Episode 2 of Ken Burns' series on Vietnam was not as good as the first. It is still made very clear that America's intentions were noble - the battle against communist imperialism. And given the incredibly anti-American makeup of the majority of literature on the war, that counts for a lot. The problem with this episode, however, is that it is over-reliant on one source, who is committed to one narrative.
This narrative may well be the correct one - but the problem is that the source had a stake in the perpetuation of the narrative, which makes it difficult to accept uncritically.
I have all the respect in the world for Lt. Colonel John Paul Vann. There were few men as brave and as patriotic as this man, who gave the best years of his life fighting and ultimately dying for the cause of freedom. Freedom for Americans, and freedom for the people of South Vietnam, whom he loved with all of his heart.
But it is nevertheless true that, in his patriotic zeal and with the best of intentions, Vann was willing to manipulate anything and everybody to set the course that he believed was correct.
And Vann hated Diem. He felt Diem was an impediment to the way he felt the war needed to be fought. So Diem had to go.
One of Vann's favorite techniques was recruiting journalists. He was incredibly affable and charismatic, so earning people's trust was easy for him.
Vann's most reliable recruit was Neil Sheehan of UPI. It would be Sheehan and his friends David Halberstam of the New York Times, and Malcolm Browne of AP who were the top reporters in Vietnam in 1963 during what became known as the Buddhist Crisis. In Ken Burns' film they are portrayed as the only reliable truth tellers in an uncritical press corp, but in reality their minds were already made up that Diem had to go, and that sentiment is what drove their reporting.
The best synapses of this time period in South Vietnam was written by John P. Roche, a liberal anti-communist writing for the AFL-CIO newsletter in 1971:
"For a while in the late '50s and early '60s, things were going fine: Diem destroyed the quasi-religious feudal power of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, eliminated the Binh Xuyen mafia which once controlled the city of Saigon, and seemed well on his way to creating a stable regime. Indeed, those of us with long and pessimistic memories recall that in the spring of 1963 the ubiquitous Sir Robert Thompson reported to Pres. Kennedy that Diem had things nicely in hand.
Then all hell broke loose: the opponents of Diem's autocratic rule realized that what they needed was religious cover, and almost overnight—with the full cooperation of the resident U.S. press—converted a political fight into an attempt to suppress Buddhism."
The historian Guenter Lewy wrote in 2006:
"A significant number of the protesters against Diem were communist agents and this included some of the monks. Such infiltration was easy, for any Vietnamese man could pose as Buddhist monk by shaving his head, donning a monk's robe, and acting with humility. For many years the Hanoi regime kept silent about the sensitive subject of its involvement in the Buddhist movement, but in the early 1990s it began publishing detailed accounts of its complicity. A high-level communist resolution in 1961 had advised planting agents in religious organizations: "Once our agents are planted, they then lead these organizations to work for the cause of the people." According to one communist history, the Central Committee of the National Liberation Front 'quickly directed the people of all classes of the population to cooperate actively with the Buddhist monks and nuns in a resolute struggle until the goals were achieved.' This account credits the NLF with organizing several demonstrations in provincial capitals in which the demonstrators denounced the United States and Diem and demanded 'freedom of religion' and 'democracy.'"
It should be noted that one of the classic techniques of communism is to launch a public relations campaign against any American ally who's government was undemocratic, and press the point that authoritarian regimes do not deserve our support and should be allowed to collapse. They did this in Yugoslavia, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, and today are doing this in Israel. (Of coarse, our WWII alliance with Stalin never seemed to bother them.)
"In August 1963, several South Vietnamese generals urged Diem to declare martial law and to clear the pagodas of outside monks so that they no longer could serve as 'privileged sanctuaries of subversion.' Diem consented and in many cities government forces encountered resistance when they evicted protesting monks from the pagodas. Some monks and policemen were hurt and required hospitalization. An after-action report for Diem noted that government forces had discovered weapons and Viet Cong documents in several of Saigon's pagodas. The government's show of force impressed the populace, and even among Western observers many concluded that Diem had successfully averted a serious threat to his government. This favorable view, however, did not prevail for long, largely as a result of distorted reporting by Mr. Halberstam on the pagoda raids that would shape the opinions of many Americans. According to a dispatch filed by Mr. Halberstam on August 23, during the evacuation of Tu Dam pagoda in Hue, at least 30 people had been killed and at least 70 wounded. This report created an international stir and caused the United Nations to send an investigative commission to South Vietnam. The commission did not reach Saigon until October 24, by which time the alleged total of Buddhist dead during the pagoda raids had shriveled to four. Upon investigation, commission members actually met and interviewed all four of these monks. Mr. Halberstam omitted his false claim from his subsequent famous book 'The Best and the Brightest' (1972), but by then the damage had been done."
The State Department reads the New York Times, and it was reading the Times' coverage of the "Buddhist Crisis" that convinced Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Roger Hilsman that Diem had to go. And so, with the tepid support of JFK, Hilsman and ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. organized the overthrow of Diem.
In a 2004 lecture, former Army Intelligence Officer Robert Turner, whose job in Vietnam was to deal with defectors and captured Communist documents and prisoners, and who after the war became a Professor of Law at the University of Virginia as well as a renowned scholar on Vietnamese Communism, said: "One of the biggest mistakes we made was the overthrow of Diem. I did a lot of work with Bui Cong Tuong who was I think, the most senior defector we had in the entire war from the Communist side; he was chief of education, culture, propaganda and training in what they called Ben Tre Province, very knowledgeable, very senior. I was driving back to Saigon with him late one evening and I asked him, 'what did you think of Diem?' And he said, 'we senior party officials view Diem as a great patriot in the same category as Ho Chi Minh, but because he would not accept the party's leadership, we had to discredit him with the people. But when we heard the reports that Diem had been killed, we said it must be some sort of a trick. The Americans could not be so stupid as to allow Diem to be killed.'"
After the war the Communists admitted that they were losing to Diem, but the situation was reversed in the chaos following Diem's overthrow.
John P. Roche wrote: "At this point, chaos set in: the generals who had destroyed Diem were incapable of establishing a stable regime. And Hanoi, which was apparently startled by the coup and unprepared for it, began to move seriously. The United States was in a box: we had made a commitment to Saigon and, if anything, our role in eliminating Diem intensified it. ... By July 1965, it was clear that unless American ground forces came in, the war would be lost. The Saigon government at that point could not organize a two-car funeral."
Burns never addresses the question of whether JFK would have stayed in Vietnam had he lived - which is understandable, since it is an unanswerable question. I personally believe he would have. On the day he was assassinated (by a communist), President Kennedy was on his way to give a speech saying, in part:
"I pledged in 1960 to restore world confidence in the vitality and energy of American society. That pledge has been fulfilled. We have won the respect of allies and adversaries alike through our determined stand on behalf of freedom around the world, from West Berlin to Southeast Asia--through our resistance to Communist intervention in the Congo and Communist missiles in Cuba--and through our initiative in obtaining the nuclear test ban treaty which can stop the pollution of our atmosphere and start us on the path to peace. In San Jose and Mexico City, in Bonn and West Berlin, in Rome and County Cork, I saw and heard and felt a new appreciation for an America on the move--an America which has shown that it cares about the needy of its own and other lands, an America which has shown that freedom is the way to the future, an America which is known to be first in the effort for peace as well as preparedness."
That doesn't sound like a man in retreat.