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Ken Burns’ Vietnam: Episode 1. Very Good, But 2 Omissions

By  Spyridon Mitsotakis

I congratulate Ken Burns on the first episode of his documentary. I really do. It takes great diligence to be able to wade through the mountain of simplified, Howard Zinn-style propaganda put out by former anti-war activists who pose as historians of the conflict. For half a century, the academic narrative of the war has been: “The imperialist Americans were the sinister puppet masters that brought the French back to power in the third world to oppress patriotic national liberation democrats, and then stepped in to replace the French in a racist campaign of genocide.”

This first episode showed that:

  • The United States opposed the return of France to Indochina, and only reluctantly supported it after the Communists took control of China and began to actively support communists throughout Asia with arms (and in some cases, with troops).
  • The Vietnamese communists were, in fact, communists. They weren’t “nationalists forced into the arms of the Soviets”; they were communists, and just as bloodthirsty as any of their fellow Moscow-trained brethren. (In the October 1981 issue of the American Historical Review, Allen Goodman of Georgetown University recounted asking former Comintern member Bertram Wolfe about Ho Chi Minh, whom he had spent three months with touring the Soviet Union as part of the Comintern in the 1920s. Goodman quotes Wolfe’s reply: “Ho was the sharpest, most callous communist organizer I ever met. While in public he spoke with fierce pride as a Vietnamese nationalist, in private he readily acknowledged that this was all for show. What mattered most to him was power — gaining it and holding it — and he pledged to manipulate any cause and anyone to these ends.”)
  • The National Liberation Front of South Vietnam was not an independent force. It was controlled by the Communist North.

There were, however, two omissions worth noting.

The first is that, after the end of World War II and the end of the Japanese occupation, according to a 1966 North Vietnamese propaganda pamphlet entitled President Ho-Chi-Minh: Beloved Leader of the Vietnamese People:

The Central Committee and President Ho strove to safeguard peace so that the country, which had been ruined by eighty years of colonial domination and years of war, could be reconstructed. A preliminary convention was signed on March 6, 1946 between President Ho and the French representative Sainteny. In this accord, Vietnam recognized herself [as] a member of the French Union and agreed to the landing of 15,000 French troops in North and Central Vietnam to replace the Chiang Kai-shek troops [Chinese anti-comminist Nationalists], as well as to a cease-fire in South Vietnam, etc.

You read that right. It was the Communists who brought France back to Indochina with open arms.

Vietnamese Communist Party First Secretary Le Duan would explain in his 1970 publication The Vietnamese Revolution: Fundamental Problems, Essential Tasks that they were simply following the “shrewd recommendation of Lenin”: “We would at one time reach a temporary compromise with … the French in order to drive out the Chiang Kai-shek troops and to wipe out the reactionaries, their agents, thus gaining time to consolidate our forces and prepare for a nationwide resistance to French colonialist aggression, which the party knew was inevitable.”

Having established these facts with the Communists’ own words, a succinct explanation of all this is provided by 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:

It was, after all, Ho Chi Minh who signed a modus vivendi with the French on March 6, 1946, point two of which declared his government’s willingness ‘to welcome amicably the French Army’ when it returned to Vietnam. The following day Ho Chi Minh and French Commanding General Jean Leclerc issued a joint communiqué calling on the people of Vietnam to ‘welcome’ the French back. When the true nationalists cried ‘betrayal’ and took to the hills to prepare for guerrilla war against the returning French, Ho and his colleagues fought hand-in-hand alongside the colonialist troops to ‘liquidate’ the ‘reactionaries,’ and thus virtually guarantee a Marxist-Leninist leadership of the subsequent and anti-French resistance movement. Indeed, contrary to the popular mythology that the United States supported the return of French colonialism to Indochina after the war, the late Bernard Fall noted in his classic study, The Two Viet-Nams, that French General Sainteny radioed his superiors in Calcutta that he was ‘face to face with a deliberate Allied maneuver to evict the French from Indochina,’ and that ‘at the present time the Allied attitude is more harmful than that of the Viet Minh.’ The so-called ‘Pentagon Papers’ provide excellent background on this period, documenting that the U.S. prohibited the French from using American arms in their campaign to return to power in Indochina, and noting that, in June 1948, the American ambassador in Paris was instructed ‘to “apply such persuasion and/or pressure as is best calculated [to] produce desired result” of France’s “unequivocally and promptly approving the principle of Viet independence.”‘ It was only after the communist victory in China in 1949, and the subsequent delivery of large scale Chinese assistance to Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh, that the United States concluded it was in its national interest to provide some assistance to the French in Indochina. Even then, the U.S. continued to pressure France to commit itself to end its colonialism and provide for eventual self-government in Indochina.

The second omission involves the Geneva convention. By 1954, with the infusion of massive Chinese support, the communists were able to overrun a French outpost at Dien Bien Phu after a two-month siege. The debacle caused a political crisis in France that brought the socialist government of Pierre Mendès-France into power. The new French government arranged for a Conference in Geneva to negotiate the terms of French withdrawal.

Professor Turner explains that:

[N]either the United States government nor Ngo Dinh Diem’s State of Vietnam signed anything at the 1954 Geneva Conference. With respect to the question of reunification, the non-communist Vietnamese delegation objected strenuously to any division of Vietnam, but lost out when the French accepted the proposal of Viet Minh delegate Pham Van Dong. Dong, who subsequently became Prime Minister of Ho Chi Minh’s government, then proposed that Vietnam eventually be united by elections under the supervision of ‘local commissions.’ The United States countered with what became known as the “American Plan,” with the support of South Vietnam and the United Kingdom. It provided for unification elections under the supervision of the United Nations. This was rejected by Soviet delegation head Molotov, with the support of the other communist delegations. In the end, over the protest of South Vietnam and the United States, the cease fire agreement (signed only by France and the Viet Minh) provided for division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel.

The then Republican Vice President of the United States, Richard Nixon, later recalled that “balloting conducted in Viet Minh territory in 1946 revealed just what they had in mind for 1956. … Ho received 169,222 votes in Hanoi, a city with a population of only 119,000.” True to form, “Ho’s distaste for uncontrolled elections had not abated by 1956. Pham Van Dong told a reporter how Ho expected the elections to run. There would have to be a multiparty contest in South Vietnam, but the ballot in North Vietnam, where the people were ‘united,’ would have only the Communist party on it. This would have made the election a sure thing for Hanoi, because North Vietnam contained 55 percent of the total Vietnamese population. An election that guaranteed victory was the only kind Ho ever would accept.”

Nixon’s future opponent for the presidency, Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy, agreed. On June 1, 1956, he told the American Friends of Vietnam that “in the councils of the world, we must never permit any diplomatic action adverse to this, one of the youngest members of the family of nations — and I include in that injunction a plea that the United States never give its approval to the early nationwide elections called for by the Geneva Agreement of 1954. Neither the United States nor Free Vietnam was a party to that agreement — and neither the United States nor Free Vietnam is ever going to be a party to an election obviously stacked and subverted in advance, urged upon us by those who have already broken their own pledges under the Agreement they now seek to enforce.”

This event would later be distorted and become a centerpiece of pro-Hanoi mythology. In 1971, when Senator George McGovern was running for president against Nixon, he had this revealing exchange with columnist Milton Viorst in Playboy magazine:

VIORST: If we make a historical allegory out of this, what similarities do you see with the American Revolution, where we Americans were trying to keep a foreign power, Britain, and its sympathizers, the Tories, from running the country?

McGOVERN: I think they’re very close. I think that Ho Chi Minh has copied our Declaration of Independence. He was really trying to throw the French out, not invite the Chinese in and as Eisenhower said: “If there had been an election after they threw the French out he would have had 80 percent of the vote at least, in both North and South Vietnam.” Similarly, George Washington was overwhelmingly elected once he kicked the British out of our country.

VIORST: I suppose that Nixon would like to make the late Ho Chi Minh into the Vietnam Hitler. Are you suggesting he might be the North Vietnamese George Washington?

McGOVERN: That’s right.

First of all, this stuff about Ho copying our founding fathers (he is shown quoting the Declaration of Independence in the film) is a classic Communist ploy to get us to lower our guard. Castro also quoted the founders, a few years before he asked the Soviets to nuke us. The Chinese Communists used to run pro-American editorials in their newspaper before they came to power and went to war with us in Korea. But more important is McGovern’s misquoting of President Eisenhower’s book “Mandate for Change.” The passage of Eisenhower’s book that he refers to reads:

I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 percent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather than the Chief of State Bao Dai. Indeed, the lack of leadership on the part of Bao Dai was a factor in the feeling prevalent amoung Vietnamese that they had nothing to fight for.

The passage does not say what McGovern claims it says. Robert Turner, then an activist who supported the American effort in Vietnam, wrote in December 1967 that what President Eisenhower meant was that he was told if elections were held in 1954, which was “the time of the fighting,” then Ho Chi Minh would have defeated the French puppet leader Bao Dai. This statement had nothing to do with the Geneva Accords or the prospect of a nationwide 1956 election between Ho and the nationalist Ngo Dinh Diem, as McGovern implies was the subject.

Turner wrote to Eisenhower about the misquotes and in February of 1968 Eisenhower’s representative and publisher, writing on behalf of the former President, responded:

A quick review of MANDATE FOR CHANGE indicates that your quotation is correct. And the quotation should be taken for neither more nor less than the statement itself. What is to be understood is that at that time, it was reported to President Eisenhower that Ho would have defeated Bao Dai by the 80% mentioned. No further great conclusion should be drawn from the statement.

(Professor Turner was kind enough to send me a copy of the letter.)

Turner’s 1967 article continues:

There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that Ho would have won such an election. Why? Because there were no provisions for effective supervision. Since North Vietnam had a population of 16 million, compared to 14 million in the South, and since Ho Chi Minh consistently polls 99.8% of North Vietnamese “elections”, Diem – or anyone else for that matter – would be foolish to agree to such elections without effective supervision.

The argument that Diem violated the Geneva Agreements by refusing to hold unsupervised elections is ridiculous. South Vietnam refused to sign the Agreements, and strongly protested against them at Geneva. Even Pham Van Dong, Premier of North Vietnam, observed as far back as January 1, 1955 that “… it is you, the French, who are responsible, for it is with you that we signed the Geneva Agreement, and it is you who will have to see that it is respected.” Great Britain, as co-chairman of the 1954 Geneva Conference, gave additional support to South Vietnam’s position in a diplomatic note sent to the Soviet Union, the other co-chairman at Geneva. The note recognized that South Vietnam was not legally bound by the armistice agreements since it had not signed them and had protested against them at Geneva

These omissions aside, however, this first episode is very well done. I hope upcoming episodes will be just as good.

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