After a huge publicity build-up the PBS ten-part series The Vietnam War is upon us. Like previous efforts—The War, Prohibition, Baseball—it was written by Geoffrey Ward and produced and directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. I predict that like those other documentaries, it will win many Emmy Awards. But not because of any intrinsic qualitative value. But because Burns has become a cultural darling. He, Novick and Ward understand how to attain funding and how to get approval through media gatekeepers. Which is not the same as writing or filming honest, valuable history. As we will see, whatever historical value this much-ballyhooed production has is quite dubious.
It begins with the 1858 attack on DaNang as the French begin to take over all of Indochina for colonial purposes. After France fell to Germany in World War II, the Japanese occupied Vietnam. Before he passed away President Franklin Roosevelt had made a statement that after the war, former colonies should be allowed freedom to choose their form of government in the future. The film mentions Roosevelt’s dictum but says President Truman turned this around due to the Russians exploding atomic bombs, China being taken over by Mao and the eruption of the Korean War. This sounds a lot like it was cribbed from David Halberstam’s bad book, The Best and The Brightest. And like much of that bloated mediocrity, it is not really accurate. And since one of the main talking heads in The Vietnam War is Leslie Gelb, the editor of the Pentagon Papers, Gelb could have corrected this.
After the British let the French back into Vietnam in 1946, there were still those in the State Department who followed the on-and-off vacillations of France’s policy toward Bao Dai. Bao Dai had been the titular leader of Vietnam since 1926. The French gave him little leeway to accomplish anything of significance. The Japanese allowed him to stay as a figurehead leader during World War II. Some in the State Department told the French to alter the successive “agreements” they contracted with Bao Dai into an effective nationalist alternative to revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh and his followers the Viet Minh. This proved unsuccessful. And the US sensed that French unwillingness to concede political power to the Vietnamese “heightened the possibility of the Franco-Viet Minh conflict being transformed into a struggle with Soviet imperialism.” (Pentagon Papers, Volume I, p. A-5)
Therefore, American diplomats were told 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.” And Paris was put on notice that the US “was willing to extend financial aid to a Vietnamese government, not a French puppet, but could not give consideration of altering its present policy in this regard unless real progress is made in reaching non-communist solution in Indochina based on cooperation of true nationalists of that country.” (Ibid)
This same study found that there was no strong evidence of Soviet influence with Ho Chi Minh in 1948, even though the French colonialist war had been going on for two years at that time. (Volume 1, p. A-6)
In early 1950, the French “took the first concrete steps toward transferring public administration to Bao Dai’s State of Vietnam.” This fateful move enraged Ho Chi Minh who denied the legitimacy of Bao Dai as anything more than a puppet of Paris. At this point Ho’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was formally recognized by China and the USSR (ibid, p. A-7) When this occurred, Secretary of State Dean Acheson now reversed the policy of neutrality that had been announced in 1948. On February 1, 1950 he made the following public statement: “The recognition by the Kremlin of Ho Chi Minh’s communist movement in Indochina comes as a surprise. The Soviet acknowledgement of this movement should remove any illusion as to the ”nationalist” nature of Ho Chi Minh’s aims and reveals Ho in his true colors as the mortal enemy of native independence in Indochina.” (ibid, p. A-7)
Acheson then tried to disguise the aim of France bestowing administrative powers on Bao Dai by saying this would actually lead “toward stable governments representing the true nationalist sentiments of more than 20 million peoples of Indochina.” (ibid) Apparently keeping tongue in cheek, he went further and said this move was backed by the countries of the world “whose policies support the development of genuine national independence in former colonial areas … .”
On the day France recognized Bao Dai, President Truman also recognized him as the leader of Vietnam. A few weeks later, France began to request financial aid for their mandarin. On May 8, 1950, Acheson acceded to that request with these words:
The United States Government, convinced that neither national independence nor democratic evolution exist in any area dominated by Soviet imperialism, considers the situation to be such as to warrant its according economic aid and military equipment to the Associated States of Indochina and to France in order to assist them in restoring stability and permitting these states to pursue their peaceful and democratic development.
As the Pentagon Papers notes, “The US thereafter was deeply involved in the developing war.” (ibid, p. A-8) Later that year, the United Sates stationed a Military Assistance Advisory Group in Saigon to help the French.
I would have gladly forfeited all the incessant Burns-Novick use of colored maps with red endangering the Far East (I counted this six times just in Part One); all of narrator Peter Coyote’s—who I used to think was a pretty decent guy—intoning the David Halberstamish warnings about Russia detonating an atomic bomb, or China going communist; I would have exchanged all of those warmed-over 1970’s clichés for just three minutes of the above passages from the Pentagon Papers. Since this was the real reason America got involved in Vietnam: our failure to stand up to the French desire to recolonize Indochina. In other words, Secretary of State Acheson valued the alliance with France more than he did Roosevelt’s pledge of colonial independence. And his failure to admit Bao Dai was a French puppet is what pushed Ho Chi Minh closer to Moscow.
Two questions so far: how can you elucidate anything as fundamental and documented as this if:
- You never mention the name of Dean Acheson, and
- You never mention the name of Bao Dai?
Incredible as that sounds, it is true. And it was at this (rather early) point that I began to question the film-makers’ honesty. It is fine and dandy to let people directly engaged in the conflict, that is, soldiers and civilians, have their say. It gives the series grounding in the day-to-day ugliness and drama of that prolonged horrific struggle. But do Tom Vallely, Duoun Von Mai and John Musgrave make up in importance for the lack of Acheson and Bao Dai? Anyone who saw the film Platoon—as millions did—knows how scary night patrol must have been in Vietnam. But one function of the historian is to explain how John Musgrave got into that precarious position. The declassified record shows it was Acheson’s decision that got America “deeply involved in the developing war.” (My citations are from the completely declassified Pentagon Papers, not the Daniel Ellsberg or Mike Gravel versions which were incomplete.)
But that is just the beginning of the crucial excisions made by Burns and Novick. How in heaven’s name can one tell the story of American involvement in Vietnam without mentioning the personages of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, CIA Director Allen Dulles, or General Edward Lansdale? With a full 18 hours at one’s disposal, I would have thought such a thing would be impossible. Yet with Burns and Novick, the impossible becomes the possible. And by doing so, the film-makers all but erase the next major step of American involvement in Vietnam, and how Musgrave got stuck on that nighttime patrol in the jungle.
John Foster Dulles was even more extreme than Dean Acheson. His anti-communism contained an almost religious-metaphysical amplification. But he was not just anti-communist. Like his brother Allen, he would not even tolerate neutrality, or non-alignment within the boundaries of the Cold War. (See Kennedy, Johnson, and the Nonaligned World, by Robert Rakove, pp. 5-8) Therefore, the aid to France in its imperial war was greatly increased once Eisenhower became president and Foster Dulles his Secretary of State. Today, it is common knowledge that by 1954, America was footing close to 80% of the cost of the war. In the last year of the war, America had supplied France with over a billion dollars in supplies and weapons. By 1953 this meant 12 shiploads per month, which had accumulated at that point to 777 armored fighting vehicles, 13,000 transport vehicles, and 253 naval vessels (See John Prados, Operation Vulture, Chapter 1 of the e book format.)
Burns and Novick briefly discuss the 1954 battle at Dien Bien Phu, which ended the French attempt to retake their Indochina empire. Dien Bien Phu was a scheme created by General Henri Navarre to lure General Giap, Ho Chi Minh’s military commander, into the northwest corner of the country. The idea was to engage Giap in an open battle and crush his forces via artillery and aerial bombardment. That strategy backfired. And about a month into the 55-day siege, it became apparent that France had gambled and lost.
But the Dulles brothers were not going to accept the fact that they had bet on the wrong horse. They now began to arrange one of the most frightening and outrageous episodes in the entire 30-year history of the war. It was called Operation Vulture. As John Prados, Fletcher Prouty and others have noted, this was the assemblage of a giant air armada. It was made up of over 200 planes. It consisted of fighters, bombers and three special Convairs to carry three atomic bombs to bail out the French. As Prados describes in his book Operation Vulture: America’s Dien Bien Phu, this was a Dulles brothers project, done with the knowledge and connivance of Vice President Richard Nixon. Nixon had previously convinced Eisenhower to allow the French to use American support planes, which were flown by CIA pilots. And some of these planes and pilots flew into Dien Bien Phu in March of 1954. They were disguised with French insignias. (Prados, Chapter 3)
Eisenhower would only approve Vulture under certain restrictions. Two of them were congressional consultation, and also that our main ally England would join the effort. Nixon lobbied Congress, while Foster Dulles had his ambassador to England approach foreign minister Anthony Eden for approval. Dulles then went to London himself. Eden refused to go along and (correctly) labeled the effort a lost cause. (Prados, Chapters 6 and 8)
Nixon and Dulles did not agree. And Dulles and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Arthur Radford did not give up. They had meetings with congressional leaders like Senators Lyndon Johnson and William Knowland, and encouraged the Pentagon brass to support Vulture. (ibid, Chapter 6. Although David Halberstam, in his book The Best and the Brightest, wrote that LBJ did not support direct American intervention in 1954, Prados dug up written evidence that he actually had.)
This lobbying effort included a speech in April of 1954, where Nixon proposed the insertion of American combat troops to save Dien Bien Phu. Which is perhaps the first public statement of that kind by a high ranking American politician. (Prados, Chapter 9) Foster Dulles made no attempt to reprimand Nixon for that statement. In fact, the two men were sharing working lunches on the attempt to save France. Foster Dulles now began to encourage Eisenhower to act unilaterally. At the same time Radford had sent a bombing specialist to fly over Dien Bien Phu to inspect the proper paths and altitudes for Vulture. (Ibid, Chapter 10)
When Eisenhower would not act alone, Foster Dulles played his last card. He offered the French foreign minister the use of two atomic bombs to lift the siege. Georges Bidault said his reply did not require a lot of thought. He pointed out to Dulles, “If those bombs are dropped near Dien Bien Phu, our side will suffer as much as the enemy.” (David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard, p. 245) What makes this so stunning is that Dulles was acting without presidential approval in making that proposal.
In watching the opening episode of this series, which deals with the French defeat in Vietnam, I did not detect one mention of Operation Vulture.
After pondering that historical black hole about the Dulles brothers, I began to think back to one of the opening statements made by poor Peter Coyote. He says that the Vietnam War “was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings.” Decent people? Misunderstandings? Bidault certainly did not misunderstand the effect of thermonuclear war over Dien Bien Phu. And in this day and age, with all we know about them, how can anyone call the Dulles brothers “decent people”? One wonders if that common knowledge today is the reason that their names are left out of this installment.
From the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the episode now shifts to the peace conference at Geneva, Switzerland. As everyone who has studied that conference knows, it was essentially stage-managed by the United States, with Foster Dulles as the ringmaster. Although Ho Chi Minh and Giap had soundly defeated the French, China and Russia understood that the Dulles brothers’ unending support for the French colonial cause signaled ominous warnings for the future. Namely, as Nixon had alluded to, direct American intervention. Their allies therefore encouraged Ho and Giap to take a smaller cut of the pie than they had earned. Foster Dulles and Eisenhower had two immediate goals. The first involved the immediate future of Vietnam. They wanted a partitioning of the country between north and south at the 17th parallel with a Demilitarized Zone there. At the end of a two-year period, national elections would be held and the country would be unified under independent, democratically elected national leadership. Since the Dulles brothers were lawyers, they pulled a neat legal trick over this agreement. The United States did not actually sign the agreement. But Foster Dulles had his representative read a statement saying that America would honor the agreement. (See Vietnam Documents, edited by George Katiaficas, pp. 25, 42, 78) The other aim the administration had was to set up an anti-communist alliance called the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. Which, of course, made the specter of American intervention more palpable.
Within weeks of the conference, Allen Dulles had given veteran black operator Edward Lansdale the assignment of creating a country called South Vietnam—which had never existed before—and propping up a new leader there named Ngo Dinh Diem. The Agency gave Lansdale a blank check, and the ambitious and imaginative CIA officer came through in spades. Knowing Diem was a Catholic, Lansdale created one of the largest psychological operations in the history of the CIA. As Ralph McGehee described in his book Deadly Deceits, Lansdale infiltrated teams into the north to disseminate propaganda about upcoming pogroms by the Chinese Communists against the North Vietnamese, and perhaps American atomic weapons used over Hanoi. As a result, in the 300 day grace period for north-south migration, about a million people fled the north, about half of them Catholics. The CIA allowed free transportation on US Navy ships and also air flights through their proprietary Civil Air Transport. Not only did this boost Diem’s constituency, it fooled many Americans into thinking that somehow Hanoi embodied evil and Saigon—the new capitol of the new country—was a democratic oasis.
Lansdale then helped further this illusion. He helped Diem rig a plebiscite that placed him officially in power with a mind-boggling 98% of the vote. Diem’s opponent, Bao Dai, was not allowed to campaign. And as Seth Jacobs wrote in Cold War Mandarin, in several districts, the vote tally for Diem exceeded the number of registered voters. What made this even harder to swallow was that voter turnout was nowhere near 100 percent. (Jacobs, p. 95) Lansdale had told Diem 60% would be plenty, but Diem insisted on the 98 number. (The CIA: A Forgotten History, by William Blum, p. 139) Lansdale had done all his masters wished, and more. In fact, as John Pilger noted in his book Heroes, Lansdale later complained, “I cannot truly sympathize with Americans who help promote a fascistic state and then get angry when it doesn’t act like a democracy.”
Although you can see his photograph twice, you will not hear Lansdale’s name mentioned in Part One. And by doing that, the CIA’s role in the rigged plebiscite and the forced migration is not revealed. Why this silence over the man who, in reality, created South Vietnam and Ngo Dinh Diem? Maybe because he wasn’t one of the “decent people”?
The effect of Lansdale’s work was to first, to stop the promised 1956 elections from making Ho Chi Minh president of a united Vietnam, and second, to spell the end of any leftover French rule in the south. With the plebiscite, Bao Dai was now gone. In fact, Diem formally banned him from visiting the country. After all this skullduggery and treachery, Foster Dulles would make the following astonishing statement: “We have a clean base there now, without a taint of colonialism. Dien Bien Phu was a blessing in disguise.” In the judgment of history, could any statement have been more wrong?
In May of 1956, Washington further violated the Geneva Agreements by sending in 350 military advisors. (ibid, Blum p. 139.) Burns and Novick try to place this violation on President Kennedy. But JFK just sent in more military advisors, they were not the first. And as far as violating the Geneva Accords, the Dulles brothers had broken that agreement to pieces already. But the importation of advisors was made necessary since the vote for Diem was so ersatz. He had no real broad-based constituency.
Since Diem could not command the allegiance of the people, the resistance against him began in the countryside. To counteract this rebellion, the CIA created a training program for Saigon security forces at Michigan State University. It was these trainees who manned Diem’s brother Nhu’s police force. A law was passed in 1957 that every Vietnamese 15 years and older was required to register with the government and carry a proper ID. Anyone without a card was considered a part of the National Liberation Front, the political arm of Ho Chi Minh’s sympathizers in the south. The military arm would be called the Viet Cong. Thus, using Lansdale’s ingenuity and the CIA’s money, the Dulles brothers created a “fascistic” police state which ended up imprisoning, torturing and executing tens of thousands of people.
But as Lansdale said, who can get angry when a fascistic state doesn’t act like a democracy?
These are the “decent men” that Burns and Novick could not bring themselves to mention.