Ken Burns Vietnam: Shining light on a war we would not win

What is true about Vietnam is that it became clear that we had sent more than 500,000 young Americans to fight in a war which we had no plan to win.


WASHINGTON, October 1, 2017 — “The Vietnam War” is a 10-part, 18-hour history by Ken Burns and Lynne Novick. It invites Americans to consider the lessons that can be learned  from the decade-long conflict that killed 58,000 Americans and over 2 million Vietnamese, only to end in an American failure.

The film traces the points at which events might have gone differently, such as the brief alliance between Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh guerrillas and the OSS (precursor to the CIA) at the end of the Second World War, and our decision to back France as it tried to hold on to its colony.

The filmmakers show that even as Presidents Kennedy and Johnson dispatched troops to Vietnam, they had doubts which they kept secret. In a taped memo, Kennedy blames himself for approving the military coup that killed South Vietnam’s autocratic president Ngo Dinh Diem. Johnson tells a senator, “There ain’t no daylight in Vietnam,” even as he sent in the first Marines.

Evasions and lack of truthfulness about the war characterize the behavior of three presidents: Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Their civilian and military advisers lacked a winning strategy. Kennedy and Johnson privately expressed a sense of futility even as they poured men and equipment into a civil war in a far-away country that they did not understand.

Historian Stephen Ambrose writes of Nixon,

“He was the one who kept sending half-trained, at best, 18-year-olds halfway around the world to engage in a war he had long since decided he could not win, to participate in a rearguard action designed to protect a corrupt and non-representative government long enough to secure his own re-election.”

A Marine interviewed in the film, John Musgrave, says, “We were probably the last generation that actually believed our government would never lie to us.” Donald P. Gregg, who served in Vietnam with the CIA from 1970 to 1972 and was later ambassador to South Korea, discussed France’s 1954 defeat at Dien Bien Phu and its subsequent withdrawal from Indochina with filmmaker Lynne  Novick:

“We should have seen it as the end of the colonial era in Southeast Asia, which it really was. But instead we saw it in Cold War terms, and we saw it as a defeat for the free world that was related to the rise of China. And that was a total misreading of a pivotal event which cost us very dearly.”

When Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told President Johnson in a 1967 memo that the war could not be won, Johnson sent him off to head the World Bank. In a December 1967 speech, McCarthy declared:

“A war which is not defensible even in military terms, which runs contrary to the advice of our greatest generals, Eisenhower, Ridgeway, Bradley, and MacArthur, all of whom admonished us against becoming involved in a land war in Asia. Events have proved them right, as estimate after estimate as to the time of success had to be revised, always upward: more troops, more extensive bombing, a widening, and intensification of the war. Extension and intensification have been the rule, and projection after projection of success have been proved wrong.”

The U.S. Constitution gives Congress, not the President, the power to declare war. Since it was written in 1787, Congress has declared war five times: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II. Yet since 1787, the U.S. has been involved in numerous military conflicts, without a declaration, including Vietnam.

The legal basis for the Vietnam war, the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, was itself based on apparent government disinformation. The USS Maddox, a destroyer, was on patrol in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin on August 2, 1964, when it reported being attacked by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats. President Johnson said the attack was “unprovoked.”

Two days later it was reported that the Maddox and the destroyer Turner Joy were under attack again by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Hanoi denied the attack.

The U.S. Naval Communications Center in the Philippines, after reviewing the ships’ messages, questioned whether a second attack had occurred. In 2005, a National Security Agency historical study was declassified that concluded that the Maddox had engaged the North Vietnamese Navy on August 2, but that there may not have been any North Vietnamese vessels present on August 4.

The study concluded, “It is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened;  it is that no attack happened that night.”

In 1965, Johnson commented privately, “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”

It turns out that on August 2, the Maddox was involved with South Vietnamese patrol boats which were raiding the offshore islands of Hon Me and Hon Nieu. McNamara testified before Congress that the Maddox was not involved in these raids and did not disclose that the raids had been part of a program of clandestine attacks on North Vietnamese installations called Operation Plan 34A. Operation Plan 34A was carried out by U.S.-trained South Vietnamese commandos under control of a special operations unit of the U.S. Military Assistance Command.

When Johnson said the U.S. did nothing to provoke the August 2 attack, he was untruthful. Subsequent government reports show the U.S. warships were used to identify radar stations along the coastline of North Vietnam.

Many Americans still remember the Vietnam War: Veterans who gather at the Wall in Washington, D.C.; parents who lost sons, wives who lost husbands; children who lost fathers. In law school, I was ordered to a military facility in Richmond, Virginia for a physical examination. At that time, my fellow students and I had deferments from the draft.

The Burns-Novick history explores the unfairness of the draft, which sent the poor and minorities off to war while those who could attend college and graduate school were able to avoid being called. This changed when a lottery system was adopted.

After law school, I worked in the U.S. Senate for Sen. Thomas Dodd, D-Conn., a member of both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Internal Security Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee. It was a large part of my job to monitor the activities of the anti-war movement.

In this capacity, I wrote the subcommittee’s report on the New Left.

Dodd, a former FBI agent who prosecuted Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, viewed Communism as he had viewed Nazism: a threat to freedom and democracy around the world. He was a strong supporter of the war in Vietnam. He viewed it as an effort to stem the tide of Communist aggression and found merit in the “domino theory,” which held that if Vietnam were to fall to Communism, neighboring countries in Asia would follow including Thailand, Malaya, and the Philippines.

America believed the assurances which came from the White House that victory was at hand; we believed that those in charge had a plan to achieve such a victory. Repeatedly, they told us how well things were going, the opposite of what was really happening.

During this period, I traveled the country to debate critics of the war. Some were honest, and some were not. At Babson College in Boston I debated radical historian Howard Zinn, who denied that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese were Communists. He said they were only “nationalists” who wanted a better life for the people of Vietnam.

In Connecticut my opponent was the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, then chaplain at Yale. He did not deny that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were Communists, but argued that the people we were supporting were corrupt and had been involved with the French during the years of colonialism and that the war could not be won. He turned out to be right.

I regret the time and energy I spent promoting a cause which turned out as it did. We make judgments on the basis of what we believe to be true at the time, and we must be prepared to admit when we are wrong.

One difference between those days and today is that we did not automatically view those with whom we disagreed as enemies. I often went for drinks with those on the “other side” of the debate, and we would continue the conversation. Once after a debate, the Washington correspondent of Pravda took me to the Soviet embassy and introduced me as “a great anti-Communist.”

Today, in Washington, people view those with whom they disagree on questions like how best to deliver health care, or how to reform our immigration laws,  as beyond the pale.

Congress and our public discourse in the Vietnam War years, when the issue before us really was life and death, was far more civil than our discourse today about subjects upon which honorable men and women can disagree. We didn’t have 24-hour cable television and talk radio stirring extremist views and hatred and contempt for “enemies.”

As time went by, it became clear that we had sent more than 500,000 young Americans to fight in a war which we had no plan to win. In a September 18, 1969 column I wrote for  Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, I noted that,

“Young Americans cannot be expected to fight and die in a war which their country has no intention of winning, against an enemy whom Congress has not seen fit to declare war. There are ominous signs that the war in Vietnam will not be brought to an honorable conclusion. During his campaign for the Presidency, Richard Nixon carefully avoided making any policy commitments concerning the war. What he did say was that he had a ‘secret plan’ for ending it in such a way that the independence of South Vietnam would be preserved and America’s credibility in the world maintained. Now,  we are witnessing a unilateral withdrawal of American troops and no parallel concessions on the part of the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong. …

“Recently, a high-ranking administration official spoke to a small luncheon group in Washington and expressed surprise that every time he met the press they were most concerned with casualties. This writer pointed out that Americans, and particularly young Americans, were most concerned because it is they who are called upon to be killed. The official in question indicated, without saying it plainly, that the Administration was more interested in a graceful withdrawal than defeating the enemy.”

During testimony before Congress as a representative of Young Americans for Freedom, a Representative asked me whether I agreed with him that young people who left the country for Canada to avoid the draft should be jailed if they returned. My answer was something like this:  “If you asked me that question a year or two ago, I would have agreed.  But now that I see that we have no plan to win the war and that the government has been regularly lying to us about it, sending more than 500,000 young Americans to fight and die, with no plan for victory, I sympathize with the slogan of the anti-war movement, ‘Not with my life you don’t.'”

Ken Burns and Lynne  Novick have performed a notable service in returning the history of Vietnam to national attention. It is said that the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. We have the opportunity to prove that wrong. We are already engaged in combat situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and there is discussion of launching a pre-emptive strike on North Korea.

Congress, the representative body of the people, seem to be bystanders in all of this. What we can learn from studying the Vietnam War is that in the future, we should demand that any wars we pursue be declared by Congress, as mandated in the Constitution.

We should also learn to always be skeptical of what our leaders tell us, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

The absence of vigilance in recent years is clear, the results all around us.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.