Final Thoughts: Paradigm shifts regarding the meaning of unwinnable, and the phrase the war ended, are imperative.
By John M. Del Vecchio
The Fallacy of Inevitability
The war was unwinnable. This is the underlying motif in every episode, the main message of the entire series. And it is a fallacy. The theme begins with episode 1, Déjà Vu which ends with the devastating loss by the French at Dien Bien Phu, but never tells us why the base is there in the first place or that the North Vietnamese and Chinese communist were attacking in Laos in an attempt to widen the war. Déjà Vu is meant to be an omen that what happened in 1954 will inevitably reoccur in 1975. Burns hammers at this point through the following nine episodes, sometimes subtly other times blatantly, through four American presidents, through edited clips showing only their fears, skepticism, pessimism and duplicity.
But to claim inevitability and the un-winnability of the war for the allied side is to also infer that the communist side with all its aggression, coercion and tyranny somehow had a moral superiority or a mandate from the fates.
The theory of the unwinnable war rests on the fact that the war was not won. Because it happened this seemingly gives one arguing from that perspective the right to claim inevitable, but a change in any precursor might have produced a very different history. After the fall of Vientiane, Phnom Penh and Saigon, one may claim the war was unwinnable but at any point prior to the actual collapse that claim is untrue.
And if politicians didn’t see the possibility of winning the war, thousands, perhaps millions of American and South Vietnamese soldiers did. In the aftermath of the fall of Saigon, it became common to hear American veterans say, “We were winning when I left.” Think about what that means, about the significance it represents. Men knew the area in which they fought. They knew when it was “hot,” when there were large enemy forces present, and when that presence had been subdued.
Camp Eagle (101st Abn Div basecamp) sat close to Highway 547, the main road from the populated coastal lowlands to the mountains and jungles of the A Shau Valley. The first firebase west of Eagle was Birmingham. Through the spring of 1970 Americans only went to Birmingham via 547 in armed convoy. By late summer of that year the trip was often made by two guys in a jeep. Or recall Hue during the Tet offensive of ’68. Two and a half years later we would sightsee in Hue and the surrounding villages, and because it was peaceful GIs not on duty were not allowed to carry their weapons.
Imagine if the North Vietnamese communists had ameliorated their aggression in 1956; if they had realized their overly zealous slaughter of “land owners” was counterproductive to a healthy society; if they understood that fostering factions of the Indochina Communist Party and promoting wars of national liberation throughout Southeast Asia was not speeding the end of colonialism but was inducing the west, America in particular, to react to this spreading tyranny. Imagine if they stopped.
What would have been the reaction of the United States?
Imagine had the communists stopped in 1960 shortly after declaring war on the South, and after opening Routes 559, 759 and 959 which carried men and materiel—terrorists, assassins, political community organizers, and assault weaponry—because they realized this violent approach might create massive destruction in both North and South, and that recognizing the South might lead more quickly to reconciliation and unification— nationalistic goals versus dominance and hegemony by the party which were international communist goals.
What would have been the reaction of the United States?
Imagine if the North Vietnamese politburo had concluded after Tet 1968 that the price paid was not worth the desired aim, that a different approach might work better and not be as costly in blood and treasure; imagine had Le Duan said, “We have suffered too greatly, we must now seek reconciliation with the South and with the Americans. Imagine that same decision after the NVA offensives of Mini-Tet, the summer offensive of 1969, or the Easter Offensive of 1972?
Imagine had they not re-instigated and elevated their aggression after the Paris Peace Talks were concluded in 1973, but instead had withdrawn their 145,000 troops back to the North. [Burns talks about ceasefire violations by both sides as if this created a moral parity, but fails to mention that no South Vietnamese unit attacked a city or village or military installation in North Vietnam.]
At any of those times had the North stopped and sought reconciliation with the South and with the United States, and had asked for aid to rebuild their country, what would have been the reaction of the United States?
When you are imagining all this recall how the United States treated Germany and Japan after WWII. Would America have agreed to rebuild and reconstruct the infrastructure in the North if that nation had been open and no longer a threat to all other nations in the region?
Imagine also, at each step along the way, that the American “anti-war” movement, with many of its leaders having ties to the international communist movement, had not garnered its high degree of influence over the American media; and imagine too that JFK, LBJ, Nixon and Ford were not continuously reacting to public pressures created by the incomplete and slanted narratives these groups produced.
Imagine in ’67 or ’68 or ’70 had riots not erupted in American cities and on American campuses. Would LBJ, and then Nixon have been so defensive? Would they have developed their bunker mentalities? Would Nixon have ordered the break-in to the DNC headquarters in the Watergate complex? Regarding war decisions, would they have better reflected the realities on the ground and in the skies of Southeast Asia, and might they have been less based upon internal politics and provoked public opposition?
Any one of the above items and thousands more, had they happened, would have changed the outcome of the history of this war. Nothing is inevitable until after it has occurred.
Now also imagine the homecoming for veterans had they not be tarnished by skewed press stories leading many Americans to believe that Vietnam had turned them into savages, that they were all baby-killers, that they burned villages, raped women and young girls, and committed repulsive atrocities.
Imagine totally different homecoming scenarios and general attitude toward their service; and imagine the effect on the development of Post-Traumatic Stress disorders.
After Saigon fell one of the voices in the Burns documentary declares, “The Vietnamese people could finally live normally.” What?! Hello!!! Also said, “…no blood bath.” How many people have to be executed for a documentarian to label an action “a blood bath”? I guess 60,000 murders in the first 90 days after the fall does not qualify. If one adds in the number of people who died in the gulags of re-education, does that push it into the category of blood bath? Some 1.5 million South Vietnamese men and women were treated to these communist camps—approximately 10% of the population of that country. Many were tortured. Many were starved. Many were worked to death.
Can we add in the South Vietnamese who attempted to escape the tyranny by sea—the boat people? More than a million tried to flee. Tens of thousands died in small, rickety coastal craft not designed for ocean voyage. Many more were captured and killed by pirates. Can we add any of them to the “no blood bath” equation?
What about the deaths in Cambodia and Laos. In both countries Ho Chi Minh was instrumental in establishing communist insurgencies. In both countries, long before the “end of the war,” Hanoi’s troops and agents controlled great tracts of land. Pol Pot’s faction of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge was born from Ho’s Indochinese Communist Party, but broke from Hanoi like a rebellious teenager from domineering parents. 1.7 million of 6 million Cambodians died after “the war was over.” Not a bloodbath, Mr. Burns? Francois Bizot, in his 2003 book The Gate “…understood the true nature of the Khmer Rouge long before other outsiders. Decades later, his frustration remains: ‘What oppresses me, more still than the unclosed eyes of the dead who fill the sandy paddy fields, is the way the West applauded the Khmer Rouge, hailing their victory over their brothers in 1975. The ovation was so frenzied as to drown out the protracted wailing of the millions being massacred…’”
This is a personal side bitch: Burns show American veterans returning to Vietnam years after the war, hugging and reconciling with North Vietnamese soldiers who had opposed them on the battlefield. The occasions are joyous, friendly, healing. All-well-in-good, BUT what about showing Americans reuniting with ARVN soldiers who were their allies? That’s not shown. And it’s not shown for a reason. ARVN vets are still second class citizens in Vietnam. There are numerous accounts of U.S. charities attempting to aid these men, many of whom still suffer physically from war wounds. Communist cadre always take a percentage of whatever is donated. Sometimes they take it all. Medical equipment meant to help these men is diverted to hospitals for communist party members. Americans who have pushed for fairness have become persona non grata.
And these nations, which we might have helped become Asian economic miracles, languished amongst the most politically repressive states on the planet with low per capita income and high per capita rates of disease and death. Religious and ethnic minorities are still repressed. Only a month ago two bloggers were arrested and jailed for posting items uncomplimentary of the party. The list of human rights abuses, for anyone following them, seems to be unending.
From the very first fallacy of accepting communist propaganda portraying Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist, then repeating it in multiple variations to make it a “fact,” this series has been intellectually dishonest; slanted toward a fake left-wing narrative for what purpose I do not know? Just a quick reminder: a true nationalist does not murder all his nationalist allies because only his sect of nationalism is acceptable.
Now I think, “Thank God that series is over.” But it’s not over. This series will likely be picked up by thousands of school districts and colleges across the country and around the world, and used to indoctrinate the next generations of young minds. This should be opposed. The series is offensive not only to millions of American veterans who served honorably and with pride, but to anyone who still believes in truth and academic integrity.
The war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos did not end in 1975. More Southeast Asians died in the following ten years due to fighting and communist tyranny than died during the ten years of active American involvement. The repression in all three nations continues to this day.
With all the promise and potential, with all the wonderful presentations, the incredible photography and the moving musical scores, the slanting by choice of material and by massive omission renders this series not history but propaganda.
This is the eighth in a series of eight essays on the Burns/Novick program. Please like, forward and share this essay. For the earlier essays, or for more on the need for paradigm shifts in the way we view history and other aspects of our culture, visit: www.peakingat70.com/lets-talk-america/ .
John M. Del Vecchio is the author of The 13th Valley and other works on Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and veterans issues. He is currently working on: Peaking At 70: Rediscovering America and Self. www.peakingat70.com.