In 1989, I began my doctoral studies at the University of Kentucky. Soon, I discovered that I was an outlier as the vast majority of my colleagues studied some aspect of the Vietnam War, which was not surprising given our primary advisor was George Herring. While I continued focusing on Latin America, I never escaped the pull of the Vietnam War. It always lingered in discussions of modern U.S.–Central American relations, particularly in the 1980s. But more importantly, my own research interests pulled me in that direction (I think subconsciously George played a role also). After my first two books on U.S.–Latin American relations, I gravitated toward a biography of Senator Albert Gore Sr., a prominent critic of the war serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) in the 1960s. Then I found myself pulled toward a project on a small group of Marines from the mining camp of Morenci, Arizona. From there, I published two books, Grunts: The American Combat Soldier in Vietnam and The Morenci Marines: A Tale of Small Town America and the Vietnam War. I remain caught in the war’s vortex with my current book, LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval, in which the Vietnam War largely defines the year Lyndon Johnson called a “continuous nightmare.” I even have a substantial chapter on the conflict in a new co-authored book, In Harm’s Way: A Military History of the United States and plan to incorporate it fully into my next major project, The Death of LBJ: Days in the Life. Thus, when the new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary appeared, people immediately asked for my opinion; I was often asked before it previewed. Now that I have digested it, I can better reflect on my areas of interest and raise some questions. The strength of the documentary is its focus on the voices of those who fought on the front lines in Vietnam—both American and Vietnamese soldiers. They capture the feelings of fear, boredom, exhilaration, frustration, and disenchantment often highlighted in the oral histories and memoirs of those who served. While a positive, the presentation could have been improved significantly. First, the people Burns and Novick chose for interviews hardly reflect most veterans. Average grunts were teenagers or in their early twenties (especially before 1968) with a high school education and came from working-class or lower middle-class backgrounds.1 Therefore, the voices are hardly representative and primarily reflect the experiences of college-educated, middle-class soldiers—such as Karl Marlantes, Philip Caputo, and Tim O’Brien—who have written about their experiences. Even those without a college degree, such as the prominent African American in the film, Roger Harris, returned home and earned a PhD. The lack of voices of those who became miners, industrial workers, farmers, or other blue collar or lower middle-class workers creates a chasm between the majority of Vietnam grunts and those in the documentary. Other voices are also absent, especially Latinos and other minority groups. Just like in his WWII documentary, The War, Burns largely ignores these groups. Yes, there is the early appearance of Everett Alvarez, Jr., the first pilot taken as a POW in 1964, but he is hardly representative of the tens of thousands of Mexican Americans, Dominicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans who fought in Vietnam. Often driven by their lack of economic opportunities and a desire to prove their loyalty to the United States, Latinos ended up on the front lines in large numbers. Watching the documentary, you would never know it and would need to reference On Two Fronts: Latinos and the Vietnam War to fully understand their contribution.2 Yet, it appears Burns heard the critiques about The War. He throws in the quick story of the Kiowa Indian, Pascal Poolaw, but it appears forced, and not as a conscious effort to recapture his story. It is almost as if they threw a couple of bones to critics as an afterthought (the same with the Alvarez story). There was so much more (and this relates to the class bias of the veterans’ voices) that could have been done to create a more balanced presentation that includes the many voices from across the country that served in Vietnam. Finally, the documentary largely ignores the contributions of those who served in Vietnam beyond the front lines. There is a short line in the third episode about most of those who were in Vietnam in support roles, but the documentary never develops their stories. These hundreds of thousands of people—often referred to as REMFs (Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers)— processed payroll, serviced airplanes and other transportation, and rarely experienced dangers outside their secure buildings and bases. One noted, “We’re just ‘paper soldiers’ … The ‘roughness’ we endure is only the water rationing, being hot, and the somewhat dreary atmosphere of it all.”3 Burns and Novick devote significant time to the combat experiences that often paralleled each other, so they could have taken time to add other viewpoints and given the presentation a more well-rounded view of those who served. Nonetheless, the strength of the documentary remains the footage of the front lines (both from the ground and sky) and the stories told by the Vietnam veterans from both sides. Another strength of the documentary is the way that it portrays President Lyndon Johnson, especially in the first three years of the war. This should be the case as LBJ is a star character in several episodes. The filmmakers reveal Johnson’s earliest concerns regarding the war, using great quotes referencing Johnson talking about being caught in a Texas hailstorm and unable to find a decision in Vietnam that would allow him to concentrate on his true love, the Great Society. Burns and Novick skillfully incorporate several personal taped conversations between Johnson and his advisors, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Senator Richard Russell, to show his dilemma. They also portray a man unwilling to admit defeat but unable to find a path to the victory. Burns and Novick capture LBJ’s frustrations with the advice others provided. Hawkish advisors such as Walt Rostow (who is rarely mentioned), as well as members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff led by General Earle Wheeler working with General William Westmoreland, clearly pushed the president forward to further entrenchment in Vietnam. While the filmmakers do a good job setting up the story, they lose ground with LBJ in 1968 (they devote nearly two episodes to the period from January 1968–May 1969). They have only a cursory understanding of the major decisions that occurred from the start of the Tet Offensive to his leaving office in January 1968. Burns and Novick fail to explore the depth of Johnson’s internal conflict during that fateful period he characterized as a “year of a continuous nightmare.” Central to the problems remained Vietnam. The filmmakers show that Johnson cared about preventing Khe Sanh from falling, but really do not examine the complexities of the process of denying Westmoreland the 206,000 troops that he requested after Tet. They look at McNamara and his successor Clark Clifford’s roles in the bureaucratic battles, but really miss others’ roles, including Wheeler and Rostow, in pushing for escalation. Burns and Novick also miss other important issues in 1968, such as LBJ’s fear of dying or becoming incapacitated like Woodrow Wilson during a final term, which affected his decision not to seek reelection. They overstate the importance of the Wise Men and exaggerate the New Hampshire primary in LBJ’s decision-making. As early as January, the president had Horace Busby, his long-time speechwriter, prepare a section in the State of the Union address announcing his decision not to run again. Furthermore, after March 31, Johnson continued to bounce back and forth on the issue of Vietnam, especially the bombing halt. He was pivotal in preventing Vice President Hubert Humphrey from fashioning a compromise plank for the party in Chicago because of his intransigence. He also had an opportunity to expose members of the Nixon campaign for their efforts to undermine the peace talks in Paris, although the documentary fails to provide a sophisticated analysis of the process. But here lies the challenge of documentary filmmakers over historians. They have limited space to develop arguments that we should make. At best, the whole process is an overview, not a deep analysis. However, historians must hope that the efforts of those like Burns and Novick will push people to learn more, but also view the documentary as nothing more than a relatively superficial survey. Keeping in mind that the documentary is a survey of the Vietnam War, it should be noted that the filmmakers do a good job covering the grunts and LBJ. However, they really fail to establish an important aspect of the story—the role of Congress. If watching this documentary, a viewer would think policymakers existed only within the White House, the halls of the Pentagon, or in MACV headquarters in Saigon. That would be a mistake as other agencies, including Congress, debated and influenced the outcome of the conflict. This oversight reflects a very simplistic understanding of Congress, with Burns and Novick apparently believing that the institution had no part in shaping the outcome other than through the presidential campaigns of Senator Eugene McCarthy and Senator Robert Kennedy. Early in the documentary, they relegate the important issue of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to a few passing lines regarding Congress. Burns and Novick would have done well to note some of the dissent, such as the objections raised by senators Ernest Gruening (D-AK) and Wayne Morse (I-OR) that presaged the critiques to come within a very short time. There were many in Congress, especially the Senate, who became leading voices of the antiwar movement, particularly prominent members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) led by Chairman J. William Fulbright. Biographies of Fulbright, such as that of Randall Woods, and specialized books, such as those of William Berman, show his prominence in critiquing the war and the effect it had on LBJ and Nixon.4 In addition, my own research on Senator Gore, a member of the SFRC, reveals that it was clear to him as early as 1959 when he visited South Vietnam, that the United States faced a significant challenge. He voiced this often in executive sessions of the SFRC during the Kennedy years and became more vocal by 1966. By 1968, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he was giving a rousing antiwar speech that infuriated LBJ, all the while understanding it would hurt him in his home state. There were also those who supported the war. People including Andy Fry and Andrew Johns have established that conservative Democrats, including Senator John Stennis (D-MS) and some Republicans in the House and Senate, played a role in providing alternative voices to the doves.5 These voices are absent in the narrative and could have shown how the influential institution debated the issues and how they reflected the divisions in the country. As stated earlier, many people have asked for my opinion on the series. I would conclude that it has been good for raising the importance of Vietnam in the American consciousness. Further, I am sure we will see more interest in topics relating to the war, as well as more numbers in our classrooms as young (and not so young) people seek to better understand the conflict. Anytime a documentary or movie pushes people to want to know more, it is a good thing. I think we must applaud the effort, but at the same time, emphasize that the war was more complex than even an eighteen-hour documentary can explain. Footnotes 1 Christian Appy, Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill, NC, 1993); James Ebert, A Life in a Year: The American Infantryman in Vietnam (San Francisco, CA, 2004). 2 Mylene Moreno, On Two Fronts: Latinos and Vietnam (Los Angeles, CA, 2015). 3 Richard Loffler, April 15, 1967, in Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, ed. Bernard Edelman (New York, 2002), 156. There were many memoirs on the topic including George M. Watson Jr., Voices from the Rear: Vietnam, 1969–1970 (New York, 2001); Joel Blackwell, “Vietnam Was a Lark,” The New York Times, October 17, 2017. 4 Randall B. Woods, Fulbright: A Biography (New York, 1995); William C. Berman, William Fulbright and the Vietnam War: The Dissent of a Political Realist (Kent, OH, 1988). 5 Joseph A. Fry, Debating Vietnam: Fulbright, Stennis, and Their Senate Hearings (Lanham, MD, 2006); Andrew L. Johns, Vietnam’s Second Front: Domestic Politics, the Republican Party, and the War (Lexington, KY, 2010). © 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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 15, 2018
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