When I saw that the Koch Brothers were major backers of The Vietnam War, I suspected that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick were not going to use any of the newly declassified files concerning President Kennedy and his plans for withdrawing from Vietnam. I have been exposed to enough literature and discussion from the wealthy, organized Right to understand that the mere mention of Kennedy’s name causes something akin to bug-eyed rage. But I hoped against hope that the film would at least be fair to President Kennedy. Well, Burns and Novick might be decent people, but the best I can say about them in this regard is that they were not going to bite the (many) hands that feed them.
In Part One, Burns and Novick noted Kennedy’s visit to Saigon in 1951. And they mention his meeting with a journalist there, Seymour Topping. Like Kennedy’s meeting at the time with State Department official Edmund Gullion, Topping told the congressman that the French effort there was not winning, but losing the war. And the image of the US paled badly in the eyes of many Vietnamese because they were allied with the colonizers. The film then depicts Kennedy writing a letter to his constituents about the wrong-headedness of the American position, which would likely become a lost cause.
As with the Burns and Novick attempt to camouflage through anonymity the perpetrators behind direct American involvement in Vietnam, this strophe discounts the record to the breaking point. To elucidate just one element: Kennedy did not write just one letter to his constituents about our ill-fated alliance with France. That visit to Saigon had a transformational impact on his entire view of European colonialism in the Third World.
As Richard Mahoney depicted in his landmark book JFK: Ordeal in Africa, Kennedy now began to make radio addresses and formal speeches attacking the orthodoxies of both political parties on the issues of anti-communism versus nationalism in the Third World. He became a veritable one-man band warning that the United States had to stand for something more than just anti-communism in the Third World. He did this at the risk of alienating the leaders of his own party, e.g., Dean Acheson and Adlai Stevenson. He specifically attacked Acheson’s State Department for not recognizing the needs and aspirations of the people they were supposed to be serving in the areas of Africa and Asia. (Mahoney, p. 15) In May of 1953, with the French defeat in sight, Kennedy wrote a letter to John Foster Dulles asking him 47 questions about what his policy was for future American involvement in Indochina. (ibid) When Nixon was lobbying Congress about Operation Vulture, Kennedy assailed it by asking how “the new Dulles policy and its dependence upon the threat of atomic retaliation will fare in these areas of guerilla warfare.” (ibid, p. 16)
About one month before Dien Bien Phu fell, Kennedy took the floor of the Senate to make a long speech about America in Indochina. He began by saying the US could not declare war on nationalism:
To pour money, material and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory would be dangerously futile … no amount of American military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, an enemy of the people, which has the sympathy and covert support of the people. (ibid)
It’s important to note that although Burns and Novick use Kennedy’s phrase about the Viet Minh being everywhere and nowhere, they do not attribute it to him.
JFK’s opposition to the Dulles/Nixon/Eisenhower backing of French colonialism in the Third World culminated in 1957. In a famous Senate speech, Kennedy assailed the administration for its backing of another French colonial war, this time in Algeria. In that speech, Kennedy reminded his colleagues of two things. First, that what had happened in Indochina three years previous was now repeating itself on the north coast of Africa: We were backing a fey French effort to preserve the remnants of an overseas empire. And second, we were not being a true friend to our French ally. A true friend would have counseled Paris to negotiate an Algerian settlement allowing for an orderly departure, thus sparing more bloodshed in Africa and further polarization of the homeland. (ibid, pp. 20-22)
It is hard for this writer to believe that Burns and Novick are not aware of that speech, for the simple reason that it created a mini-firestorm in both the press and at the White House. Kennedy specifically went after Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Vice-President Richard Nixon. There were 138 editorial comments on the speech, over 2/3 of them negative. (ibid, p. 21) Kennedy was not just personally counter-attacked by Foster Dulles and Nixon, but by Stevenson and Acheson—members of his own party. The reaction was so violent that Kennedy told his father that he might have made a costly error. But Joe Kennedy replied to his son that he did not know how lucky he was. Algeria was going to get worse, and he would then look like a prophet. Which is what happened.
That speech dealt with one of the same subjects that The Vietnam War deals with: the perils of America allying itself with French imperialism. One would therefore think that Burns and Novick should have noted it, especially because it fills in the background of what Kennedy did in Vietnam once he became president. It is not noted at all. Kennedy’s lonely six-year campaign to alert members of each political party to the importance of this issue, and the folly of what Eisenhower and his administration were doing—all this is reduced to one letter.
When I saw what the film had done with this clear record, I began to wonder what Burns and Novick were going to do with the pile of new documents that had been released on the Kennedy administration and Vietnam since 1994 and the advent of the Assassination Records Review Board. Those hundreds of pages of documents, plus the research done on the subject by several authors and essayists, has created a whole new lens to look at this issue through. But when I saw that the film had almost completely muzzled Kennedy’s background on the issue, I then thought there were two paths left for the film to follow in regards to Kennedy and Vietnam. The first would be to introduce this newly declassified material out of left field, thereby making it rather jarring to the viewer; the likely reaction being: “Gosh, where is this guy coming from?” The second avenue would be simply to ignore this new scholarship and act as though it did not exist. Unsurprisingly, The Vietnam War took the latter path.
As Kennedy himself noted on the eve of the Democratic convention in 1960, he had to win the nomination. If he lost, and either Lyndon Johnson or Stu Symington won, it would just be more of John Foster Dulles. (Philip Muehlenbeck, Betting on the Africans, p. 37) George Ball, the iconoclast who worked for Kennedy in the State Department, later commented on the president’s reformist ideas by saying that JFK wanted to change the dynamic in the Third World. He thought that we should not cede the nationalist cause to the Soviets, we should not automatically befriend the status quo. By doing that we gave the advantage to the Russians. (ibid, p. xiv)
Authors like Mahoney, Philip Muehlenbeck, Robert Rakove, and Greg Poulgrain have written entire books based upon new research into this subject. This new scholarship demonstrates how President Kennedy almost immediately broke with the Dulles/Eisenhower regime in places like the Congo and Indonesia. Again, using the above authors’ work would have demonstrated that what Kennedy was about to do in Vietnam was pretty much of a piece with his foreign policy in the Third World. Burns and Novick present not a word of it.
What do they present instead? Kennedy as some kind of conflicted Cold Warrior. They cherry-pick parts of his inaugural address in order to do this. They then say that after the Bay of Pigs, his confrontation with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna and the construction of the Berlin Wall, Kennedy felt he had to draw the line somewhere, and that place was Vietnam. So after sending Walt Rostow and Maxwell Taylor to Saigon to gather information on what the conditions were like there, Kennedy then commissioned thousands more advisors into the theater.
In doing so, the film pretty much eliminates the entire two-week debate in the White House where Kennedy faced off against virtually his entire cabinet and foreign policy advisors. As authors like James Blight have noted, for those two weeks, virtually every other voice in the room wanted to commit combat troops into Vietnam. The president was the only person holding the line against it. In Blight’s book Virtual JFK—co-edited with Janet Lang and David Welch—he spends over forty pages dealing with this landmark episode. And he produces the memorandum by Colonel Howard Burris (Johnson’s military aide) which memorialized Kennedy’s arguments against inserting combat troops. (Blight, pp. 281-83) These arguments included the facts that Vietnam was not a clear cut case of aggression as was Korea; America’s most important allies—like England—would not support such a move; the French effort, with hundreds of millions of dollars, had failed; combat troops would not be effective against guerillas and, in fact, would be quite vulnerable to attack. To say the least, Kennedy’s arguments look prescient today.
As Gordon Goldstein pointed out in his valuable book on McGeorge Bundy, this was not the first time Kennedy had turned down a request to send combat troops into Vietnam. Goldstein listed no less than nine previous instances in which Kennedy had rejected such proposals before the November debates. (Lessons in Disaster, pp. 52-58) As both Blight and Goldstein concluded, this was a Rubicon that Kennedy simply would not cross. And, in fact, National Security Advisor Bundy agreed with his biographer Goldstein on this issue: Kennedy was not going to commit American combat troops to fight a guerilla war in the jungle. (ibid, p. 235)
Of further note, when George Ball heard about this debate and Kennedy’s lonely stance against the interventionists, he thought the president might be weakening and warned him of what happened to France in Vietnam the decade before. Kennedy replied, “You’re crazier than hell George. That just isn’t going to happen.” (Goldstein, p. 62) And McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, and General Maxwell Taylor—Kennedy’s three chief military advisors—all later wrote that Kennedy was never going to send the military in the form of combat troops into Vietnam. (Blight, p. 365; Goldstein, pp. 231, 238)
As the film notes, after the debate, Kennedy did sign off on National Security Memorandum (NSAM) 111. This allowed for more advisors and equipment to aid Diem’s army called the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam]. A good question could have been raised at this point. During the lengthy debate, the Hawks had expressed their pleas in the most dire terms: namely, that South Vietnam would collapse without the insertion of combat troops—and lots of them. Bundy had requested tens of thousands, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had asked for hundreds of thousands. (Blight, p. 71, p. 280) If such was the case, how was Kennedy’s plan to send in more advisors going to salvage Saigon’s imminent fall?
There is a parallel here with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. After the first day of that doomed venture, when it was apparent all was lost, Kennedy was asked by both the CIA and the Pentagon to send in the navy to save the day. He refused. The film does not acknowledge that symmetry. Or the message implicit in Kennedy’s limited aid package: the US could help Diem, they could extend weapons and supplies. But they could not fight his war for him.
There is a famous quote about how strongly Kennedy framed this question to Arthur Schlesinger. What the film does with this key quote is revealing. It includes only the first part of it, where JFK told Schlesinger that committing combat troops would be like taking a sip of alcohol: the effect would wear off and you then had to take another. But it eliminates Kennedy’s much stronger punch line: “The war in Vietnam could be won only so long as it was their war. If it were ever converted into a white man’s war, we would lose as the French had lost a decade earlier.” (Goldstein, p. 63) Could anything make the issue more clear? Congressman Kennedy had seen the folly of our effort to aid the French position in their war in Indochina. But he saw that France had overextended itself: that they had no real political base and therefore had to send in a land army to fight Giap’s guerilla war. He was not going to repeat that mistake with American troops. He was not going to be perceived as continuing a colonial war in the Third World.
As mentioned above, Burns and Novick note Kennedy’s signing of NSAM 111. But they do not relate what else Kennedy did at this time. As James Blight has noted, all the indications are that Kennedy was shaken by the fact that he was almost alone in resisting the siren song of inserting the Army and Marines into Indochina as the main fighting force. (Blight, p. 281) Contrary to what the film implies, that cabinet was not unilaterally picked by JFK. It was done by committee, one that included Clark Clifford, Richard Neustadt, Larry O’Brien and Sargent Shriver. (Ted Sorenson, Kennedy, p. 258) For this reason, Kennedy decided to go outside that circle of White House advisors to enlist an ally. He notified John Kenneth Galbraith, ambassador to India, that he wanted him to visit Saigon and write up a report on how he saw the situation. Kennedy knew full well what Galbraith would say: namely, that we should begin to distance ourselves from Saigon. (Blight, pp. 69, 361) Then, when Galbraith arrived in town in early April, Kennedy sent him to see Bob McNamara to brief him on his report. The ambassador reported back to the president that he had achieved his mission and that McNamara was now on board. (ibid, p. 370) As several commentators have noted, e.g., Gordon Goldstein and John Newman, this was the beginning of Kennedy’s withdrawal plan.
What does the film do with this very important background maneuvering by Kennedy? It reduces it all by simply saying that Secretary of Defense McNamara announced in the summer of 1962 that America was making progress on winning the war and therefore a gradual withdrawal of American advisors could begin and be completed by 1965. This camouflages two important points. First, it conveys the idea that this was McNamara’s initiative. Second, it also implies that Kennedy and McNamara both thought they were actually winning the war. Both of these tenets are wrong. McNamara had to be convinced upon Kennedy’s orders to begin this plan. It was Kennedy’s plan, not McNamara’s. Secondly, there is simply no credible evidence that either of them actually thought the American effort there was militarily successful. How could McNamara think so if just six months earlier he had recommended over 200,000 combat troops be committed into Vietnam? If you don’t mention it, you don’t have to explain it.
As per Kennedy, he told his two trusted advisors, Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers, that he had to delay his withdrawal plan and design it around the 1964 election, and complete it in 1965. Otherwise he would be decried by the right wing as a communist appeaser and that would endanger the election. (James Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, p. 126) Obviously, if Kennedy thought the ARVN were winning, or were going to win, he would not have expressed it that way. Further, researcher Malcolm Blunt recently sent this author a document Kennedy requested in the fall of 1963 and which was returned to the president in November, about two weeks before his death. This was an evacuation plan for American government employees in Saigon. John Newman has argued of late that Kennedy and McNamara feared that Saigon would fall before their original final withdrawal date, which was autumn of 1965. Kennedy likely ordered this plan for that reason. For as Kennedy told NSC assistant Mike Forrestal in 1963, the probability of Saigon winning was about 100-1. (Goldstein, p. 239)
Coinciding with all this is what is probably the most important document declassified by the ARRB. McNamara held regular meetings of the Saigon chiefs of agencies and the Pentagon in Hawaii. These were called Sec/Def meetings. For the one in May of 1963, he had requested that each agency and military chief bring with him their withdrawal schedule. After he had looked them over, he said they were too slow and would have to be speeded up. There was no qualification by McNamara that this withdrawal was hinging upon an American “victory” and there was no contingency plan mentioned to reinstate troops if the victory was not in sight. In fact, General Earle Wheeler wrote that he understood that any request for any overt action would be denied by the president. (Probe Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 19-21) These documents were so compelling that even The New York Times bannered a story with the headline: “Kennedy Had a Plan for Early Exit in Vietnam.” (ibid, p. 19) One would think that if it were good enough for that paragon of the MSM, the Grey Lady, it would be good enough for Burns and Novick. Needless to say, none of these documents are shown in The Vietnam War.
Neither is NSAM 263 exhibited. This was the order drawn up in early October of 1963 that delineated the withdrawal plan and mandated that a thousand men be returned from Vietnam by the end of 1963. The story of how the order and the report it was attached to were created is revealing, and would have been informative to the viewer. By the autumn of 1963, JFK now had everything in place to activate his withdrawal plan. But he wanted to send his two highest military advisors to Saigon, that is, McNamara and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Maxwell Taylor. He trusted McNamara, but not Taylor. Therefore, while those two were in Vietnam, Pentagon higher ups General Victor Krulak and Colonel Fletcher Prouty were invited to the White House. Bobby Kennedy met the duo. He instructed them, upon orders of the president, that they would actually edit and compose the Taylor/McNamara report at his direction. (John Newman, JFK and Vietnam, p. 401) Once that was done, it was shipped out to Hawaii and given to Taylor and McNamara in bound form. Kennedy was not allowing for any alterations.
That report became the basis for NSAM 263. Presidentially designed, the report was used by him to ram 263 through his foreign policy advisors—some of whom were reluctant to sign on to it. But, reluctant or not, they ultimately did. McNamara was then sent out to announce the withdrawal plan to the press. As he was walking to meet the reporters, Kennedy instructed him with the following: “And tell them that means all of the helicopter pilots too.” (ibid, pp. 404-07)
One would think that if a filmmaker were trying to assemble the latest scholarship on Vietnam for an American audience—if one were really trying to enlighten them with the best and newest information—then at least some of this would be included in the presentation. Or at least he or she would communicate some of the (at least) nine sources that Kennedy or McNamara confided in about the withdrawal plan. Or perhaps play the October 2, 1963 taped conference where McNamara actually says that they have to find a way to get out of Vietnam. (Blight, p. 100)
I shouldn’t have to replay this refrain by now: None of this information is in the film. But as Burns pronounced on Marc Maron’s radio podcast of September 11th : History is malleable. Sort of like bubble gum, right Ken?
What do Burns and Novick tender us instead? They give us Neil Sheehan and Jean Paul Vann. Which means they would have given us David Halberstam if he were alive. (See my two-part review, “David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest”) When I saw this, I realized just how much The Vietnam War wanted to be part of the MSM, and just how far PBS had fallen. For Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest—which Warren Hinckle once called “one of the greatest bullshit books ever written”—makes McNamara out to be the chief engineer of the war. When, in fact, from April of 1962 to November of 1963, he was implementing Kennedy’s withdrawal plan. McNamara had even told his deputy, Roswell Gilpatric, that Kennedy had assigned him the task of winding down the war. (Blight, p. 371)
Jean Paul Vann was one of the military advisors stationed in Vietnam under Kennedy. By all accounts he was committed to the cause of the American created nation-state of South Vietnam. Halberstam and Sheehan were young reporters at the time. Halberstam had been sent to Vietnam after being assigned to the Congo. Which is an important point. As noted above, one of Kennedy’s first reversals of Dulles/Eisenhower Cold War policy was in the Congo. In fact, that was the first place where JFK directed specific alterations to his predecessor’s policy. These would favor leftist leader Patrice Lumumba and the cause of emerging African nationalism. In that instance Kennedy was contravening a (British aided) Belgian attempt at recolonization. (Mahoney, pp. 65-69)
Valuable research by Paul Rigby has shown that, prior to being assigned to Vietnam, Halberstam had done what he could to condescend to Kennedy’s efforts in Congo. In the pages of Times Talk—Halberstam’s employer, the NY Times in-house journal—the reporter conveyed some of those ideas. His stories, such as “It’s Chaos for a Correspondent in the Congo” and “Congo Boondocks: Land of Cannibals and Diamonds,” communicated the Establishment line that Congo could not handle independence because it was simply a land of African primitives. (William Prochnau, Once Upon a Distant War, p. 509; see also Halberstam’s The Making of a Quagmire, pp. 3-24) Halberstam seemed to be missing the overall gestalt of the struggle. He would later write of that colossal, epic conflict—which killed both Lumumba and Dag Hammarskjold—that there was less there than met the eye. (Halberstam, p. 17)
Halberstam’s outlook and attitude failed to fully grasp Kennedy’s concepts in Congo, where JFK decided to do all he could to enforce UN Secretary General Hammarskjold’s policies for Congolese independence against America’s European allies England and Belgium. Kennedy continued that policy alone after Hammarskjold was killed. (“Hammarskjold and Kennedy vs. The Power Elite”) It is clear today—as it was then—that both Lumumba and Hammarskjold were murdered by colonial powers trying to retake the mineral wealth of Congo. (“Plane crash that killed UN boss may have been caused by aircraft attack”) Yet, in 1965, Halberstam could write that the Congolese cared less for their country than white people did. (ibid, p. 18) Unlike Halberstam, Jonathan Kwitny later fully comprehended what had happened. As Kwitny wrote, Patrice Lumumba became a hero in Africa “not because he promoted socialism, which he didn’t, but because he resisted foreign intervention. He stood up to outsiders, if only by getting himself killed.” (Endless Enemies, p. 72) As the picture below illustrates, Kennedy certainly understood Lumumba’s cause and his martyrdom:
|Kennedy receiving word of Lumumba's death |
(photo: Jacques Lowe)
On the larger, more epic level, Kwitny also had a much richer understanding of what was at stake in Congo than Halberstam. After surveying what happened, he memorably wrote about the legacy of Lumumba and what it meant in the larger movement of African nations to break out of the servitude of colonialism:
The democratic experiment had no example in Africa, and badly needed one. So perhaps the sorriest … blight on the record of this new era is that the precedent for it all, the very first coup in postcolonial African history, the very first political assassination, and the very first junking of a legally constituted democratic system, all took place in a major country and were all instigated by the United States of America. It’s a sad situation when people are left to learn their ‘democracy’ from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (ibid, p. 75)
When Halberstam got to Vietnam—actually on his second day there—he lunched with the CIA’s station chief in Saigon. (Prochnau, p. 133) As the weeks went by, many of his CIA contacts from Congo migrated there. As author William Prochnau wrote, “By now his CIA contacts from the Congo had begun to flock to the hot new action in Southeast Asia like bees to honey; Vietnam was a spook’s dream and the Agency forever had a better fix on Vietnamese reality than the American military.” (ibid, p. 169)
Halberstam admitted this in his 1965 book, The Making of a Quagmire, where he wrote, “But many CIA agents in Saigon were my friends, and I considered them among the ablest Americans I had seen overseas or at home.” (p. 222) In that book, Halberstam attempts an all-out defense of the CIA’s role in both Vietnam and the developing world. And he adds that inherent suspicion of the Agency is “the outgrowth of its bogeyman image among liberals …”. (ibid) This is especially puzzling today since the Church Committee revealed that Allen Dulles and the CIA had arranged numerous plots to kill Lumumba in the Congo, where the writer had just been stationed for many months. Later on, Halberstam attempted to distance himself from these admissions. He told Prochnau that UPI reporter Neil Sheehan had better CIA sources than he did, but he had better military sources. (Prochnau, p. 277)
Both Halberstam and Sheehan were enamored with Vann, even though they understood he was an “essentially conservative, at times [an] almost reactionary man.” (Halberstam, p. 164) In their film, Burns and Novick have Sheehan tell us that, upon his own arrival in Saigon in 1962, he believed in American ideals and the alleged US mission in South Vietnam. He also believed in the dangers of the “international communist conspiracy”. Sheehan then adds that he was there to report the truth in order to help win the war for the betterment of the United States and the world. He describes going along on ARVN helicopter missions as being part of a crusade: he was thrilled by the experience.
These attitudes made Sheehan and Halberstam easy targets for Vann. And negatively complementing that, it guaranteed that they would completely miss what Kennedy was doing. Colonel Vann was a veteran of Korea and, by 1963, had served in the military for twenty years. With Sheehan’s help, Burns and Novick spend several minutes outlining the January 1963 Battle of Ap Bac, an important conflict that Vann helped plan and supervise. Although the Viet Cong were outnumbered by a large margin, even though the ARVN had helicopter support and used armored personnel carriers, this battle turned out to be, by any accounting, a losing proposition for Vann. Saigon lost 80 dead, more than one hundred wounded, and five helicopters destroyed. The Viet Cong lost 18 dead and 39 wounded. Vann was deeply angered and confided the true facts of the defeat to his students Sheehan and Halberstam, who both wrote about the failure of the battle.
The film does not reveal a key reason for that failure, one which Vann himself had discovered. Ngo Dinh Diem had issued orders to his field commanders not to initiate large offensive operations that would provoke serious casualties. Vann’s intelligence officer, Jim Drummond, concluded that the ARVN had not really checked the growth of the Viet Cong or the area under their control. (John Newman, JFK and Vietnam, p. 299) In other words, contrary to what the commander in Vietnam, General Harkins, was saying, America was not winning the war. And Ap Bac was living proof of that.
Vann was shipped out of Vietnam in 1963 and served in the Pentagon as a procurement officer. He began to file formal reports complaining about how the war was being fought. These reports appealed to General Edward Lansdale because they clearly projected the fact that unless American ground troops were committed to Vietnam, Saigon would fall. (ibid, p. 319) As we have seen, this is the message Kennedy had listened to in November of 1961—and had rejected. Kennedy was aware of what Vann was doing. Both he and McNamara opposed the work of his acolyte Halberstam; Kennedy even asked the publisher of the Times to rotate him out of Saigon. (David Kaiser, American Tragedy, p. 261; Halberstam, p. 268)
But Edward Lansdale had been the first to advise Kennedy to insert combat troops into Vietnam. (Newman, p. 20) Sure enough, after Kennedy’s death, when Lansdale returned to the White House, he recommended sending Vann back to Vietnam. Vann did return in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson overturned Kennedy’s policy and committed tens of thousands of American combat troops to Saigon. (Kaiser, p. 384)
The reason that Sheehan and Halberstam admired Vann was simple: like him, they were Hawks. And like him—and opposed to Kennedy—they wanted more American involvement, not less. This is easily discernible by reading Halberstam’s 1965 book The Making of a Quagmire. That volume is perhaps the single most complete and coruscating condemnation of America’s Vietnam policy published to that point. It attacks every element of the American mission in that country and also the policies and personages of the Diem regime. (See Chapters 3-5) It then goes on to expose the ineptness of the ARVN (Chapters 5-7), in particular how bad Colonel Hunyh Van Cao was. The latter actually gets his own chapter: 10. Why so hard on Cao? Because Vann was the advisor attached to him, and—as with Sheehan—Vann was Halberstam’s hero in 1965. Why? Because he knew how to win the war. (See Chapter 11) So for Halberstam, when Vann departed, things got worse. (see Chapter 12).
If Halberstam could not make it more clear, he does near the end of the book. With Sheehan mentioned throughout, he proclaims: “Bombers and helicopters and napalm are a help but they are not enough.” (p. 321) He then concludes with the following: “The lesson to be learned from Vietnam is that we must get in earlier, be shrewder, and force the other side to practice self-deception.” (p. 322)
Of course, when the wishes of this troika—Sheehan, Vann and Halberstam—were fulfilled, we saw what happened. Direct American involvement ended up being an epic debacle. As many as 3-4 million people were slaughtered amid almost unimaginable horror. All in pursuit of a false goal that was not possible to attain. In other words, Kennedy was right and Vann, Sheehan and Halberstam were wrong. But neither Halberstam nor Sheehan could ever admit that. It is especially startling that Halberstam never saw the parallels of what happened in both Congo and Vietnam after Kennedy was killed: In Congo, the Agency and LBJ switched sides and joined the imperial interests; in Vietnam, the Pentagon and Johnson now broke Kennedy's strictures and eventually imported 540,000 combat troops, making it an American imperial war. Truly puzzling that he would miss all of this.
Sheehan and Halberstam got their wish. And even after it was clear that direct American involvement would not work, it took them years to understand it. And further, that the American army was self-destructing in the jungle, as Kennedy had predicted it would back in 1961. By 1971, even the army understood this. Colonel Robert Heinl wrote a long essay on its collapse at that time, and traced it from at least 1969. (Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr., “The Collapse of the Armed Forces”)
But author and activist Mark Lane understood it even earlier. In 1970 he published a book of personal interviews with returning veterans. The book was called Conversations with Americans. It was a shocking exposé of the individual and group war crimes that American solders had committed in Vietnam. Since there was a danger that his interview subjects would be prosecuted, he gave them the option of using fictitious names. He marked these with an asterisk in the text. He then added that the real names and full transcripts had been given over to an attorney who had worked for the Justice Department. (Lane, p. 17)
When the book was published, The New York Times trotted out Sheehan to review it. (NY Times Book Review, 12/27/70) Sheehan wrote that he had contacted the Pentagon and some of the people named in the book did not serve in the military, or were not in the places where they said they were at the time. Which implied that what Lane was writing was fictitious. After, when Lane called the New York Times to talk to Sheehan, Sheehan would not accept his calls. The Times then sent Sheehan out on tour to promote his column. Which, of course, was a promotion of the collapsing war effort. Apparently, as a believer in the international communist conspiracy, Sheehan never imagined that there was a systematic, institutionalized cover-up of these crimes after the 1968 My Lai Massacre. But there was such a cover-up, and author Nick Turse discovered it when he found the (incomplete) records. (Kill Anything that Moves, pp. 15-21) When Lane asked Sheehan about My Lai during a radio interview, the New York Times reporter replied that it was just a rumor. (Mark Lane, Citizen Lane, pp. 220-21)
Under pressure from the Times and Sheehan, Lane’s book was withdrawn from circulation.
This is the man Burns and Novick use as the main talking head in their segment on the Kennedy years. With their defense of the Dulles brothers as “decent people” in Part One, the disappearance of Kennedy’s withdrawal plan and the championing of Vann and Sheehan in Part Two, so far the net value of this documentary is something less than zero.