Add Vietnamese People and Stir?: A Reflection on Burns’s and Novick’s The Vietnam War and A Call for New Interpretations

Add Vietnamese People and Stir?: A Reflection on Burns’s and Novick’s The Vietnam War and A... To a serious student of Vietnamese history, Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War is both refreshing and maddeningly unimaginative. Perhaps the most outstanding feature of the mini-series is the inclusion of politically diverse Vietnamese voices. The film boasts a rich tapestry of interviews with North and South Vietnamese veterans, communist guerilla fighters, and Vietnamese refugees. Their stories are interwoven with more familiar accounts of American soldiers, protestors, and government officials. Although the filmmakers give more airtime to American perspectives, The Vietnam War does a far better job of acknowledging competing Vietnamese viewpoints than most documentaries. Burns and Novick hoped that this “many sides” approach would convey the multifaceted complexity of the war. As they write in the companion volume to the documentary, “From the start, we vowed to each other that we would avoid the limits of a binary political perspective and the shortcuts of conventional wisdom and superficial history. This was a war of many perspectives, a Rashomon of equally plausible ‘stories,’ of secrets, lies, and distortions at every turn.”1 Yet the film is decidedly conventional in its interpretation. The Vietnam War follows two main storylines. The first is a domestic tale about American loss of innocence and the enduring divisions in our society. The second is an international story about the struggle between Washington and Hanoi. This latter narrative is of special concern to those of us who study Vietnam. It begins in 1945 with a brief partnership between American intelligence operatives and Hồ Chí Minh, a communist Vietnamese nationalist. The politics of the Cold War subsequently sour relations between the two countries, and bitter fighting erupts in the 1960s and continues into the early 1970s. The narrative eventually ends in the 1990s with reconciliation and normalization. The storyline casts the war as a binary conflict between the United States and Vietnam, an interpretation that dominates American scholarship and popular culture and that conforms to the conventional wisdom that the filmmakers claim to disavow. It is especially jarring that the film features the perspectives of multiple Vietnamese belligerents but subsumes them under the old framework of America vs. Vietnam. In the end, what the documentary offers is not a new narrative but merely the insertion of fresh voices into a well-worn story. Burns’s and Novick’s mistake is analogous to what gender historians deride as “Add women and stir.” Historians of gender argue that it is not enough to describe women’s experiences in the past; instead, scholars need to reinterpret history to consider the role of gender in structuring society and politics. Likewise, the filmmakers quest for a multifaceted story requires more than the inclusion of Vietnamese perspectives; it necessitates changing the narrative to make sense of the clashing viewpoints. To be clear, this is not a complaint about the American-centrism of the documentary (though the film is unapologetically focused on the United States). The problem is that although Burns and Novick interview Vietnamese people on different political sides, the filmmakers treat those interviews only as examples of personal experiences. What Burns and Novick also should have done was to use those perspectives to synthesize a new narrative that simultaneously explain the conflict between the Vietnamese belligerents and between the United States and Vietnam. So what would it mean to reconceptualize the Vietnam War based on Vietnamese experiences? The remainder of this essay sketches three alternative possibilities. First, serious attention to Vietnamese experiences would require us to jettison the binary model and instead interpret the war as one between four main belligerents with opposing political agendas. The communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, or North Vietnam) pursued the twin goals of national liberation and socialist revolution. Party leaders aimed to rid Vietnam of foreign imperialism, to establish an economic system dominated by the lower class, and to impose communist rule throughout the country. The archenemy of the DRV was the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, or South Vietnam), a regime that reflected the mixed interests of anticommunist nationalists and pro-Western collaborators. Successive governments in Saigon tried to annihilate communism and promised to implement democracy and social reforms. Every administration also accepted varying degrees of American intervention even as it aspired to shake off the government’s dependency on foreign aid. The third Vietnamese belligerent was a communist-led revolutionary movement that called itself the National Liberation Front (NLF, known to its enemies as the “Vietcong”). The leaders of the front were party operatives loyal to Hanoi, but most rank-and-file members were peasants driven by economic and social grievances against the RVN. Both groups were united in their determination to overthrow the Saigon government. The NLF called for a neutralist foreign policy, championed a progressive program of land reform, and demanded social equality between landlords and tenants.2 The United States was the lone foreign power among the core belligerents and more concerned with the Cold War than domestic Vietnamese politics. Washington chose to support the RVN as part of a broader strategy of containing communism, and once committed, American leaders insisted that abandoning their Vietnamese ally would damage U.S. credibility abroad. Second, to make better sense of the clashing Vietnamese perspectives, we should situate the war within a longer history of internecine violence. In the 1930s and 1940s, there was a profusion of political parties, religious groups, and other organizations that agitated for independence from France. These groups spanned the political spectrum from the far right to the extreme left and differed greatly in their social and regional composition. These nationalists were so divided that they were never able to form a sustained coalition. Instead, they competed against each other for leadership of the movement and had limited tolerance for political dissent. When any given group came to power, it aggressively suppressed its rivals. Three moments exemplified this pattern. The first occurred at the end of World War II. After Japan surrendered in 1945, the communist party seized power throughout the country and declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The communists then proceeded to sideline, coopt, and annihilate other nationalist organizations, and the latter responded in kind. The violence gradually split the nationalist movement into two irreconcilable factions: the communist party and various anticommunists groups. This schism remained a permanent feature of Vietnamese politics.3 The next moment came in 1954, when the Geneva Accords partitioned the country, and Ngô Đình Diệm became the prime minister of what would become the Republic of Vietnam. Diệm brutally attacked the underground communist party in the south and justified his actions by citing the violence that the communists had wrought against the anticommunists a decade earlier. Rival anticommunists suffered under his rule as well, and some activists who had survived communist prisons found themselves incarcerated yet again. Over time, Diệm’s harsh measures indirectly gave rise to the NLF. The conclusion of the war in 1975 constituted the third moment. The DRV toppled the Saigon government and immediately consolidated power. The communists outlawed other political parties, executed numerous opponents, and jailed hundreds of thousands of intellectuals, soldiers, and government officials affiliated with the defeated regime.4 Relations between communists and anticommunists were the reverse in Vietnamese communities in the West. Many people from the RVN fled the country before the war ended, and the activists among them revived anticommunism in their adopted homelands. Some refugees conspired to overthrow the communist government in Vietnam and secretly assassinated Vietnamese community members deemed pro-communist.5 Ultimately, the political rivalries that drove the war among the Vietnamese have never been resolved. Third, we can integrate the multiplicity of Vietnamese experiences with American and other foreign perspectives by conceptualizing the Vietnam War as the intersection of three conflicts. The first conflict was the international Cold War, which drew foreign powers into a localized struggle. The American intervention and Soviet and Chinese aid and advisory support for the DRV transformed the war into a phenomenon of global significance. The second conflict was the Vietnamese conflict between communist and anticommunist nationalists described above. The third is what might be called the factional conflict, that is, disagreements within each of the belligerents. Factional conflicts included the contentious arguments between hawks and doves in Washington and between pro- and antiwar demonstrators in the streets. In the DRV, the moderate wing of the communist party wanted to prioritize socialist development in the north, but the militant wing insisted on pursuing an expensive war of liberation in the south. Factional struggles were especially pronounced in the RVN during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Hardline anticommunists called for continued warfare against the NLF while neutralists favored a negotiated settlement. Lastly, it is worthwhile to ask: beyond Burns’s and Novick’s documentary, why does it matter whether historians and filmmakers incorporate Vietnamese voices into their interpretations of the Vietnam War? My answer is that doing so has profound consequences for historical memory. The dominant discourse in the United States depicts the war as morally ambiguous. Like the filmmakers, many Americans highlight the flawed justification for intervention, the dishonesty of successive administrations, the atrocities committed by American soldiers, and the lack of respect for veterans. Reinterpreting the war to include the internal Vietnamese struggle would lead to the inevitable conclusion that the conflict was also morally ambiguous for the Vietnamese belligerents, all of whom misled their people, committed atrocities, and, at times, willingly sacrificed lives for questionable, even self-serving objectives. But these aspects of the war are often forgotten by many sides. In Vietnam, they are forgotten because various governments used violence to silence countervailing views during the war, and the current regime punishes individuals who publicly criticize the party. In the United States, most Americans are understandably more interested in their own stories. But insofar as we in the United States enjoy greater freedom to challenge orthodox views, we have an ethical obligation to recover the diversity of Vietnamese voices and to engage with them when we write new narratives about the war. Footnotes 1 Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, introduction to The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, by Geoffrey Ward (New York, 2017), xi–xiii, citation on xi. 2 For new scholarship on the main Vietnamese belligerents, see David Elliott, The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930–1975, vol. 1–2 (Armonk, NY, 2003); Nguyen Thi Lien-Hang, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Chapel Hill, NC, 2012); Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, MA, 2013). 3 For a sampling of the scholarship on Vietnamese nationalists and their rivalries, see Huỳnh Kim Khánh, Vietnamese Communism, 1925–1945 (Ithaca, NY, 1982); Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Millenarianism and Peasant Politics in Vietnam (Cambridge, MA, 1983); Claire Trần Thị Liên, “Catholics viêtnamiens pendant la guerre d’indépendance entre la reconquête coloniale et la résistance communiste” (PhD diss., Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, 1996); François Guillemot, Dai Viêt, independence et révolution au Viêt-Nam: L’échec de la troisième voie, 1938–1955 (Paris, 2012); David Marr, Vietnam: State, War, and Revolution, 1945–1946 (Berkeley, CA, 2013), chap. 7–8. 4 There are few historical accounts of postwar political repression. See Jacqueline Desbarats, “Repression in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: Executions and Population Relocation,” in The Vietnam Debate: A Fresh Look at the Arguments, ed. John Norton Moore (Lanham, MD, 1990), 193–201; Huy Đú’c, Bên thắng cuộc, vol. 1–2 (Los Angeles, CA, 2012). 5 For more on anticommunism among diasporic Vietnamese after 1975, see Gisèle L. Bousquet, Behind the Bamboo Hedge: The Impact of Homeland Politics in the Parisian Vietnamese Community (Ann Arbor, MI, 1991); A. C. Thompson, “Terror in Little Saigon,” ProPublica (November 3, 2015), accessed November 13, 2017, https://www.propublica.org/article/terror-in-little-saigon-vietnam-american-journalists-murdered. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Diplomatic History Oxford University Press

Add Vietnamese People and Stir?: A Reflection on Burns’s and Novick’s The Vietnam War and A Call for New Interpretations

Diplomatic History , Volume Advance Article (3) – Mar 12, 2018

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© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
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Abstract

To a serious student of Vietnamese history, Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War is both refreshing and maddeningly unimaginative. Perhaps the most outstanding feature of the mini-series is the inclusion of politically diverse Vietnamese voices. The film boasts a rich tapestry of interviews with North and South Vietnamese veterans, communist guerilla fighters, and Vietnamese refugees. Their stories are interwoven with more familiar accounts of American soldiers, protestors, and government officials. Although the filmmakers give more airtime to American perspectives, The Vietnam War does a far better job of acknowledging competing Vietnamese viewpoints than most documentaries. Burns and Novick hoped that this “many sides” approach would convey the multifaceted complexity of the war. As they write in the companion volume to the documentary, “From the start, we vowed to each other that we would avoid the limits of a binary political perspective and the shortcuts of conventional wisdom and superficial history. This was a war of many perspectives, a Rashomon of equally plausible ‘stories,’ of secrets, lies, and distortions at every turn.”1 Yet the film is decidedly conventional in its interpretation. The Vietnam War follows two main storylines. The first is a domestic tale about American loss of innocence and the enduring divisions in our society. The second is an international story about the struggle between Washington and Hanoi. This latter narrative is of special concern to those of us who study Vietnam. It begins in 1945 with a brief partnership between American intelligence operatives and Hồ Chí Minh, a communist Vietnamese nationalist. The politics of the Cold War subsequently sour relations between the two countries, and bitter fighting erupts in the 1960s and continues into the early 1970s. The narrative eventually ends in the 1990s with reconciliation and normalization. The storyline casts the war as a binary conflict between the United States and Vietnam, an interpretation that dominates American scholarship and popular culture and that conforms to the conventional wisdom that the filmmakers claim to disavow. It is especially jarring that the film features the perspectives of multiple Vietnamese belligerents but subsumes them under the old framework of America vs. Vietnam. In the end, what the documentary offers is not a new narrative but merely the insertion of fresh voices into a well-worn story. Burns’s and Novick’s mistake is analogous to what gender historians deride as “Add women and stir.” Historians of gender argue that it is not enough to describe women’s experiences in the past; instead, scholars need to reinterpret history to consider the role of gender in structuring society and politics. Likewise, the filmmakers quest for a multifaceted story requires more than the inclusion of Vietnamese perspectives; it necessitates changing the narrative to make sense of the clashing viewpoints. To be clear, this is not a complaint about the American-centrism of the documentary (though the film is unapologetically focused on the United States). The problem is that although Burns and Novick interview Vietnamese people on different political sides, the filmmakers treat those interviews only as examples of personal experiences. What Burns and Novick also should have done was to use those perspectives to synthesize a new narrative that simultaneously explain the conflict between the Vietnamese belligerents and between the United States and Vietnam. So what would it mean to reconceptualize the Vietnam War based on Vietnamese experiences? The remainder of this essay sketches three alternative possibilities. First, serious attention to Vietnamese experiences would require us to jettison the binary model and instead interpret the war as one between four main belligerents with opposing political agendas. The communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, or North Vietnam) pursued the twin goals of national liberation and socialist revolution. Party leaders aimed to rid Vietnam of foreign imperialism, to establish an economic system dominated by the lower class, and to impose communist rule throughout the country. The archenemy of the DRV was the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, or South Vietnam), a regime that reflected the mixed interests of anticommunist nationalists and pro-Western collaborators. Successive governments in Saigon tried to annihilate communism and promised to implement democracy and social reforms. Every administration also accepted varying degrees of American intervention even as it aspired to shake off the government’s dependency on foreign aid. The third Vietnamese belligerent was a communist-led revolutionary movement that called itself the National Liberation Front (NLF, known to its enemies as the “Vietcong”). The leaders of the front were party operatives loyal to Hanoi, but most rank-and-file members were peasants driven by economic and social grievances against the RVN. Both groups were united in their determination to overthrow the Saigon government. The NLF called for a neutralist foreign policy, championed a progressive program of land reform, and demanded social equality between landlords and tenants.2 The United States was the lone foreign power among the core belligerents and more concerned with the Cold War than domestic Vietnamese politics. Washington chose to support the RVN as part of a broader strategy of containing communism, and once committed, American leaders insisted that abandoning their Vietnamese ally would damage U.S. credibility abroad. Second, to make better sense of the clashing Vietnamese perspectives, we should situate the war within a longer history of internecine violence. In the 1930s and 1940s, there was a profusion of political parties, religious groups, and other organizations that agitated for independence from France. These groups spanned the political spectrum from the far right to the extreme left and differed greatly in their social and regional composition. These nationalists were so divided that they were never able to form a sustained coalition. Instead, they competed against each other for leadership of the movement and had limited tolerance for political dissent. When any given group came to power, it aggressively suppressed its rivals. Three moments exemplified this pattern. The first occurred at the end of World War II. After Japan surrendered in 1945, the communist party seized power throughout the country and declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The communists then proceeded to sideline, coopt, and annihilate other nationalist organizations, and the latter responded in kind. The violence gradually split the nationalist movement into two irreconcilable factions: the communist party and various anticommunists groups. This schism remained a permanent feature of Vietnamese politics.3 The next moment came in 1954, when the Geneva Accords partitioned the country, and Ngô Đình Diệm became the prime minister of what would become the Republic of Vietnam. Diệm brutally attacked the underground communist party in the south and justified his actions by citing the violence that the communists had wrought against the anticommunists a decade earlier. Rival anticommunists suffered under his rule as well, and some activists who had survived communist prisons found themselves incarcerated yet again. Over time, Diệm’s harsh measures indirectly gave rise to the NLF. The conclusion of the war in 1975 constituted the third moment. The DRV toppled the Saigon government and immediately consolidated power. The communists outlawed other political parties, executed numerous opponents, and jailed hundreds of thousands of intellectuals, soldiers, and government officials affiliated with the defeated regime.4 Relations between communists and anticommunists were the reverse in Vietnamese communities in the West. Many people from the RVN fled the country before the war ended, and the activists among them revived anticommunism in their adopted homelands. Some refugees conspired to overthrow the communist government in Vietnam and secretly assassinated Vietnamese community members deemed pro-communist.5 Ultimately, the political rivalries that drove the war among the Vietnamese have never been resolved. Third, we can integrate the multiplicity of Vietnamese experiences with American and other foreign perspectives by conceptualizing the Vietnam War as the intersection of three conflicts. The first conflict was the international Cold War, which drew foreign powers into a localized struggle. The American intervention and Soviet and Chinese aid and advisory support for the DRV transformed the war into a phenomenon of global significance. The second conflict was the Vietnamese conflict between communist and anticommunist nationalists described above. The third is what might be called the factional conflict, that is, disagreements within each of the belligerents. Factional conflicts included the contentious arguments between hawks and doves in Washington and between pro- and antiwar demonstrators in the streets. In the DRV, the moderate wing of the communist party wanted to prioritize socialist development in the north, but the militant wing insisted on pursuing an expensive war of liberation in the south. Factional struggles were especially pronounced in the RVN during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Hardline anticommunists called for continued warfare against the NLF while neutralists favored a negotiated settlement. Lastly, it is worthwhile to ask: beyond Burns’s and Novick’s documentary, why does it matter whether historians and filmmakers incorporate Vietnamese voices into their interpretations of the Vietnam War? My answer is that doing so has profound consequences for historical memory. The dominant discourse in the United States depicts the war as morally ambiguous. Like the filmmakers, many Americans highlight the flawed justification for intervention, the dishonesty of successive administrations, the atrocities committed by American soldiers, and the lack of respect for veterans. Reinterpreting the war to include the internal Vietnamese struggle would lead to the inevitable conclusion that the conflict was also morally ambiguous for the Vietnamese belligerents, all of whom misled their people, committed atrocities, and, at times, willingly sacrificed lives for questionable, even self-serving objectives. But these aspects of the war are often forgotten by many sides. In Vietnam, they are forgotten because various governments used violence to silence countervailing views during the war, and the current regime punishes individuals who publicly criticize the party. In the United States, most Americans are understandably more interested in their own stories. But insofar as we in the United States enjoy greater freedom to challenge orthodox views, we have an ethical obligation to recover the diversity of Vietnamese voices and to engage with them when we write new narratives about the war. Footnotes 1 Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, introduction to The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, by Geoffrey Ward (New York, 2017), xi–xiii, citation on xi. 2 For new scholarship on the main Vietnamese belligerents, see David Elliott, The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930–1975, vol. 1–2 (Armonk, NY, 2003); Nguyen Thi Lien-Hang, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Chapel Hill, NC, 2012); Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, MA, 2013). 3 For a sampling of the scholarship on Vietnamese nationalists and their rivalries, see Huỳnh Kim Khánh, Vietnamese Communism, 1925–1945 (Ithaca, NY, 1982); Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Millenarianism and Peasant Politics in Vietnam (Cambridge, MA, 1983); Claire Trần Thị Liên, “Catholics viêtnamiens pendant la guerre d’indépendance entre la reconquête coloniale et la résistance communiste” (PhD diss., Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, 1996); François Guillemot, Dai Viêt, independence et révolution au Viêt-Nam: L’échec de la troisième voie, 1938–1955 (Paris, 2012); David Marr, Vietnam: State, War, and Revolution, 1945–1946 (Berkeley, CA, 2013), chap. 7–8. 4 There are few historical accounts of postwar political repression. See Jacqueline Desbarats, “Repression in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: Executions and Population Relocation,” in The Vietnam Debate: A Fresh Look at the Arguments, ed. John Norton Moore (Lanham, MD, 1990), 193–201; Huy Đú’c, Bên thắng cuộc, vol. 1–2 (Los Angeles, CA, 2012). 5 For more on anticommunism among diasporic Vietnamese after 1975, see Gisèle L. Bousquet, Behind the Bamboo Hedge: The Impact of Homeland Politics in the Parisian Vietnamese Community (Ann Arbor, MI, 1991); A. C. Thompson, “Terror in Little Saigon,” ProPublica (November 3, 2015), accessed November 13, 2017, https://www.propublica.org/article/terror-in-little-saigon-vietnam-american-journalists-murdered. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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Diplomatic HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Mar 12, 2018

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