Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Lessons Of Vietnam- Vietnam: A Televison History


Vietnam: A Television History, PBS, 1983

I have previously reviewed Stanley Karnow companion book, Vietnam-A History, that goes with this ten-part television series. I have reposted that review below for the convenience of the reader. Most of the political points that I have made there apply here as well. I would only add that visually some of the footage brought the message home more clearly that on the printed page and I would bring to the attention of the reader some of those highlights here.

This series spends much less time than Karsnow does on the long history of struggles against foreign invaders of Vietnam, particularly the Chinese. It really starts with the 19th century French occupation and more forcefully the take-over by the Japanese. When the dust of World War II settled there were massive forces in Vietnam who cried for independence but the vagaries of world politics and French imperialist designs to keep Indo-China as a colony frustrated that aim and led to the first of a series of post-war armed struggles for independence.

The Vietnamese fighting against the French occupation that culminated in their historic victory at Dien Bien Phu, the French withdrawal and the partition of Vietnam in 1954 is well-documented here, as is the then shadowy American presence. President John Kennedy’s early 1960's commitment to counter-insurgency as part of the global American-led fight against the expansion of the Soviet influence is explored. His initial escalation and the later increased escalation of President Lyndon Johnson are given full play here. Moreover, there are more than enough ‘talking head' high officials from various American administrations to give viewers a clue as to why, when the deal went down in Vietnam they were all, more or less, clueless- except the few, very few, who saw a quagmire in the making.

A subject that is done in great detail here is an examination of the morale of the American soldier as time when on and the reasons for continuing the war seemed hopelessly inadequate. Along those same lines, and for comparison's sake, is a rather nice introduction to what the ‘enemy’ thought about the whole thing, including interviews with General Giap, the military architect of the North Vietnamese strategies. Of course, no study of the course of the Vietnam War can be complete without an analysis of Tet 1968, both as a battlefield and in its relationship to a turn in American public opinion away from overt support for the war. Yes, for those who refuse to listen today in Iraq, Tet was a military defeat for the North Vietnamese. They admitted as much. However, in the modern world exclusively military objectives are not the only factors that will determine an outcome. Politically, the North by showing that this was indeed a strange adversary by American standards, moreover one committed to taking heavy casualties to achieve its goals, demonstrated that an American victory was no longer possible.

Or so one would have thought in 1968. Again American politics intervened with the election of one Richard Nixon. The war dragged on for five more years. As a result, as graphically documented here, the American army was almost broken in the process of the Vietnamization of the war. The part devoted to the collateral results in Laos and Cambodia in the early 1970's produced by American actions bears close watching as well as this has not received nearly enough detailed attention.

For those who want a case study in the limitations of a heavily armed army in modern warfare against a determined lightly armed but politically cohesive enemy this series is the place to look. If one solely wants a ten hour crash course into the Vietnam War era this is also your stop. This period of American history was part and parcel of my political coming of age and I found it informative and, as almost always with PBS productions, technically well done.



As the current Bush Administration-directed quagmire continues in Iraq it is rather timely to look at the previously bout of American imperialist madness in Vietnam if only in order to demonstrate the similar mindsets, then and now, of the American political establishment and their hangers-on. This book, unintentionally I am sure, is a prima facie argument, against those who see Iraq (or saw Vietnam) as merely an erroneous policy of the American government that can be ‘fixed’ by a change to a more rational imperialist policy guided by a different elite. Undeniably there are many differences between the current war and the struggle in Vietnam. Not the least of which is that in Vietnam there was a Communist-led insurgency that leftists throughout the world could identify with and were duty-bound to support. No such situation exists in Iraq today where, seemingly, from the little we know about the murky politics of the parties there militant leftists can support individual anti-imperialist actions as they occur but stand away, way away from the religious sectarian struggle for different versions of a fundamentalist Islamic state that the various parties are apparently fighting for.

Stanley Karnow’s well-informed study of the long history of struggle in Vietnam against outsiders, near and far, is a more than adequate primer about the history and the political issues, from the American side at least, as they came to a head in Vietnam in the early 1960’s. This work was produced in conjunction with a Public Broadcasting System documentary in 1983 so that if one wants to take the time to get a better grasp of the situation as it unfolded the combination of the literary and visual presentations will make one an ‘armchair expert’ on the subject. A glossary of by now unfamiliar names of secondary players and chronology of events is helpful as are some very good photographs that lead into each chapter

This book is the work of a long time journalist who covered Southeast Asia from the 1950’s until at least the early 1980’s when he went back after the war was over and interviewed various survivors from both sides as well as key political players. Although over twenty years has passed since the book’s publication it appears to me that he has covered all the essential elements of the dispute as well as the wrangling, again mainly on the American side , of policy makers big and small. While everyone should look at more recent material that material appears to me to be essentially more specialized analysis of the general themes presented in Karnow’s book. Or are the inevitably self-serving memoirs by those, like former Secretary of War Robert McNamara, looking to refurbish their images for the historical record. Karnow’s book has the added virtue of having been written just long enough after the end of the war that memories, faulty as they are in any case, were still fresh but with enough time in between for some introspection.

The first part of Karnow’s book deals with the long history of the Vietnamese as a people in their various provincial enclaves, or as a national entity, to be independent of the many other powers in the region, particularly China, who wanted to subjugate them. The book also pays detailed attention to the fight among the European colonial powers for dominance in the region culminating in the decisive victory for control by France in the 1800’s. That domination by a Western imperialist power, ultimately defeated by the same Communist and nationalist forces that were to defeat the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies, sets the stage for the huge role that the United States would come to play from the time of the French defeat in 1954 until their own defeat a couple of decades later. This section is important to read because the premises of the French about their adversary became, in almost cookie-cutter fashion, the same premises that drove American policy. And to similar ends.

The bulk of the book and the central story line, however, is a study of the hubris of American imperialist policy-makers in attempting to define their powers, prerogatives and interests in the post-World War II period. The sub-title of the book, which the current inhabitants of the Bush Administration obviously have not read and in any case would willfully misunderstand, is how not to subordinate primary interests to momentary secondary interests in the scramble to preserve the Empire.

Apparently, common sense and simple rationality are in short supply when one goes inside the Washington Beltway. Taking into account the differences in personality among the three main villains of the piece- Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon- the similarities of response and need to defend some sense of honor, American honor, are amazingly similar, individual rhetoric aside. There thus can be little wonder the North Vietnamese went about their business of revolution and independence pretty much according to their plans and with little regard to ‘subtleties’ in American diplomacy. But, read the book and judge for yourselves. Do not be surprised if something feels awfully, awfully familiar.

1 comment:

  1. The US tried to make its army light (Rumsfeld). That didn't work for Iraq.