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Watching Notes: Episode 2

1961 - 1963

We begin with John Musgrave talking about how terrifying it was to man a listening post. Musgrave doesn’t deploy for another 2 episodes. Again it’s as if Burns needs to remind us of the centrality of American suffering.

6.20 "Like the president who picked them, all of Kennedy's men had served during World War II. Each had absorbed what they all believed was its central lesson: ambitious dictatorships needed to be halted in their tracks before they constituted a serious danger to the peace of the world."

This is a very strange statement because it bears no relation to Kennedy's actual conduct. Again and again, during the Bay of Pigs, in Laos and during the Cuban missile crisis Kennedy took a far less confrontational approach that the CIA and the Pentagon advised. Burns himself tells us that Kennedy saw no future in the Vietnam war and was only sticking with it because it would be electoral suicide to withdraw support. But what this statement does do is help frame US actions in Vietnam as a reasonable and principled response to the situation in Vietnam and imply Kennedy's broad approval.


8.00 “Over the next 3 years the US would struggle to understand the complicated country it had come to save…… and misread how the people of SV really felt about their government.”

The claim that the aim of the US was to save Vietnam is ludicrous. If the US wanted to save this country it would not have spent so long bankrolling a brutal colonial war in order to preserve French control. And anyway Burns himself told us towards the end of the previous episode what the real reason for US support for Diem was, namely to preserve American prestige. In the next episode Burns also quotes John McNaughton, Assistant Secretary of State Defence, saying the US was fighting in Vietnam “70% to save face 20% to stop China and 10% to help the Vietnamese” though he omits McNaughton’s final words “to emerge from the crisis without unacceptable taint from the methods used.”


The statement that the US “misread” how the people of South Vietnam really felt about their government is also untrue. This is Paul Vann, US military adviser, describing the situation to his superiors.

"A popular political base for the government of South Vietnam does not now exist…..The existing government is orientated towards the exploitation of the rural and urban lower class populations. It is in fact a continuation of the French colonial system with upper class Vietnamese replacing the French…. The dissatisfaction of the agrarian population… is expressed largely with alliance through the NLF."

Similarly a Rand Corporation study showed widespread support for the NLF. The Americans knew just how unpopular Diem (and indeed his successors) were and, in that knowledge, deployed ever increasing amounts of violence to support these rulers.


9.00 “In South East Asia he [Kennedy] refused to intervene against a communist insurrection in Laos.”

This is disingenuous. The Geneva accords had provided for a settlement in relation to Laos as well as Vietnam, and the US immediately began to subvert the agreement in Laos, obstructing the formation of a coalition government and establishing a military mission even though this was expressly prohibited under the Geneva accords. An election in 1958 produced a result the US did not like but a succession of coups and a rigged election resulted in a right wing government allied to the US. There was indeed an insurrection then, in which left wing forces took part but omitting the fact that the government challenged by the insurrection had no legitimacy and was backed by the US seriously distorts the picture. Kennedy’s reluctance to get involved was influenced by the Army’s statement that if China subsequently intervened they would use nuclear weapons and by the fact that the people arguing for intervention were the same people who had sold him the Bay of Pigs disaster.

And, according to Averell Harriman, Kennedy's ambassador at large, the military and the CIA "systematically sabotaged" the President's policy of neutrality in Laos.

9.40 “General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow urged Kennedy to commit American ground troops.”

Compare this statement to the statement in episode 9 at 21.30 that the army felt it had had this war “foisted on it by bright civilians.”


Somewhere in here you would expect some analysis of why people joined or supported the VC. It is extraordinary that Burns never addresses his mind to this question.


10.15 “Kennedy sought a new way to confront and contain communism.” This statement assumes the accuracy of the US cold war narrative that communism was a global threat that needed to to be confronted and contained. No one ever directly challenges this view. It also omits any account of the previous strategy, which was to threaten first use of nuclear weapons where the US felt local circumstances required. Much of the US military were very hostile to Kennedy's decision to move away from this strategy.

12.00 ROBERT RHEAULT: Khrushchev said, "We're not going to destroy you with nuclear weapons, we're going to destroy you with wars of national liberation."

In line with his attempt to present the Vietnam war as a reasonable move in the wider Cold War, Burns gives us a relentlessy negative view of Khruschev. In fact Khruschev had withdrawn troops from Austria and Finland, allowed a much wider range of literature to be pulished within Russia and released 500,000 prisoners from the camps. Further moves towards detente had broken down when Gary Powers' U2 plane was shot down over the Soviet Union (the USSR was not flying planes over the USA), Eisenhower had initially lied about the episode then refused to apologise, leading to the end of talks.

12.20 Burns talks about how agent orange was used to destroy the crops that fed the guerrillas. Indeed 80% of defoliants were sprayed on crops rather than jungle. 

What Burns does not address is that it isn’t really possible to spray just the crops the guerrillas are going to eat. This spraying destroyed everybody’s food in areas where guerrillas were believed to operate. Daniel Ellsberg reports flying over an area controlled by the VC which had therefore been sprayed with defoliants resulting in “…a desert. Dry, nothing living, no vegetation.”

15.00 While Burns talks about US military advisers he makes no reference to CIA activities in Vietnam. Well before US ground troops were openly committed to combat the CIA were building interrogation centres across the country where suspects would be tortured in order to gain intelligence on the Viet Cong..


16.00 Burns doesn't comment but you can hear one of the Americans on the helicopter saying, of the people they are shooting, “They are wearing black uniforms.” No one was wearing black uniforms. Everyone, peasant and VC alike, wore black. This may in fact be footage of peasants being shot for running away from being shot at. Interestingly what appears to be the identical footage appears in VTH, but in colour. I guess Burns converted this to black and white so as not to jar with the other archive film of this period.


16.20 James Scanlon says, “We were overwhelming them with force, with firepower. That’s what was causing us to win. We were winning  one after another. And we are not meeting a heck of a lot of resistance.”

This is a bizarre statement. First of all, it is at odds with everything Paul Vann was saying at the time. A Bright Shining Lie reports in detail on the ARVN’s inability, despite tactical successes, to substantially degrade VC forces. But as we will see there is a dishonest logic at work here.


17.25 Burns draws parallels between VC brutality and East German oppression and goes on to say Scanlon, once in Vietnam “started to see evidence of VC brutality.” That’s fine as far as it goes but to leave it there, without reference to the brutality of the South Vietnamese government forces, as Burns does, is to imply that only the VC were brutal. (It also ignores the brutal, and often fatal, contemporaneous torture sessions at the CIA black site at Villa Schuster in West Germany),  Sheehan includes a list of 12 forms of torture applied by one ARVN officer to prisoners, including wrapping in barbed wired, stripping the skin off a man’s back and hooking up genitals to the battery of a field telephone. (You can find the full list three quarters of the way through the chapter entitled “Going to War.”). The comparison with East German is particularly inappropriate given that Amnesty International had reported that Eastern European governments had abandoned torture as a regular practice in the mid 1950s whereas it was commonplace in South Vietnam (and indeed in many US client States in South America too.) Scanlon’s statement that he and others saw the need to stop the spread of communism is not challenged.


18.00 Burns describes the policy of fortified villages as “hearts and minds.”

It was nothing of the sort, as becomes clear. Villagers were forced to move to these hamlets, much against their will, and encouraged to do so by the shelling of their villages. What makes this choice of words so peculiar is that only 8 minutes later we see Neil Sheehan recounting how farmers forced into these villages would gladly have slit the throats of the people who had forced them to build and live in these places.


19.00 After reporting McNamara’s optimism Burns says the US seemed to be winning. As mentioned before, the US was not winning. In episode 9 the policy of Vietnamization is ridiculed by Sheehan precisely on the basis that the South Vietnamese government had not been able to win on its own before 1965 so why would anyone think they would succeed on their own now.


It seems to me that Burns has done something very dishonest here. He gives us Scanlon’s optimism followed by McNamara’s optimism and his editorial judgement that the US was winning. Then, immediately after the voice over tells us the US appears to be winning comes “But that same summer Ho Chi Minh travelled to Beijing in search of more help from the Chinese.”  It is only after this section that Burns begins, see below, to report on US and ARVN failures. The clear, but completely unhistorical, implication is that initial US and ARVN success turned to failure as a result of Chinese support. This non-existent Chinese role in turning US success to failure helps bolster the idea that, whatever its shortcomings, US involvement in Vietnam was a rational or at least understandable part of a wider geopolitical confrontation.


20.00 We now get 3 minutes on the decent, idealistic young men and women who joined the Peace Corps and the IVS, some of whom went to Vietnam. Burns’ treatment of this subject is dishonestly incomplete. In fact, more and more of these volunteers became concerned about the destructiveness of US policy in Vietnam and attempts to link their work to USAID and the CIA. In 1967 Don Luce the country director for IVS and three senior managers resigned and they, together with 49 volunteers, signed a letter to Johnson protesting the conduct of the war. Luce’s subsequent campaigning and journalism was so effective that Graham Martin, the last U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, said Luce was one of the principal reasons the U.S. lost the war. 


This section also includes a brief statement from Rufus Phillips of USAID saying “We were there to try and find out what the Vietnamese people wanted and to help them get it.” This aim, he says, went to the heart of why they were there. That claim is at odds with the statement made two minutes earlier that the US aim was a stable, independent, anti-communist government, which is something rather different. It also overlooks the fact that the biggest single item of expenditure in USAID’s budget was prisons. It overlooks too the fact that many USAID prsonnel were in fact CIA staff, and many of those were working on the Phoenix programe. But the wider point is that, even though the sequence is followed by an interview with a special forces soldier talking about the importance of hearts and minds, these few minutes are more to less all we hear about US efforts to build a better society in South Vietnam.  The British defeat of communist guerrillas in Malaya is in no way directly comparable but it is worth noting that the British commander said that shooting the enemy was only 25% of the job. Westmoreland famously had no interest in this non-shooting side of counter-insurgency. Ken Burns seems to share his lack of interest, though he does record, in the book, USAID workers complaining that the behaviour of US troops often undermined their efforts to win over the rural population. In the book but not the film he records Stuart Herrington complaining about US forces coming under fire, razing a village and undoing a year’s work trying to win the villagers over.

26.40 Burns is now honest about how unpopular strategic hamlets were. But he still says people were angry that they were not protected by Diem “from guerrilla attacks” when in fact they resented Diem more than the VC. Ellsberg talks about the need to protect villagers from the depredations of the ARVN.


26.40 Burns records the VC recruiting straight out of strategic hamlets without appreciating how this contradicts his claim a moment previously that the concern of the villagers was that they were not being protected from the VC. It’s worth repeating this comment from a hamlet chief.

You want to know how the communists got into our strategic hamlet? All of us in the Combat Youth were poor people. We asked ourselves, why should we be carrying rifles and risking our lives when Xoai’s son doesn’t have to. His family is rich and has used its power to get him out of it. When the communists come in they never bother us -  they go to the homes of those who got rich by taking from others. Are we so stupid as to protect them?


27.00 We hear about the programme from Nguyen Ngoc who is described as “North Vietnamese Army.” He is from the South and he is operating as a propagandist in the South, by implication at the time of the strategic hamlet programme.  It is highly unlikely that someone from the NVA would have been doing that at this time. Has Burns managed to find one of the vanishingly rare NVA members active in the south at this time or has he mislabelled this person?


27.40 Duong Van Mai then talks about what the VC propagandists would say. Why her? She is from the urban middle class and the daughter of a former French colonial official. Why are we not hearing this from one of the propagandised villagers?


28.10 The VC ran their own parallel governments complete with teachers, spies, propagandists and tax collectors. Burns omits hospitals. 


28.40 Talks about US arms being captured. Burns misses out the explanation. Diem had continued a French policy of manning lots of very small forts out in the countryside, which were easy targets for the VC. Vann had urged abandoning these forts precisely because they were continually being overrun by the VC with the result that the VC ended up with all the US equipment provided to these forts. Alternatively the VC might agree not to attack a fort in return for equipment. Sheehan quotes rates of 10,000 rounds of ammunition a month. Vann’s advice was ignored. And because this explanation is missing from Burns' account, viewers might wrongly assume that the increased firepower of the VC was a result of the previously mentioned Chinese support.


30.10 On Harkins' data. “Far more data than could ever be adequately analysed”, Burns overlooks the additional fact that much of the data was nonsense. The air force was counting anyone they shot for running away as a dead VC and any “structure” they destroyed as an enemy structure, even though Vann’s on the ground inspections showed that most of these were simply houses or barns.


30.45 Harkins ignores alarming After Action Reports from Vann. Now we hear about military failure.


31.10 From archive footage, talking about the rural population. “They’re caught between predatory guerrillas and the almost equally demanding soldiery.”

See overview. Precisely because the guerrillas were less demanding than the soldiery, and indeed brought many benefits, the VC could recruit and move freely through the countryside.


We then move on to a confused section that seems to be about why America did not prevail. Given that the loss of this war is, for many Americans, its most significant feature you might have thought Burns would address the question of why the war was lost rather more thoroughly than he does here.

31.54 We have an interview with Huy Duc who is described simply, not to say oddly, as “North Vietnam.” He was born in 1962, admittedly North of the DMZ, but was therefore only about 13 when Vietnam was unified. He is in fact a Vietnamese journalist who has studied at Harvard, and whose blog, critical of the Vietnamese government cost him his job at a state owned newspaper in Vietnam. “Clearly SV was more democratic,” he says. That’s a very low bar. If you are going to understand the fundamental question of why South Vietnam’s governments failed to secure the loyalty of their people you really ought to look at the nature of its elections and factor in the limits on who was allowed to stand, the corruption of many of those elected, and the fact that real power always lay in the hands of unelected generals, not to mention the brutal treatment of those who failed to toe the line. Burns does address this issue in relation to one election, but several episodes on.

Huy Doc also says, “the side whose soldiers had fewer doubts and asked fewer questions would win.”

This is followed by Nguyen Ngoc talking about how good a communicator Ho was, in a way that implies disingenuousness. No mention is made of the credibility he had gained through his years of commitment to the fight for Vietnam’s independence. Next come images of ranks of NVA troops and columns of lorries packed with soldiers, all being cheered as they make their way down the street.

33.50 Duong Van Mai says “On our side we were not as committed.” then refers to corruption and incompetence.

Having painted this picture of implacable communist zealots, we hear from Tom Vallely who talks about how the communists had been engaged in this struggle for 20 years before Kennedy engaged with the issue, and says, “The more you think about the American strategy the more you know that it as never going to work out particularly well.” But the American strategy is never defined so we have no real idea of what his reasoning is. Why were the communists more committed? The US/South Vietnamese governments had all the armour, all the artillery, all the airpower, all the dollars. Why could they not offer something sufficiently compelling to bring people in line given the awful prospect of resistance? As an analysis of America’s failure this is woeful.


As an aside Huy Doc is perhaps a bit unfair on the communists forces in respect of not asking questions. One quality which distinguished the Viet Cong from the US army was that in the Viet Cong it was entirely acceptable to report failure, with a view to learning lessons. Compare that with the pressure on US field commanders to report in the required number of dead bodies on every operation and the enormous pressure to be seen as a success during your 6 month command if you wanted your career to advance.


In A Bright Shining Lie Neil Sheehan makes an interesting comparison with US power in Latin America. There, he points out, the US had a successful history of maintaining control through brutal and corrupt colonial elites. But those elites were successfully established rather than, as in Vietnam, vulnerable to an entrenched resistance.


37.40 The account of a principled provincial governor. But, as mentioned in the overview, nowhere do we get as much detail about the day to day reality of all the really corrupt governors who far outnumbered governors of principle.


43.30 Burns says Nhu’s security organisations “seized” people. They also murdered people. Nhu admired Hitler and recruited an organisation he called the Blue Shirts, in imitation of Hitler’s Brownshirts.


44.30  Troops “were “strangely reluctant” to engage the enemy. Neil Sheehan provides an explanation for this reluctance which Burns, for whatever reason, ignores. Diem wrongly believed that an attempted coup had been inspired by excessive casualties and had therefore ordered his commanders to avoid casualties, confident in the belief that if the fighting got serious the Americans would intervene.

48.10 "The Joint Chiefs of Staff urged President Kennedy to bomb Cuba." They, and the CIA, were furious that he did no invade.

48.40 Kennedy had, months previously, ordered US missiles to be removed from Turkey and was astonished to find that his orders had been ignored and the missiles were still there.


56.05 “I wouldn't let the Vietnamese touch the Americans.” I wonder if Burns was aware of the racism this comment displays.


58.35 “At Ap Bac the VC had learnt how to get away.” As Sheehan tells it the ARVN commanders deliberately allowed the VC to get away. Why does Burns rewrite the story?


1.05.15 Woman mentions in passing the use of torture by the South Vietnamese government. Compare this to the attention Burns pays to torture of Americans.

1.08.40 Cabot Lodge had been sent by Eisenhower to the UN to justify the overthrow of democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacob Arbenz in 1954.


1.09.50 How come it is only at the end of Diem’s rule that Burns mentions that Diem was jailing people for calling for more democracy?


An aspect of the coup which Burns ignores is that, as the US began to lose patience with Diem, his brother Nhu approached the NFL/VC to see if they could reach an accommodation which would cut out the US. There is doubt about whether Nhu was serious or just trying to get leverage over the US but, throughout the film, Burns underplays the belief amongst important figures in South Vietnam, and the South Vietnamese population at large, that a deal with the NLF/VC was possible and indeed preferable to continued fighting.


1.12.00 Burns lists various “cold war” coups. However, the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran was not in any meaningful sense part of the cold war. Iran, fed up with being robbed blind of its oil revenues by Britain, had nationalised its oil industry. The effect of the coup was to replace the democratic government with an extraordinarily brutal dictatorship and place the Iranian oil industry in the hands of a number of Western oil companies. The Honduran coup was equally unrelated to East/West rivalry. The democratic government of Honduras compulsorily purchased land from the United Fruit Company which the company was not using, at the value the company had been giving that land in its tax returns. This was unacceptable to the United Fruit Company, and therefore to the US government, who overthrew the democratically elected government and replaced it with a brutal military dictatorship. These weren’t cold war, anti-communist coups, they were anti-democratic pro-business coups.

And Burns completely ignores a debate about Kennedy’s intentions in the final months of his presidency. It is argued by some that the patchy documentary record shows pretty convincingly that he had ordered a full withdrawal of US forces by the end of 1965, regardless of the military outcome. The case is set out in this compelling article by James K Galbraith.


And of course if Kennedy was planning to end a war that the military establishment was thoroughly committed to that is one more reason why the deep state might have wanted to get rid of him. In the clip below Aaron Mate and Katie Halper discuss the evidence with David Talbot and Aaron Good. The TLDR is that Chomsky's scepticism about Kennedy's peaceful intentions is unjustified and results from the fact that he only relied on written sources and did not speak to any of the people involved

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