REVIEW: Ken Burns' 'Vietnam' Episode 3-5: What Went Wrong With LBJ's War?

I give Ken Burns major points for giving an accurate detailing of the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, in all their complexity, without resorting to conspiracy theories. But given the intense gloom and fatalism of these episodes, I would like to start with three quotes about the war:

If all Vietnam were Communist, it would be only a matter of time before Thailand, Cambodia and Laos would be Communist. Next it would be Malaya ... and so it would go ... if they took over Asia, they would then have the land mass, people, industry and raw materials to destroy the balance of forces in Europe. Europe would very probably fall to the Communists.

- Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson [D-WA], 1967

I really felt, and I think it's been proven, that the domino theory works. The Vietnamese have now taken over Laos. The communists in Vietnam are a terrible threat to Thailand. They have completely destroyed Cambodia. If that's not the domino theory at work, I don't know what is. They have created millions of refugees. I know. Because as vice chairman of the International Rescue Committee, I go there a couple of times a year in connection with our work. I've seen what they have done to the Cambodian people who are constantly coming into Thailand. I have seen what they have done to 'boat people' on the high seas, raping of women and all of that.

- Bayard Rustin, Civil Rights hero and organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, 1985

Although American intervention failed in Vietnam, it bought time for the rest of Southeast Asia. In 1965, when the US military moved massively into South Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines faced internal threats from armed communist insurgencies . . . and the communist underground was still active in Singapore. . . America's action [in Vietnam] enabled non-communist Southeast Asia to put their own houses in order. By 1975, they were in better shape to stand up to the communists. Had there been no US intervention, the will of these countries to resist them would have melted and Southeast Asia would most likely have gone communist. The prosperous emerging market economies of ASEAN were nurtured during the Vietnam War years.

- Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, 1959-1990

Ken Burns did not really do a good job explaining what went wrong with President Lyndon Johnson's prosecution of the war.

The world's foremost scholar on Communism, the late Robert Conquest, once wrote that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's conduct of the Vietnam war represented an "outstanding example of the failure of academic and theoretical expertise." McNamara "failed to understand" Communism, and therefore "had no real idea of the motivations of the leadership on the 'other side of the hill,'" which is "essential to sound strategy." He "undertook a responsibility involving the lives of scores of thousands of Americans and many more Vietnamese for which he was totally unqualified. This was true in the political sense ... and in the military sense."

With McNamara running the war, "we find (in our context) a complete apparatus of pseudoscientific lore. The whole approach of 'signals and responses' was politically illiterate. And the military side had been penetrated by the then fashionable variant of inapplicable 'scientific' approaches — 'systems analysis.'"

How this "pseudoscientific" approach translated into airpower was later detailed by Admiral Thomas Moorer:

The American experience in Vietnam was earmarked by a strategy of gradualism decided upon at the highest levels — committing our forces piecemeal with initial employment at low intensity and subsequently increasing the tempo in a slow and deliberate fashion. Under this strategy, bombing in the North was restricted as to type and location of targets and level of attacking forces. This gradual application of airpower, with frequent bombing halts over the course of time, was intended to give the enemy pause and motivate him into seeking a political settlement of the war. Instead, gradualism actually granted the enemy time to shore up his air defenses, disperse his military targets,and mobilize his labor force for logistical repair and movement. From a military point of view, gradualism violated the principles of mass and surprise which airpower has employed historically to attain its maximum effectiveness.

The pilots themselves didn't like it either. "The targets were decided, literally, in the Oval Office as to which ones would be hit," Vietnam veteran and Navy pilot John McCain said in 2014. "We watched Russian ships coming into the port of Haiphong, offload surface-to-air missiles, put them on trucks, take them miles and miles and miles up roads and then be put in place, and we were not allowed to go after them. And then they were shot at us. One of them shot me down."

McCain would spend five and a half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, enduring torture that resulted in permanent physical damage to his arms.

In his 1999 memoir, McCain recalled:

The night before my first mission, I had gone up to the squadron’s intelligence center to punch out information on my target. Out came a picture of a military barracks, with some details about the target’s recent history. It had already been bombed twenty-seven times. Half a mile away there was a bridge with truck tracks. But the bridge wasn’t on the target list. The target list was so restricted that we had to go back and hit the same targets over and over again. It’s hard to get a sense that you are advancing the war effort when you are prevented from doing anything more than bouncing the rubble of an utterly insignificant target.

McCain recalled the day Secretary McNamara visited his aircraft carrier:

He asked the skipper for the strike-pilot ratio. He wanted to make sure the numbers accorded with his conception of a successful war, and he was pleased with the figures he received from the skipper. He believed the number of missions flown relative to the number of bombs dropped would determine whether or not we won the war in the most cost-efficient manner. But when President Johnson ordered an end to RollingThunder in 1968, the campaign was judged to have had no measurable impact on the enemy. Most of the pilots flying the missions believed that our targets were virtually worthless. We had long believed that our attacks, more often than not limited to trucks, trains, and barges, were not just failing to break the enemy’s resolve but actually having the opposite effect by boosting Vietnam’s confidence that it could withstand the full measure of American airpower. In all candor, we thought our civilian commanders were complete idiots who didn’t have the least notion of what it took to win the war. I found no evidence in postwar studies of the Johnson administration’s political and military decision-making during the war that caused me to revise that harsh judgment.

Air Force colonel James Webb Sr., according to his son James (Jim) Webb Jr., "became disgusted with Defense Secretary McNamara's so-called 'whiz kids' after being assigned to the Pentagon in 1965."

Once Jim was commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1968, his father "urged me more than once to go into the navy, find myself a nice ship where I could, as he so often put it, 'sit in the wardroom and eat ice cream,' and not risk myself as a Marine on an ever-deteriorating battlefield. Once I did receive my orders for combat, my father put in his papers to retire from the air force, telling me he 'couldn't bear to watch it' while still wearing a military uniform."

Jim Webb later expanded on this: "More than anything else, my father's hesitations were motivated by the arrogance and incompetence of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his much-ballyhooed bunch of civilian Whiz Kids whose data-based 'systems analysis' approach to fighting our wars had diminished the historic role of military leadership."

Nevertheless, the war remained popular. Many simply saw it as the patriotic and humane thing to do.

George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, said, "As far as Vietnam is concerned, we in the AFL-CIO are neither 'hawk' nor 'dove' nor 'chicken'. We do not pretend to be military experts of any kind—armchair or otherwise. Nor are we in a position to judge the strategic importance of bombing or other military weapons and tactics. We are trade unionists—and as trade unionists we believe in human freedom and democracy—not just for ourselves but for everyone who prefers to live under such a system— and I think that includes everyone in his right mind. We believe that those values are worth defending and that they will not survive in the modern world unless the richest, most powerful nation on earth is willing to help defend them with its material resources, if possible, but with lives of its fine young men tragic, as that is if necessary."

In a more specific explanation of the AFL-CIO's position on Vietnam, he said: "There is one overriding fact about the Vietnam issue that is and must be the primary concern of the AFL-CIO—the existence, in South Vietnam, of a genuine free trade union movement. ... I am sure that I do not have to explain to you what would happen to these trade unionists and their leaders after a Communist take-over. I am perhaps too young to understand the complex motives of any American trade unionist who can bring himself to advocate a course of action that would abandon brother trade unionists of South Vietnam to certain destruction. And, perhaps, I am too simple to comprehend how one who takes that position can be called a 'liberal.'"

This stuff gets lost in Burns' series. At one point he shows an infamous Morley Safer newsreel with Marines burning huts and evacuating families. What is not said is that — since the Viet Cong operated like Hamas does today — those huts and those civilians were at the mouth of a massive Viet Cong tunnel complex that the Marines were going to destroy, so they were evacuating those Vietnamese so that they would not be hurt. In the same situation, the communists would have killed everyone in the village as "traitors."

At another point, Burns shows Senator J. William Fulbright, head of the Foreign Relations Committee, holding anti-war hearings. What isn't said is that Fulbright, a Democrat of Arkansas, wanted to be Secretary of State. But both Kennedy and Johnson refused to do so because he was a segregationist and a signer of the 1956 "Southern Manifesto." That was the real reason he suddenly went on a Left-Wing crusade against Johnson's anti-communist foreign policy.

The film also shows Dr. Benjamin Spock speaking against the war. What isn't said is that Dr. Spock had once been a member of the Communist Party. Spock’s sister, Hiddy, told his biographer, "He actually showed me his membership card in the Communist Party." [Thomas Maier, Dr. Spock: An American Life, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998, pg. 111.] Spock would produce a book about the war, which was so anti-American that it gained a readership among the North Vietnamese communists, who in turn tried to get the American POWs to read it.

The film mentioned that Spock provided an introduction to a photo essay Ramparts magazine did of children burned by napalm. The 22 photos were so gruesome that they moved Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak out against the war. It turned out that the essay had given a fraudulent statistic about the number of children killed by American bombing, claiming it to have been 200,000. When asked where they got that number, the author of the photo essay, a conspiracy theorist named William Pepper, said he got it from Hugh Campbell, former Canadian member of the International Control Commission in Vietnam, who was monitoring the war. But when Campell was asked about Pepper’s claims by the Associated Press, Campell stated that he said no such thing.

Additionally, I once showed the photos to Ion Mihai Pacepa, former chief of Communist Romanian intelligence and the highest-ranking Soviet-bloc intelligence official ever to have defected to the United States. He said:

"I saw hundreds of very similar pictures showing so-called children victimized in Vietnam that my Romanian service, the DIE, got from the [Soviet-run and financed] Stockholm Conference and from the KGB. They were all produced in the KGB's photo labs … The Disinformation department of the Stockholm Conference and the Disinformation department of the KGB sent them to my Disinformation Department, to be used in various disinformation operations. Most of these pictures were further sent by my DIE to the Italian, Greek, and Spanish Communist Parties, whose logistic and propaganda departments were serviced by Bucharest. The CPUSA was serviced by the KGB. Ramparts was also directly connected with the KGB."

And, as I have written previously, Harrison Salisbury's New York Times articles from North Vietnam about the bombing make an appearance in the film. These articles were plagiarized from a North Vietnamese propaganda pamphlet titled "Report on U.S. War Crimes in Nam-Dinh City", and the trip itself was organized by Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, a KGB agent. Burchett later boasted in a private letter that "Harrison said what I have been saying for a long time, but it is much more important that it is said in the New York Times."

The next episode is going to deal with the Tet offensive of 1968. I look forward to seeing it.

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