings because they are not given an opportunity to examine the underpinnings of that philosophy.
Veterans are virtually the only voices in our society who understand these facts. And we have allowed ourselves to keep our perceptions bottled up. When we speak openly, we are labeled "revisionists." I used to have a problem with that word, because my personal attitudes hadn't changed since I came back from to Vietnam - I hadn't revised anything. I have recently learned that the term "revisionist" has been and is applied to anyone who diverges from Communist Party doctrine - so I accept that term as a badge of honor and realize what it infers about anyone who tries to place that label on me.
How can a student understand which set of "facts" they are being presented reflect a concrete reality? With an open mind, it should only require a consideration of both points of view. That is why your teachers and the other proponents of these views refuse to debate with us or even permit our presence in the ranks of teachers.
I have recently been sent a very good article that critiques a review of another PBS Vietnam related documentary. The author, who I know, admire and respect, covers each of the issues raised succinctly and authoritatively. He takes no prisoners, which may be intimidating to some. But his comments are worthy of a very serious consideration and highly applicable to points being made by Burns and Novick.
The Vietnam War Through Red Lenses By PHILLIP JENNINGS
The Last Days in Vietnam is an Oscar-nominated documentary covering the very end of South Vietnam, in April, 1975. Rory Kennedy’s dramatically sad and horrific documentary is both difficult (for a Vietnam Veteran at least) to watch and a chronicle of American compassion and angst. The fall of a democratic society to Communist tyranny should be lamented by Americans, who sacrificed greatly in their defense. It is a film of pathos, frustrating and yet strongly uplifting at times as American soldiers, diplomats and newsmen risk their careers and their lives to save Vietnamese friends from the invading North Vietnamese Army.
Uplifting, unless you’re Associate Professor Christoph Giebel of the University of Washington, Seattle. In a review of the film posted to the website of Vietnam Scholars Group (sic) by Professor Giebel, the film is “dangerously simplistic,” and “much more of a commentary on current US culture—steeped in nationalistic discourses of exceptionalism, thoroughly militarized, and narcissistic—than a reflection of its actual quality.” In fact, the film “is the worst attempt at documenting the war (he) has seen in a long time.”
Aside from the obvious fact that the ﬁlm is not attempting to document the war but the ﬁnal American evacuation from the war, Professor Giebel’s statement that the ﬁrst twenty ﬁve minutes of the documentary “quickly abandon all pretense of historical accuracy or balance” quite adequately describes his own (following) rant about the Vietnam War.
[Background: In the spring of 1975, two years after U.S. combat units had left Vietnam, twelve divisions of the North Vietnamese Army invaded South Vietnam. The U.S. Congress refused to re-enter the war, although it had pledged to do so in the event of massive violations of the Paris Peace Agreements. Although many South Vietnamese units fought valiantly and brilliantly, they were no match for the Russian-armed North Vietnamese troops and heavy weapons. In April, 1975, the North Vietnamese overran Saigon and took over the country. The Americans were slow to evacuate thousands of South Vietnamese who had worked with them and who were in mortal danger from the Communists. Panic and anger overtook the ﬁnal days of the war.]
Giebel posts six “main issues” with the documentary:
- “US centrism and exceptionalism” Of course the “notion” of the U.S. aid cut is anything but debunked. The U.S. congressional records are replete with discussions, debates and resolutions concerning the aid cut. A history professor teaching anything contrary is irrefutably wrong. Giebel’s use of the term “trotted out” also indicates a disdain for historical documentation which, easily accessed, refutes his position.
- “Complex US debates reduced to literal 'abandonment'” Giebel’s “issue” here is illusory but seems to be that America did not abandon the South Vietnamese — it was more complex than that and not just the result of anti-war protestors and a liberal/Democrat US Congress. Which, of course, was exactly what it was. His ﬁnal statement is “Congressional sons-of-bitches and the anti-war protestors did not and (sic) cold-heartedly stabbed ‘South Viet Nam’ in the back.” Which, of course, they did. Giebel goes on to muse, “I will not speak to the adventurous notion that Congressional appropriation (not assembling, shipping, delivering, distributing), on April 17, of emergency military aid, in violation of the Paris Agreement, would have made a lick of diﬀerence before April 30.” He would have been better oﬀ to stick with his gut feeling. By that comment he makes it known to all that he has scant knowledge of America’s military might or system (he thought we would get on the phone and order bullets? Rush delivery, I suppose) or the ability of an American air force to obliterate a Communist army strung along miles of South Vietnam highways, with no air cover and little mobile anti-aircraft weaponry. Every military pilot in the U.S. would have volunteered for those missions. Giebel is just childish in his belief that the North Vietnamese Army was somehow immune to this fate in the face of air and naval gunﬁre attacks. (Yet he was more than likely a voice of screaming rage when the Americans bombed Hanoi into submission and a peace treaty in December of 1973.) In every engagement in the course of the war when Hanoi gathered massive weaponry and soldiers, they were wiped oﬀ the map.
- “False and manipulative framing along US propagandistic, Cold War rhetoric:” And what is this manipulative US propaganda? Giebel says: There never was a South Vietnam and therefore there was never an invasion of South Vietnam by North Vietnam. His statement, breathtaking in its ignorance, can only be viewed in light of the Communist (for which Giebel, at the very least, is a ﬁrst class apologist) methodology of erasing history which does not support their actions and propaganda. Giebel goes far beyond the oft “trotted out” claim that the war was a Civil War, ignoring the Communist North Vietnam bloody and brutal conquest of vast areas of Laos and Cambodia (as if the Confederate Army had invaded Mexico and Canada during the US civil war). Under Giebel’s view of the world, there was/is no South Korea. In reality, the only diﬀerence between South Vietnam and South Korea is that the U.N. forces did not abandon South Korea after stopping the Communist attempts to take over the southern half of the Korean peninsula. Existing as a struggling democratic country in 1973, with U.N. and Peace Treaty deﬁned borders, South Vietnam had a democratically elected government, and the individual freedoms known only in Western societies, facts Giebel simply ignores.
- “One-sided misrepresentation of the Paris Agreement (sic)” Just when one would think Giebel could not posit a more blatant untruth about the war, he does. He cites the violations of the 1973 peace accord and the “much more aggressive violations of the ceaseﬁre by the ARVN (South Vietnamese).” Of course, fairness being a Communist apologist’s prime concern, he allows that the “revolutionary (North Vietnamese) side violated the Peace Agreement as well, albeit initially in a reactive manner.” The statement is so stupid—there is no other word for it— that a rebuttal is superﬂuous. Suﬃce it to say that the ARVN never perpetrated an attack onto North Vietnamese soil. Period.
- “One-sided representation of war-time violence.” Is there a need to even respond? Communists slaughtered an estimated 50,000 of their own people within weeks of taking control of the country after defeating the French in 1954. Proportionately, their slaughter of village leaders in South Vietnam during the war would be the equivalent slaughter of 20,000 mayors and council members of U.S. towns. The disagreement about the Communists burying men, women children alive during their occupation of HUE after Tet ’68, is over the number, not the act. Most Western accounts put the number at 3,000 to 4,000. The Communists say they buried alive less than a thousand. Giebel’s statement in his review is that the West, primarily the U.S and their South Vietnamese ally, claim to “have perpetrated no violence, no one else suﬀered.” The statement is ridiculous and worthy of inclusion in no review above the sophomore year in high school level. Of course. there was never such a claim.
- Finally, “Racist/orientalist reductionism of the Vietnamese actions, motivations, and feelings.” Giebel believes that the West has “long-standing racist notions. . .that ‘the natives’ are easily swayed by, and can be kept under control through, fear, ‘shock and awe’ and the threat of violence.” That our view was one of “the superstitious, emotional, child-like Little Brown ‘commie.’ It is, in fact, a basic foundation of the apologists for the Communist takeover of South Vietnam that the people of South Vietnam were too uneducated, too unsophisticated, to understand the diﬀerence between a Communist regime and one based on democratic principles, that the one million South Vietnamese military casualties were the result of American propaganda and coercion. That given the open choice, the South Vietnamese would have chosen to live under the already exhibited brutal Communist government from the North. That they preferred thought police, restriction of movement and expression, labor camps, and the oppression of government bureaucracy to a chance for freedom and choice. But with the invasion North Vietnamese forces and the abandonment of our ally by the Democrat U.S. Congress, they got the Communists. It is ludicrous to believe they freely chose their own enslavement.
Giebel has written at least one other “apology” for the Vietnamese communists. Entitled “Imagined Ancestries of Vietnamese Communism,” the ﬁrst two chapters of the book are devoted to explaining and justifying the lies and misrepresentations Ton Duc Thang, North Vietnam’s second president, made in order to become a national hero and Communist leader. Communists and their apologists have no compunction to base power or truth, or history, on fact. It is a dubious, at best, requisite for a professor of history at an American University.
I once visited Professor Giebel’s class to freshman at the university. On the board was written — “The greatest danger to world peace is American hegemony.” It was no surprise, at a later date, to ﬁnd he was a signed-up supporter of Bill Ayers—probably the most dangerous and traitorous of the anti-Vietnam War protestors.
Professor Giebel teaches history at a major American university. In my opinion, he shouldn’t. (On a campus which once refused to allow a memorial to Pappy Boyington, one of the greatest Marine Corps aces in World War II, perhaps there is no surprise.) Perhaps there is a place for teaching a European leftist (Giebel was born in Germany) view of American history. But it should be called what it is.
I invite Professor Giebel to debate a real Viet Nam War scholar and will gladly volunteer to arrange a public forum for that event. Taxpayers should be made aware of what their children are being taught.
Phillip Jennings is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the Viet Nam War and the author of two books on the war.
As a student today, your teachers have been keeping your blinders on during any history and civics lesson they offer. It should be very easy for you to understand why Soviet Communism failed, why China and Vietnam have moved to a "Red Capitalist model," and that the idealism of Marxism can't exist without Lenin's police state. There are a lot of quotes available that validate these points, and here's one:
- Unsurprisingly, the anticipated wave of volunteerism failed to materialize, and the activists fell back on violence and intimidation, supported by local thugs and the police. Primed by years of indoctrination, even the more idealistic participants had no difficulty rationalizing their methods. “I firmly believed,” remembered one, “that the ends justified the means. Our great goal was the universal triumph of Communism, and for the sake of the goal everything was permissible—to lie, to steal, to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions of people, all those who were hindering our work or could hinder it, everyone who stood in the way. And to hesitate or doubt about all this was to give in to ‘intellectual squeamishness’ and ‘stupid liberalism.’ ”
Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, Doubleday
Learn this now or remember it to your peril when the future is yours.