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Watching Notes: Episode 1
1858 - 1961

As noted in the main article the first few minutes are very much focused on American suffering.

The introductory montage is mostly clips of American activity.


5.10 “It was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings.”

What is extraordinary about this statement is that, as noted below, it is falsified later in the film. Most obviously both Kennedy and Johnson are shown making commitments to the war that they know are misconceived in order to win elections. Sending men to kill and die in a cause you know is not justified, for the sake of electoral advantage is not acting in good faith. It is particularly striking that Burns makes this claim because near the end of episode 3 Karl Marlantes absolutely rips into MacNamara and Johnson for pursuing the war when they knew it was probably unwinable as early as 1965. Daniel Ellsberg was driven to leak the Pentagon Papers precisely because they showed that every time a US president had increased US commitment he had done so in the knowledge that it was unlikely to have the desired effect (which it always did) and he was horrified by the prospect of Nixon doing exactly the same.


Burns’ framing of the story calls to mind the judgement passed on Payle, the quiet American of Graham Greene’s Vietnam novel of that name, by the more cynical narrator, ‘I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.’ The novel received poor reviews in the US but David Halberstam reported that many US journalists knew parts of it by heart. "It was our Bible'" he said.


12.00 John Musgrave’s fear. Why is this here? Chronologically it belongs in episode 4. It’s as if Burns needs to remind us of the centrality of American suffering.


27.10 The claim that Russia aimed to extend its influence into Greece is untrue. At a meeting in Moscow in October 1944 Stalin agreed that Greece would form part of the Western sphere of influence and provided no support for the communists during the Greek civil war that followed on from World War 2.

And there's a wider point here. The voice over intones “A new cold war had begun.” Burns seems to accept that Russia and China had a serious plan for global domination and that whatever mistakes the US made in Vietnam were made in the context of that real threat. However, even at the time many analysts questioned this view and with hindsight it looks seriously misconceived. Given the extent to which both Kennedy and Johnson were influenced by their desire not to be seen to be weak on communism this issue deserves more attention.


31.30 Gracey was exceeding his orders in attempting to reestablish French control. In Indonesia British forces negotiated with rebel nationalists


33.30 We hear soft piano music as a US officer talks about going to the door to tell someone their son is dead. Again why is this here? This episode is about the French in Vietnam. Again it’s as if Burns needs to remind us of the centrality of American suffering.


36.30 The idea that this was, as Burns claims, a civil war is a bit of a stretch. Outside the privileged administrative class how much support was there for French rule? The term"civil war" makes slightly more sense when you understand that in 1949 the French had created the Associated State of Vietnam with Bao Dai as head of state, albeit subject to close French supervision. France retained responsibility for foreign affairs and therefore took the lead in the negotiations at Geneva in 1954.


38.00 When Burns talks about the brutality of the behaviour of the French forces he describes exactly the sort of misconduct that US forces were guilty of later on; burning houses, raping women and girls, executing people, shooting buffalo. Yet, despite the fact that the episode is entitled “Deja Vu” Burns avoids referring to this parallel. Instead most references in this episode to future American involvement are references to American suffering. 


38.40 Testimony from a villager about violence by French troops. It is significant that Burns will include testimony from a Vietnamese villager about how awful it was when French forces came through but never produces equivalent testimony from villagers about American troops.


41.20 Marine Roger Harris tells his mother about how he is putting pieces of special people in bags. Again why is this here? Is it to show the parallels between the French and American experience or to remind us of the centrality of American suffering?


43.30 Hal Kushner says “We were very aware that there was a Cold War and that we had an enemy, and that enemy was the Soviet Union. The United States stood at one pole and the Soviet Union stood at the other pole. It was kind of a Manichean dynamic that there was evil and there was good. And we were good, and the other side was evil. It wasn't morally ambiguous. ”

This is undoubtedly an honest account of the attitude that prevailed. However, at no point in this episode does Burns address the level of paranoia in US thinking when it came to communism. The fact that decisions were being taken during the height of McCarthy’s influence surely deserves some consideration.  Listen to Noam Chomsky giving a rather different view of US aims.

47.45 3 years after Eisenhower is elected the US is paying 80% of the cost of the French war. How does Burns reconcile the funding of a brutal colonial war with his claim that US involvement is the result of decent people acting in good faith?


Something Burns omits about the background to Dien Bien Phu, which is detailed in the Pentagon Papers, is that the French government wanted to respond to overtures for a peaceful settlement coming from Ho Chi Minh. By this stage in the war the French were losing officers faster than they could train them.However, the Americans urged further military action in order to go into the Geneva talks with a strong bargaining position. The fact that this was an operation carried out at US urging places French requests for greater US assistance including air strikes, and US refusal, in a different light. Two French officials claim that Dulles offered the use of tactical nuclear weapons though Dulles denied that he had done so. The use of nuclear weapons was certainly discussed and Admiral Radford, along with the air force chief of staff and the chief of naval operations were keen to conduct a landing in the region of Hanoi, despite the acknowledged risk of war with China.

49.20 There is comedy value in seeing Nixon cast against type as the truth teller. Only here does Burns acknowledge that one reason for US involvement was a desire to keep resources within the American economic system.


52.20 There’s an another interesting detail to the story of Dien Bien Phu. In Vietnam the French colonial regime had been dependant on its monopoly of opium for a substantial part of its revenue. In the Second World War the Vichy French government could not import opium because of a British naval blockade so they had to grow it within the colony. Opium needs to be grown at considerable altitude so the French had to look around for suitable sites. Some was grown in the hills of Laos and some in northern Vietnam in the hills around Dien Bien Phu. In Laos the French dealt directly with the hill tribes who grew the crops but in Vietnam the French relied on Tai valley dwellers to extract opium production from Meo who lived on the surrounding hills.The Tai seriously exploited the Meo who deeply resented the way they had been treated during this period. When the French military were planning the Dien Bien Phu operation civilian administrators strongly advised them not to establish their base in that area precisely because the local population were so alienated. The French military ignored this advice so when the Viet Minh arrived with all their guns (much of it American artillery, which had been supplied to the Nationalists in China, captured by the communists and passed on to the Viet Minh) the local Meo were only too pleased to help carry them up the surrounding hills.

58.00 Donald Gregg talks about US thinking, very much backing up Burns' presentation of US involvement as a rational intervention giveen the prevailing outlook. Gregg seems an odd choice. Not only was he an active participant in the Phoenix Program but all the evidence points to Gregg having been up to his neck in the Iran Contra scandal and having lied repeatedly about his role in the affair. Surey Burns could have found someone whose reliability was less open to challenge. Doug Valentine, author of The Phoenix Program, argues that there is a direct link between Gregg's work in Vietnam and his role in America's brutal interventions in Central America.

59.00 Geneva talks. The US involvement was limited by their refusal to recognise either the Chinese of the Vietnamese communist administrations. They were forbidden to shake hands with, let alone talk to, either of these delegations. However, in the minds of all delegations will have been the fact that the US had overthrown elected governments in Iran the year before and in Guatemala earlier that year. The desire not to settle on terms that might provoke a subsequent US intervention may have informed the Chinese decision to press Ho Chi Minh into settling, at least temporarily, for control of the northern half of the country only.


1.01.00 Newsreel shows thousands of Buddhists and Catholics “who have found life intolerable under the communists” fleeing south. In fact those who fled were almost entirely catholics and those who had worked for the French government. What Burns omits here is that the CIA had put enormous effort into spreading propaganda about how dreadful the behaviour of communists was going to be. 


1.02.29 “The US hoped somehow to encourage the building of a legitimate government in the south.” Given the willingness of the US to support the bloody French colonial occupation it is a bit of leap to assume that the US was particularly concerned about establishing a legitimate government. It seems more likely that they simply wanted a non-communist government capable of surviving.


1.03.00 A pentagon man says “Diem said he wanted to turn south Vietnam into a democracy. That’s what he said he wanted to do and we believed him.” The idea that the US was fussed about establishing a democracy is nonsense. The Americans couldn’t possibly countenance democracy precisely because everyone knew who would win a fair election, namely Ho Chi Minh. Lansdale, who had done so much to put Diem in power openly admitted that the regime he had helped establish was "fascistic".

1.04.“Tens of thousands of Viet Minh soldiers had gone north, but several thousand cadre... trained and dedicated Communist Party workers... had stayed behind to organize resistance in the countryside.” "Organise resistance" is a very odd way of putting it. Resistance to what? The deal was there were going to be elections. A continued Viet Minh presence in the South was entirely legitimate. Their activities only became "resistance" when Diem broke the terms of the 1954 Geneva Accords, failed to hold elections and started murdering Viet Minh, both communist and non-communist.

What is extraoridinary about Burns' account of Diems' rise to power is that he completely omits the role played by the US in assisting Diem, providing the finance which allowed him to buy off important players. Burns portrays Diem's rise to power as something the US found themselves stuck with through no fault of their own, rather than something they orchestrated. Burns also omits any reference to the sabotage missions the CIA organised against North Vietnam around this time, the first acts of violence carried out across the DMZ by any of the eventual belligerents.


1.07.50 The newsreel about Diem’s 1957 visit to Washington is dishonest, and the dishonesty is not corrected by Burns. It talks about Diem requesting military aid to deal with increasing communist pressure . There was no communist pressure. North Vietnam was not looking for a war and communists in the South were restricting themselves to political action. They did not take to armed resistance for another two years.

The film goes on to give the game away in relation to American motives, stating that increasingly American political leaders came to the same view as Kennedy, namely South Vietnam had to be defended to preserve US prestige in South East Asia.


1.10.00 Burns reports the ruthless land reform in north which left thousands dead.

What is significant is that this is one of the few instances where Burns expresses a moral view. When he records American and South Vietnamese misdeeds he generally does so without any moral comment.

It is also interesting that he says nothing about the land reform the Viet Minh had introduced in the South, before Diem took over, redistributing land from wealthy landowners to the poorest villagers. Diem’s reversal of these reforms, (along with his imprisonment and killing of former Viet Minh, both communist and non-communist) was one of the reasons for his unpopularity.


1.11.10 Burns talks about Diem’s repression and implies the VC immediately responded with violence. In fact the VC, in accordance with instruction from the North, did not start fighting back until 1959. Burns says Diem imprisoned thousands and “Ordered the execution of hundreds more. Neil Sheehan, in A Bright Shining Lie, says thousands were murdered and rape and torture were rife. Jospeh Buttinger, a supporter of Diem, also puts the number of killings in the thousands.


In the final episode Burns records how the North Vietnamese destroyed ARVN cemeteries. However he choses not to mention here that Diem destroyed Viet Minh cemeteries.

VTH includes the information that Diem’s enforcers were largely people who had worked for the French in a similar capacity which helps explain the unpopularity of his regime.


1.11.40 We have a graphic description of machete killing by the VC. Note we do not get any graphic description of the results of artillery attacks on villages where the VC held sway, or of executions, or burying alive of suspects, by Diem’s forces. This difference of approach is straight out of Manufacturing Consent which contrasts US media’s graphic reporting of the injuries of father Popieluszko' inflicted by the communist Polish police, with their far more prosaic coverage of the killings of Catholic priests and nuns by US-backed regimes in Central America. Bernard Fall, an academic and journalist with in-depth knowledge of South East Asia, and a supporter of US intervention in Vietnam, estimated that Diem’s actions resulted in the deaths of around 150,000 people. By contrast when the VC rose up in Long An Province it took only 26 assassinations to gain control of almost all the province.


1.12.00 “As violence in South Vietnam intensified.” This evasion of attribution is seriously disingenuous. The first four years of violence was violence visited on the rural population of South Vietnam by Diem.


1.12.50 We hear sinister chords as we hear about the rise of Le Duan. We don’t hear sinister chords when we hear about murderous South Vietnamese leaders or indeed when we hear about Westmorland. 

1.13.14 Similarly we get sinister chords and photography for the Politburo but no equivalent shots of the presidential palace in South Vietnam, or indeed the White House, despite the murderous activities of their various occupants.


1.13.35 A South Vietnamese diplomat says “The NV adopted a more aggressive posture.” Aggressive is not a word we ever hear used of Diem’s attacks on his population or of American actions.


All this talk of increasingly aggressive North Vietnamese leadership, building up to ever greater levels of violence in the South is nonsense. The reality was that Hanoi had instructed its supporters in the South to engage in exclusively political, rather than military, activity. It was only in response to demands from southern activists, who feared extermination by Diem’s forces if they did not resist militarily, that Hanoi grudgingly gave permission to its supporters in the South to use violence. This process is detailed in both George Kahin’s Intervention and Jeffrey Race’s War Comes to Long An.

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