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Comedians in Cars Being Shocked by History. Ken Burns’ Vietnam. Episode One.

In a recent episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld and his guest Alec Baldwin, leave Manhattan for a nostalgia tour of their hometown of Massapequa.

Before they get in the car Baldwin asks Jerry if he’s watching Burns’ new documentary: Vietnam. They express shock at what they perceive to be Burns’ brilliance; not disbelief that he is brilliant but a kind of awe at his brilliance, which is assumed to be true without question. The conversation moves on – after all, it’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, not Comedians in Cars Discussing Historical Apocalypses.

And yet.

We were thinking about that while watching episode one of the documentary. At this point in his career, Burns has the status of an auteur. He is beyond criticism in any conventional sense and exists on a plane reserved for genius. It doesn’t matter if it’s good, or wrong, it’s Ken Burns and therefore it’s fascinating.

Burns cemented this status with his first documentary, The Civil War. Baseball and Jazz added to the lustre. Burns, in the official version of the truth, is the narrator of America. A kind of boyish iteration of Walt Whitman and Walter Cronkite. What is in America’s attic? Ask Ken.

And then there’s episode one of his Vietnam. It has a slightly different approach. It opens by going backwards. The footage is rewound so rockets return to their launchers, flames back to their thrower, napalm victims return back down the road and then the time leap accelerates and we are thrown back to the beginning of the French conquest of S.E.Asia.

French rhetoric is contrasted with American rhetoric. French generals announce there is light at the end of the tunnel and then we jump from 1950-ish to the late 60s and American generals and pols say the same thing.

It is a useful conceit. For a newer generation for whom Vietnam is quickly going the way of the rest of history, replaced by references to Afghanistan and Iraq, it is a useful historical pedagogy. One can easily imagine it being shown in high school and college classes. This, someone will tell them, is historical continuity.

All well and good until you actually start asking questions.

Burns opens with the statement that the war was begun by men with noble intentions. There’s no evidence offered to support that statement, and it just sort of fades away into footage of juxtaposed French and American soldiers marching through mud and rice paddy’s.

Burns makes a gossamer detour through FDR’s assertion that the colonial order was dead and that independence and autonomy were the order of the new dawn. FDR mostly meant it even if, never one to stray too far from the grease and shit of actual politics, he was still committed to American power. He walked a narrow path and died before he could reach the finish line.

Enter Truman. A sort of political version of a single track creature – right, wrong, left, right, up, down. Truman.

FDR was a hero – corrupt, contradictory, courageous, brilliant, mecurial, complicated.

Truman was a grocery clerk elevated to the center of the stage. Not an evil man, not incompetent, not a fraud, but not FDR. Then again, who is.

Burns however really doesn’t seem to have the time let alone the interest required to dig into any of this or, frankly much of anything else.

The defensive claim would be (will inevitably be) that this is not a multi volume study; not a dissertation. This is history lite. Except the defense is only brought out in the face of criticism and of course there has been no offcial criticism. Just the usual praise. And since this is in fact a multi-volume documentary the defense is dead on arrival.*(1)

And consider Burns mystifying boyscout reactionary defense of his work:

“Now, Burns says, it’s time to talk—and get over it. “With knowledge comes healing,” he told Vanity Fair. “The seeds of disunion we experience today, the polarization, the lack of civil discourse all had their seeds in Vietnam,” Burns told The New York Times. “I can’t imagine a better way to help pull out some of the fuel rods that create this radioactive atmosphere than to talk about Vietnam in a calm way.”(2)

This is Burns entering through the front door of generosity and exiting through the rear door of perverse selfishness and what must, if one is honest, be called the basic template of a reactionary . History per Burns, begins where he says it begins, and ends where he says it ends; never mind everything that led to Vietnam, which he throws overboard. Except that the entire first episode is premised on the claim that France’s imperial Heart of Darkness was the parent of America’s Apocalypse Now. So this is not just a moral failure, and an intellectual failure, is it also clearly a stylistic failure.

Burns mentions that FDR and then Truman and the American political establishment, were placed on the horns of a dilemma. Newly restored French leader de Gaulle made it clear that if America did not support a return to prewar colonial glory and power, France would join the Soviet camp.

That’s true, sort of, until you again actualy start asking questions. Then things get murky and contradictory and all of a sudden the neat historical narrative begins to fall apart.

Burns does not spend any serious time with de Gaulle and he spends no time on France’s internal quagmire where its domestic politics danced on the razor’s edge of civil war.

The French left by which we mean the French Communist Party, was the one political force to emerge from the Occupation with a shred of prestige. Utterly compromised by its support for Stalin, it was at the same time the only indigenous force that could lay claim to having resisted the fascists. In other words, Post War France had more in common with the moral ambiguities and contradictions of a Dashiell Hammett novel than the boy scout certainties of history Lite.

Burns leaves all of that out and also leaves out the civil war in Greece in which the US and Britain were backing the fascists, the disruption of Italy’s post war domestic politics in which the CIA paid for the “election” of the anti-leftists, and the fact that the US and England (and “West Germany”) were all getting into bed with former Nazis in order to continue the pre war plan of stopping the Left from gaining power.

But why let the facts, however complex and difficult to digest, get in the way of a good story. After all, as establishment Maestro and rhetorical Pasha George Will has it, the documentary is, a “masterpiece.”

Consider then that in attempting to explain the wider geopolitical context of Vietnam, Burns shows a world map that makes clear how “communism” was on the march (and the graphic is itself a relic from The Cold War with a red tide slowly but inexorably covering the planet). China, the Soviet Union and revolutionary and guerrilla movements in Malaya and threats everywhere. Add in the war in Korea and “the west” has a bad case of the geopolitical jitters and shakes. In that context de Gaulle’s threat was ominous. And we are told, in passing, that a new post war order had emerged that was in large part built on the Soviets having “overrun the countries of Eastern Europe.”

Curious comment.

Technically, not untrue. After all, there were millions of Soviet troops along the border and they did occupy, East Germany, Poland, Romania, Hungary and so on.

What’s left out of that version of the narrative is that they did not just overrun those countries but they had invaded them in order to crush the Nazis and their allies (drawn from those countries) who had invaded the Soviet Union and had been put in place by England, France and America as well as their own domestic efforts.

Stalin was a psychopath. He was a monster out of the dusty pages of myth operating on not just an industrial scale but on a operatic scale of violence, paranoia and sadism.

And he had a memory.

The documentary is predicated on the elastic nature of memory. The first episode is entitled: Deja Vu, in which, France’s past is America’s future which of course, is France’s memory.

All well and good until you start to think.

Stalin was a malignant troll with a memory. What he remembered was that England, France, America and Japan had invaded Russia and sided with the monarchists and the fascists, and when that failed had spent several years trying to infiltrate the Soviet Union and restore the monarchy in one form or another, and when that failed they decided to support fascists in Italy, Spain and Germany.

Which is not to say that the Soviets did not overrun Eastern Europe but it is to say that there was a reason for it.

Not that Burns has time for that.

He’s back to explaining Vietnam.

He gives us a cliffsnotes version of Ho Chi Minh’s biography. New York, Boston, pastry chef, revolutionary, aliases, etc.

All correct. In the same way that it might be correct to reduce War and Peace to the weather, or Moby Dick to being a cautionary tale about the boredom inherent in long, badly thought-out fishing trips.

And then there’s Diem.

The fool and trickster of Vietnamese history. A celibate, homosexual almost priest, with a family of Macbeth’s from his archbishop older brother to his neo-fascist younger brother and his wife the Eva Peron of Vietnam, Madame Nhu.(except she did not start off as a working girl but came from money and was related to the imperial court).

Diem, we are told, appears on the scene and is mercurial, stealthy, crafty, dangerous, and unstable. Again, all true. No friend to the French, whom he despised, despite a certain pathological Francophile set of impulses, he is at odds with the former or soon to be former colonial masters. The French support the local network of gangsters who run the opium trade, the whore houses and casinos.

All major sources of cash. The Americans support Diem. The French also support Bai Dao the nominal emperor who, Burns neglects to mention or if you prefer, succeeds in ignoring.

Burns does mention the election and that it was a rigged carnival in which Diem wins nearly 100% of the vote. This is after the French catastrophe at Dien Bien Phu.

DBP is always mentioned – rightly – as the turning point for France’s colonial hopes. Vietnamese loses were over three times those of the French but when you have nothing, losing everything is something that can be spun as a victory where as for the French losing is a disaster.

France essentially but not quite completely, gave up and the country was partitioned.

South Vietnam and the North settled into a few years of uneasy sort-of peace full of repatriations, skirmishes, subterfuge, clandestine movements, smuggling, propaganda, espionage, and assassinations.

Diem and his family entered the vacuum. What Burns doesn’t mention is that Diem had been created in Japan, where he had been in temporary exile, and officially launched by a succession of prominent patrons including a young ambitious fellow Catholic – the newly minted Senator from Massachusetts, Jack Kennedy . Ignored by emperor MacArthur, but nurtured by cadres in the CIA , Diem was the poster boy for America’s new policy of Containment and the beta test for “the third way.”

Anti-communist, and at least on paper in favor of everything from apple pie to freedom of religion, Diem was perfect for the role. Except not really.

Diem was in fact far more of a Peronist than that. Along with Madame Nhu and the rest of the clan, they were in favor of establishing their very own private army and running the country as their feudal satrapy. Diem was, Catholic, anti-communist, anti-Buddhist, pseudo syndicalist, pro-union, as long as the unions hailed him as boss and so on. They were corrupt, violent, sadistic gangsters about whom, JFK’s man, McGeorge Bundy said – we haven’t had to deal with a truly insane ruling family like this, since the Romanovs.

And so were the opposition. The Buddhists, the mafia, and assorted private armies with flexible allegiances, to assorted warlords all vied for power in what was a neo-feudal landscape.

Burns touches on all of this. But he touches on it like snow that melts as soon as it lands. He shows footage and stills of the diminutive and dapper Diem. He shows him alongside American officers. But he doesn’t bother to identify the Americans – they’re just there like cardboard cutouts.

One of them shows up at least twice. Never mentioned by name he’s next to Diem and stands towering over the little prime minister in his natty double breasted suits.

The American was Edward Lansdale.

Lansdale was a former advertising man who had been recruited to the OSS the parent of the CIA. He served in the Philippines after the war and helped the local gangsters pretend to be democratic and assisted them in crushing the Huk rebellion. Job well done, Lansdale was transferred stateside and then eventually to Vietnam.

There he sold Diem on the third way – yankee doodle freedoms, and an iron anti-communist fist. But Lansdale was not an idiot, exactly, and preached the need for genuine reform – freedom of religion, speech, and so on. Anti-colonial, anti-corruption, anti-despot. Except as a CIA man he was at odds with Diem, and the local warlords, and the Communists, and the Buddhists, and the French who tried to kill him – on multiple occasions – and the other cadres in the CIA who had no time for his advocacy for reform and neither did the mandarins at the State Department including the ambassador (“Lightning” Joe Collins) who hated him. So did the CIA station chief who in theory was his boss, except Lansdale answered to the Dulles Brothers who of course answered only to god – unless the phones were busy in which case they answered to no one. And of course we get nothing about Lansdale’s dirty tricks operations; the bribes, the cut throat deals that left people dead or disappeared. Things became so byzantine that when the US decided it was done with Diem & Co. and was prepared to back a coup, Lansdale may very well have tipped off Diem who struck first and destroyed the French backed gangs. Their leader shot in the back of the head by an unknown and never identified assassin, they surrendered and the US proclaimed its support for Diem.

Burns ignores all of this. And one wonders if part of the deal in taking funding from the Koch Brothers had something to do with that.

We can’t say but he does offer details on that turning point but given what he’s ignored the details and his narrative are corrupted.

And so, we get the usual story about the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu.

Arrogant and prepared to fight the last war against a different enemy, the French poured thousands of men and a lot of equipment into the valley, and set about fortifying their positions in the hopes of drawing the Vietminh into a battle. General Giap instead of doing what was desired by his enemy did what was smarter and had an army of conscripts (“Volunteers”) haul artillery (broken down into component parts) into the hills above the valley and well, the rest as they say is history. Two months later the French surrendered.

What Burns and nearly every other iteration of the story leave out is why the French chose that valley.

Because that’s where the opium was. And the French supported the local crime syndicates that made money from opium.

Several millions pounds every year came out of that part of Vietnam and Ho and everyone else was depending on it for cash because cash meant guns. Cash was power and whoever controlled the opium trade controlled Vietnam.

Graham Greene knew that. The main charcters in the Quiet American are Phuong, Fowler, and Pyle. And the Opium.

The book wasn’t published until 1955 but Greene had been, as they say, in-country, for several years making frequent trips back and forth and he wasn’t hiding. Someone could have asked.

But they never ask and even if they do it rarely reaches the ears of the people who decide who lives and who dies.*

Other observers had already concluded that the war was unwinnable in any conventional sense and had written a series of memos about it. They stayed in a file cabinet unread.

And then there’s Eisenhower. After the French defeat he wrote in his diary that the war could not be won by conventional means.

Burns mentions that.

The rest, not so much.

And what then can we conclude?

Should we ask: is this ethical? If the claim is to tell the story then the story should be told. If the means are not sufficient either find another way or don’t try, because the truth, in our time, is so precious that to do anything less is not only dangerous but ultimately, immoral.

Comedians in cars, discussing history.

The rest is a cloud of smoke.



Notes 1 and 2: See the following for a rare piece of establishment criticism of Burns and which nails every one of his defects and the problematic nature of his effort:

And in particular take note of this passage:

“Burns and Novick know all of this—indeed, they explicate the turn of events with admirable force and verve (aided by the stellar and precise writing of historian Geoffrey Ward). But then they quickly abandon the groundwork they’ve laid putting the Vietnamese struggle in an anti-colonial context. “By Episode Two…the war has been framed as a civil war, with the United States defending a freely elected democratic government in the south against Communists invading from the north,” notes Vietnam scholar Thomas Bass in a slashing essay that has been circulating for weeks as a kind of anti-establishment samizdat beneath the tide of gushing advance praise for the series. “American boys are fighting a godless enemy that Burns shows as a red tide creeping across maps of Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.” If Burns meant to make sardonic use of the Cold War-era graphic, the gesture was lost on Bass, author of a highly praised book on one of North Vietnam’s top spies in the south.

“The historical footage in episode one…which disputes this view of the war, is either ignored or misunderstood,” Bass wrote last month in the tiny Mekong Review, an independent literary quarterly founded in 2015. The fact is, “defeated French forces regrouped in southern Vietnam after 1954, which is when U.S. Air Force colonel and CIA agent Edward Lansdale began working to elevate this former colony to nationhood,” Bass continues. “The U.S. installed Ngo Dinh Diem an election that Diem stole, with 98.2 percent of the popular vote.” (Oddly, although the influential Lansdale is shown in a photo standing right next to Diem, nothing is said about him.)”

*In his excellent history of the French defeat in Vietnam (Embers of War The Fall of An Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam) and the entry of the US as a replacement for the French, Fredrik Logevall writes:

“The tribes were a source of opium, which was important to the French to finance their special operations section and which, when it fell into enemy hands, was used to fund Viet Minh special operations and arms purchases. Retaking Dien Bien Phu would ensure that the opium crop remained in effective French control.”


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