The epic Ken Burns-Lynn Novick series, “The Vietnam War,” ends with the Beatles’ classic “Let It Be” in the background. Burns explains that the music is meant to convey the need for sober reflection on the war rather than, as Henry Kissinger says earlier in the film, putting the war behind us. But the challenge for all of us who lived through that terrible conflict remains: What should we remember, and how should memories affect our view of America’s behavior in the world? “The Vietnam War” urges us to consider lessons learned. But lessons learned are a matter of opinion; they are not self-evident.
As Ken Burns says, the Vietnam War produced “a kind of healthy skepticism.” Civil society—the mass media, organized labor, popular protests—came alive in dynamic if sometimes frightening ways. But it wasn’t long before war silenced elements of civil society. The media certainly failed in response to the invasion of Iraq, the ensuing debate over weapons of mass destruction, and George W. Bush’s war on terror. Hyping the terrorism threat facilitated assaults on privacy and on the enemy within—American Muslims. And although the mainstream media—the New York Times, CNN, Washington Post—are doing much better now speaking truth to power, we have a whole new phenomenon—“fake news” from the far right—that prefers fiction to facts, and gets applause for doing so. As divisive as Vietnam was, it is beginning to pale beside the hate and violence spurred by an incompetent, deceitful, corrupt, racist, and arrogant Trump administration.
An imperial presidency is another legacy of Vietnam that has proven lasting. We might recall that not until very late in the Vietnam War did liberals in Congress seek to use the power of the purse to stop the war. By then, enormous damage had been done, not only in blood and treasure expended but also in the rise of secret government. And today? Leaders of both parties embrace unending war, and Congress acquiesces, consistently funding “national defense” to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. Amidst all the debate on domestic issues, the priorities of the military-industrial complex—the “defense” budget, nuclear weapons modernization, the global reach of the services—remain sacrosanct.
Favoring military over diplomatic options in conflict clearly has survived Vietnam where, as the Pentagon Papers revealed, presidents facing defeat consistently looked for higher levels of force to bring victory. Failures in the use of force were accompanied by failures at nation-building. Yet these failures have not kept Democratic or Republican administrations from pursuing military solutions in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, often tying their policies to support (as in Vietnam) of dictators. Yes, there have been a few successes for diplomatic engagement, but disengagement is more often the rule—with Russia, North Korea, and China, for instance—and now engagement with Iran and Cuba is subject to reversal.
From a human-interest perspective, Burns and Novick make an important contribution by interviewing Vietnamese and thus enabling viewers to understand the war through the eyes of nationalists out to save their country from another in a long line of foreign oppressors. As Robert McNamara wrote in his memoir of Vietnam (In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam), “We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people … to fight and die for their beliefs and values—and we continue to do so today in many parts of the world.” I came to the same conclusion when researching for the Pentagon Papers project. Where were the Vietnamese—even our Vietnamese—in war planning? Advancing US interests and reputation at any cost was always foremost in American thinking, and the war would therefore be prosecuted with the Vietnamese if possible, but without them if necessary. That view ultimately produced the humiliating final withdrawal from the rooftop of the US embassy in Saigon, leaving behind thousands of South Vietnamese who had faithfully served the US cause.
While the film’s producers deserve credit for coverage of the thirty years of US involvement in Vietnam, a full account of the American experience there, as a number of critical historians have written, must place the war in the context of a long period of imperial crusading and flawed assumptions about economic and political development in Third World countries. That story extends from the Latin American interventions and Pacific expansionism at the end of the 19th century to Puerto Rico today—a tragic history from which US leaders clearly have learned little. I wonder how many viewers will pause to reflect on the historical continuity of the Vietnam experience.
A Nation Still Divided
The Vietnam War’s end produced a brief period of hopefulness that we Americans had learned some lessons, about ourselves—that we are not almighty, that God is not automatically on our side, and that we are not the beacon of democracy and human rights we thought we were—and about others, those objects of our intervention whom we barely knew. But this new understanding has not happened, for here we are still talking up our exceptionalism and moral superiority, still prioritizing regime stability over social justice, still stereotyping the other and building walls to keep “them” out. “America First” selfishness is back in fashion in Washington, coupled with obliviousness to the larger dangers to our planet that demand an “Earth First” policy. We still have no “decent respect for the opinion of mankind”; to the contrary, the current administration could care less what “mankind” (or US allies) thinks. We’re still overstretched abroad in numerous fights that cannot be won militarily and that fuel outrage and terrorism with drone strikes and the killing of innocent civilians. And we still don’t have people at the highest level of government who have any understanding, much less appreciation, of the cultures and histories of our adversaries.
Some people, notably war veterans, have made reconciliation with the Vietnamese a personal mission. “The Vietnam War” suggests, appropriately, that reconciliation with former enemies, in particular by contributing concretely to Vietnam’s recovery from years of bombing, is the most positive way to overcome our guilt and dishonor. President Obama put reconciliation into practice when he visited Vietnam and Cuba, receiving heartwarming welcomes from their people. When we see how Vietnam’s reforms have transformed the country even as a highly centralized party-led system remains in place, we have to wonder how much better off they, and we, would have been had we left Vietnam (and Cuba) alone.
The hope behind the Burns-Novick series that remembering Vietnam will help unite us actually reminds us how far we need to go to comprehend the utter futility and costliness of war, devastating not only peoples and environments abroad but also democratic institutions at home. We will be—and should be—haunted by the ghosts of Vietnam for many years to come.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.