I long put off watching Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War. I had read about it shortly after it came out with many of the review suggesting that it sported a liberal bias. In this, I was very disappointed. I greatly enjoyed The Civil War. Whatever flaws that earlier documentary might have had, it rekindled my interest in Civil War history and encouraged me to seek out more serious treatments. A similar exposition on the history of the War in Vietnam would be welcomed, but what I read succeeded in waving me off.
The availability of the series on Netflix streaming didn’t entice me into changing my mind until after a visit from my father, who himself is a Vietnam veteran. He had watched it and while he did also consider it biased, he seemed to think it wasn’t so bad as to render it unwatchable. I figured I’d give it a go.
Although it was a few months ago when I started watching, this past month the show made the list of Netflix’s cuts. While I made an effort to complete the series, I did not succeed. I ended with Episode 8 (of 10), which features the time when the My Lai massacre became public. It’s a subject matter that’s never going to portray the U.S. in a great light.
But how biased is the series overall?
First off, I’ll concede the the filmmakers were probably making an attempt to be “balanced” in their presentation. I may even be willing to admit that they thought the result was a “balanced” representation of all points of view. The second point I’ll need to concede is that North Vietnam won the war. One should probably start off with this because it certainly justifies much “pessimism” when it comes to America’s escalating involvement in the country or any chance for a more positive outcome.
That all said, I certainly detect a leftward slant to this series. Most of the Americans who were interviewed seemed miserable during the war and are today filled with regret. Many speak of personally-witnessed atrocities and war crimes. Other featured soldiers are not interviewed because they died in Vietnam. Their life is followed through 1950s and 60s American, into the military, and to their deaths. For the Communist side (commanders and political leaders excepted), we only get to know a handful who remain alive to be interviewed. For the most part, despite the deprivations of war, they reflect back on their time at war with the U.S. as a positive experience. One 17-year-old even refers to it as a wonderful time.
Whereas the Americans are reluctant to serve, the voluntary service (even among draftees) of Communists is emphasized. There are even several bits on deserters where it is mentioned that they would return to their units of their own free will*. It is true that the communists’ atrocities and/or simply poor leadership is discussed, their side comes out looking much better in comparison to the Americans and the South Vietnamese**.
Again, I emphasize that there can be other explanations for this besides liberal bias. One is the “revisionist” instinct of so many in the pop-history business. We in America have grown up immersed in the “American” side of events and “balance” may entail emphasizing that which we haven’t heard before. Secondly, America’s mistakes are excruciatingly-well documented whereas today’s Socialist Republic of Vietnam continues to obscure and manipulate their own involvement in the war. Communist misdeeds in Southeast Asia are well known, but getting access to original source material admitting as much would never be easy.
That said, I still see liberal bias as a major factor.
I’ll now dwell on one minor element of the documentary, itself taking no more than a few minutes of screen time, but one that surprised me. Burns declares that Nixon committed treason in order to win the election and the narration cites proof of Nixon’s involvement. It’s a slice of history which has only recently been significantly fleshed out and this is one way of introducing it. This is not how I would have played it.
The documentary’s story, at that point, is about the election. Hubert Humphrey, LBJ’s Vice-President, had managed to squeeze out a primary victory at a vicious convention. Humphrey was, perhaps, an unlikely candidate from the get-go. Johnson, reacting to poor results in New Hampshire and poor polling around the country, had withdrawn his name from consideration for a second term. A major factor in those poor polling results was Robert Kennedy’s candidacy, but then Kennedy was assassinated. At that point, Humphrey, as Johnson’s proxy, had to fend off Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war*** protestor’s candidate, and George McGovern, the RFK proxy. Although he was successful, the turmoil sparked a third-party challenge from Southern Democrat George Wallace. As the days of October grew shorter, Humphrey’s chances looked grim – dragged down by Johnson’s failure to make progress in Vietnam.
In an effort to create an “October Surprise” (four years before the coining of the term), Johnson pushed hard to commence peace talks in advance of the election. Such a jolt was to be seen as vindicating Johnson’s policy and thus giving a last-minute bump to Humphrey. Obviously, given that the peace table remained out of reach and despite America’s long-time desire for a negotiated solution, there were powerful actors on all sides who did not want to see an acceleration in the peace process succeed. Nixon, running as an alternative to Johnson’s policies, would himself gain from one last failure of Johnson’s efforts. The absurdity of the negotiators being unable to meet, even as their countrymen (and women and children) were being slaughtered, because they couldn’t agree on the shape of the table, is convincing evidence that something more significant was going on behind the scenes.
Much is also made of the closeness of the election. Humphrey’s shortfall was less than 1% of the popular vote. Add to that the fact erstwhile-fellow-Democrat Wallace had 13.5%, and the left seems justified in claiming that the election was stolen from them. What this ignores is the Electoral College. Counting popular votes does not measure the “closeness” or even the legitimacy of an election result. It’s like looking at a football game, after the fact, and saying “while the Eagles may have won by points alone, the Rams had more completed passes. So the Rams should really be awarded the win.”
If the victory went to the side with the most completed passes, then both the Eagles and the Rams would play a very different game. If the outcome of a presidential election was determined by popular vote, both sides would run very different election campaigns.
Nixon had a commanding majority of the electoral votes at 301. While much is made of Wallace ‘s substantial take, even if all of Wallace ‘s electors**** went for Humphrey, the Democrats still couldn’t have won. Humphrey only won 13 states and Wallace 5, with the bulk (nearly half) of Humphrey’s votes coming from New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania.
It remains possible that negotiation news from Paris may have swung the election. Several large states, included New Jersey, Ohio, and California, had low-single digit vote margins. Certainly Johnson, himself, thought an active peace negotiation could swing the election so one must assume that the reverse is plausible. That said, in these swing states, the vote was in the couple-of-percent range, not the 0.7% which characterized the national total.
Exactly how much Nixon did and how unethical or even treasonous his actions were remains controversial to this day. It does seem reasonable to conclude that Nixon was in the wrong. Certainly in light of his impeachment, resignations, and disgrace, one hesitates to defend his actions. My point, which I emphasize once again, is that I think the role of a documentarian is to present the known facts, not jump to the conclusions.
It is believed that Nixon had people inside the Johnson White House to keep him apprised of Johnson’s Paris push, although their identities are not known. This is probably par-for-the-course in American politics where the party in power alternates but the core players, the foot soldiers of the bureaucracy, remain in place.
We also know that Anna Chennault was a Nixon supporter and had indirect contacts to Nixon through the campaign. We know that Chennault was actively working with high-level diplomats in South Vietnam. How much of her activities were her own versus being directed by Nixon’s people is at issue. Also unknown is the extent to which this actually altered the course of election and history.
Chennault was the daughter of a Chinese diplomat, who sent her to Hong Kong to escape the war with Japan. This placed Chennault in Hong Kong when the Japanese attacked and she subsequently fled to China to escape Japanese occupation. While living as a refugee, she began a vocation as a war correspondent. Introduced through a sister, who worked as a nurse for the Flying Tiger volunteer group, she interviewed group commander Claire Lee Chennault. After the war, Anna was married to the General who, at 54, was thirty years her senior and freshly divorced. Their marriage provoked further controversy in General Chennault’s home state of Louisiana, where miscegenation laws remained in effect.
The couple became active in international politics and they were vocal supporters of Chiang Kai-shek and the anti-communists of China. After her husband’s death in 1958, Anna Chennault became active in U.S. politics, supporting Nixon in the 1960 election. By the time of the 1968 election, Chennault was the chairwoman of the Republican Women for Nixon Committee. She also was in direct contact at a high level with members of Nguyễn Văn Thiệu’s government. Along with the South Vietnamese government and other Republican opponents of Johnson/Humphrey, she was under FBI and CIA surveillance on Johnson’s orders.
Anna Chennault did advise the leadership of South Vietnam that they would be able to better negotiate with a Republican president at the helm. The 2017 publication of Richard Nixon: The Life (6 months before the airing of The Vietnam War), cited notes and memos recorded by Nixon aide Bob Haldeman that would seem to confirm that Nixon directed Chennault with the intent of swaying the outcome of the election. Haldeman recorded Nixon as using saying that Chennault should keep “working on” the Vietnamese government to throw a “monkey wrench” into Johnson’s peace-talk drive. Perhaps the confirmation of this new information was part of what drove Burns to be so definitive in his citing of the evidence. Yet, it should be said that there is still not agreement that Nixon was deliberately acting against American interests. I think it was worth Burns’ screen time to say so.
Anna Chennault’s actions were said to be a violation of the Logan Act, an obscure and rarely used prohibition against private citizens negotiating with foreign governments. Only twice have violations of the Logan Act been charged and both were dismissed. The law is in the news today as it has recently been trotted out to use against Donald Trump. Perhaps the more serious allegation is that Nixon’s actions were treasonous in that he subordinated the interests of the Nation to his own election. Certainly history seems to bear out that it was in America’s interest to seek peace and extrication sooner rather than later.
However, what we know now of history also would make us question Johnson’s actions. He deliberately sacrificed America’s negotiation position in an attempt to bring the parties to the table faster. His purpose also seems, not to advance the interests of his country or the cause of peace, but rather to keep his party in power. We also know that those negotiations fell apart after Nixon’s election. It seems impossible that it was the delay in October that determined the success or failure of the Paris negotiations in late 1968 or early 1969. It also seems likely that Thiệu’s reluctance, both to accede to negotiations as well as to come to terms, was his own preference rather than a stance forced upon him by Chennault and Nixon. Assurances that Nixon would support him probably only helped to confirm his already-chosen course.
Finally, history proves that Thiệu was, in the long term, correct. While the Paris negotiations ultimately resulted in an American withdrawal, it also doomed The Republic of Vietnam as a nation. North Vietnam had no intention of allowing the country to remain divided. Their goal was simply to get American out of the way so they could isolate and defeat the South militarily.
The complexity of this incident, treated by Burns as simply “Nixon committed treason and Johnson had proof” sealed the deal for me on Burns’ bias. That said, there are voices that say The Vietnam War was biased toward the American view as well. Does this mean Burns has thread the needle? Or is it just more evidence of the cultural rift in today’s America? I’m sticking to my guns here. Wikipedia cites author Mark Moyar, author of Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (2006), with a list of critiques. His assessment is probably more meaningful than my own, assuming you buy into any of it.
The bottom line, for me, is I can’t see myself purchasing this series now that it has been removed from streaming. Maybe someday it will return to Netflix or be part of the Amazon’s free offerings, but until then it will just have to wait.
*There are two separate segments. The first talked about “re-education,” after which the deserting soldiers, better men for their government-provided education, would decided to voluntarily return to their units. The implication is that others might not and would simply go on with their lives. A second soldier talks about comrades who would leave the front, walk days or weeks to visit their families at home, and the rejoin their units later. He specifically says that the military turned a blind eye to such behavior.
**As an example, Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, coup-conspirator, puppet master, and holder of several ruling offices in the South Vietnam government, is summarized with a single quote of his about Hitler. This colorful character, corrupt and fairly incompetent, is reduced to a 1-dimensional caricature. This serves the film’s narrative of America’s blunder, but does it educate viewers? Neither the North Vietnamese nor the Vietcong leadership are treated so simplistically.
*** Also known as the “Dump Johnson movement.” Oh, how blessed they would have been if their target’s name would have rhymed with “dump.”
****McGovern’s electoral college results remains the best showing of any third-party candidate in a U.S. presidential election.