It is not surprising that the recent generation of intellectuals, who grew up in the insane atmosphere of rampant advertising and were taught that half of politics is “image-making” and the other half the art of making people believe in the imagery, should almost automatically fall back on the older adages of carrot and stick whenever the situation becomes too serious for “theory.” To them, the greatest disappointment in the Vietnam adventure should have been the discovery that there are people with whom carrot-and-stick methods do not work either.1 “In War There Is No Single Truth,” appears in large letters on the trailer for Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s epic PBS series The Vietnam War.2 It’s an alluring hook, like promising “Truth in Advertising,” and that seemed a useful way to approach this essay. Since Burns and Novick (B&N henceforth) claim that there is no one overriding truth, they do not have to look for “the truth,” even constructed broadly. Rather than history, which we expect, B&N offer what Andrew Bacevich notes as “story-telling and remembrance.”3 The editors of this roundtable asked us to consider the way the series addressed our research or teaching issues and how it could be used in class. As an academic historian, the series would not have much impact, outside of perhaps showing some video or interviews. So I am going to take a bit of a different approach by discussing how B&N have affected the ways we now teach the public about the war. The way we “do” history, the political, social, and class imperatives that lead to a certain interpretation or consensus on a major episode from the past—and few are more “major” than Vietnam in the recent past—is as important as learning the war itself.4 Ken Burns is America’s best-known historian, whose films and the companion books reach many millions—and he is a modern-day Edward Bernays.5 He will “teach” the Vietnam War to people who lived through it or were born long after it ended. As the series began, I received various requests for interviews and commentaries but, even more, I was peppered with questions about it at bars with friends, on the basketball court, by people who discovered I wrote about the war, and others.6 Countless Americans who knew little about Vietnam were intrigued by this “Homeric” documentary and wanted to know more, and anything that provokes historical curiosity should be lauded. But the way they teach Vietnam in ten episodes should be dissected, but not as a simple academic dispute. The Vietnam War presents a historical-cum-political debate carrying significant meaning, and it is not a simple task. B&N absolutely present a critical view of many aspects of the war, ultimately conclude that it was a tragedy––a liberal response that has been de rigueur for decades now––and do not assign responsibility or analyze systemic imperatives leading to the carnage in Indochina.7 So the task becomes using this epic series to open up dialogue about other, more specific and critical ways to teach the war to the public; educating those who are interested in the war by discussing the way B&N do their work; the commodification of ideas; the politics of history; the importance of liberal consensus; the absence of moral judgment; and discussing how the war is observed, for as Friedrich Nietzsche lamented, “this has given me the greatest trouble … to realize that what things are called is incomparably more important than what they are.”8 They sell us the President the same way/They sell us our clothes and our cars/They sell us everything from youth to religion/The same time they sell us our wars.9 B&N’s audience is not those of us who have studied and written about Vietnam, and the filmmakers make a specific point of not putting any “talking heads” who would talk about “abstract things” in the documentary, so there will be no Vietnam War Shelby Foote going forward.10 Ken Burns’s work has always mattered, and he sets his own rules. The same goes with Vietnam now; he tells stories, “selling” the war to Americans who know about “Vietnam” as a huge cultural touchstone but not about the political history of the war. They have something of a tabula rasa on which to present the “tragedy” of Vietnam. What we ultimately get is an intellectual commodity, an idea about the Vietnam War that was put forth with great effort, and with the sponsorship of the Koch Brothers, Bank of America, and the Pentagon, inter alia. With that kind of corporate and “official” backing, there are inherent limits on the type of finished historical product one finally views.11 What they produce is surely not “pro-war”; in fact, it is pretty critical. But it focuses on individuals, not systems, and stops short of engaging, let alone judging, whether the war was right or wrong, moral or immoral, a mistake or a war crime, imperial or militarist, or a necessary ritual for capitalist hegemony. They rely on “good storytelling,” per Burns, and let the viewers decide. B&N, as Bacevich said, “have an aversion to interpretation and steer clear of judgments.”12 The closest to an overarching theme is the suggestion in Episode 1 that the conflict was “begun in good faith, by decent people.” Possibly, but that interpretation has political meaning, despite claims to avoid that very thing. If the Vietnam War started with good-faith decisions by decent people, then it is a mistake. People move on from mistakes, and they seek and often receive redemption or, as B&N stressed to no end, “reconciliation.” (As Alex Shephard wrote in The New Republic, they believe in a “unified culture” and make films accordingly. B&N portray division and failure, but “with kid gloves” and “mournfully”).13 As a result, they “sell us our wars” as tragic encounters based on mistakes by decent people. By Episode 2 they begin to frame the conflict as a civil war between two conflicting countries, with the United States defending a free government in the South against a Communist invasion from the North––not a far cry from the infamous, contrived, State Department report detailing how Hanoi invaded the South.14 The U.S. imposition of the Diem regime, canceled 1956 elections, the autocratic, bloody nature of the Ngos, and other touchy subjects fall into the shadows as the Americans escalate the war. B&N, as the prolific Vietnam scholar John Prados observed, do for film what traditionalist scholars do for the written record—recycle conventional wisdom from the war (such as LBJ’s public statements or the “Five O’Clock Follies”) and sell it as fresh new insight.15 While B&N criticize the Americans and Vietnamese (to the point of creating a false equivalency with their “many sides” mantra), they did not, could not, condemn the United States for creating the regime in the South, paying for it, sending soldiers to Vietnam, and killing millions, nor did they examine the idea that the Vietnamese Communists were responding to American aggression instead of trying to start a war themselves. Roger Sterling: “[Munich] means we gave the Germans whatever they wanted to make them happy.” Pete Campbell: “Well, who the hell won the war?”16 In their publicity tour before the series, B&N wavered with interviewers who asked whether the United States won or lost the war, and instead reverted to calling it a tragedy, praising the soldiers who fought, and calling for reconciliation.17 To be fair, in the series they featured two veterans who have written stridently antiwar novels, Tim O’Brien and Karl Marlantes, and it featured many of the major anti-Vietnam actions of that era.18 But, ultimately, it did not give opponents and critics of the war anywhere near the time or emphasis of the war makers, and as Prados pointed out, it ignored the most essential fact of that dissent—that the United States lost the Vietnam War in 1973–1975. “Those who opposed the conflict as an imperialist or neocolonialist action or as a military insanity,” he stressed, “were correct to do so.” And those who opposed the war included not just “hippies” or street protestors, but veterans and even military officers.19 Whether the United States “won” or “lost” in Vietnam is not a simple academic, or even barroom, debate. Since the war has ended, even historians critical of the war have often argued that the Americans “won every battle” but lost the war, or that soldiers “fought with one hand tied behind their backs,” or that the antiwar movement (especially Jane Fonda) treasonously undermined the war, or the media (especially Walter Cronkite) offered an unduly pessimistic view that sapped public support.20 B&N could have engaged and debunked many of those myths, could have talked about imperialism and atrocities, or might have bluntly said the United States failed in Vietnam. Of course, sponsors like the Koch Brothers do not want that message being promoted, and the American people are far more comfortable with nostalgia for a tragic period—with a 1960s soundtrack to go with it—or homespun yarns by and about the decent men who started the war and heroes who fought in it. Finding no reason to debate whether the war was lost, B&N can instead advertise their version of the war that exculpates the war makers from the most serious historical conclusions leveled against them. And the viewers now have their answers to Vietnam …. Ultimately Burns and Novick follow the formula that Hannah Arendt posited––that intellectuals studying politics, or in this case history, are creating an image or an idea, and then making people believe their story (and she was also correct in analyzing the failure of carrots in southern Vietnam and sticks in the North). Going forward, as all of us write and talk about this series—because it will be a point of interest and debate for decades to come, much like B&N’s Civil War series—we need to engage not just what they did but how and why they did it. Vietnam, to many of us, was a war crime, a ghastly waste of millions of lives brought on not by decent men, but by men of power and wealth who had little interest in democracy or freedom, at home or in Indochina. B&N took the approach often cited by Don Draper—“if you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation”—and created a painful yet ultimately redemptive view of the Vietnam War that offers few lessons beyond reconciliation.21 Our task is to bring the conversation back around to reveal and engage those “truths” of war that Burns and Novick insufficiently covered or just ignored. Footnotes 1 Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic: Lying In Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts On Politics And Revolution (New York, 1972), 8. 2 Official Trailer for PBS Series, The Vietnam War, accessed February 10, 2018, http://www.pbs.org/video/no-single-truth-e9nsb3/. 3 Andrew J. Bacevich, “Past All Reason,” The Nation, September 19, 2017, accessed February 10, 2018, https://www.thenation.com/article/the-vietnam-war-past-all-reason/. 4 I have increasingly used this approach in my own work and teaching based on Gar Alperovitz’s magisterial The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (New York, 1996) and, more specific to Vietnam, H. Bruce Franklin’s M.I.A., or Mythmaking in America (New Brunswick, NJ, 1993) and Jerry Lembcke’s The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York, 2000). All of them are important, not just for their analysis of the specific topics—the atomic bomb, the MIA issue, Vietnam Vets—but for the way they showed how the historical record was intentionally shaped to reflect certain historical (and ruling class) interests. 5 “The leaders who lend their authority to any propaganda campaign will do so only if it can be made to touch their own interests. There must be a disinterested aspect of the propagandist’s activities. In other words, it is one of the functions of the public relations counsel to discover at what points his client’s interests coincide with those of other individuals or groups.” Edward Bernays, Propaganda (New York, 1928), accessed February 10, 2018, http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/bernprop.html#SECTION10. 6 My principal contribution at the time was “Ken Burns’s War Stories,” History News Network, September 21, 2017, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/166994; see also my “What Can The Vietnam War Teach Us About Afghanistan, North Korea,” Houston Chronicle, September 30, 2017, http://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/outlook/article/What-can-Vietnam-War-teach-us-about-Afghanistan-12243521.php. 7 Rather than offer specific citations, I would merely suggest the reader type “tragedy of Vietnam” into a search engine and note how many “hits” come up. 8 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (Leipzig, Ger., 1887), 121. Italics in original. 9 “Lives in the Balance,” track 6 on Jackson Browne, Lives in the Balance, Asylum Records, 1986. 10 Burns and Novick interview on Chicago Tonight, September 18, 2017, accessed February 10, 2018, http://www.pbs.org/video/ken-burns-there-no-one-truth-war-b5lcp4/. 11 I discussed this idea in some detail in a talk at the University of Houston Blaffer Gallery, which was showing an exhibit by the Vietnamese “Propeller Group,” using artifacts and imagery of Vietnam to discuss larger truths about the country and the war, all within the framework of being a faux-advertising agency. See “Vietnam: The Commodity,” accessed February 10, 2018, https://afflictthecomfortable.org/2017/09/15/vietnam-the-commodity/. 12 Bacevich, “Past All Reason.” 13 Alex Shephard, “The Insidious Ideology of Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War,” New Republic, September 19, 2017, https://newrepublic.com/article/144864/insidious-ideology-ken-burnss-vietnam-war. 14 United States Department of State, “Aggression from the North: The Record of North Viet-Nam’s Campaign to Conquer South Viet-Nam,” Department of State Bulletin, March 22, 1965, accessed February 10, 2018, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015077199795; James M. Carter, Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building, 1954–1968 (New York, 2008). 15 John Prados, “Vietnam Veterans Against the War,” accessed February 10, 2018, http://johnprados.com/2017/09/16/vietnam-veterans-against-the-war/. Italics in original. 16 Mad Men, season 6, episode 2, “Collaborators.” 17 See, for example, their interview on Chicago Tonight. 18 Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (New York, 1990); Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (New York, 2010). 19 John Prados, Vietnam: The History of An Unwinnable War, 1945–1975 (Lawrence, KS, 2009); Robert Buzzanco, Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era (New York, 1996). 20 Jerry Lembcke, Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal (Amherst, MA, 2010); Chester Pach, “The War on Television: TV News, the Johnson Administration, and Vietnam,” in A Companion to the Vietnam War, ed. Marilyn Young and Robert Buzzanco (Boston, MA, 2002). 21 Mad Men, season 3, episode 2, “Love Among the Ruins.” © 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: email@example.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)
Diplomatic History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 23, 2018
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