For all practical purposes it is not possible to separate out the last months of President Johnson’s stewardship of the Vietnam War from Richard Nixon’s. For they are intertwined around two crucial points.
First, after the Tet offensive and during the siege of Khe Sanh, Johnson called a meeting of the so-called Wise Men of American foreign policy, retired eminences like Dean Acheson and Robert Lovett. Johnson brought in the military to try and explain how America had actually won the Tet offensive. Acheson walked out. When Johnson called him later to ask why he left, Acheson said he would not listen to any more canned Pentagon presentations. He wanted the raw data of the intelligence reports. LBJ complied and Acheson got the real picture of what was happening in the field. (Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men, p. 687)
A couple of weeks later, Johnson told Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford to begin an in depth review of the war based on the real figures. After about two weeks of discussion, with Clifford asking the generals many probing questions, the new secretary came to the conclusion it was a hopeless military situation. (Isaacson and Thomas, pp. 683-89) As Clifford later said, “The Tet offensive’s size and scope made a mockery of what the American military had told the public about the war, and devastated American credibility.” (Carl Oglesby, Ravens in the Storm, p. 156) As a result of these two developments, Johnson decided there would be no further granting of General Westmoreland’s requests for combat troops. Shortly after, he removed Westmoreland and replaced him with Creighton Abrams.
Nixon had heard about the Wise Men meeting and understood what it meant. In March of 1968, before the presidential campaign began, he told three of his speechwriters: “I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no way to win the war. But we can’t say that, of course. In fact, we have to seem to say the opposite, just to keep some degree of bargaining leverage.” (Jeffrey Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War, p. 52)
What makes that statement startling is the following episode. Realizing it was the end of the line, Johnson decided not to run again in 1968. When he announced this at the end of March, he said he would spend the rest of his administration, about ten months, trying to get a peace settlement. When the presidential race heated up in the summer of 1968, Nixon began to perceive this tactic as a way of aiding the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey, LBJ’s Vice-President. Nixon decided to hatch a plot in order to stop Johnson’s negotiations from getting off the ground. With newly discovered files, writers like Bob Parry and Ken Hughes have filled in the outlines of this previously hazy conspiracy. The idea was to use sympathetic agents like GOP lobbyist Anna Chennault and Vietnamese ambassador to the USA Bui Diem to tell President Thieu in Saigon not to enter the negotiations. If he did not, he would get a better deal from President Nixon. The plot was successful. Thieu boycotted the negotiations, stymying Johnson’s efforts, thus backstopping Nixon’s narrow victory. (For a good article on the subject, see Robert Parry, “LBJ’s X File on Nixon’s Treason,” Consortium News, March 3, 2012; for a book-length treatment see Ken Hughes’, Chasing Shadows.)
Nixon managed to win the presidency, but unawares to him at the time, he was sowing the seeds of his downfall. For, as both Parry and Hughes have noted, the real provocation for Watergate was not the publication of the Pentagon Papers. It was Nixon’s knowledge that Johnson knew that he—a private citizen—had illegally subverted LBJ’s foreign policy. This was a violation of the Logan Act. For Johnson perceived something was wrong with Thieu’s reaction. He decided to have the CIA and the FBI place surveillance on Nixon’s campaign, Anna Chennault, and the Vietnamese embassy in Washington. The result of this was that Nixon’s covert campaign was discovered. But Johnson decided not to go public with the information. When Nixon took office, J. Edgar Hoover tipped him off as to what Johnson had done. Nixon commissioned a study of where Johnson had stored the file on the matter. A young aide concluded (wrongly) that it was at the Brookings Institute. On one of the declassified Watergate tapes one can hear Nixon talking about firebombing Brookings, and sending a team in under the confusion to ransack the place to find the file. This caused the creation of the so-called Plumbers Unit in the White House. It was that unit which would break into the Watergate Hotel in the summer of 1972. Nixon resigned facing impeachment charges two years later because of that event. (“Fleshing Out Nixon’s Vietnam Treason”)
The Burns/Novick documentary does a decent enough job on the above. It touches on these major points (except for Johnson’s Wise Man meeting). But it does not note two important subsidiary issues. Although Nixon acknowledged the war was lost before he entered office, he greatly increased air operations over both Laos and Cambodia. During 1969, Nixon increased bomb tonnage over Laos by 60%. (Jeffrey Kimball, The Vietnam War Files, p. 21) In Cambodia, the increase was even more radical. As William Shawcross noted in his bestselling book Sideshow, the leader of Cambodia in 1969, Prince Sihanouk, had allowed the Johnson administration to do small scale cross-border raids. This was to hinder North Vietnam’s supply route to South Vietnam, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which crossed through Cambodia and Laos. But he never gave them permission to extend the war into his country, or to use sustained B-52 bombing. (Shawcross, pp. 70-71)
This all changed under Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. And Burns and Novick drastically underplay the change. In fact, they attempt to blur the difference between the two administrations. As Shawcross writes, by the end of 1968 there were about 4,000 of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge rebels in Cambodia. (p. 73) Sihanouk had done all he could to walk a tightrope between Hanoi and Washington in order to protect his people and their social structure from the war, thus keeping Pol Pot at bay.
This was not good enough for Nixon. During the first week of his administration he made Cambodia and Sihanouk targets of his war plans. (Shawcross, p. 91) In March of 1969, Nixon began secret sustained B-52 bombing attacks over Cambodia. As he said, “We’ll bomb the bastards off the earth.” (Anthony Summers, The Arrogance of Power, p. 333 ) And he tried. In the next 14 months there were 3,630 B-52 sorties flown over Cambodia. That bombing campaign drove the North Vietnamese from the border areas of Cambodia inward; but the bombing raids followed them. (William Blum, The CIA: A Forgotten History, p. 151) And this began to destabilize Sihanouk’s government. (Shawcross, p. 113) To protect his right flank, Sihanouk appointed General Lon Nol as his prime minister. The general staged a coup against Sihanouk. Lon Nol allowed Nixon and Kissinger to supplement their air war with an invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970. From here the Khmer Rouge exponentially gained in strength until Lon Nol’s government was under siege by Pol Pot. Nothing like that existed under Johnson, let alone Kennedy. Therefore, it is quite a stretch to blur the dividing lines.
How much of an escalation in the air war was there under Nixon? Realizing in 1968 the war was lost, and later announcing a program of troop withdrawals in August of 1969, Nixon proceeded to drop more bomb tonnage over Indochina than Johnson had. And it was by a significant factor—over a million tons. (Kimball, The Vietnam War Files, p. 21)
A good question could have been posed at this time in the Burns/Novick narrative. Knowing the war was lost, why was Nixon now spreading it further beyond the borders of Vietnam? The only way to answer that question would be to trace Nixon’s involvement with Ngo Dinh Diem and President Eisenhower back to 1954-56. (Actually before that, since Nixon appealed to President Truman to support the French cause in the first Indochina War; see David F. Schmitz, Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War, p. 1). Contrary to what Nixon liked to tell interviewers like David Frost, he did not inherit the South Vietnam problem. He helped create it—through illicit means. He did so, at the foot of his master Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, by breaking the Geneva Accords and not allowing unification elections. America then handpicked a homegrown, Catholic, English speaking leader, Ngo Dinh Diem. (Blum, pp. 138-139) CIA Director Allen Dulles then had veteran black operator Ed Lansdale rig the plebiscite that got rid of the French administration and installed Diem as dictator. (p. 139) The Agency furnished Diem a police force by training his security officers at Michigan State. As former Green Beret Donald Duncan wrote, some of these security measures comprised torture techniques against dissidents like lowering the prisoner’s testicles into a vise, and also waterboarding. (pp. 141-42. It should be noted, Burns and Novick imply that Americans did not do these things. A false presumption we will return to.)
In other words, whether Nixon wanted to deny it or not, he was up to his neck in the creation of the state of South Vietnam. It would not have existed without the Eisenhower/Nixon administration. Foster Dulles, Nixon’s mentor, said in a rather famous comment, which the film ignores: “We have a clean slate there now, without a taint of colonialism. Dien Bien Phu was a blessing in disguise.” (Blum, p. 139)
Yet, in spite of all this, one of the worst things about this series is that it tries to imply that three presidents fought the war: Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Utter balderdash. The fact is that when Kennedy won the presidency he was presented with this fabricated country, run by a Lansdale-chosen leader, who could hardly be less wrong for the population he was representing. And Diem was backed up by Pentagon advisors, and a CIA-run police state—replete with the infamous tiger cages—and tens of millions of dollars in aid each year. In introducing Nixon, the film ignores all of this. And, as I noted in Part 1, concerning the first Indochina War and the creation of both South Vietnam and Diem: Burns and Novick deliberately cut most of this out, including the mention of Lansdale’s name. They also excised the fact that Vice President Nixon was the first high level politician who proposed sending American combat troops to Vietnam, in order to bail out the French at Dien Bien Phu.
In my opinion, this censorship is historically untenable. One has to fully grasp Nixon’s initial involvement in the conflict in order to understand his irrational actions upon becoming president. Partly because of his schooling at the foot of Foster Dulles, Nixon was an inveterate Cold Warrior, and would die as one. About the famous and serious Sino/Soviet border dispute he once said, “They are simply arguing about what kind of shovel they should use to dig the grave of the United States.” (Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War, by David Schmitz, p. 10) While campaigning for GOP Senator Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, Nixon said the war was part of Chinese expansionism into Southeast Asia, and if they won they would spread into Australia and New Zealand. (Schmitz, p. 12) In that campaign he also said LBJ was not aggressive enough and he should take the war into the north. (p. 12) In an article for Reader’s Digest, Nixon wrote that America losing in Vietnam would be like Neville Chamberlain appeasing Adolf Hitler at Munich. For, he added, the fate of all Asia relied on the outcome. (p. 13) In December of 1964, after Johnson won the election, Nixon now urged the expansion of the war into Laos and North Vietnam. For if we lost in Vietnam, it would risk a major war with Russia or China; we should therefore fight now and not later. (p. 14) Once Johnson did commit combat troops in 1965, Nixon said we needed more until the communists left. (p. 16) To say this all turned out to be wrong is not the point. It all turned out to be complete malarkey. This from a man who the MSM once framed as some kind of foreign policy guru.
On top of that, there were his multiple trips to South Vietnam, four of them in five years. All while he was out of office. (Schmitz, p. 19) The one he took in 1964 is inexplicable. (Jim Hougan tries to explain it here.) In 1967, he met in country with Ed Lansdale and tried to encourage Johnson to mine Haiphong harbor. (p. 16)
Then there was the Madman Theory. Foster Dulles called it the “uncertainty principle”. What it meant was this: you had to convince your foe that you were willing to go to previously unimagined lengths in order to persuade him you were irrational. (Jeffry Kimball, The Vietnam War Files, p. 55) He would as a result either capitulate or agree to unfavorable terms. The problem is that none of this worked in Vietnam; not the bombing of Cambodia, not the invasion of Cambodia, not the increased bombing over Laos, not the invasion of Laos, not the mining of Haiphong harbor, and so on. Yet even when the military saw that the torture and assassination program, Operation Phoenix, was not working and wanted to cut it back, Nixon insisted it be renewed. (Summers, p. 334)
The fact was that the Cold War construct that Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon bought into was faulty. The idea that there was a colossal communist conspiracy emanating from Moscow or Bejing (or both), that Vietnam was part of this plot, and if we did not stop them there then the dominoes would fall all the way to Hawaii: this turned out to be moonshine. And by 1957, State Department officer George Kennan—the man who made up the concept of containment back in 1946—deplored the contortions that his original ideas had undergone at the hands of the Pentagon, the CIA and hardline political hacks. But he specifically excluded President Kennedy from this pack. In fact, he liked working with JFK, and after he was killed, he had a “dismal foreboding for the future of this country”. (Click here) One of the most serious failings in this 18 hour behemoth is that the underpinnings of these horribly flawed ideas are never exposed. On the contrary, at times, they are even supported.
Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger set up a series of secret negotiations in Paris in 1969. For a long time they did not go anywhere. The main negotiators were Kissinger and Hanoi’s Le Duc Tho. The latter saw through all the bluster that Nixon and Kissinger tried to throw at him. He told Kissinger in 1970 that Nixon’s Vietnamization program—the attempt to gradually turn over the war to South Vietnam as American troops left—was not working and would not work. He specifically mentioned the failure in Laos, and the previous failure of Johnson’s bombing campaign, Rolling Thunder. He then was quite frank: he told Kissinger that America had failed in Vietnam. (Jeffrey Kimball, The Vietnam War Files, p. 127) Hanoi’s representative made the following cogent observation: “Before, there were over a million US and puppet troops, and you failed. How can you succeed when you let the puppet troops do the fighting? Now, with only US support, how can you win?” (p. 127)
Nixon was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. For his own political survival, he knew he could not keep American troops in Vietnam. He had to maintain his withdrawal schedule. It was the only way to at least partly neutralize the anti-war movement, which—contrary to what the film states—had a strong influence on what Nixon was doing. Jeffrey Kimball, the foremost authority on Nixon’s Vietnam policies, has clearly noted this. Prior to the giant October and November 1969 anti-war demonstrations—which took place not just throughout America but also around the world—Nixon had mapped out a multi-pronged offensive against Hanoi. It was a land-air-sea plan. It included, but was not limited to: infantry operations across the DMZ, air strikes at bridges near the Chinese border, and the mining of three seaports. It was codenamed Operation Duck Hook. It was so secret that not even Defense Secretary Melvin Laird knew about it. (Kimball, p. 101) Nixon had drafted a speech to announce this surprise offensive. But after seeing the size, scope and intensity of the protest movements, he called off the operation. He then changed his planned address to his Silent Majority speech. (p. 105) It was startling to me that Burns and Novick did not mention this strophe at all. Perhaps it was excised because one of the goals of the film was to belittle the anti-war movement, a point I will return to later.
Richard Nixon fought to the end of his life to prevent any of his records from being released through the National Archives. There was real progress made on this only after he passed away in 1994. Today, it is apparent that one reason he fought so desperately against it was due to the nature of his many discussions with Kissinger on Vietnam. The tapes would have exposed his book on the subject, No More Vietnams, as a knowing deception. For instance, Nixon wrote that he never considered bombing the dikes in North Vietnam or using atomic weapons. As Kimball discovered, during Hanoi’s Easter Offensive, in spring 1972, Nixon considered doing both. (Kimball, pp. 214-19) Although their film discusses the Easter Offensive, Burns and Novick do not play this tape.
But there was actually something else in those tapes and papers that was just as bad. Realizing the war was lost and that Hanoi would drive a hard bargain in Paris, Nixon and Kissinger decided to prolong the conflict for purely political purposes. Kissinger called this the “decent interval” strategy. (Kimball, p. 187) What it meant was that South Vietnam could fall, but only after America had left the country, the resulting perception being that America and Nixon had not lost the war, but that South Vietnam and President Thieu had. There were two motivating forces behind this construct. First, as Kissinger and Nixon both noted, Saigon had to fall after the 1972 election. If not, their political opponents and media critics would assail them with the question as to why they had stayed in the war for four more years. (pp. 138-39) Not only would this endanger them politically, but it would also give ballast to their dreaded enemies: the leftist media and intellectuals. As Kimball notes, Kissinger knew how to drive Nixon into a frenzy over this theme. At times Kimball describes a scene that almost resembles a folie à deux: Nixon would end up screaming and pounding the table over Vietnam. (p. 172) With so much time and emotion invested in a lost cause, Nixon was willing to prolong the hostilities in order to secure a second term.
Related to this was what Nixon told his Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman: He was not going to be the first president to lose a war. (Summers, p. 337) Burns and Novick note the first factor, they ignore the second.
And they understate how badly Nixon and Kissinger manipulated and then sold out President Thieu. When Thieu agreed to go along with Nixon’s 1968 plot to short-circuit Johnson’s bid for peace talks, Thieu went beyond the call. On November 1st, on the eve of the election, he made a speech in Saigon that was broadcast by all three American networks. It was a 27 minute address in which he declared he could not participate in the Paris talks, the implication being that they were politically motivated and would be bad for Saigon. Historian Teddy White wrote in his book about the 1968 election that if not for Thieu, “Hubert Humphrey would probably have won the election.” (See Nguyen Tien Hung and Jerrold Schecter, The Palace File, p. 28) Nixon speechwriter and conservative columnist Bill Safire agreed with that judgment. He wrote that because of Thieu’s assent to the scheme, Nixon probably owed his presidency to him. Safire then added, “Nixon remembered.” (Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War, p. 60)
But he remembered only to a point. The most obvious indication of this was the fact that Nixon excluded South Vietnam from the secret Paris peace talks. Thieu was not told about them in advance and was not consulted on them. He was only given 1-2 page summaries after the fact. (Larry Berman, No Peace, No Honor, pp. 43-44, 69) This despite the fact that Nixon had told southern delegates to the 1968 Republican convention that America could not withdraw from Vietnam because it would be sacrificing an ally. Yet this is now what he was doing. (p. 47) In less than two years, Nixon had reversed his position. But it was worse than that. At a conference on Midway Island in 1969, Nixon had promised Thieu eight more years of support: four of them would be military and four would be economic in nature. (Schecter, p. 34)
After two years of negotiations, and before his journey to China, Nixon made the secret talks public on January 25, 1972. It was at this time that Thieu was allowed to read the record of the twelve secret meetings that Kissinger had with Le Duc Tho extending back to 1969 (Schecter, pp. 47-48) What Burns and Novick do with this episode is odd. They imply that Hanoi thought Nixon—with an upcoming trip to Moscow also scheduled—was getting too close to their allies, trying to undermine their support. And this is why the Easter Offensive was launched at the end of March. This does not jibe with the record. It is true that Nixon was using these visits as a way to negotiate the war, but the record states that he was weakening his position. For instance, during his February 1972 China visit, he abandoned his demand of mutual withdrawal. America would complete its withdrawal unilaterally. (Schecter, pp. 50-51) In late March, Hanoi launched its Easter Offensive. In preparations for the May Moscow meeting, Kissinger told Soviet premier Brezhnev that Nixon would now accept a cease-fire in place, meaning troops from the north could stay in the south after the truce. (p. 58) This was a crucial concession, because Hanoi was determined not to repeat the mistake they made in 1954, which was surrendering their military position for empty agreements. Again, Thieu was not told about this key concession until afterwards.
In spite of this, Nixon still wrote a letter to Thieu in October that said, “… we both seek the preservation of a non-communist structure in South Vietnam …” (Schecter, p. 73) Yet when Kissinger presented the draft agreement to Thieu, it only talked about Indochina as three nations: Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. (pp. 88, 108) Justifiably, he got extremely upset. And it did not help when Kissinger tried to explain this as an error in stenography. Thieu made a string of specific objections he wanted Kissinger to address with Hanoi, or he threatened not to sign the agreements.
Here, the film had a good opportunity to elucidate the true circumstances behind the infamous 1972 Christmas bombing of the north. Although Nixon threatened to enact the peace proposal without Thieu’s signature, he really wanted Saigon to sign. Without that, his recurrent rubric of Peace with Honor would ring hollow. For instance, Nixon once said in a speech in 1972, that his goal was “… peace with honor, and not peace with surrender in Vietnam.” (Schecter, pp. 116-17) This was false, and both he and Kissinger knew it was false when Nixon said it. They did not give a hoot about either peace or honor. What they wanted was political cover for the 1972 election. For in a taped conversation in August of 1972, Kissinger said to Nixon that all they needed was a way to keep the country together for a year or two beyond the agreement, after which “Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater, no one will give a damn.” (Ken Hughes, Fatal Politics, pp. 84-85) In fact, from the Chinese, Le Duc Tho understood what Nixon and Kissinger were angling for, since Kissinger had made the “decent interval” concept clear to Zhou en Lai. (Hughes, p. 86; also Kimball, The Vietnam War Files, p. 187)
When Thieu expressed his reservations at signing, Kissinger went back to Paris with his demands. There were many, and Le Duc Tho said he had to take some of them back to Hanoi for discussion. Kissinger told Nixon that Hanoi was being obstinate. So Nixon used this as an excuse for the Christmas bombing. But the latter was really designed to convince Thieu to sign. It was Nixon’s way of previewing to him that, as he promised, should Hanoi break the agreement, he would bring swift retaliation. (Kimball, p. 275) The bombing dropped Nixon’s approval ratings eleven points in two weeks. And contrary to conventional wisdom, it did not bring Hanoi back to the table. Nixon had to ask Le Duc Tho to return. (pp. 279-80) Even then, he was reluctant to do so. He had to be convinced by the Chinese to go back. They told him that Nixon was now on the ropes; plus his political problems—the Watergate scandal—would considerably alter the situation within a year. This is what convinced Hanoi to return. (Berman, p. 221) The agreement was then signed on January 23, 1973. Nixon could now conduct his second administration without the Vietnam albatross around his neck.
Needless to say, little of the above is elucidated in the film. And without that, one cannot really fathom the level and scope of Nixon and Kissinger’s deceit and duplicity. In their books—No More Vietnams, and The White House Years—both men denied there was any such “decent interval”. Knowing there was, Nixon deliberately polarized the country: left versus right, young vs. old, all before his phantasm of Peace with Honor, and aware the entire time it was all malarkey. Malarkey designed to guarantee his election in 1972 over George McGovern, and also to avoid saddling him with the stigma of being the first president to lose a war. This is why he so bitterly fought not to have his tapes and papers declassified.
Did Burns and Novick soften their treatment of Nixon because, in one sense they employed his tactics? As anti-war activist Christopher Koch has noted, their film seems intent on doing what it can to belittle the anti-war movement, both its character and its impact. As Koch notes, at one point, the film intercuts young people dancing at Woodstock with soldiers in combat in the jungle. The film even gets one former protester to apologize for what she did back then on the (unpictured) charge that she called a returning vet a “baby killer”. The film does the same thing to Jane Fonda. They picture her topless in the film Barbarella, and then extract an unwise thing she said in North Vietnam. This is supposed to discredit the Oscar winning actress and discount the sacrifices she made to educate the public to stop the war.
This is both unfair and untrue. As Koch notes, the vast majority of the anti-war movement respected and tried to help veterans. Mark Lane, for example, did much to organize GI coffee houses where lawyers would counsel returning veterans, or soldiers who had serious objections to being sent to Vietnam. (See Citizen Lane, pp. 232-49) Jane Fonda toured the country with former veterans and visited local colleges, addressing standing-room-only crowds. One of the things she did was have the former soldiers demonstrate the anti-personnel, three stage cluster bombs that the army was using in Indochina. I know this, since I was at one of her talks in my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. Cluster bombs are loaded with smaller bomblets that explode and scatter over an area as large as three football fields. (What is a “cluster bomb”?) Although the film shows many scenes of combat, these weapons are not demonstrated.
Which relates to the film’s treatment of John Kerry. At first, Kerry is depicted as a courageous and eloquent young man uttering his famous phrase, “Who wants to be the last man to die for a mistake?” But then, when Kerry mentions some of the atrocities American soldiers had committed, Burns and Novick do something cheap but predictable. They cut to other veterans disagreeing with those descriptions. Of course, because the war was so polarizing, it is easy to find someone who would reflexively object to this testimony. Yet the evidence that such things happened is overwhelming. And the film ignores it all. For example, there is no mention of the Winter Soldier Investigation held in Detroit, Michigan in early 1972. There, approximately one hundred veterans testified by live broadcast into Canada about the many, many atrocities that they had seen or, in some cases, participated in. Were they all lying? Apparently Charles Colson of the Nixon White House did not think so. He composed a memo on methods to discredit these individuals because their testimony was so potent. (Lane, p. 218) He used the same tactic that, as I mentioned in part 2, Neil Sheehan used to discredit Lane’s book, Conversations with Americans. He got in contact with the Pentagon and they said some of these vets had never served in Vietnam. This was exposed as a lie. (p. 223. For a summary of those powerful, unforgettable hearings click here) Like the attack on Jane Fonda, the questions about Kerry are uncalled for and unwarranted.
Further, in addition to stopping Nixon from launching Operation Duck Hook, there can be no doubt that the protests caused Congress to begin to cut off Nixon’s ability to prosecute the war at all. Within one year of the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State—where a total of six students were killed protesting the invasion of Cambodia—Congress had repealed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. (McGeorge Bundy, “Vietnam and Presidential Powers” Foreign Affairs, Winter 1979-80) Contrary to what Nixon and Kissinger later said—and what the film parrots—that repeal had nothing to do with Watergate, since Watergate had not happened yet. Forced to come up with a new rationale for maintaining the war, Nixon now said he had to “wind up” what was already in process. As McGeorge Bundy explained, the reaction to Cambodia now forced the White House to explain the ongoing carnage. The “wind up” excuse was so feeble and inhuman, so condescending to Congress, that it was the beginning of the congressional movement to cut off all funding for the war. Bundy clearly elucidated that 37 years ago. If you can believe it, somehow the Burns and Novick research team missed it.
Did they also miss the Golden Triangle? How could anyone researching the Vietnam War ignore Alfred McCoy’s milestone book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. That book demonstrated that the CIA cooperated with Southeast Asian drug lords in shipping heroin to France, with some of it eventually arriving in America. And it showed that the leaders of South Vietnam, like Nixon’s forlorn friend Mr. Thieu, knew about it. Which makes sense since Thieu’s Vice President, Nguyen Cao Ky, actually participated in the drug trade. (Henrik Kruger, The Great Heroin Coup, pp. 134-35)
The film’s last episode ends with the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975. Burns and Novick spend a great deal of time on this, but in this viewer’s opinion, it was done better in the 2014 film, Last Days in Vietnam. Better in every way: cinematically, dramatically, in conveying of crucial information, and in extracting the heroism involved. (Click here)
At the very end, Burns and Novick reprise in a montage close to all of their witnesses. In an oft-used device, captions then tell us what they do today. One of them, Tim O’Brien, reads part of a book he wrote on the war. We then hear the classic Beatles ballad Let it Be. I am still trying to understand what this all meant. We know that these people survived and went on after, or they would not be in the film. Short of all-out nuclear warfare, that was going to happen; and happens in any war. Survivors often write books about their wartime experiences. The use of the Beatles song was quite puzzling: did this signify “Hey, look at these fine people who survived. It couldn’t have been all bad?” If that was the point, it did not work since many of the individual stories were not very memorable or exceptional. I could not figure out, for example, why Denton Crocker, who died early in the war, was even included. If this combination of music and montage was meant to be a tragic ending, it did not even come close. Yet that is what the Vietnam War was, an epic tragedy, especially for Vietnam.
What I really think Burns and Novick were trying to do was perform an act of commemoration. Which might be why they do not go into the concurrent fall of Cambodia to Pol Pot in 1975. It’s well-nigh impossible to commemorate what Nixon and Kissinger caused there, which was one of the greatest genocides of the 20th century. And this is what makes the preface to the programs by Bank of America so offensive. Before each episode we hear and see the words that Bank of America is a sponsor of the show because “with perspective comes understanding.” This is a ridiculous statement, one that is simply not applicable to the study of history. Any true historian will tell you that perspective has little to do with understanding the past. And, at worst, perspective can seriously distort history. What helps us understand history is not perspective, it is the accumulation of important facts. As a famous Ivy League professor once said, facts are like sunshine, they illuminate events. Here are some facts Burns and Novick could have shown us that would have had the effect of klieg lights. In 1986, about ten years after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam opened its doors to American investment. About ten years after that, in 1995, Vietnam normalized relations with America. In 2000, Washington and Hanoi signed broad trade agreements. (Oglesby, p. 313) Which means that if Eisenhower, Nixon and the Dulles brothers had not violated the Geneva Accords back in 1954, Vietnam and America would have normalized relations by 1975. Probably sooner, since the awful residue of the war would not have existed.
You cannot understand Vietnam if you spend about six minutes out of 18 hours on the Phoenix Program. And in those few moments you do not show the viewer the segment on that subject from Peter Davis’ classic 1974 film Hearts and Minds. In that unforgettable episode, Davis interviewed a military officer who knew about the program. He described a technique they employed to get information about the Viet Cong. The agents would take a group of communist sympathizers up in a helicopter. They would ask them to reveal information. If they hesitated, they would run the suspect up to an open door. If he still did not talk, they would run him up again. If that did not work, the third time they would throw him out. The officer ended with the words that, inevitably the next suspect would talk. For me, that 1-2 minute segment revealed more about the failure of American actions in Vietnam than this entire ten-part documentary did. In miniature, that interview showed why we could not win over the populace, because we had brutalized ourselves into barbarism.
At the end of Hearts and Minds, Davis asked a returning veteran if we had learned anything from this horrendous experience. The veteran said he thought we were trying not to. Which turned out to be accurate. Because so few people knew and understood just how bad Vietnam was, George W. Bush was allowed to repeat the whole nightmare with his unprovoked war in Iraq. He made up his own phony Gulf of Tonkin pretext: the non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMD). That war destabilized the Middle East, just as Nixon and Kissinger destabilized Cambodia and Laos. Except this time, the White House and the Pentagon did learn something. They learned not to conduct a Living Room War. They learned the secret of the “embedded correspondent,” like Judith Miller of the New York Times, who the military trusted so much, they had her still looking for WMD when they knew there were none to be found.
The other lesson learned was by the media. They learned how to cooperate with power. The Vietnam War caused a rightward drift in America. After Nixon resigned, Gerald Ford took office. The Warren Commission cover-up veteran brought with him two young conservative firebrands: Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Those two did not care for Kissinger’s foreign policy. They actually considered him too moderate. Thus began the neoconservative movement. Which eventually took over Washington, including the Public Broadcasting System. The best evidence of that triumph is to compare the 1983 PBS series Vietnam: A Television History with the Burns/Novick version. The former is more honest, more hard-hitting, and more complete on the facts of the war. Much more rewarding than this newer version. And in a very real way, that comparison tells us how the Nixon/Kissinger view of Vietnam and the world eventually eclipsed John F. Kennedy’s.