Today, we look at student protests against Donald Trump and private prisons and imagine that student activism has reached a new height. But if we consider the historical perspective, we realize this isn’t so. Stanford students’ protests of the Vietnam War were massive, humbling the magnitude of last year’s post-election vigil. The school’s collaboration in administering the Selective Service exam led to a student-staged sit-in of President Sterling’s office in 1966. War-related research at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and the CIA’s recruitment of students culminated in obstruction of access to school buildings, with 100 students arrested.
Some students even turned to violence, firebombing the campus ROTC building and wrecking the president’s office. Later, on October 15, 1969, in the largest demonstration in school history, 8,000 students gathered to demand an immediate end to fighting in Vietnam. Like Ken Burns’s recently released documentary The Vietnam War, these student activists falsely accused the U.S. military of failing in the theatre of war and underplayed the malignancy of communism in Southeast Asia.
The new ten-episode, eighteen-hour film, directed by Ken Burns (commencement speaker at the 2016 Stanford graduation), covers the struggle from the late 1940s through 1975. Burns and his co-director Lynn Novick interviewed hundreds of those involved in the conflict - not only Americans, but North and South Vietnamese as well. The reliance on these three perspectives instead of commentary by contemporary politicians gives the documentary credence.
Disappointingly, the film’s thesis is nothing new, never moving beyond the sentiments of the media reporting and academic work on Vietnam from the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Burns and Novick portray the U.S. effort as a flawed containment strategy that quickly became stuck in mud. Supporting the conventional liberal narrative, they argue that American leaders’ desire to avoid embarrassment over their miscalculation forced troops to stay in the quagmire for a decade.
But The Vietnam War fails to consider other complexities: the genuine threat of international communism, the fact that the U.S. was winning the war following 1968’s Tet Offensive, the decisive American military victory of Operation Linebacker II in December 1972, and the effective surrender of the North Vietnamese in January 1973.
For Burns and Novick, it seems enough to just show an increasingly red map in the first episode to convey the harsh realities of the spread of communism. The film does little to emphasize Ho Chi Minh’s reliance on China and the USSR for munitions. At times, The Vietnam War even paints North Vietnamese Communism as simply an armed agrarian and anti-imperial movement, not a Stalinist bloodfest. Burns and Novick seem so focused on delegitimizing counter-insurgency that they gloss over the one million Vietnamese who fled the communist North for the American-backed South. These Vietnamese “voted with their feet,” just as those suffering in East Germany did by moving west before the construction of the Berlin Wall. Though neither the North nor the South had free elections in the 1950s, about 10 times as many Vietnamese fled Communism as those who travelled north in a migration period provided by the Geneva Accords.
By omitting this implicit political support for the South, The Vietnam War is able to argue that the U.S. military’s success in battle was self-defeating since it did not win hearts and minds. It may be true that kill/death ratios, tonnage of dropped bombs, ships intercepted trying to run the blockade, and miles of land controlled by US or allied forces did not directly show a given citizen of Saigon the wonders of individual freedoms. But it is laughable to claim that American ground forces and firepower, alongside their South Vietnamese counterparts, were on the whole losing the war to the communists. In 1986, General William Westmoreland, quoting Berkeley Professor Douglas Pike, argued that “the American military performance in Vietnam was unprecedented and... they [the U.S. military] did not lose a battle of any consequence.”
However, throughout the film, somber music often plays over footage of burning American equipment or over troops taking heavy fire as a veteran explains how the pointless and endless nature of the fighting led to his disenchantment with the war. There is no doubting the valor of those who served or the trauma they experienced, but outcomes of battle after battle and surveys of veterans point to the military’s overall triumph in stopping communism’s ugly spread. The United States “won every major battle” of the Vietnam War, President Barack Obama said in 2011. “Every single one.”
In its later episodes, the film confusingly conflates the success of President Nixon’s bombing of military and industrial targets in Ho Chi Minh and Haiphong, North Vietnam’s capital and port city, with his administration’s Watergate crimes. Viewers, who are likely learning about the the historical record of 1972 for the first time, are left with a sense that the negotiations which culminated in the Paris Peace Accords and brought an end to hostilities in 1973 were a sham. The film implies those negotiations relegated South Vietnam to an inevitable defeat and gave Nixon an undeserved landslide victory in 1972. While Nixon’s Watergate crimes may have been reprehensible, the Accords, a separate historical event, provided for the South Vietnamese people's right to self-determination, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, right to property ownership and free enterprise, and the return of all American POWs. The agreement, far more than a mere cease fire, established South Vietnamese sovereignty at the 17th parallel. American strength guaranteed the peace just as it had for Taiwan and South Korea.
The Vietnam War presents the events of the early ‘70s in a distorted manner and misdirects any responsibility for the loss in Vietnam from leftists who took control of the Watergate Congress. After all, the 94th Congress refused to fulfill treaty obligations to replace parts and munitions in South Vietnam, even as the USSR and China sent massive shipments of new arms to the North. Perhaps if in late 1974 and 1975 Congress had listened to President Ford’s urging to deliver arms to the South on a replacement basis as was promised in the Accords, the U.S. military’s victory would have been preserved past 1975.
Again, to help those in Congress and the national media who deserted the South escape culpability, the film only briefly remarks about untold deaths. It skims over the unknown hundreds of thousands who later died in reeducation camps and the estimated 200,000 “boat people” who died at sea while seeking asylum from the Vietnamese communists. Worst of all, Burns and Novick fail to mention the murder of an estimated 2 million people in the Cambodian Genocide that followed American abandonment of Southeast Asia.
On the whole, Burns and Novick have put together a piece which, while masterfully produced and wide-ranging in its interviews, lacks the historical punch of their earlier works. They fail to credit U.S. military successes in the war and instead choose to validate an exaggerated narrative of failed intervention and senseless massacre.
50 years ago, Stanford students burnt down campus buildings to protest the the war. Students today should understand the nuances of American foreign policy, drawing from historically-accurate lessons of the past. This month, the tragedy of the Vietnam era has eerily resurfaced, with four U.S. special forces soldiers ambushed in Niger, a country where most Americans are unaware their armed forces are even deployed. Vietnam was undoubtedly fraught with mistakes, from the My Lai Massacre to the disproportionate number of black citizens drafted into combat. However, there were also notable U.S. military successes during the war. And, our eventual political defeat could have been avoided.
Burns doesn’t acknowledge these points. He contends he directed The Vietnam War in order to bring calm to the modern political debates which he claims stem from the struggle. But by only presenting one side, he offers not insights, but lazy politicization.