Errors or abuses in the pursuit of freedom are not justifications of the abandonment of that pursuit.
By John M. Del Vecchio
Monday’s episode, Riding The Tiger, was wonderfully produced propaganda. It was technically better than episode one, but it was also far more manipulative. I’m trying to be nice here. Other words come to mind. If I did not have a bit of more background info from years of studying and writing about Southeast Asia, Burns would have me convinced that Diem, the autocrat, was far worse to his people than Uncle Ho. Diem, the Catholic strongman ruling a gentle Buddhist nation, cracked down on Buddhist homes of worship. Ho, the sweet old man, who, despite other leaders in his faction having gotten a bit out of hand by murdering between 50,000 and 500,000 of their countrymen, was far more a gentleman. Socialist excesses aside, Ho was beloved, Diem was despised.
Burns is very convincing. I cannot imagine anyone other than those with relatively deep subject knowledge, not being completely taken in by everything shown. We were softly set up by episode one, in episode two the filmmaker skillful weaves the story and sucks us further in. Episode three was worse yet. Those with original sin became narrators crafting stories to forever cover their tracks. Even with some depth of background in the subject, I had to recheck some of my sources to make sure I wouldn’t overstate my case because I found the programming so convincing. After spending hours rereading, my anger at his omissions and skewing of story grew to near rage. My working sub-title for today’s essay was: The Art of Lying. Perhaps I should have retained it.
Let’s quickly grab some balancing trends, and look at some real numbers: Not shown--life, freedom and prosperity in the South from 1955 was on the rise. By 1962-63 the South was blooming. The following passage is from Lost Victory by William Colby:
…political legitimacy of the Diem regime was growing. The development of a Constitutional form, the loyalty of the Army and the bureaucracy, the regime’s success at extending its administrative writ throughout the countryside, growing international acceptance and support, and the visible progress of the economic and modernization programs were all roots feeding that growth.
Diem had successfully taken the political initiative against the divisive forces in South Vietnam while the North was diverted and not yet ready to contest him. By Tet of 1959, it was plain that a nationalist and non-Communist Vietnam was firmly established. It was also becoming apparent that its future was, if anything, more promising that the gray and regimented society in the North. The potentialities of this contrast did not escape the watchful men in Hanoi.
Or this passage from The U.S. Department of State’s 1961 Blue Book report titled A Threat to the Peace: North Viet-Nam's Effort To Conquer South Viet-Nam:
The years 1956 to 1960 produced something close to an economic miracle in South Viet-Nam. Food production rose and average of 7 percent a year and prewar levels were achieved and passed. While per capita food production in the North was 10 percent lower in 1960 than it had been in 1956, it was 20 percent higher in the South. The output of textiles in the South jumped in only 1 year from 68 million meters (in 1958) to 83 million meters. Sugar production in the same I-year span increased more than 100 percent, from 25,000 metric tons to 58,000 metric tons.
Despite the vastly larger industrial plant inherited by the North when Viet-Nam was partitioned, gross national product is considerably larger in the South. In 1960 it was estimated at $110 per person in the South and $70 in the North. Foreigners who have visited both North and South testify to the higher living standards and the much greater availability of consumer goods in the latter. (my emphasis)
Economically, the North, under draconian rule (alluded to but only the South’s Diem was “autocratic”) is often described as “gray,” a society on life support. What Burns shows of life in the North are clips from the North’s military propaganda films made to convince their captive population that things were better elsewhere in the country, and that improvements would come to all. In the South improvements were tangible to all.
Diem and the Pagoda Raids: Let’s put some figures to what Burns portrayed as a near universal Buddhist uprising against Diem’s government, and Diem’s crackdown raids against Buddhist pagodas. Let’s also establish some characteristics of Vietnamese social and economic culture from 1955 to 1963 so as to understand this segment.
Vietnamese culture was Confucian, then Buddhist, or Catholic or any of various other sect religions. Confucianism is a philosophy and basic system of ethical and moral beliefs which does not restrict adherents from belonging to an additional religion, or religions or no-religion at all. It is a philosophy compatible with many religions, and certainly one compatible with traditional democratic principles. Vietnamese Buddhism generally is Mahayana (greater vehicle), versus Khmer and Lao Buddhism which tended to be Hinayana (lesser vehicle). Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes deep intense self-discipline. Hinayana is generally more laid-back (the Buddhism popularized by the hippie movement). Confucianism and Mahayana Buddhist, like Christianity, are ‘active’ religions in the Western sense, compatible with science, commerce, personal freedoms and economic progress. The importance of this is apparent in the economic growth, once colonial restrictions were removed, cited above.
Numbers: The Pagoda raids of August 21st, 1963 hit Xa Loi temple and other key locations in the Saigon area, along with “many” pagodas in the city of Hue. “In all,” writes historian Dr. Mark Moyar, “government forces seized thirty of the nation’s nearly five thousand pagodas, and arrested a couple of thousand people, most of whom were returned promptly to areas from which they had come… In an after action report… General Dinh (in charge, at the tactical level, of the Saigon raids, Dinh, like many of Diem’s top commanders, was Buddhist) …noted that government forces had discovered weapons and Viet Cong documents in several of Saigon’s pagodas, which he said proved the Buddhists had been colluding with Communists.” (my parenthetical and emphasis)
Thirty of nearly five thousand! Approximately 6/10th of 1%! Moyar again: “Militant Buddhist activity fell off dramatically after the clearance of the pagodas on August 21, and during Diem’s lifetime it did not regain its force.”
The raids were conducted mostly by Buddhists troops, led by Buddhist officers, against a radical and ruthless fringe element that had taken over a tiny fraction of the Buddhist community. Lyndon Johnson and some of his key advisors put great credence into reports by international journalists regarding the origins and depths of “the Buddhist uprising.” Listening to Neil Sheehan tell the story during the show, I could not help but think the fox was telling the story of his raid on the henhouse.
Next there was a thematic chorus repeated by Burns in various ways: The Geneva Accords… The Agreements… The Elections were not lived up to by Diem or the Americans. This myth has been a mainstay of the narrative established by left-leaning elements going back at least to the early 1960s, and it is a lie. The Agreements were essentially two documents; and yes, they were written. Free elections, to be supervised by the UN, are mentioned. The division between North and South at the 17th parallel is laid out. Much like the Korean Peninsula, two nation-states were recognized. However, the first document, The Accords, were only signed by a French general and a representative of the Viet Minh. The second, The Final Document, was not signed—by anyone! The U.S. was not a party to it; nor was Diem or his government; nor were the Viet Cong; nor was Ho Chi Minh. Not mentioning this pertinent fact is a major lie by omission. Not being signed means it was not agreed to. There was no agreement! No agreement for free elections, no agreement to seek reunification. This being the case, North Vietnam’s assault upon the South by sending thousands of troops and political cadre, plus tons of war materiel, into the south to run a terror campaign designed to overthrow the government of the South and to gain rule over that land, can only be seen as an attack upon a sovereign nation by another nation.
More elements, more skewed history: It’s easy to agree with Burns’ presentation of Lyndon Johnson. Many people I know consider him to have been the worst war-time president ever. The 3d episode, The River Styx, reinforces this perception. But Johnson being venal and inept does not negate the evil of the bastards on the other side. Obviously a similar statement should be made about Diem and Ho. Diem as autocratic does not negate Ho has butcher. Diem’s crackdown on agitprop agents who had infiltrated some pagodas does not negate Northern pogroms against ‘rich landowners.’
Additional thoughts and omissions: 1954-56: 900,000 refugees came into the South between 1954 and 1956. This is the equivalent of 25 million refugees settling in the U.S. in the past two years. Approximately half of these refugees were settled in the Central Highlands on the lands of the indigenous peoples (Montagnards) or in the Mekong Delta on lands of the Khmer Krom (Lower or lowland Cambodians) who populated the Delta long before Vietnamese expansion into the area. The resentment fostered by this resettlement played into the propaganda of the communist agents as they encouraged all blame be placed on the Saigon government without acknowledging that there would have been no refugees and no resettlement onto those lands had Hanoi’s terror campaign not instigated attempts by nearly one in ten Northerners (only 900,000 were successful, an equal or greater number many have been killed while attempting to escape) to flee their homeland.
More on Diem vs. Ho Chi Minh and use of the word autocratic: This is classic manipulation. Diem and his regime are referred to at least four times as autocratic. The word is never used with Ho Chi Minh. The documentary does mention the communist party instigating a ‘land reform campaign’ and the ensuing annihilation of ‘rich landlords’ (many who had supported the communists against the French, and many who were not rich). Also mentioned is the 5% quota the communists set for elimination. This was a classic form of communist cultural memory destruction. Still, somehow, Ho got a pass from Burns on the autocratic issue. The inference is that Diem was an illegitimate ruler in the South, but kindly Uncle Ho, although far, far, far more ruthless, was legitimate in the North. Go figure!
Paradigm Shifts: Understand that none of this happens… let me repeat that, NONE OF THIS HAPPENS… if communist leaders in the North do not send agents and troops into the South. The Battle of the Ia Drang doesn’t happen. Plei Me doesn’t happen. The agitprop resistance against Diem doesn’t happen. The self-immolation by Buddhist monks don’t happen. Most of the difficulties, most of the violence, most of the killings do not happen. The problems that first Kennedy and then Johnson faced, and as Burns accurately portrays did not solve or solved poorly, would not have happened withoutHanoi’sleadership first murdering not just those Northerners opposed to them but those most capable of passing on cultural memory.
There is the repeated theme that Hanoi’s communists were motivated by a desire to reunite the country. We mentioned earlier that viewers of episode 1 should be on the outlook for this as it would be a set-up for expanding a falsehood. Now we must again ask, “Reunite what country?” Recall, Indo-China was not one country, or even three countries, under the French. It was administered as six regions (Laos, Cambodia, Tonkin, Annam, Cochin China and the Crown Dominion Lands). Vietnam was not one country before the French. In the previous millennium it was united for perhaps 30 years. Most of this unification refers to unifying the area north of the Red River with that of the area south of the Red River—all of that territory being within what became known as North Vietnam. It does not refer to the area from the border with China in the north to the tip of the Ca Mau peninsula in the south or west to the mountain border areas with Cambodia and Laos. That had never been one country. There was nothing to reunify. This is not analogous to the American Civil War. This was not a nation that was split by colonialism, by war or by agreement.
Here, one properly should make a paradigm shift. Instead of calling it the Vietnam War it should be recognized as Hanoi’s Communist War of Hegemony to Rule All of Southeast Asia. The planning goes back to the 1920s; the implementation begins as WW II ends and accelerates for the next thirty years. As we will see later, it does not abate in 1975 but morphs into heightened terror, death camps and genocide in Cambodia, Laos and the new nation of Vietnam. The concepts reunification and Vietnam War are political constructs produced to enable and enhance propaganda, to justify losing the will to oppose tyranny, and to burn history.
A teaspoonful of sand: Does anyone recall the Jim Roan anecdote about achieving a good life, where he compares it to baking a cake. One, he said, should put in all the very best ingredients: the best eggs, the best milk, the best flour; and if possible they should be included in perfect proportion. The oven is preheated just so, so cooking time can be precise. But then, at the very last moment before popping the pan into the oven, some people put add to the batter a teaspoonful of sand. The results turn out to be something completely inedible. This is what Burns has done with his series. There are many good elements included, many accurate stories told, but it is as if into every episode he has added a teaspoonful of sand.
Please feel free to forward or share this essay. For more on this and for the need for paradigm shifts in the way we view history and many 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.