Ken Burns Vietnam War Documentary

Critique Items

Segment One: (1945-1959)

Fails to mention that Ho Chi Minh was a Comintern (Soviet) agent for nearly 20 years, not a nationalist as portrayed in the documentary. If he was a true nationalist, he would have worked with the other anti-French nationalists (VNQDD, Dai Viet, Catholic, Cao Dai, etc.) instead of betraying them to the French Surete to be imprisoned or killed. He also murdered many anti-French nationalists and Vietnamese patriots because they would not adopt the measures and policy objectives of the Viet Minh. If Ho was a “nationalist first and communist second,” so were Stalin, Mussolini (was a communist before he formed the fascist movement), and Mao – all were socialists first and nationalists second. Even Hitler was a socialist, if not a communist. Also, if Ho was a nationalist, why was he an officer in the PLA and why was he sent to Thailand by the Comintern to build the communist party there? No, Ho was a communist first period!

The portrayal of Ho as someone who admired the US and our policies is a false one. Ho was in dire straits at the end of WWII and he was desperate for any help he could receive. The Chinese Nationalists controlled China in 1945 and Mao’s base was in northwest China (Yennan), far from Vietnam. The idea that some sort of deal could be made with Ho to turn him into a Tito is not supported by any evidence, only supposition. Ho curried favor with the Americans simply because the Nationalist Chinese were not providing his communist guerrillas with any assistance after 1942 and he was willing to do just about anything to get US money and military equipment, using the gullible (and pro-communist) elements in the OSS to achieve it. The largest anti-Japanese guerrilla force in Vietnam during WWII was the one controlled by the Chinese Nationalists, not Ho’s small force. This all changed when the Nationalist left Vietnam in early 1946. Once Mao took over China in 1949, the French colonial control of Vietnam was doomed.

No mention is made of the fact that only ONE US pilot shot down over Vietnam in WWII was rescued by Ho’s organization. The rest were rescued by Chinese Nationalist/Vietnamese forces. The reason for such poor results is Ho had very few guerrilla fighters in the field when the OSS visited him. He was simply making an empty promise when he told them he would rescue downed American flyers.

Segment Two (1959-1963)

This was a total hit job in President Diem. No mention that he spent large sums of money to build new and repair old Buddhist temples that had been neglected by the French. The old false claim that he filled government posts with Catholics is also false. 80 percent of the officers in the ARVN were not Catholics and only a handful of province chiefs were, and those were in provinces that had large Catholic populations. Using John Paul Vann and Sheehan to criticize Diem and the ARVN is not balanced by contrary evidence. Diem was viewed by most rural South Vietnamese positively because he was a true Vietnamese nationalist. Diem resented the heavy handed threats from the Americans about how he should run his country. The Buddhists were largely supportive of Diem but one sect, infiltrated by communists, caused all the trouble in the cities. Many US journalists fell for the false premise that all Diem needed to do was turn South Vietnam into a Jeffersonian democracy and the war would be won. They failed to understand that for any counter-insurgency to succeed, it was essential to isolate the battle space so the insurgents were denied base areas and supplies. Diem constantly warned the Americans of this, but they did not want to hear it. Too many Americans in the early days of the war were imbued with the idea that if only Diem would take a page from F. D. Roosevert’s and institute political reforms more suited for the US or Europe, the communists would lose their base. It was a major strategic failure to adopt the idea that if you “won the hearts and minds” of the rural South Vietnamese peasants, they would warmly embrace the Saigon government and turn their backs on the communists. This was proven to be false when the local VC played no role in the final defeat of the GVN – the GVN was defeated by a large, conventionally armed PAVN, not local guerrillas. All the elections held, the newspapers and tv stations published, all the schools and hospitals built and all the RD cadres efforts were for naught. People like Brown, Halberstam and Sheehan have a lot to answer for – none of them knew the first thing about Vietnam, could not speak the language, and hanged out with frustrated American staffers and café politicians in Saigon where they regurgitated the poisonous gossip they heard. They and the devious lunatics in the State Department (Hilsman and Harriman) did more to damage the war effort than anyone else because of their intense hatred of Diem and their failure to see that all of the alternatives to him were far worse. They owe the American and Vietnamese a huge apology. 

No mention of the North Vietnamese decision in 1959 to overthrow the South Vietnamese government by force and to begin large scale infiltration via Laos and Cambodia, in violation of the 1962 Geneva Accords on the Neutrality of Laos and Cambodia. There is no mention either of their decision to build a large, conventional Army using massive supplies of arms from China and the Soviet Union.

Probably the most appalling narrative throughout this series so far is the idea that it was an American war and the Americans were behind every move. No balance given to the South Vietnamese side, and the only South Vietnamese interviewed or making comments are all communist sympathizers or apologists for them. Very selective Pro-Hanoi comments by the Burns team.