Burning History: Covering Up Original Sins
The Ambassador, The Newsmen, and the Imperative for American Conventional Military Intervention.
By John M. Del Vecchio #VietnamWaronPBS; # VVFH-Burns.
In the late 1990s at a dinner sponsored by actor Charlie Pfeiffer, I had occasion to talk with David Halberstam at some length about mechanical issues of the writing trade. At the time I was correcting transcripts of interviews with survivors of Kham Duc and Ngok Tavak, a battle which took place in May 1968, just prior to the opening session of The Paris Peace Talks. KD/NT was the core battle of the Communist offensive often referred to as Mini-TET. To say the least I was terrible frustrated with the transcriptionist.
Photo by the author: Sampans on the Perfume River: In 1963 few Americans understood Vietnamese culture.
As a historical novelist I have always been sensitive to the ers and ahs, the pauses and jumps in speech. One might consider them to be the metadata connecting or disrupting connections in thoughts or story patterns… perhaps telling as much about the speaker as the words themselves. So, I want to see these blips noted in a transcript. The KD/NT pages, however, contained none, and indeed were much worse. Not only was the metadata missing, so too were many negatives. That’s right—flipping the meaning of the sentence 100%.
In response to my plaints, Mr. Halberstam offered: I don’t have that problem.
I said something like: Oh, you must have a great transcriptionist.
Halberstam: No. Just my secretary.
Me: She must be very good to get the transcript right.
Halberstam: I don’t use a recorder.
Me: Then you must take careful notes.
Halberstam: No. I just jot down keywords. Then she types up the list of the words I’ve jotted.
It was hard for me to imagine that this man, this newsman and historian, worked from nothing but a list of keywords he’d scribbled on a pad. What license?! I thought. What freedom to recall conversations and to quote officials however one wish! Perhaps he was lying to me. I took him at his word. After reading the below, you can gage for oneself the relevance of this anecdote.
Airing tonight, Riding The Tiger, episode two of the Burns series, covers the years 1961 through 1963. We’ll recap and grade episode one at the end of this piece, but first let’s think about what’s coming.
I have not seen episode two, but the most relevant occurrences of the period are the assassinations of Ngo Dinh Diem (11/1), and John F Kennedy (11/22). I’ve a feeling Mr. Burns will bring this episode to a crescendo around these events. The build-up to these deaths should exposes original sins.
Late evening, August 22, 1963, newly appointed Ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge deplaned at Tan Son Nhut airbase. He ignored General Paul Harkins, commander of MAG (the precursor of MACV), and other officials, “and headed straight for a group of U.S. newsmen.” [A detailed story of the days preceding this moment, and the following seventy-two days leading up to the demise of Diem, can be found in Dr. Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965. Quotes here and below are from Chapter 10 of that book unless otherwise noted.] The significance of this action cannot be overstated. The U.S. newsmen that evening, and at a following “lengthy dinner” arranged by Lodge, included Neil Sheehan, UPI’s Saigon Bureau Chief, Malcolm Browne, AP’s Chief Correspondent for Indochina, and David Halberstam, a full-time reporter for the New York Times.
The situation into which Lodge deplaned was one of apparent chaos, at lease according to news reports. The focus of episode two should be on the South Vietnamese, on their society, economy, government and security in the period leading up to the assassinations. Recall that South Vietnam was dealing with the terrorist equivalent in today’s U.S. of approximately 400,000 killed and another one million “disappeared” in the preceding three years. [Just for exercise, imagine if you can 8,000 people in your state, and in every other state, killed by militants from 2015 to today. How would you react? That’s what South Vietnamese society was dealing with.
Along with the killings and disappearances communist cadre were running a successful agitprop campaign. The term agitprop dates back to 1917 Russia, and is a combination of agitation and propaganda. It is a method of sowing dissent and dissatisfaction in the general public, originally through the arts (literature, film, plays), but later expanded to what we might call interest groups from unions and religious sects to social clubs and academia. Agitprop mechanisms and machinations include cadre (or true believers) gaining influence and leadership of traditional cultural organizations, then covertly steering those organizations into a coalition aligned with the communist cause.
If the Burns’ analysis emphasizes this theme we’ll be watching history. On the other hand, if episode two focuses on an interpretation of culture seen through the eyes of a few influential newsmen, once again know you are watching a skewed and flawed presentation.
1962 and 1963 are the years of Buddhist unrest in South Vietnam. Other segments of society were also being agitated. The conventional and flawed narrative talks about President Diem, a Catholic in a Buddhist country, ruthlessly suppressing the Buddhist uprising, and suggests that had he ceded to the political demands of this and other interest groups, all would have returned to normal. In Diem’s words, “I cannot seem to convince the (U.S.) embassy that this is Vietnam, not the United States of America.” His reference is to long-ingrained cultural norms: in the U.S. over 200 years of democratic processes at local levels versus in Vietnam not simply a hundred years of colonial rule, but a thousand years of subservience to various forms of autocracy.
Diem also could not convince the American newsmen that this was not Kansas, that inherent factionalism and communist scheming were tearing the nation apart, or that only strong and fair leadership could keep it from splintering further. Nor could he convince them that the Buddhist Movement was a small yet vocal agitprop faction within the Buddhist community.
From Triumph Forsaken:
American reporters in Saigon would contend that Nhu (Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem’s brother) had alone master-minded the pagoda raids, a claim that the journalists would use first to promote a coup and then afterwards to justify their promotion of the coup. Opposition to the government, Hlaberstam maintained in his dispatch, “is acknowledged to be extremely widespread.” In addition, Halberstam claimed to have received reliable reports of mass defections among troops of the Vietnamese Army’s Second Corps because of the “attacks” on the Buddhists. All of the foregoing information from Halberstam’s August 22 reporting came from unnamed sources in Saigon whom Halberstam had been too eager to trust, and all of it was false. (my emphasis)
This is just one example of many, many incidents of fake news from that time influencing political events; and only one example of many showing Halberstam and other journalists were more interested in promoting a political agenda than in reporting without bias. The cumulative weight of this false reporting, and Lodge’s complicity, led to tragic consequences.
Let’s step back for a moment and consider the new American ambassador, his motivations, proclivities, and political placement. Henry Cabot Lodge, the vice presidential running-mate of Richard Nixon, came out of the 1960 national elections as a potential contender to oppose President Kennedy in 1964. Kennedy’s political instincts were to marginalize this opponent, and how better to do so than to exile him to a small nation on the other side of the earth where he would be unable to consolidate a political organization. Lodge likely understood the double-bind of the ambassadorial offer: accepting could side-line him, yet declining might prove he had little interest in supporting U.S. foreign policy or American allies threatened by the creep of communism. His decision to accept this great responsibility must be qualified by his political motivations, his pandering to the press, and the resulting calamities which ensued. These misdeeds and errors need to be added to the list of original sins.
When I said in the earlier blog post that the standard narrative covers up sins of the left, this interaction between Lodge and the newsmen is to what I was referring. In the 72 days from the time Lodge landed in Vietnam, he and the newsmen pushed hard to oust Diem. When South Vietnamese generals finally responded by arresting the president and offering him to Lodge to be flown out of the country, Lodge declined. That’s when the generals had Diem killed.
What followed the coup and assassination of Diem was more than three years of political and military turmoil within South Vietnam. This event signaled the North that the South was vulnerable, and it triggered Hanoi’s sending of conventional units (battalions/divisions) to the southern battlefields. It was these large conventional units that were first encountered in the Ia Drang Valley (see: We Were Soldier… Mel Gibson movie). The point is that the disruption caused by the killing of Diem threw SVN into chaos, destabilized both military and civilian/government entities, invited in enemies, and created the imperative for American conventional military intervention. Had Diem not been assassinated, chances are there would never have been the need for the massive U.S. build-up in ’64-65 to keep SVN from falling under communist control.
Thus one wonders, had the newsmen not succumbed to the communist agitprop of the time, and had the ambassador not played to the newsmen but instead had focused on American State Department and military advisors, and on the South Vietnamese officials in the trenches combatting the insurgents and terrorists, how differently the next twelve years might have been.
An aside: Are we in a relatively similar situation domestically today? Do we have politicians playing to the press, the press pushing an agenda driven by false narratives, and a loose coalition of issue-oriented interest groups agitating for the removal of a president? And are there enemies lurking at the gates, looking for openings to come in and wreck havoc?
Episode One Report Card: Ken Burns, Lynn Novic
1) Ancient State: Was this covered? No. Series begins with French colonization.
2) Mention of Crown Dominion Lands? No. Also very little mentioned about Laos, Cambodia.
3) Ho Chi Minh’s nationalism? Overstated. All communist terrorist activity shifted to other communist leaders to preserve Ho’s purity, but communist terror is mentioned.
4) French attempting to regain Empire? Very one-side presentation; some of the accusations against the French are well deserved, other factors ignored.
5) Dien Bien Phu and Laos terrorism? Nothing mentioned about Chinese and Vietnamese communist attacks in Laos being reason DBP was established. Myth of Vietnamese bringing guns to DBP by selves—as Chinese labor was parmount.
6) ’54-’56 Land Reform Pogrom? Surprise, this was covered. But not quantified! No analysis of extent or equivalence to today’s U.S. population. Viewer may believe this was minimal.
7) Geneva Accords and Elections? Standard flawed narrative. No mention that U.S., S VN, and N VN did not sign the agreement (i.e.: there was no agreement).
8) Hanoi’s 1959 Declaration of War on South and ensuing terrorism? Surprise again! This is mentioned, but again not quantified. Shown is a photo of three terrorist negotiating a very difficult section of jungle trail. It took a lot more than three to kill 18,000 officials.
Prior to seeing the episode I was prepared to give Burns/Novickan ‘A’ for cinematography and an ‘F’ for history. The program was better than I’d expected, but the filming was worse. To me the most offensive segment was showing one American Marine from 1967 talking about how much he hated the Vietnamese. Nothing is offered to balance this perspective. As a novelist, one recognizes inclusions like this as set-ups for future elements of the story. Look for it to be replayed in later episodes when talking about American atrocities. Report Card: for Cinematography: ‘B’; for History ‘C-“.
Please feel free to forward or share this essay. For more on this and for the need for paradigm shifts in the way we view history and many other aspects of our culture, visit: www.peakingat70.com/lets-talk-america/
John M. Del Vecchio is the author of The 13th Valley and other works on Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and veterans issues. He is currently working on Peaking At 70: Rediscovering America and Self. www.peakingat70.com