‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Three: ‘The River Styx’

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There are a lot of things I don’t understand about the war in Vietnam, and I’ve been hoping Ken Burns’ new series would help me sort out.

One is North Vietnam’s complicated relationship with, on the one hand, the Soviet Union, and on the other hand with China.

It would be so easy to explain the North as the Russians’ client state, and at times as I’ve read about the war, that has appeared to be the case. Other times, China seems to have played that role. And over the years, I’ve thought, how can both be true, given the bitter split between the world’s two biggest communist countries back in the ’60s?

And yet, I’m learning from the series, apparently the answer was indeed “both.”

Both poured considerable resources into helping the North — the Chinese sending 320,000 people (I’m saying that from memory — I didn’t write the number down during the show), and the Soviets sending vast amounts of materiel along with advisers.

How did Hanoi maintain that uneasy balance? With great difficulty, apparently.

And the split in those two nations’ attitudes toward Marxism’s inevitable march through history was reflected in North Vietnam’s leadership. Ho Chi Minh subscribed to the less aggressive, more accommodating approach pushed by Moscow. (He, for instance, was very upset that North Vietnamese gunboats had fired on Americans in the Tonkin Gulf.) Le Duan, who increasingly gained greater sway over Hanoi at Ho’s expense, favored the more extreme, violent, approach of the Maoists.

One thing about the commies: They weren’t monolithic. Which takes us back to my Unified Field Theory of human affairs: People are complicated, regardless of how they try to boil things down into simple ideologies.

Here’s a detail that particularly struck me last night: The part where China sent those 300,000-plus people to help with the war effort. They did it in a way that marked a profound contrast to the American approach: They send them to take on rear-echelon jobs to free North Vietnamese soldiers to go to the front.

In doing that, they embodied Donald Trump’s notion of international relations (reiterated in his speech to the U.N. yesterday): That every nation looks out for itself, that it’s all about self-interest.

Meanwhile, LBJ was sending entire American combat units over to fight, bleed and die for the Vietnamese.

The clip below shows the reaction of one Vietnamese woman to that. And there were many others like her. Key excerpt:

We’re such a small and poor country, and the Americans have decided to come in to save us — not only with their money, their reseources, but even with their own lives.

We were very grateful…

As I’ve done the last couple of days, my intention here is just to share a thought or two from the episode, something that jumped out at me, as a conversation starter. There was enough in last night’s episode to fill a book with.

Perhaps you would like to make other points based upon it…

39 thoughts on “‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Three: ‘The River Styx’

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, lest you think I’m casting aspersions on Chinese courage… I’m very aware that in Korea, they HAD sent combat troops in against us, expending much blood as well as treasure.

    That may have played a role in their decision to embrace a non-combat role in Vietnam…

    Reply
  2. bud

    One of the things I hope comes out of this series is that antiwar people (the ones who have won the argument in the national conversation) get past their pat conclusions and understand just how complex and difficult the situation was.
    -Brad

    That’s not the least bit condescending now is it? Of course Vietnam was complex. Which is entirely different from saying the powers in Washington got it right, which is the subtle subtext implied. No they didn’t. If the neocons would just admit at some point that they were wrong and there never was any light at the end of the tunnel or that the god damn dominoes DIDN’T fall then maybe I could give them some tiny respect. But nooooo. They continue to argue crap like we tied the hands of the generals, didn’t bomb Hanoi or invade the north or that the Cambodian atrocities somehow justified the imperialistic nightmare of Vietnam. Just admit the hippies and draft dodgers were right. That would go a long way toward healing the political divide in this country.

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      So you’re demanding nothing less than unconditional surrender to your point of view, eh? :)

      Is it OK if, while I’m chanting, “I love Jane Fonda,” I use my eyes to blink in Morse Code, “B-R-A-I-N-W-A-S-H-I-N-G”…?

      Reply
      1. bud

        Not unconditional surrender but rather some type of respect for the folks who did not want to be involved in the war in the first place. That’s nothing less than what you seem to be demanding of doves. I don’t see this as merely an academic exercise. As long as people in power make excuses for what went wrong in Vietnam and now Iraq and refuse to even allow a tiny hint of humility into their own world view. You’ve suggested that the doves refuse to acknowledge complexity or perspective at the time of the events. Ok, I acknowledge that. But in return is it too much to ask to simply say, “the dominoes really didn’t fall as I predicted”?

        Reply
        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Yeah, it is. Too much to ask, I mean.

          But of course you’ve already told me I can’t mention Cambodia, so…

          You and other thoughtful people keep talking about the “domino theory” as though it were some concrete thing — as though there were these giant black monoliths standing with white dots on them in Southeast Asia — and as though it were the whole thing. It wasn’t. It was just a metaphor for the containment of communism, of both the Stalinist and Maoist varieties.

          Which brings me to one of the more fascinating things about last night’s episode, and the first incident of what I think was selective presentation of facts in the series, of putting a finger on the scales.

          My own knowledge of what happened in the ’40s, ’50s and even the ’60s is lacking in detail, because I was either not born or still a child. I know broad concepts, but can’t cite a lot of direct evidence. Which is one reason I was looking forward to the series, and am sacrificing my evenings to watching it (and, a couple of nights, REwatching).

          So my ears perked up when I was told of the critical testimony of George F. Kennan at the Fulbright hearings in 1966. The narrator introduced him as the propagator of the Cold War strategy of containment. I knew the name, and I knew the strategy — although not with the detail of someone who remembers when it was formulated.

          As y’all know, I have frequently written here about Vietnam as an application of that policy of containment. So hearing that Kennan said Vietnam was a wrong-headed misapplication of the strategy really made an impression on me.

          Bud thinks I should “just admit the hippies and draft dodgers were right,” which ain’t gonna happen. Nor is Muhammad Ali or Dr. Spock going to knock me over. Nor John Kerry. But if a guy like Kennan says something, I’m thinking as I watch this, I’m paying attention.

          This morning, seeking to know more, I googled Kennan. Wikipedia’s not the same as reading a serious book about him, and I stand ready to be corrected by someone with deeper knowledge, but it’s what I had time for so far. And I read this:

          Soon after his concepts had become U.S. policy, Kennan began to criticize the foreign policies that he had seemingly helped begin. Subsequently, prior to the end of 1948, Kennan became confident that positive dialogue could commence with the Soviet government. His proposals were discounted by the Truman administration and Kennan’s influence was marginalized, particularly after Dean Acheson was appointed Secretary of State in 1949. Soon thereafter, U.S. Cold War strategy assumed a more assertive and militaristic quality, causing Kennan to lament about what he believed was an abrogation of his previous assessments….

          In other words, Kennan wasn’t exactly what the series suggested. He had disowned the way the U.S. government applied his containment idea to the entire Cold War, starting LONG before we got involved in Vietnam.

          Which puts his testimony in a very different light from what I heard last night. It’s not like he was a guy wedded to the policy who had a specific problem with Vietnam; he was a guy who disowned the whole policy.

          Maybe that was indicated at some point when I got up to get a glass of water or something. But if it wasn’t, the omission bothers me…

          Reply
          1. bud

            You and other thoughtful people keep talking about the “domino theory” as though it were some concrete thing — as though there were these giant black monoliths standing with white dots on them in Southeast Asia — and as though it were the whole thing. It wasn’t. It was just a metaphor for the containment of communism, of both the Stalinist and Maoist varieties.
            -Brad

            Huh? That is nothing more than rationalizing a position that is really indefensible. Of course it’s a metaphor. To suggest that the doves thought this was literally a bunch of giant playing pieces will certainly be the most ridiculous thing I hear today. But it’s a metaphor that was proven utterly incorrect. The idea was that Vietnam MUST be fought til the bitter end so that other countries do not fall to communism. Ultimately we decided not to continue fighting and guess what, other countries did not fall to the communists. In fact just the opposite occurred. We pulled out of Vietnam in 1973 and by 1989 countries were moving away from the communist block in droves. (Cambodia was an irrelevant side show and in fact was actually further proof of the incorrectness of the domino theory).

            Isn’t all of this obvious, proven and beyond reproach? And it proves my point that the neocons just won’t accept the truth. There is some strange barrier that blocks the obvious truth.

            This conversation does serve to provide clarity and strengthen hippie resolve. And it further demonstrates how we pragmatists must continue to fight for truth, justice and the American way even when neocons continue to peddle nonsense, inaccuracy and the imperialist way.

            Reply
            1. bud

              This is what got me started on a bit of a rant:

              One of the things I hope comes out of this series is that antiwar people (the ones who have won the argument in the national conversation) get past their pat conclusions and understand just how complex and difficult the situation was.
              -Brad

              See what you’re doing Brad. You expect those of us to acknowledge the virtue of your beliefs on this without doing even the tiniest, sliver of introspection on the matter. It’s really hard to even consider the other side under those circumstances.

              Reply
              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                “You expect those of us to acknowledge the virtue of your beliefs on this without doing even the tiniest, sliver of introspection on the matter.”

                Bud, I don’t see how you can say that. I really don’t.

                Why have I been typing all these words?

                I call your attention to the parenthetical: Y’all are “the ones who have won the argument in the national conversation.”

                All I can hope for here is a reduction in the smugness and absolutism exhibited by my antiwar friends.

                There’s a mistake I think you’re making here: You seem to think that I’m a guy who would go back in time and do it all over again.

                I’m not. I have the advantage of history. I can see the big picture, and see how the war weakened and divided the country. And I can see how inevitable that was.

                But I can also see how the people conducting policy at the time — including people really trying hard to do the right thing — would not have seen it.

                On the whole, I’m pleased with the series so far. I have a couple of overall observations to make about it:

                1. The series is unquestionably directed by two people, Burns and Novak, who went into it convinced of the wrongness of the war. You see this in the presentation of one person after another — including people who started out all gung-ho to fight until they were disillusioned — who in the end was against the war. BUT… these antiwar filmmakers are intelligent, thoughtful, fair-minded people, and they’re doing their best to present a well-rounded narrative that is fair to all views. That has value, and I’d really like it if the whole country could come away with such a relatively holistic, informed view, instead of carrying around caricatures in their heads.

                2. The medium itself makes it a little hard to achieve what I’m hoping for. One thing that militates against fully understanding how the war happened is that you’re getting EVERY antiwar point presented powerfully in a sort of concentrated form. One anecdote after another, one voice after another, builds to a tsunami of evidence that boggles the mind of the 2017 viewer, and makes him think, HOW could the war have continued in light of ALL THIS? Well, if you were living in the time, ALL THIS was not presented to you in concentrated form. Not all the media coverage was David Halberstam and Morley Safer. Most of it was very different (which the series mentions, but does not show.) Conclusions that look so evident on a show in which certain arguments are concentrated together were just points of view here and there on a broad landscape of stimuli that people experienced in their everyday lives.

                And there’s something that keeps being presented, but I think a lot of viewers are missing or misunderstanding.

                People look back and think, why didn’t LBJ just snap his fingers and stop the war (of course, the war would NOT stop when we left, but I’m just using the commonly used phrase)? Well, we keep hearing why: Pulling out of Vietnam was a politically unpopular option.

                Some of you have alluded to that, but in a condemnatory way: That LBJ kept us in the war JUST FOR POLITICAL REASONS! But in a democracy, don’t we sort of expect public officials to do the public will?

                As y’all know, I think real LEADERS should LEAD, not just follow the polls. But something I’ve learned about LBJ watching this is that to him, Vietnam was a dangerous distraction — something that couldn’t help him achieve what he wanted to, but that could prevent him from doing so. He wanted to pass the Civil Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid. He wanted to outdo his hero FDR in building a Great Society at home. With those things, he was willing to be bold — even to surrender the Solid South to the GOP. But he dreaded committing some misstep in Vietnam that would undermine his political capital and keep him from doing those things — or so I’ve gathered from watching this. And he seems to have thought the quickest way to get in trouble with regard to Vietnam was to back away from the fight.

                That’s painfully ironic, since his failure to change course ended up costing him ALL of his political capital….

                But I’m digressing now…

                Reply
                1. bud

                  There’s a mistake I think you’re making here: You seem to think that I’m a guy who would go back in time and do it all over again.

                  I’m not. I have the advantage of history. I can see the big picture, and see how the war weakened and divided the country. And I can see how inevitable that was.
                  -Brad

                  But you actually DID support doing it all over again with Iraq. You DID have the advantage of history to look at and inexplicably STILL supported something very similar conceptually. So I don’t have to speculate.

                  Look I don’t want to be smug but really how else can I communicate this other than to point out the my side was right on this and explain again why.

                2. Doug Ross

                  “Well, if you were living in the time, ALL THIS was not presented to you in concentrated form.”

                  And yet despite that lack of information, the nation was pretty much split on the war right away and opinion continued to move against it day by day. The ideological differences were there from day one.

                3. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Yep, on a changing arc. And it took a LOT longer than a lot of people remember for the antiwar position to become a mainstream one.

                  In the early 60s, the number of people opposed to the war was pretty negligible politically. You couldn’t really say the nation was divided then.

                  As the middle of the decade passed, the opposition numbers grew. This was in part due to the broadening of the draft in order to implement escalation. You had more and more people opposing the war on principle, but also (as the series pointed out) a lot of young guys simply not wanting to go.

                  By 1968, the issue had become poison for LBJ, within portions of the Democratic Party. Of course, that wasn’t his only problem. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act had turned Southern white Democrats (and remember, most Southern whites were still Democrats) against him. Black, Hispanic and Catholic Democrats were flocking to Bobby Kennedy. To McCarthy voters, of course, Vietnam was THE issue.

                  Opposition to the war had a huge profile in ’68. But I don’t think it was seen as anything like a majority opinion in the country — which is another reason why Nixon won the election (the first being the way the Democrats were fragmented into several factions).

                  Here’s something that startled me when I first read it several years later… I’m pretty sure it was in All the President’s Men, but it might have been another book that dealt with the run-up to the 1972 election. Anyway, there was an observation in passing that some Washington-based journalist who had been covering the anti-war movement had the sense that it was finally turning into a more mainstream position.

                  I wish I could find that and show it to you. Google Books isn’t helping. But I remember reading it, in the mid-70s because I was surprised that that realization was dawning as late as 1972…

                  Anyway, my point is that the evolution of the antiwar position into a mainstream one took a long time, possibly longer than I remembered even close to the events…

                4. Brad Warthen Post author

                  I would have read the book in 1974. But I was 20 then, and events that occurred when I was 18 seemed like ancient history.

                  I remember when I was high school senior in 1971, I wrote a term paper on Bobby Kennedy. When I was writing it, I felt like I was writing about events that had happened long, long ago. As though I was reading and writing about the Civil War or something. And yet some of the events were only three years old.

                  Young people have a distorted sense of time. Especially back then, when the culture changed so rapidly from year to year.

                  I remember going to see the film Shampoo in 1975 — which was set at the time of the 1968 election — and I was blown away by the old-timey cultural references. Did women actually wear skirts as short as Goldie Hawn’s (and could they please start doing so again)? And “Sgt. Pepper,” which could be heard playing at a party, had just come out the year before! It seemed like a forgotten world by the mid-70s…

            2. Doug Ross

              Didn’t I see Nixon in the first episode specifically walking through on tv the chain of countries that were destined to fall to the Communists if we didn’t “help”.

              And, on a side note, watching the old footage of Nixon, I am amazed that he got elected once, never mind twice. On camera, he came off as a grumpy old man… even in 1960 when he was only 47.

              Reply
              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                You’re too young to remember that that’s what adults were like back then. They were incredibly ancient. I look back and the pictures, see those people who still look SO old to me, and am shocked to realize how much younger they were than I am….

                Reply
  3. Keith

    Brad, I was taught long ago that, “nations don’t have friends, nations have interests….” there is quite a bit of truth there but that still doesn’t translate as America first. Great series and totally agree with you about the Chinese and the Russians though I guess both nations had a lot to gain in seeing the US commit (and lose) lots of resources and prestige in Vietnam. For the Russians, it kept us off balance in Europe and after losing hundreds of thousands in Korea, I think the Chinese weren’t willing to commit to the same degree as they had in Korea. I never fully understood how corrupt and utterly baseless the south Vietnamese government was. And how long we continued to pump treasure and blood into supporting a regime that didn’t have the support of its own citizens… clearly didn’t have the support of its own citizens. We were completely blinded by the domino theory it seems. A friend of mine, who is also watching the series said that the dominion theory seems so stupid now. But hindsight is twenty twenty I guess. Hopefully, this series will help all Americans better understand our history and American policy. I do see some parallels with current US policy in Afghanistan. I served in Afghanistan and while I understand and agree with why we went to Afghanistan, I’m not sure I understand our continued commitment in terms of treasure and lives. I’ve always felt that Westmoreland gets too much of the blame for our “loss” in Vietnam. And shifting gears a bit…And in fact, I think the legislature should do something to honor him. We honor others in the Statehouse including non South Carolinians. Could we not put his portrait in the statehouse? Hopefully this series will help our nation heal and reconcile.

    Reply
    1. bud

      Keith I was with you until you suggested a portrait for Westmoreland. Without regard to the merits seems to me this is a fight that’s just not worth fighting, by either side. It would result in a never ending brouhaha.

      Reply
  4. bud

    Johnson campaigned in 1964 as the peace candidate and he won in a huge landslide. Remember the daisy ad? To suggest the peace position was negligible in the early 60s is patently absurd. The voters were always against that war. It was Johnson who went back on his peace proclaimations. Dare I say he lied us into war.

    Reply
  5. Phillip

    Regarding Brad’s comment about antiwar sentiment being a minority for awhile, one can see a rundown of Gallup polls from mid-1965 to 1973 showing response to the question “In view of the developments since we entered the fighting in Vietnam, do you think the U.S. made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam?” (scroll down a bit on the link to find that chart).

    True, it’s not exactly the same question as “Should we currently be fighting in Vietnam?” but still a pretty good reflection of national opinion. Brad is right that in the early 60s and right up until mid-60s majority opinion still favored our involvement. Things seem to dramatically change in the latter half of 1967.

    Brad also cites Nixon’s victory in ’68 as some kind of proof that the pro-war side was still the majority. However, remember that HHH had pretty much toed the LBJ line publicly on the war with only modest modifications until very late in that campaign. He was way behind in the polls until he fully broke with Johnson and articulated a stronger end-the-war position…from that point on he closed the gap and lost by the tiniest of margins, in the popular vote. And, as Brad points out, there were more issues at stake in ’68 than just Vietnam.

    Brad’s also right that not all the press was Halberstam and Morley Safer. That’s also why it took awhile for the US majority to wake up to the reality of the war, people were not getting the whole story, only gradually learning what many on the inside knew—that we were never going to be able, as a foreign element, to extinguish the patriotism of the Vietnamese who would be willing to fight for 1000 years against foreign troops on their soil, just as we would do were the roles reversed.

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Nor should we ignore the patriotism of the Vietnamese who did not want to be ruled by an oppressive Stalinist/Maoist state.

      Nationalism cut a lot of ways. There was a time when Ho Chi Minh’s nationalism could have taken a different course, more in line with our own.

      Being a nationalist does not equal being a communist. In fact, they are quite at odds ideologically. Consequently, there were nationalists in the South who distrusted Ho for being aligned with the folks who sang The Internationale, and there were Marxists who distrusted him for his nationalism….

      Reply
      1. Phillip

        “They [nationalism vs. communism] are quite at odds ideologically.”

        In the purest theoretical form of communism as espoused by Marx, perhaps, as ultimately the class struggle of the working class across borders trumps interests of nation-states per se.

        But in the real world, nationalism in the narrow sense of anti-colonialism, of seeking the right of self-determination free of foreign occupation, is not necessarily connected OR disconnected from the question of what economic system a country will operate under. Those are two entirely separate questions. Look at Cuba.

        Reply
  6. bud

    As usual Phillip makes good points. But even the smallest number on the chart is 24% with another 15% undecided. As Brad likes to point out words have meaning. And so do numbers; 24% is not “negligible”. Besides, Johnson was elected less than a year before this poll was taken so he was still in a honeymoon state. Troop levels were still fairly low. Voters were willing to cut him some slack. Even so 39% of the American people were less than enthusiastic about our involvement

    Reply
  7. Doug Ross

    Just getting into Episode 2 but even then it mentions that “the administration did its best to hide the scale of the buildup that was taking place on the other side of the world, fearful that the public would not support the more active role advisors had begun to play in combat”. And then they cut to Kennedy in a press conference playing word games with the truth when asked specifically about that situation. Again, are we supposed to praise Kennedy for saying one thing and doing another? And do we hold a President in high esteem for ordering the use of Agent Orange and napalm on human beings?

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Just to be clear…

      There was nothing new about napalm. It had been used extensively in World War II. That doesn’t make it good. It doesn’t make it a less terrible weapon. I just always hear napalm brought up as though it were developed specifically to use in Vietnam, as though American policymakers said, “Let’s come up with something really awful that will burn up these little brown people in Vietnam, because we hate them so.” No, it was a tool of war, like gunpowder or automatic rifles.

      Yes, I know you didn’t say this was new or specific to Vietnam; I’m saying this because this is always how the conversation goes: Someone says “Vietnam,” and a minute does not pass without someone saying “napalm.” They are inextricably tied in the public imagination.

      I bring this up because too often, we argue against our involvement in Vietnam in terms that have little to do with Vietnam or our policies there. We speak of terrible things that are general to war. For instance, in last night’s episode we heard about how American racism was at work because we called the enemy “gooks” and “slopes” and “dinks.”

      There is NOTHING special about that. That is a very, very common thing that happens in war — the enemy is dehumanized. A special vocabulary is developed, usually at the grunt level, for speaking of the enemy in ways that help the soldier think of him as something other than another human being like himself. It’s one of the ways soldiers overcome the deep-seated aversion to killing.

      There was a very powerful evocation of that in last night’s episode. Marine John Musgrave said he was really torn up about the first man he killed. After that, and after he’d seen what some of the enemy had done to his buddies, he made a sort of deal with the devil: He would not kill another human being while he was there. But he would kill every “dink,” “slope” or “gook” he could.

      And then he said something important, which I wish I had exact wording on, but it went something like this: This is how we get young men to fight our wars — by getting them to think that way.

      He did NOT say (unless I’m remembering it wrong), “This is how we got young men to fight in Vietnam,” because it wasn’t about Vietnam. It was about war.

      What’s my point? This: If you want to argue against war, all war, go ahead. That’s an honorable, respectable position to take, one with a long history.

      But if you’re not a pacifist and you want to talk about a specific war and whether we should have been involved in it, use arguments specific to that situation. Don’t talk about napalm and calling the enemy names. Talk about Vietnam….

      Reply
      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Oops, I forgot the second point I wanted to make…

        No one, not a president or anyone else, ordered “the use of Agent Orange… on human beings.”

        It was a defoliant. It was used to strip away the foliage that hid the enemy, so that the enemy could be killed by OTHER means — and also so that the enemy couldn’t hide in it and kill YOU.

        I’m not minimizing the harm done to humans by Agent Orange. My Dad has health problems that the military attributes to his massive exposure to Agent Orange. As he tells it, there may have been no other part of Vietnam where it was used more extensively than in the Rung Sat Special Zone where he operated, in the mangrove swamps south of Saigon.

        The human toll was terrible, on Vietnamese people as well as on our own people. But that was not the intent, any more than DDT or thalidomide were intended to harm humans in this country.

        At this point, I’m probably really irritating both Doug and Bud, who HATE my emphasis on the WORDS we use to express ourselves.

        But the fact is that the biggest barrier to my having a meeting of the minds with war opponents is the WAY they talk about the war and the people responsible for it. They are so very careless in flinging blame and damnation all around, and it offends me no end, and drives a wedge between us that prevents agreement and consensus on things we should be able to agree on.

        That’s why I spend so many words myself on phrases such as “ordering the use of Agent Orange and napalm on human beings.” Because the wrong words get in the way…

        Reply
        1. Doug Ross

          That’s a great spin on using chemical defoliants and napalm. It helps a whole lot to pretend there weren’t any human beings on the receiving end. Many of them innocent women and children.

          But we can just shrug it off and say “War is hell” and we’re done. We pacifists just have to accept that. The ends justify the means.

          Reply
          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Wow. What you just said has NOTHING to do with what I said.

            Why do I try so hard? Why do I type all those words? Why do I try to make my points understood, if you’re just going to come back at me saying I said things I most assuredly did NOT say?…

            Reply
            1. bud

              Brad your logic is total crap here. IF you are going to fight a war you damn sure better have a good reason. Because war IS hell. And it better be for legitimate security interests NOT dumb ass nonsense like keeping the dominos from falling. Because the cost of war is so high it becomes a bludgeon against these imperialist endeavors. And let’s be crystal clear on this point. Vietnam was an imperialist adventure. The dominos crap pretty much says it all. We were under no threat. None. By logical extension this become imperialism and the napalm/agent orange/cluster bombs/Mi Lia etc become a form of war crimes. So no you don’t get to dismiss that stuff with some bland brush off about war being terrible. Vietnam was a soulless misadventure that should never be repeated. Sadly we have done so with Iraq. Why is this lesson so hard to learn?

              Reply
      2. Bryan Caskey

        “And then he said something important, which I wish I had exact wording on:”

        Musgrave said: “Turn the subject into an object. It’s Racism 101. And it turns out to be a very necessary tool when you have children fighting your wars, for them to stay sane doing their work.”

        Reply
      3. Phillip

        Maybe—but I think there’s pretty good evidence that the “dehumanization” you speak of in WWII was far more concentrated against the Japanese than the Germans. Sure, there was talk of “Krauts” and much lampooning of (the easily-lampoonable) Hitler, but far more cartoons of the near-sighted and buck-toothed “Japs,” not to mention the internment camps. There are cultural/historical “reasons” for this, of course, seeing as how (for example) so many major American cities at that time had a strong component of Germanic heritage to them (think Rust Belt). But I do think there are differences at times with the racial component to warfare, and no question in my mind that multiple racisms were at work in Vietnam—the one at ground level in battle, and the larger one in which (as mentioned in another thread) non-white peoples were still at that time (and even today) viewed as not having agency to determine their own fate or to have their fate even matter, except insofar as they were pawns in geopolitical jockeying among the superpowers.

        Reply
        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Yes, race was a factor with the Japanese. But as you say, not the only factor causing the animus toward them to have a different flavor. Aside from the fact that so many Americans were of German descent, there’s also the fact that Japan was the one that attacked us….

          Reply
          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Speaking of race… I remember long, long ago — like, when I was in high school — finding an old TIME or LIFE magazine from right after Pearl Harbor. It included a graphic headlined something like “Know your enemy,” to help Americans see physiological and other differences between our new enemies the Japanese and our allies, the Chinese.

            I guess someone thought it was a good idea to try to educate the public that not all people with Asian features were the enemy….

            Reply
  8. bud

    Let’s step back a minute and look at Vietnam in phases. Phase 1 starts from roughly the time the French left until the time of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. This is Brad’s complex era when a reasonable case could be made that we needed to help the South Vietnamese stay out of Communist control. Korea showed this as a plausible strategy. (I would have opposed those arguments but at least they had a tiny bit of credibility)

    Phase 2 started the era of perpetual lying. Phony naval attacks. An endless tunnel that had light at the end. Body counts. Unwarranted optimism. Etc. This was the low point for the American presidency, until W.

    Phase 3 laid all the Phase 2 lies bare with the Tet offensive. At that point any supporter of the war was delusional. We needed to simply find some face saving way out rather than continue fueling the carnage. Vietnam was was no longer complex. It was actually very simple, the American people had been deceived. Nixon had a good opportunity to do the right thing but instead he comes out with this secret plan bologna. And many more people died before their time. Perhaps rather than Iraq Afghanistan is the current version of phase 3 Vietnam. Trump is playing Nixon. Will history repeat? Time will tell.

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  9. Doug Ross

    Finished episode 3 last night. Not much else to say other than LBJ was a disgrace and McNamara was a delusional wonk. They were nothing but liars. No excuses can be made for their behavior that cost American and Vietnamese lives.

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “They were nothing but liars. NOTHING but. Nothing.

      I suggest you go back and review President Johnson’s domestic policy achievements. The man got more done in his five years in office than all the other presidents since FDR put together.

      Nothing but, huh?…

      Reply

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