Watching Notes: Episode 3

Jan 1963 - Dec 1965

I have to confess to being baffled by the choice of music to accompany the story of Mogie Crocker, because it is perfect. What better song to introduce a character inspired by tales of military heroics, who ends up dying in a fatuous war he no longer believes in than the Dylan masterpiece “With God on Our Side.” But the song’s clear eyed rejection of patriotic militarism seems so completely at odds with Burns’ polyannaish search for meaning that I can’t help thinking he only chose this song because of the line in the first verse “The town that I come from is called the Mid-west.” Ken, if I’ve misjudged you I apologise.

 

In the account of governmental chaos following the overthrow of Diem, Burns omits the fact that there were Generals, including the popular Minh, who wanted to try to cut deal with the NLF, whom they regarded as sufficiently independent of Hanoi to be capable of making a separate peace. He also omits the fact that NLF/VC attacks dropped off in response to General Minh’s overtures and the NLF put out a conciliatory manifesto saying there was no need to rush towards reunification. However, when Minh proposed an anti-corruption purge he was removed, partly by those threatened by such a purge, in a US-backed coup.

 

Burns goes so far as to acknowledge that the Buddhists were demanding representative government but makes no reference to the popular demand for an end to the war, or indeed to the mass arrests of those making this demand. At 10.15 we see a contemporary reporter saying, “This kind of political backbiting is having serious consequences in the countryside. Until a strong government begins to function in Saigon the war against the communists will continue to founder.” This dismissal of the demand for democracy and peace and an end to political arrests as ”political backbiting” and the characterising of the VC as communists pure and simple rather than people who objected to a brutal and exploitative government is implicitly endorsed by Burns. Note that we do not hear from anyone from the Buddhist movement.

 

15.40 Burns reports the army pushing for bombing of the North and troops in the South and Johnson’s fear that this would bring China in. What Burns does not report is that the military recognised this risk and, as in their proposed intervention in Laos, intended to deal with any Chinese involvement by using nuclear weapons, and moreover wanted authority to use these weapons devolved to local commanders. This thinking is set out in Daniel Ellsberg’s book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg had done work on planned use of nuclear weapons and records military estimates of five to six hundred million deaths, including perhaps one hundred million deaths in NATO countries if the US implemented its planned response to a Russian invasion of Europe. A willingness to contemplate inflicting casualties on this scale might go some way towards explaining how relaxed US commanders were about the scale of civilian casualties they inflicted in South Vietnam.

 

18.20 Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Burns does not mention that Johnson and McNamara lied about what had happened. Particularly given the topicality of lying to justify wars this is an astonishing omission. They stated that the second attack had definitely taken place. They described the Maddox as being on a routine patrol in international waters. At the time of the attack it was in international waters but it had regularly been within 8 miles of the North Vietnamese coast. Like China and other communist nations, North Vietnam claimed the seas up to 15 miles from its coast as territorial waters, a claim the US observed in relation to China. Moreover, the purpose of the patrols had been to provoke the North Vietnamese into turning on radar to enable the US to plot them for the purpose of future attacks. And McNamara had denied the shelling of coastal islands which Burns describes. Given that Burns describes this episode as “one of the most controversial and consequential events in American history” you would have thought he might have mentioned these substantial misrepresentations. 

 

This incident is covered much more honestly in the PBS series Vietnam, A Television History. In this film the CIA involvement in the coastal raids is acknowledged, and an accurate plot of the course of the Maddox in and out of claimed Vietnamese waters is shown, followed by footage of MacNamara outright lying about what the Maddox had been doing.

 

But Burns probably overstates the significance of the event. As Ellsberg records, much thought had already been put into possible operations to provoke North Vietnamese actions which could then be used to justify US escalation. If this attack hadn’t happened the US would almost certainly have hung the resolution on something else.

 

And the military urged Johnson to conduct further bombing on the basis of another attack on US ships which, on further investigation, turned out almost certainly not to have taken place. During this period Hanoi Indicated that it was open to talks, something ignored by Burns, but it appears Johnson was not informed of their position until after he had committed to further escalation in February 1965.

 

22.40 Johnson says “We still seek no wider war.”

That was what people voted for. Burns does not report that it was pretty much a lie. Although Johnson had not committed to any particular course of action, no one expected the South Vietnamese government to survive much longer without significant US intervention and Johnson’s military advisers were arguing for much the same approach as Goldwater. On the day of the vote Ellsberg was at a meeting organised by Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy to discuss “the best way to widen the war.”

 

26.50 Burns says the bombing was very popular in the US. He does not mention that it was enormously unpopular in S Vietnam and bolstered popular support for the Buddhist leaders arguing for peace.

 

27.00 “The North Vietnamese did not believe Johnson’s claim he sought no wider war.” Johnson may not have been committed to escalation but pretty much the whole of the US security establishment at this point was.

 

29.00 Following footage of street demonstrations in the South “He [Johnson] refused to undertake sustained bombing until the South Vietnamese got their own house in order.” The implication here is that the South Vietnamese as a whole are somehow at fault. Johnson’s real concern was that the generals did not have enough popular support to keep a government together. What the street demonstrations illustrate is that the people of South Vietnam did not want either the military leaders or the war that the US was attempting to foist on them.

 

31.30 We see footage of Westmoreland addressing troops. Although he is on screen for longer the only words we hear him utter are “We must ensure that women and children are not injured” and “and at the same time win the hearts and minds of the people.” This is a sick joke. Remember this is the same man who, when challenged about the scale of civilian casualties replied, ”It is a problem but it does deprive the enemy of the population doesn’t it.” (An exchange you will not find in the film.) 

 

32.00 Brady says Westmoreland told them they were nearly there, then he went out and saw what was on the ground and thought “Don’t you realise we are losing this war.” You would have thought this would be the prompt for some sort of discussion about how out of touch with reality Westmoreland was and why. At the very beginning of his command he believes he is winning a war he is losing. One of the gaps in the film is its failure to engage with the question of how Westmoreland was allowed to fail for so long.

 

33.30 Interview with a ARVN officer. Note that we hear from only one other ARVN solider between now and the time the Americans leave.

 

35.12 A rare interview with someone from the Viet Cong.

 

46.00 Talks of NV regulars filing South. Note that despite the talk of North Vietnamese “aggression” they did not send troops south until after US naval and air attacks on the North.

 

48.00 Rolling Thunder begins. But Burns has given us nothing of the Vietnamese side of the background to Johnson’s eventual decision to authorise the bombing. Johnson didn’t want to agree to bombing unless there was a solid government in South Vietnam and Khanh’s rule was shaky. The US military thought that bombing the North would boost the morale of the southern government and produce the solidity that Johnson sought, but were reluctant to grant that benefit to Khanh. Meanwhile, Khanh had moved closer to the buddhist leaders and, like Nhu and Minh before him, was making overtures to the NLF in the hopes of striking a peace deal which would avoid further dependence on the Americans. In February Khanh was therefore, in time honoured fashion, removed in another US-backed coup and the bombing was authorised in the belief that it would help stabilise a new government more aligned to US interests.

 

51.00 US troops go in. What the book, but not the film, acknowledges is that Vietnam was not the only country the US sent troops into without an invitation in 1965. The US also invaded the Dominican Republic. As Burns frankly tells it in the book, the US intervened in the Dominican Republic to protect a dictator who was friendly to the US and Johnson lied to justify the action.

 

51.30 John McNaughton, Assistant Secretary of State Defence, says the US was fighting in Vietnam “70% to save face 20% to stop China and 10% to help the Vietnamese.” As previously noted this conflicts with Burns' statement at the start of episode 2 that the US had come “to save” Vietnam.

 

56.20 A small protest outside Dow Chemical Company, leading into discussion of the protest movement. Burns says people opposed the war “for any number of reasons.” This seems a rather dismissive assessment of people’s motives. More interestingly, apart from two sentences from Bill Zimmerman, people from the peace movement don’t get to talk about their motives either here or, extraordinarily, at any point in the film. Given that 25,000 people turn up for a demonstration this early in the conflict and given the significance the movement is going to develop you might have expected more. Burns’ failure to address the motives of the peace movement is particularly perverse given his stated aim of bringing an America that remains bitterly divided over the issue of this war, back together. How does he propose to effect a reconciliation if he doesn't give one side a voice? One can’t help suspecting that, consciously or otherwise, Burns doesn’t want to give them a voice because they will talk about the widespread nature of atrocities, a subject Burns wants to avoid.

 

1.01. In depth coverage of the bombing of the North. This is great but what it highlights is Burns’ silence on the bombing of the South.

 

1.05 “UN Secretary-General U Thant had proposed a three-month ceasefire.” Burns mentions British support but omits the fact that Moscow, Beijing, Hanoi and the NLF also supported reconvening the Geneva Conference. This omission results in a seriously distorted understanding of the conduct of the various parties.

 

1.06 Philip Brady talks about calling in napalm on a village because of small arms fire. This is an extraordinary moment. Here we have an example of the military doing exactly what we have seen Vann object to, namely destroying a village because you receive small arms fire from it rather than sending in infantry but Burns is using this clip to make another point and allows this example of government forces doing exactly what they should not to pass without comment.

 

1.06.50 Hanoi denounces Johnson’s offer of massive aid as “a trick.” This attitude makes more sense when you learn that a requirement Johnson placed on acceptance of his offer was that the VC lay down their arms. And what Burns omits completely is that Hanoi had made its own proposals for discussions, which George Ball urged Johnson to take seriously.

 

1.1.00 The sentimental piano music as Moogie Crocker waits for orders and pays a final visit to his family is never matched by a similar sentimentality over communist soldiers.

 

1.13 Burns tells us that there are now approximately 5,000 NVA in the South but he gives no numbers for VC because, I say, to do so would reveal the extent to which the US was up against the population of the South rather than North Vietnam.

 

1.14. 320,000 Chinese support troops would eventually serve in North Vietnam. That is presumably over ten years. It is worth noting that Chinese troops were bombed by the US and fired at US aircraft. Renewed warfare between the two powers was not that far off. And for all the talk of the supply of materiel by Russia and China, Ellsberg, who served in the Johnson administration at the time, estimated that very little in the way of supplies needed to flow south to sustain the Viet Cong, whose struggle he described as largely indigenous. 

 

1.20 It is quite something to quote Westmoreland’s talk about the need for restraint without comment.

 

1.21.15 Philip Caputo talks about finding villagers cowering in a bunker and describes their fear and relates it back to Americans fearing the British during the Revolution. This whole section cries out for an interview by a villager who was on the receiving end of this treatment but Burns either isn’t interested in their perspective or doesn’t dare give them a voice because what they would have to say would be so hard for an American to listen to.

 

1.22.15 Band plays over bombing. Congratulations to Burns’ researchers for finding and to Burns for including this footage. It is truly surreal.

 

1.22.30 We hear Mogie talking about the peace protestors. Note we don’t hear a word from the protesters themselves (which wouldn’t matter if they got to explain themselves elsewhere, but they don’t).

 

1.26 Chargin’ Charles Beckwith later led the unsuccessful Iranian hostage rescue mission.

 

The fighting at Landing Ground X Ray, which was a significant victory for the US forces gets 12 or 13 minutes. The nearby fighting at Landing Ground Albany, which was an equivalent victory for the NVA gets less than one minute.

Finally, I thought it would be helpful to add these two maps, produced at the time by the CIA,  which show, more clearly than anything else I have seen, how the situation was developing on the ground during this period. In 1963 Saigon controlled the areas shaded yellow. In 1965 they controlled the areas shaded blue. The 1965 map dates from after the initial deployment of US ground troops.

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