Let us join the multitudes agreeing that The Vietnam War, now airing on PBS, is a monumental work, perhaps the greatest television documentary ever. It held me at the edge of tears through 18 hours of authenticity, eloquent testimony, and blasting gunfire, of presidents, protesters, mothers, generals, privates, and peasants North and South, of villains, heroes, and bodies, bodies, bodies.
More than 40 years after that last American chopper lifted off from the Saigon rooftop, the very words Vietnam War can still start arguments, and despite Ken Burns’s successful effort here to present both sides geographically and politically, they still do. Partly it’s a generational thing. Few who endured those years, slogging through the jungle or safe at home, realize that most of today’s Americans were not alive between 1965 and 1975. Burns is now 64, and his veteran accomplice, the author Geoffrey Ward, is 77. But Burns’s co-director, Lynn Novick, was born in 1962. In mid-project six years ago, she told The New York Times that she had always wanted to do Vietnam because it “looms so large over my whole childhood, and it shaped the world I grew up in.”
After serious discussion, the filmmakers agreed to introduce their work with lines that are stirring as much comment as any single scene that follows. The somber voice-over narrator says,
America’s involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It ended 30 years later, in failure … It was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculations. And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than admit that it had been caused by tragic decisions, made by five American presidents, belonging to both political parties.
Good faith? Decent people? “To make such a claim is incredibly distressing,” a reader wrote to The New Yorker after its long article on Burns. A Mother Jones interviewer asked Burns, “How do you square that with the duplicity depicted later?” The filmmaker’s response was sidetracked into defending the background music. Then, interviewed by GQ, he said, “Well that’s the whole thing … To just dismiss [our leaders] as wholly malevolent and evil from the beginning is to miss the elements of tragedy that adorn the whole arc of this story.”
Burns the artist was understandably concerned with “the whole arc of this story,” of his production. Those of us who were involved in that story, however marginally, feel the tragedy more personally. A decade earlier, more than 36,000 Americans had died defending South Korea against not only communist North Korea’s army but hundreds of thousands of communist Chinese, supported by Russian jet pilots. We had watched Soviet troops crush democratic uprisings in Eastern Europe. I stood in the cold on Inauguration Day, 1961, while Jack Kennedy told the world that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” I watched the communists build their wall dividing Berlin, then spent three years in Moscow, witnessing daily life under communism, reporting the Cuban missile crisis, calming my children at news that Kennedy had been murdered by a marksman who had once defected to Russia.
The world was simple then: us vs. them. So when noncommunist South Vietnam was attacked by communist guerrillas within and communist regulars from the North, it seemed like Korea all over again. America’s duty, to “support any friend, oppose any foe” seemed clear, and so decent people, in good faith, took us to war again.
The frustration, the duplicity, all the flag-covered caskets came later.
March 17, 1966: As General William Westmoreland’s Huey lowered onto the dirt strip outside the little Mekong Delta town of Go Cong, there was a loud crack and puff of gray smoke from an escorting helicopter gunship. On the ground, a major saluted the general and muttered, “Oh God, have they fired a rocket into our pacified town?” At provincial headquarters, Westmoreland heard glowing reports about the local situation. Then he spoke, urging civic action and kindness, and the need to build bridges of friendship with the people. Afterward the province chief told him the rocket, fired by a rare electrical malfunction, had struck a house, killing a child and wounding three others. Westmoreland asked whether he should go to offer condolences. They decided he should not. He ordered the local American team to give all possible aid to the victims.
Then we were off again, just the general, his aide, the Huey crew, and me, the lone reporter, with gunships alongside. In Tan An, Westmoreland recited his civic action sermon to officials in the old French villa that served as local headquarters. As he spoke, a scrawny rooster crowed in the courtyard, and a servant offered chilled cloths to wipe away the dust and heat of the day …
In the 51 years since then, I’ve sometimes thought that on that afternoon in the Delta, I had witnessed the condensed story of America in Vietnam, the essence of what happened in those 10 years of war: four-star clumsiness, high-tech errors, textbook words of kindness, and the innocent dead left behind.
After six months in country—from Phu Quoc, in the Gulf of Thailand, to Quang Tri, near the DMZ—I returned to covering the White House. Within days, Lyndon Johnson summoned me to come in and talk. In his cubbyhole off the Oval Office, he and his national security adviser Walt Rostow wanted to know whether I (once a lowly Marine lieutenant) thought we could win in Vietnam. I’m afraid I hemmed and hawed and finally said something like, “Well, probably, but it all depends on support from the public at home.”
That opinion had about as much influence on events as the book I wrote the following year, a mercifully ignored account of Westmoreland’s career leading into Vietnam. It was written before the Tet Offensive of 1968, but published afterward, in the same week when the general came home, demoted to Chief of Staff of the United States Army.
To me, Westmoreland was not a war criminal but a stubborn prisoner of his own experience, uneducated despite his years at the Citadel, West Point, and Harvard Business School, and his experiences in World War II and Korea. Like Robert McNamara (formerly the president of Ford Motors) and Walt Rostow (an economics professor), Westmoreland thought in logistics, “systems analysis,” oblivious to history and psychology. As a columnist, I kept up with him in later years, watching his pathetic 1974 run for governor of South Carolina (a Charleston dentist beat him in the GOP primary). I think the last time I saw him was in 1983, at his mountain cottage at Linville, North Carolina. Wary of attracting unwanted visitors, he asked me to file under a different dateline, so we drove to nearby Banner Elk.
Washington was then debating action against communist troublemakers in the Caribbean, but just mentioning that quickly turned us back 15 years. “The cardinal lesson of Vietnam,” Westmoreland said, “is that we can’t send troops to war … unless American public opinion is behind it.” If Johnson had asked Congress for annual recommitment to the war, “we could have had a decision as early as 1966 to pull out.” Nevertheless, said the general, Southeast Asia beyond Vietnam was stable “because we held the line for 10 years. If we had not, the dominoes would have fallen all the way to Singapore.”
It’s painful to admit a colossal mistake, to say the words. Sometimes it just bursts out.
That spring, I wrote a piece shaming the cartoonist Pat Oliphant for a vicious drawing that I could not forget. It portrayed the Statue of Liberty casting her eyes upward, away from boatloads of Vietnamese refugees, and saying, “Send me your tired and huddled masses, your generals, your wealthy and privileged classes, your crooks and pimps and bar girls yearning to breathe free.”
The next night amid cocktail hour, I got a thank-you call from Walt Rostow, the hardest hawk of all, who was then at the University of Texas.
He was weeping.