Fifty years ago, the Tet Offensive raged across South Vietnam, obliterating President Lyndon Johnson’s (LBJ) confident claims of victory around the corner and marking a turning point in that deceit-ridden war. The standard American wisdom, which Ken Burns’ new Vietnam TV series echoes, is that Tet for the US was a military victory because the attackers suffered terrible casualties but was a political loss because a demoralized American public turned against the enterprise. The message is that intrepid American commanders did not lose the war, the fickle American public did. It’s always imperative for elites to con the citizenry that military power, and the huge taxes they pay for it, is worth the cost.
What viewers won’t learn from Burns’ series is that top Generals William Westmoreland and Earl Wheeler privately conceded that Tet was no military victory either. If the enemy National Liberation Front was badly crippled how did it launch “mini-Tet” in May (which killed more Yanks than Tet), mount a major attack in August and a Tet anniversary encore in 1969? The Pentagon Papers show that officials admitted after Tet that the enemy controlled the countryside. The official consoling story is that Tet failed because it was unable to ignite an urban revolt, which is hard to do when so many Vietnamese driven by murderous rural bombing into cities were dependent on US jobs and dollars.
The CIA, however, found that Tet succeeded because it was “designed for maximum psychological impact and to demonstrate the Communists continued in power despite the presence of US forces.” The CIA also noted that a multitude of pre-Tet positioning movements occurred without being reported or detected, which means South Vietnam was never ‘pacified.’ Roger Morris, a special assistant to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, attests that Tet proved that “indigenous [Viet Cong] were still a formidable force,” despite casualties, and that public representation of Tet was a “deliberate misinterpretation of events” and “an intellectual disgrace.” Burns gives us Pentagon pap.
The rewriting of the Vietnam War began before the last chopper fled Saigon in 1975. The War “was begun in good faith by decent men,” solemnly intones Burns’ narrator. These privileged men also equated possession of high tech weaponry with virtue. Because they wielded the arsenal and the economic power to squeeze any spot on the globe, every remote site could become a matter of vital national interest. Therefore, a resistant tiny nationalist Vietnam soon had to be devastated for the sake of US credibility. The myth of an American military triumph at Tet distracts us from the raw fact that no victory in Vietnam was possible short of extermination of the populace.
Burns slyly sidesteps revered leader Ho Chi Minh to heap all the blame for an avoidable war upon his lesser-known colleague Le Duan for hardcore fanaticism. Burns replays a supposedly incriminating 1966 tape of LBJ and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara griping that Hanoi would not negotiate (that is, on American terms). A grave distortion. “Hanoi repeatedly showed interest in serious negotiation, not so the US,” writes scholar Fredrik Logeval. He and many other historians have “little doubt that Hanoi was sincere in talks for Vietnam settlement in late 1964.” James Thomson, another McGeorge Bundy special assistant, testified about high level thinking: “They seemed to be ruling out any kind of negotiations, any kind of withdrawal options, any kind of neutralisation, any kind of international conference, all these other kinds of possibilities. Instead they were going for slow-motion but systematic escalation and the aerial bombardment of enemy positions North and South.”
Nobody can please everyone when deciphering Vietnam, but the obvious price for making this expensive donor-funded TV series was to permit the lofty perpetrators to save face. A Ken Burns’ documentary is the American cinematic equivalent of the Oxford History of any given topic. Yet Burns leaves many viewers in a muddle not so much because he omits facts but because he refuses to connect the dots, and thereby preserves the elite conceit that the US was nobly motivated.
“If we didn’t always think we were good guys we might not get into these wars,” veteran Karl Marlantes shrewdly grumbles. Marlantes fumes that leaders clearly knew in 1965 the war was unwinnable yet sent soldiers into harm’s way. Burns certainly show how a traitorous Richard Nixon sabotaged peace talks in 1968 to aid his bid for the Presidency. The portrayal of South Vietnam as a democracy was an extremely bad joke. The official lies were endless and Burns, to his credit, pins many down. Yet viewers instead are steered to disparage antiwar activists who supposedly hated the troops – a total fiction – even though many veterans (including several Burns’ interviewees) revitalized the movement. Harris polls in 1972 found only 3 per cent of returning veterans said they encountered unfriendliness of any kind – and much of that was from right-wingers who deemed them “losers.”
In Vietnam the unattainable “crossover point” was the moment when American forces killed more of the enemy than could be replenished. The crossover point today is when citizens can see though more official lies and myths than institutions can generate. “All I can think of is ordinary officials,” said Pentagon Papers hero Daniel Ellsberg, as he reflected on policy functionaries he once worked with. “They were not extraordinary ignorant or ruthless. They were just ordinarily ignorant and ruthless.” The antiwar movement must be scorned because, unlike “real men” who do what they are told, committed activists thought things out for themselves and came to conclusions different than the “ordinarily ruthless and ignorant” establishment desired. Establishments feel endangered when that spirit spreads. They should.
The writers are well-known commentators and the authors of No Clean Hands, Parables of Permanent War and many other books.