Timely to have happened on the book, Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden, at the library just as the Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” began on PBS. I was curious to see what perspective was brought to both the book and documentary. The factoid that especially interested me: Vietnam was one country, temporarily divided by the Geneva Accords, after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Elections were to be held in 1956 to unify the country (which I repeat… was one country). When it became evident that Ho Chi Minh would easily win, the U.S. colluded with the temporary caretaker government to boycott the elections. Thus was created South Vietnam. Thus was democracy scuttled.
Wiping away the cobwebs of self deceit and propaganda, a government with democratic pretensions but oligarchic realities dismisses the will of the people when it threatens their rule. They anoint and militarily back a tyrannical government in the south that mirrors their own, an elite interested only in their own privilege and power. Even the writer of this quite critical book (author of the highly successful Black Hawk Down) falls victim sometimes to the propaganda. He fails, I think, to properly highlight this incredibly important subterfuge, the disastrous canceling of elections that would have very likely, entirely avoided the death and misery to come. This should have been repeated, maybe run at the bottom screen continually like those CNN ticker tape reports. And in one sentence he refers to the “communist” versus the “free” forces, when in fact there was nothing “free” about the southern situation except the usual feudalism, freedom to chase money. Vietcong, Buddhists and other opposition groups were excluded from participation in elections and repressed in their activism. One of democracy’s chief purposes and benefits is the peaceful transfer of power, the avoidance of war, with its inglorious cost. Yet we were told our troops were fighting for freedom and democracy. Well, obviously they couldn’t have said,“We want you to kill, die, sacrifice and suffer so the elite can continue to enjoy its great privileged life style.” Who would have supported that project? Yet that is exactly what it was about.
Bowden does not spare the facts. He refers to the trail of deception revealed by The Pentagon Papers but emphasizes the military stupidity, on both sides, that led to the terrible loss of life at Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, particularly the civilian carnage. He seems, at times, to set aside his knowledge of the decision to thwart democracy as when he proclaims that the U.S. had every right to choose sides in what he calls the Saigon/Hanoi struggle. In the Ken Burns film there is a similar forgetfulness. North Vietnam is repeatedly referred to as “Communist Vietnam” but the south is never referred to as “Capitalist Vietnam.” Whether this is conscious propaganda or simply embedded in the psyche, it is hardly objective. I’ve noticed this in other documentaries, where scary, goose-stepping, bayonet wielding hoards appear just when the narrator intones the word, communism – classic Skinnerian conditioning. In a sense the U.S. purpose was freedom and democracy. The ideologue attempts, in that pairing, to capture the prestige of the word democracy and indelibly associate it with capitalism, what they really mean by “freedom.” One of the things that struck me in an interview with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on Terry Gross’ Fresh Air was Burns’ statement that a high percentage of the public felt that the students killed at Kent State University “got what they deserved.” This is a measure of the disheartening success of propaganda and, though Trump is no doubt a bit of a loose cannon in establishment eyes, his election is another.
There is a scene in Burn’s film where John Foster Dulles is said to make the decision to support Diem’s refusal to honor the elections. It is presented as an agonizing decision yet the Secretary of State, and his CIA Chief brother Allen, were known to be hysterically anti-communist religious fundamentalists. Their objection to communism lay not in its authoritarianism but in its disdain for religion and rejection of class privilege. In today’s vernacular, they were committed to rule by the 1%. Their support for an elite in South Vietnam, and everywhere else, is consistent and bears this out. One (me) yearns to turn back the clock to FDR’s presidency and re-instate the brilliant, anti-colonialist Vice-president Wallace as Roosevelt’s successor rather than the cold-warrior Harry Truman. It might be a different world. According to Oliver Stone’s book and film, The Untold History of the U.S., the business constituency’s successful backroom deal to replace Wallace with Truman amounted to a coup, with sad and serious consequences. But I digress.
The left/right struggle continues in contemporary life, almost to caricature, with Trump the megalomaniac, narcissistic, near-fascist completing the shredding of the New Deal and the Constitution versus Bernie Sanders standing for real democracy. Not that the North Vietnamese or the left in general were or are poster children for democracy. So long as ol’ ego, like the 1%, rules our nations and our selves, we are going to find our rhetoric and our practice as far from each other as the obscenely rich are from the miserable poor.