The Vietnam War
A film directed by
Ken Burns &
The Burns—Novick documentary titled The Vietnam War has many problems. When we begin to view this film, the very title, The Vietnam War, appears to be a problem.
The nation known as the United States of America became a nation because of a revolutionary war for independence. The Declaration of Independence outlined the reasons for the revolution. I will paraphrase that document.
When there is a long train of abuses that results in despotism, the people not only have a right, but a duty to throw off that power and establish a new one to provide for the security of the people.
Looking at the totality of this film, we see how there was indeed a “long train of abuses” established by puppet governments that were supported by the French and United States governments. So, a more accurate title of this so-called documentary would have been, The Vietnamese Revolution. However, that title would have undermined the theme of the film.
This is just one of many examples of how the theme of this film contradicts the story that the film portrays. So, first I will look at the theme of the film, and then I’m going to look at the story portrayed by the film.
First, we can say that most of this film is portrayed from the perspective of the United States. Yes, there are extensive interviews with the Vietnamese where we see a bit of their perspective. However, a basic theme of this film is about how the United States government made a series of horrendous mistakes that led to it’s defeat in Vietnam.
For me, the theme of this film was best portrayed in the funeral of Pascal Cleatus Poolaw Sr. who was a United States soldier who lost his life in Vietnam. Poolaw was a decorated soldier in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. His three sons were also soldiers who served in Vietnam. He was also a Native American of the Kiowa nation.
At his funeral, his wife Irene had this to say:
“He has followed the trail of the great chiefs.
His people hold him in honor and highest esteem.
He has given his life for the people and country he loved so much.”
So, we see a clear and unequivocal message in this funeral. A highly respected member of the Kiowa nation gave his life because he loved the United States as well as all the people who live here.
This documentary failed to mention the history of the Kiowa people. The Kiowa are one of hundreds of Native American nations who actively fought against a genocidal war of the United States government for over 100 years. Their leaders were murdered and sent to prison. The government signed treaties with the Kiowa that allowed them to live on reservations. The U.S. government has acknowledged that it violated hundreds of these treaties with Native Americans.
So, while I respect Pascal Poolaw’s decision to support the war against Vietnam, I do not agree that this war supported the interests of the people of this country.
What are the facts this film uncovers that in no way support the theme presented by Burns and Novick?
We can start with the number of people of Southeast Asia who were murdered because of the war. The film gives a number of five-million deaths during about eight years of the war against Vietnam. This number is equivalent to about half of the population of the cities of New York or Los Angeles.
We can also look at this horrendous number of five-million deaths from the point of view of the My Lai Massacre. On March 16, 1968 soldiers from Charlie Company under the command of Lieutenant William Calley murdered about 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians. These murders only stopped when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson landed his helicopter between the murdered Vietnamese and Charlie Company. Thompson said that his crew would fire on Charlie Company if they continued to murder the Vietnamese.
Several members of Charlie Company went on trial for these murders. Only Lieutenant William Calley served time for this horrendous crime. Calley served three years under house arrest.
The Burns–Novick documentary failed to do the basic arithmetic that places the My Lai Massacre in perspective. The war against Vietnam lasted about eight years. Burns and Novick estimated that about five-million people lost their lives because of the war. Most, if not all these deaths were because of the United States invasion of the region.
So, if we divide five-million by 365 days of a year, and then divide that number by the eight years of the war, we get a number of 1,712 deaths for every day of the war. This means that there were the equivalent of more than three My Lai Massacres for every day of the eight years of the war against Vietnam.
We can also see from the facts presented by Burns and Novick that this massive number of deaths was no accident of war. The documentary shows how the U.S. government had a goal of reaching a “crossover point.” This crossover point was a goal to murder so many Vietnamese that the liberation forces would be unable to continue the war.
The administration of Lyndon Johnson reached this crossover point and believed that they were winning the war in 1967. Then, the Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive and attacked the over 500,000 U.S. soldiers at every location where they were stationed.
This horrendous number of deaths needs to be contrasted to the claims by the United States government that this war was about giving aid to Vietnam. Clearly there were many U.S. soldiers in Vietnam like Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson who honestly wanted to aid the Vietnamese. As we have seen, Thompson threatened Charlie Company if they continued the My Lai Massacre.
The U.S. forces also constructed infrastructure projects that helped modernize the country. President Johnson argued that the Mekong River could be used to generate massive amounts of electricity.
However, Johnson’s hypocrisy was exposed in a private conversation he had with the CEO of the CBS broadcasting company. One of CBS’s reporters, Maurice Shaffer, reported on a story of how U.S. soldiers were burning the homes of Vietnamese civilians.
After this story went on the air, President Johnson made a phone call to the CEO of CBS. Johnson asked this CEO, “Are you trying to f––– me?" Johnson then demanded that CBS fire Shaffer because he reported this story. The Johnson administration then labeled CBS as the “Communist Broadcast Service.”
What was the horrendous crime Maurice Shaffer committed? He reported the truth about what was happening in Vietnam. Given President Johnson’s response to this story, we see how reporting the truth was completely unacceptable to the United States government.
We can also think about a statement by President Eisenhower. The United Nations had mandated Vietnam to have an election while Eisenhower was president. The U.S. government prevented this election from taking place. Eisenhower argued that if these elections had been allowed, the leader of the liberation forces, Ho Chi Minh, would have won about 90% of the vote.
The liberation of Vietnam
A legitimate question to be asked is: How did the Vietnamese people manage to decisively defeat the most powerful armed force in the history of the world?
First, we can say that the U.S. government did manage to use their influence and military might to overturn several democratically elected governments in the world. Some of those governments include: Arbenz in Guatemala, Lumumba in the Congo, Mosaddegh in Iran, and Allende in Chile.
However, the Vietnamese people had experienced literally centuries of foreign rule by the Chinese, Japanese, French, and the United States. Yes, we can find many problems with the leadership of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam. However, their leadership combined with the will of the Vietnamese people to resist further foreign domination proved to be a force a United States was unable to defeat.
In this film, a U.S. officer was asked about the fighting capabilities of the Vietnamese liberation soldiers. He responded that they were the best soldiers he had ever seen and wished that he could have 200 soldiers with their abilities and determination.
We should also mention the challenges the NLF soldiers faced. The U.S. had an immense advantage in the fact that it dominated the air war. When U.S. soldiers were trapped they could make a call to headquarters and order a bombing raid of the Vietnamese positions.
Oftentimes the U.S. air force dropped napalm on these targets. One U.S. airman observed Vietnamese soldiers firing at his aircraft moments before napalm bombs burned them to death.
In the book The Tunnels of Cu Chi by John Penycate and Tom Mangold we see how the Vietnamese built an extensive tunnel system. They used these tunnels to ambush their enemies and then retreat without ever being discovered. Some Vietnamese soldiers lived in these tunnels for years. These tunnels were also equipped with machine shops and hospitals.
Because of the U.S. advantage in the air, Vietnamese forces developed a strategy of engaging with their enemy in close quarters. This strategy neutralized the advantage of the air because air raids would kill U.S. soldiers as well as the Vietnamese.
We also see how the Vietnamese mobilized to rebuild the north after massive U.S. bombing raids. The U.S. government thought that these raids would neutralize the NLF. Washington would learn that it was the U.S. armed forces that would be forced to leave Vietnam.
The international anti-war movement
Initially the overwhelming majority of the population in the United States supported the war. As the war continued, growing numbers of people were won to the demand of total, complete, and immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Vietnam.
While the U.S. government increased the number of soldiers they sent to Vietnam, people viewed televised reports of the gruesome realities of the war. Under these circumstances, it was only natural that large numbers of people joined in demonstrations opposed to the war. Towards the end, about eighty percent of the U.S. population opposed the war and supported the demand of bringing the troops home.
Many veterans of the war joined in the anti-war demonstrations and became leaders of the movement. There were reports that returning veterans were spit on by those who opposed the war. Apparently these reports were a complete lie designed to slander the anti-war movement. As far as I know, there was not a single incident where a soldier was spit on by someone who opposed the war.
To the contrary, anti-war protesters were murdered by the U.S. armed forces at Kent State, Jackson State, and in Los Angeles, California. These murders demonstrated that the government was more interested in stopping the anti-war demonstrations than they were interested in defending the constitutional right of freedom of speech.
The best source of information on the anti-war movement in the United States is by a leader of the movement, Fred Halstead, titled Out Now: A participant’s account of the movement in the United States against the Vietnam War.
Rebellions erupt in cities across the United States
We might also mention that at the same time as the Vietnamese were fighting for their liberation, Black people engaged in literally hundreds of rebellions in cities across this country.
We can start by recalling the Montgomery Bus Boycott. On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The ensuing Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 385 days and Black workers of that city walked for miles to work rather than sit on segregated buses.
We might also think about the fact that on May 7, 1954 the French military forces stationed at Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Vietnamese. This French defeat was the beginning of the end of the French occupation of Vietnam.
By 1965 the civil rights movement had so much influence that the government was effectively forced to adopt the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. These laws effectively overturned the segregationist Jim Crow laws that had denied Black people citizenship rights.
However, discrimination continued to exist throughout the United States. Black people were fed up with discrimination in housing, employment, and education. It was the issue of police brutality sparked open rebellions.
The recent film Detroit documented how police officers of that city kidnapped and then murdered unarmed residents in the year 1967. These officers were never convicted of those murders. Over 50 people lost their lives in the Detroit rebellions largely because of the National Guard invasion of that city.
In this same year a rebellion broke out in my hometown of Newark, New Jersey. I was fourteen years old at the time. At the time the National Guard had tanks running up and down the streets of Newark. Out of more than twenty people who were murdered during the rebellions, three were children.
If I had a different skin color and lived a short distance from our residence, I might have been one of the children murdered by the National Guard. Yet, when I graduated from high school a few years later, the government required me to register for the draft to fight in the war against Vietnam.
We might also consider that while the U.S. government was ordering federal troops into the cities of this country, this same government ordered the Air Force to carry out Operation Rolling-Thunder in Vietnam. This was a bombing campaign aimed a crippling the economy of North Vietnam. As the rebellions in this country continued the Vietnamese forces of the NLF carried out their Tet Offensive where they attacked every U.S. military base in their homeland.
One Black soldier who was interviewed in the film said that he lost his fear in Vietnam. While he was stationed there, he felt that death was almost a certainty.
When this soldier returned to this country, he was ordered to join the National Guard troops that were occupying the Black community. He refused to obey this order.
The example of this soldier was not isolated. I knew someone who was a soldier in the National Guard in Newark in 1967. He happened to be Black. He also refused to join the military forces occupying his community and resigned from the National Guard.
Martin Luther King gave a speech in 1967 where he opposed the war. In this speech King argued that given the immense damage the U.S. had done to their country, the people of Vietnam must have thought that the U.S. armed forces were “strange liberators.”
Malcolm X talked about the Vietnamese freedom fighters in the following passage:
“You think you can win in South Vietnam? The French were deeply entrenched. They had the best weapons of warfare, a highly mechanized army, everything that you would need. And the guerrillas come out of the rice paddies with nothing but sneakers on and a rifle and a bowl of rice. And you know what they did in Dien Bien Phu. They ran the French out of there. And if the French were deeply entrenched and couldn’t stay there, then how do you think someone else is going to stay there who isn’t even there yet?”
Why did the United States government go to war against Vietnam?
This question was answered in a pamphlet written by Vladimir Illyich Lenin in the year 1917 decades before the war against Vietnam erupted. The title of this pamphlet is Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.
Lenin was raised in tsarist Russia and learned first hand about the effects of imperialist exploitation. At that time the French working class had made gains and French capitalists responded to these gains by building factories in Russia.
The working conditions in these factories were so horrendous it is difficult to even imagine. We are talking about sixteen hour working days where women received wages that were half of what men were paid. Women worked through their pregnancies and oftentimes delivered their children in the factory. Children routinely staved to death because their mothers were malnourished.
Lenin understood that these conditions didn’t exist because individual capitalists made mistakes where they weren’t sensitive to the needs of workers. No, he argued that these conditions existed because the capitalist system is driven to cut costs and to obsessively work towards world domination.
Lenin also saw how the First World War erupted as a direct consequence of this need by capitalists of competing nations to dominate the world. With the decline of the British empire, Germany and the United States went to war in order to decide which nation would dominate the world.
When we look at the war against Vietnam from this perspective, we can see how government officials in the United States were driven to win the war in spite of their clear hesitations about their capability of achieving this goal. Imperialism doesn’t happen because of bad government decisions, but because it is necessary to the capitalist system.
Remembering the days of the war against Vietnam, there was one fact that stood out to me. The United States spent about 350 billion dollars on the war. Had even one tenth of that amount been used in unconditional aid to Vietnam, the war not only would have been avoided, but we would be living in a much better world. However, I can’t even remember one media outlet that made this argument.
As Lenin once said: If capitalism were to have a genuine interest in feeding hungry people, it wouldn’t be capitalism.
The U.S. government argued that the reason for the war was to “stop the spread of communism.” Since I’ve been a communist for the past 45 years, I believe I can offer some insight to this question.
I have been lucky that I’ve never served time in prison. This is becoming increasingly difficult for more and more workers in this country. However, the socialist Eugene Debs did serve three years in prison for giving a speech against U.S. participation in the First World War. Eighteen members of the Socialist Workers Party served time in prison because of their position in opposition to U.S. participation in the Second World War.
We might think about the fact that the idea of freedom of speech is supposed to be guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Today the nation of Cuba follows a Marxist point of view. Cuba has more doctors and teachers per capita than any other nation in the world. Education and health care are rights that every Cuban is entitled to. Yet Cuba is a relatively underdeveloped nation.
Not only does Cuba have more doctors and teachers, but that nation has trained thousands of doctors from all over the world. The only payment Cuba expects from these doctors is that they give medical care to communities that lack these services.
I happened to be in Cuba this year and was a member of 2017 May Day Brigade where people from all over the world came to learn about the Cuban reality. On May Day, I witnessed over one million Cubans giving their enthusiastic support to the government.
The recent hurricane Irma did a tremendous amount of damage to Cuba. However, Cuba sent it’s doctors to the other Caribbean islands to aid in their recovery.
The United States had a different policy with respect to it’s colony in Puerto Rico. Recently the Puerto Rican government instituted massive cutbacks in order to pay off an astronomical debt of the island. Then, a hurricane hit Puerto Rico that eliminated all electrical power and most cell phone service. Residents now collect rainwater so they might be able to flush their toilets.
The United States government has responded to this crisis by sending 3,000 troops to Afghanistan. The war against Afghanistan is already the longest war in U.S. history.
When we look at this history there is one inescapable conclusion. Communism in no way is a threat to working people in this country. In my opinion, what we need in the United States is a government that makes human needs and not profits the top priority.
Today many people in this country have big problems with the seemingly mindless chatter coming out of the Donald Trump administration. When we think about these seemingly idiotic statements, we might also think about the reality of what the government of this country did to Vietnam.
Thinking about that reality, I believe that we can say clearly that the administration of Donald Trump isn’t the only problem facing working people in this country and around the world.
I believe that we need a government that will never go to war against poor people ever again. What we need is a government that makes it their top priority to eliminate poverty throughout the world.
I will end this blog with one of my favorite quotations from the novelist and social critic, James Baldwin.
“Power, then, which can have no morality itself, is yet dependent on human energy, on the wills and desires of human beings. When power translates itself into tyranny, it means that the principles on which that power depended, and which were its justification, are bankrupt. When this happens, and it is happening now, power can only be defended by thugs and mediocrities––and seas of blood. The representatives of the status quo are sickened and divided, and dread looking into the eyes of their young; while the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything. They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them. They realize this––paradoxically––by the failure of the moral energy of their oppressors and begin, almost instinctively, to forge a new morality, to create the principals on which a new world will be built.”