Posted: July 10, 2014
A review of Vietnam: A History, by Stanley Karnow
ith little exaggeration it can be said that public attitudes about the Vietnam War have been characterized until recently by two viewpoints. The first, held by the majority of the American people, can be called the "amnesiac" view: the overwhelming desire to forget all that happened during the Vietnam era. The second view, popular with a small but influential minority, might be termed the "demonological" view: the belief that the Vietnam enterprise was unconditionally evil and that it only served to illuminate the depths of American depravity and ruthlessness.
Until about three years ago, most of the literature concerning the war was produced by those holding the demonological view. Then about 1980 there began to appear what Fox Butterfield called the "New Vietnam Scholarship": books that purported to show that the U.S. had made mistakes in its decision to fight in Southeast Asia, and in its conduct of the war, but that the U.S. undertook the war with the best of intentions and conducted it with a high degree of restraint.
The new scholarship commenced a rout of the demonologists and caused general reconsideration of deeply held opinions on the war. But the demonologists had another card to play. For some time it had been known that a Public Broadcasting Station in Boston was planning a multi-part series on the war. Remembering the effect that television had had on public opinion during the war, many defenders of the war effort feared that this media enterprise might be the demonologists' last gasp and that biased editing of provocative film footage could undo all the good that the New Vietnam Scholarship had accomplished.
The series was launched to much fanfare in the fall of 1983 in conjunction with the publication of Stanley Karnow's massive Vietnam: A History. While most of the media demonologists, such as Anthony Lewis and Mary McGrory, effusively praised the series and the book, by and large both series and book are remarkably free of demonology. Unfortunately, both the book and series are still seriously flawed, which means that the definitive history of America's Vietnam has yet to be written.
It is necessary at the outset to make an important distinction between the PBS series and Karnow's book. The book is far superior to the series, and the series itself is uneven; many episodes were better and more objective than others. The differences arise from the sensationalism inherent in television and those responsible for various segments of the PBS series.
The series, conceived by Karnow and Richard Ellison, was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and produced by Station WGBH in Boston. Karnow's book was intended to provide the comprehensive view of the war that the television series could not. Unfortunately, for the program's balance, financial difficulties forced Karnow and Ellison to allocate nearly half of the episodes to European producers: Antenna 2 in France and the British Central Independent Television system. While the episodes produced by the Americans at least attempted to achieve a certain degree of fairmindedness, the European-produced segments were notably pro-Communist and anti-American. They portrayed the North Vietnamese as imperturbably heroic, in the face of overwhelming French and American powers, while the Westerners are shown as barbaric, heedless at best of the carnage they are inflicting on the Vietnamese peasants.
But even the American-produced episodes suffered from severe shortcomings which can be attributed not only to the outlook of Karnow and Ellison but to the medium of television. Its visual images can shock and overwhelm the viewer, even with an accompanying explanation. It is easier to remember the images of carnage and despair-the sight of an American or South Vietnamese killing an enemy-than it is to remember the reason; given for a particular action. Let us consider just two well-known instances.
When we see the infamous sequence of a little Vietnamese girl, burned by napalm as she runs down a road, revulsion seizes us. It seems that brutal Americans are attacking a helpless population, including women and children. But in fact, a South Vietnamese aircraft had mistakenly dropped ordnance on South Vietnamese troops, many of whom had their families with them. A terrible accident had occurred. The episode was not, as the image seems to convey, an American attack on helpless civilians.
Or consider the most vivid image of all: the Saigon police chief summarily executing a Viet Cong prisoner in the early hours of the 1968 Tet offensive. Television does not tell us how the police chief had lost many men to terrorists during the morning, including one who was killed with his wife and children. It does not tell us that this terrorist had sneered at him, "Now you must treat me as a prisoner of war."
Interestingly, even the best of the PBS episodes do nothing to contradict the claim that television contributed to the American defeat in the Vietnam War. Once again, as the examples cited above show, it is the image that counts. Even showing them again, as a part of a systematic history, does not alter their impact. But the misleading impressions left by these and other images contributed to a decline in public support for the war effort, and hence to our defeat in Vietnam.
"Carnage and Despair"
Thus, even at its best the series is fundamentally defective. It is the American decision or action that is always "associated with the screen's images of carnage and despair," in the words of Doan Van Toai and David Chanoff. Even the interviews with Pham Van Dong, Vo Nguyen Giap, and other North Vietnamese and southern guerrillas do not give us any insight concerning the intentions and objectives of the Vietnamese Communists. One wonders why the editors did not include interviews with high-ranking Northerners and Viet Cong who now live outside Vietnam, having fled as persecuted boat people or having become disenchanted with the regime established in April 1975.
In short, we can say that the PBS series, despite its worst episodes and the shortcomings intrinsic to the medium, has at least on the surface exorcised the demon of American evil regarding Vietnam. But it still ultimately fails as both history and journalism. The reason for its failure lies with the political assumptions of the project's originators. Here we must return to Karnow's Vietnam, Karnow's great error is that he insists on seeing the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong as primarily "nationalists," not Communists. While he has done a service in treating the Vietnam War as part of the 2,000-year historical struggle of the Vietnamese against foreigners, he does not pay enough attention to the qualitative differences between the traditional Vietnamese nationalism and that of the Stalinist Ho Chi Minh.
Perhaps this was never possible for Karnow. After all, he began his journalistic career as a correspondent and writer for the leftist National Guardian in the late 1940s. His writings in that period were strongly anti-anti-Communist and pro-Marxist. In 1949 he was parroting Soviet attacks on the Marshall Plan and on the "Socialist marionettes" in France whose strings were being worked by American interests. In April of that year he explained how the Marshall Plan enabled the French to torture nationalist Vietnamese peasants, and in August how it allowed Frenchmen to murder 80,000 civilians in a "Madagascar bloodbath."
Although Vietnam clearly indicates a change of viewpoint from his Guardian work, one cannot help but be struck by the fact that his view of Vietnamese nationalism seems to have changed very little over twenty-five years. While Karnow now admits that the Communists were often repressive, brutal, and dogmatic, he still uncritically accepts the view that they remain primarily nationalists, but nationalist with a revolutionary vision for an agrarian society.
And this is the point missed by many of those who have praised Karnow's book but should have known better. While Karnow has forgone the Marxist rhetoric that characterized his youthful scribblings on behalf of "anti-imperialism," he still holds fast to the Marxist view of history. For Karnow, there was no way the U.S. could have won. We were simply on the wrong side of history; the progressive forces could not help but overwhelm us.
Thus Karnow has written a book which, on its surface, is moderate. But his thesis is the same as that of the demonologists: U.S. foreign policy is doomed unless it accepts the legitimacy of the "revolutionary paradigm." He does not tell us that the revolutionary paradigm seeks to destroy the republican paradigm, the most successful example of which is the United States. While nationalists per se do not see the U.S. system as their enemy (although they may on occasion see the U.S. as their particular enemy), Communist revolutionaries do. If the Vietnamese Communists were primarily nationalist, they would not have eliminated all independent nationalists. They would not have conducted the massive repression at home that they have, or engaged in military aggression against Cambodia. And they would not speak of their "internationalist duty" to aid Communist guerrillas elsewhere in the world, including Central America.
Those sick of the demonologists who have dominated the discussion of Vietnam over the last fifteen years are grateful to Karnow for his moderation. But their gratitude should not cloud their judgment: At its heart, Karnow's argument is that of the demonologists. Insofar as our foreign policy-makers are guided in the future by Karnow's view of our involvement in Vietnam, they will only craft a foreign policy that will be defeated before it is even implemented.