Can’t we have an honest conversation about Vietnam?

The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick television series on the Vietnam War provides yet another example of the narrowness of “acceptable” political discourse in the United States. More than four decades past the end of that imperialist adventure, having a serious discussion about it remains taboo.

The series also provides a fresh example of how the narrowness of acceptable discourse is disguised through the appearance of a vigorous debate. I will confess here I have not watched Burns and Novick’s The Vietnam War, but the consistency of the many discussions of it I have read confirm what would have been expected: The liberal side of the “debate” on the Vietnam War, that an “honorable” effort was tragically miscarried because of “mistakes.”

The series has a long list of corporate sponsors, typical for a Public Broadcasting System production. One of the Koch Brothers, David H. Koch, provided funding, as did the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Bank of America. Such blue-chip sponsors are not going to associate themselves with any organization that has the slightest potential of providing any challenging critique.

Rice paddies in Vietnam (photo by Simon Gurney)

But let us not reverse cart and horse. This is the sort of case where corporate sponsors, including fiercely anti-democratic ones like the Koch Brothers, provide funding because they are confident of what they will be getting. There is no need for any formal censorship because corporate control of the media will see to it that viewpoints challenging the mythologies of capitalism are deemed out of bounds.

Most large, influential broadcast stations and print publications are owned by large corporations, and a typical small-city newspaper is owned by a prominent local businessperson if it is not owned by a large corporation. Powerful corporate interests appoint the top editors and managers of their media properties — these mass media decision-makers are men and women who already see the world through the prism of dominant ideologies, and those ideologies will be reflected in the way that news stories are covered. Those ideologies are also reflected in indirect ways — pressure to increase readership or viewership easily leads to pandering to perceived (and sometimes manufactured) consumer interests such as wall-to-wall coverage of celebrity gossip and exhaustive coverage of sports teams simultaneous with the shrinking of news sections.

The press isn’t free if you don’t own one

Many folks on the Left have the idea that there is some sort of organized conspiracy among owners and managers of major media outlets to make sure that ideologically inconvenient perspectives are shut out. That simply isn’t so. Competition alone would prevent any such collusion; within “acceptable parameters” reporters and editors want to be the first to report news. It is enough that corporate-inspired ideologies pervade a society and that corporate ownership ensures that decision-making positions are filled with those who hold to some variant of prevailing ideologies or are inclined to “play it safe” by cautiously remaining within “acceptable” boundaries.

The mass media will then simply reflect these dominant ideologies, and continual repetition through multiple mass media outlets reinforces the ideologies, making them more pervasive until the emergence of a significant countervailing pressure. The very competitive nature of mass media ownership helps dominant ideologies prevail — if so many different outlets report the same news item in a nearly identical way, that “spin” can easily gain wide acceptance. Or if stories are reported differently by competing media outlets, but with the same dominant set of presumptions underlying them, those dominant presumptions, products of ideologies widely propagated by elite institutions, similarly serve as ideological reinforcement.

Editors can reign in reporters with independent mindsets by not running unacceptable stories, or revising them so that dominate ideologies and mythologies are not challenged. When a reporter is fearless enough to follow the trail until some semblance of the truth can be published, even if in watered-down fashion, an exemplary punishment can be made of him or her (such as was done to Gary Webb after his reporting on the CIA). But even when that is not the case, a simple ignoring of a story can make it disappear.

The persistence with which stories are reported is another reinforcement — stories that serve, or can be manipulated, to uphold dominant ideologies can be covered for long periods of time with small developments creating opportunities to create fresh reports at the same time that stories that are ideologically inconvenient are reported briefly, often without context, then quickly dropped. An inconvenient story run once, then ignored, can even misleadingly be pointed to as “proof” that news is being reported no matter what interests are at stake.

One well-documented example will provide an illustration — coverage by elite media of Jerzy Popieluszko, a pro-Solidarity priest in Poland murdered in 1984 by Polish secret policemen in contrast to coverage of priests and other church personnel murdered in U.S.-backed Latin American dictatorships.

Human rights depends on if the U.S. supports the régime

In their classic book, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman analyzed four U.S. media outlets that then often set the tone for the press — the most influential newspaper (The New York Times), the two main news magazines (Time and Newsweek) and the most authoritative television news broadcaster (CBS). Their study found 140 articles/broadcasts on Popieluszko and eleven articles/broadcasts on 23 victims in Guatemala during a period that overlapped with Popieluszko’s murder; the Times ran ten front-page articles on Popieluszko, none on the others.

The articles on Popieluszko routinely featured graphic descriptions of the details of his murder and consistently tied his murder to Polish communist authorities despite the fact that the murderers were swiftly arrested and found guilty in an open trial. By contrast, only four of the 23 Guatemalan victims had their names mentioned in any news account, little detail was offered for any of these murders, no remark was made concerning the fact that no arrests were made in any of these cases, nor was U.S. material support of the Guatemalan government that was behind the murders once mentioned.

None of the prevailing situation precludes energetic debate in capitalist mass media within the parameters set by prevailing ideological interpretations. Ideas that directly challenge corporate orthodoxy can be excluded at the same time that a debate among two or more “acceptable” ideas rages. This brings us back to interpretations of the Vietnam War. At the end of the 1990s a strong debate played out in the mass media outlets of the United States concerning the Vietnam War (one in which the Times was a significant participant).

A U.S. Air Force plane drops a white phosphorus bomb on Vietnam in 1966.

This debate had all the appearances of a serious dissection of a bloody, deeply divisive blot on U.S. history. But although the debate was heated and lively, it was only between two “acceptable” viewpoints — an honorable effort that tragically failed or a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. Left out were the widely held views that the war should never have been fought because it was a war to extend U.S. hegemony or that the U.S. simply had no business fighting in someone else’s civil war.

Further, the first “acceptable” viewpoint implied, and the second explicitly stated, that the U.S. didn’t really fight hard to win the war, ignoring the actual intensive level of the U.S. war effort in which most of North Vietnam’s larger cities were reduced to rubble, much of the farming lands were destroyed and three million Vietnamese were killed. The total tonnage of bombs dropped by the U.S. in Vietnam exceeded that of all bombing by all countries during World War II. Reports of the countryside at the end of the war spoke of entire regions as “bare, gray and lifeless.”

So much for the proverbial “fighting with one hand tied behind the back.” And let’s not forget that the Vietnamese had already spent years freeing themselves from the grip of France, only to have the U.S. sabotage elections and resume the fight. That the Vietnamese have the right to decide for themselves how their economy will be structured, or even be allowed independent development at all, and that the U.S. used the full might of the world’s biggest military machine to prevent that, is still outside “acceptable” discussion.

Debate in the service of obfuscation

The liberal conception of an honorable effort that tragically failed is every bit an obfuscation as the conservative perspective that a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. But that these two narrow perspective were allowed to fight it out provided the appearance of a free and open media at the same time that the media obscured.

To return briefly to Guatemala, there has only rarely been any effort in the U.S. to discuss Washington’s bloody role (and elsewhere in Latin America). The Eisenhower administration overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government, after a 1952 “national intelligence estimate” (a joint document put together by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies) declared that the United Fruit Company’s massive profits there were a “U.S. interest” requiring intervention.

Allen Dulles, then the CIA director, met with a United Fruit official, promising that whomever the CIA would select as the next Guatemalan leader would not touch the company. The overthrow would institute a 40-year nightmare of state-organized mass murder. A series of military leaders, each more brutal than the last and fortified with U.S. aid, unleashed a reign of terror that ultimately cost 200,000 lives, 93 percent of whom were murdered by the state through its army and its death squads.

The worst of these dictators was General Efraín Ríos Montt, whose régime murdered more than 1,000 people a month during 1982. Ríos Montt was an evangelical Protestant preacher who declared that his presidency was the will of God. Ronald Reagan responded by paying a visit to Ríos Montt, declaring him “totally dedicated to democracy” and claiming that reports of human rights abuses were a “bum rap.”

Do you ever see of this (only one of dozens of examples that could be cited) discussed in the U.S. corporate media? I don’t, either.

In countries in which the media is controlled by the government, it is easy for people to disregard what they read or hear because it is all coming from the same source, even when there is room for different opinions. A system in which the mass media is believed to be independent is far more effective at suffusing a society with an ideology. Such a system is not the result of some sort of conspiracy or a conscious plan, it is simply a natural outgrowth of corporate institutions growing so powerful at the expense of all other institutions.

And when a particularly skilled team of producers is able to uphold the interests of elite institutions, corporate and otherwise, the red carpet will be rolled out. Slick, beautifully presented work beats ham-fisted propaganda every time.

25 comments on “Can’t we have an honest conversation about Vietnam?

  1. A quick note for readers: I’m pleased to announce that I have begun work on a new book, about workers’ control and other forms of economic democracy, including coops. I’ll continue to write the Systemic Disorder blog, but I will likely be doing so less frequently during the next couple of years.

    I hope to resume writing more frequently when the book is done. But fear not, I will not be going away, just dropping in your inbox less often for now. Thank you all for reading through the years, and please keep your comments coming. The interactions with readers is one of the best parts of writing the blog, as I am trying to learn just as all the rest of you are.

    • Deborah Andrew says:

      Systemic Disorder is one of the very, very few sources I rely on for excellent analysis of all the facts, not a select few. Thank you for exposing Ken Burns’ selective telling of the ‘story’ about the U.S. invasion and destruction of Vietnam. Revealing his sponsors tells it all. I hope that there will be some op eds revealing this and other fallacies of his film – not only in major newspapers, but in those closer to his home base. There is, for me, something especially egregious when anyone uses their advantage to further obfuscate the truth and thus continue to bolster the myths about our country that are taught in our schools, colleges, universities and supported by the media that ‘informs’ the uninformed majority.

  2. blossomfire says:

    thanks for this reflection. i heard the interview with ken burns and lynn novick today on the radio and was disgusted. i have not seen it either, though time permitting, i hope to watch it (online) and to perhaps take notes, especially on the archival footage, which in itself might be worth the viewing. i recently saw (at revolution books) the film “atomic cafe” which similarly totally distorted history, justifying and claiming the U.S.’s god given right to use this horribly distructive weapon. do people have to suffer themselves the ravages of wars to understand the magnitude of the terrors they unleash?

    thank goodness for the growing rise of awakened people (like you) who tear apart the lies, masks and deceit of a system the foundation of which is based on violence to our sister and brother animals, oppression and exploitation of all working people and the super exploitation of women, people of color, immigrants, non native born, lgbtqia, etc. truth is more powerful than a lie and unity is our strength. together we can bring about a system of sharing communally the abundance that must belong to ALL of us. thanks again.

  3. greenpete58 says:

    “(T)he consistency of the many discussions of it I have read confirm what would have been expected” might enable you to construct an op-ed, but it’s a poor way to frame an argument.

    Early on, I had misgivings about the Burns-Novick series. David H. Koch? Bank of America? What conditions will they lay down? I was also concerned about the lengths Burns would go to “rectify” America’s supposed ill treatment of its returning soldiers. To be sure, this series isn’t perfect, and I have criticisms. But in the overall scheme, those criticisms are minor. As soon as I’m ready to say “Oh jeez, here we go,” in the next frame my jaw is dropping. The taped conversations about the war in the LBJ and Nixon White Houses are alone worth the price of admission. With our polarized ideologies, the Vietnam War is almost as heated a topic now as it was then, and Burns-Novick aren’t going to change that. Liberals and conservatives will both take their potshots. But the series is a valuable learning experience, loaded with revelations, and it provokes every kind of emotion imaginable. Truth is elusive. The important thing is to strive for it. And I feel there’s some very good striving in this documentary. Before you imply that it’s dishonest (“Can’t we have an honest conversation…?”), you should watch it.

    • You are suggesting that Burns and Novick do what they do very well? No revelation there, of course they do. That’s the point — they are not crude propagandists, far from it. But, as always, it is necessary to examine the context of a work.

      “Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have created a film that rehashes some old, tired tropes. In doing so, they distort what soldiers, veterans, and antiwar activists alike know about the war and its aftermath, especially inside the United States. … Burns and Novick offer false equivalences, or “balance” in journalistic parlance. In promoting healing instead of the search for truth, The Vietnam War offers misleading comforts.” — “Burns and Novick, Masters of False Balancing,” Public Books

      The series “substitutes vignettes for ideas, personal anecdotes for larger structural factors, bathos for analysis. And it ends up providing a misguided view of the war, one that has politically conservative consequences (ironic because Burns himself is openly liberal) by shifting attention away from the historical, material reasons for American intervention. … Instead of an exposé of aggressive militarism, they give us sentimental stories of survival and perseverance.” — Burns’s War Stories Fog The Truth, Popular Resistance

      “The narrator says the war ‘was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War misunderstandings.’ The dishonesty of this statement is not surprising. The cynical fabrication of ‘false flags’ that led to the invasion of Vietnam is a matter of record – the Gulf of Tonkin ‘incident’ in 1964, which Burns promotes as true, was just one.” — “The Killing of History,” John Pilger

      “The opening scenes and the program as a whole showed that the U.S. has not come very far, in terms of learning from its mistakes.” — Veterans For Peace

      “Without the concepts of class struggle and imperialism, Burns and Novick will not be able to get at the roots of the political divide over Vietnam. Undoubtedly many thoughtful points will be raised but, whatever those points are, they will likely be couched in the overarching liberal narrative of a tragedy of human conflict in a world of hubris and national allegiances – a narrative that necessarily obscures the realities of the Vietnam War.” — “Ideology as History,” Chuck O’Connell, CounterPunch

      ” ‘The Vietnam War’ provides lots of great vintage film footage, stunning photos, a solid Age of Aquarius soundtrack, and plenty of striking soundbites. Maybe this is what Burns means by triangulation. The series seems expertly crafted to appeal to the widest possible American audience. But as far as telling us ‘what happened,’ I don’t see much evidence of that. — Nick Turse, “The Ken Burns Documentary Glosses Over Devastating Civilian Toll,” The Intercept

    • David Macaray says:

      Nice comment. Couldn’t agree more.

  4. I agree with Noam Chomsky here – despite their apparent military defeat, the US succeeded in totally destroying the economies of 3 southeast Asian nations (Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma) – which was their original intent.

  5. David Macaray says:

    Greenpete58 is correct. I watched the entire series with my remote at the ready, having vowed to turn it off the instant I sensed any sugar-coating, excuse-making, or “revisionist” history. But like Greenpete58, my jaw dropped at the way much of this was presented.

    I almost always agree with your positions, Pete. You are a lucid and compelling writer. But the fact that you would submit so lengthy a piece WITHOUT having watched the very show you were “critiquing” was not only reckless, it was disappointing. You really need to watch this series. And THEN write about it.

    • Greetings, David. I responded to Greenpete58 with several critiques by people who have watched the series, by no means the only such commentaries I have read. That the series is beautifully produced (of which I have no doubt, having watched some of Burns’ earlier work) shouldn’t mask the content.

  6. Rob Anderson says:

    Systemic Disorder:
    Your comments on the Burns/Novick series are useless, since you admit you haven’t even seen the series. And who are you? Why not put your name on your blog?

    • Awww, can’t handle criticism of U.S. foreign policy? Sorry, this isn’t Fox News. As to my knowledge of said show, I refer you to my reply to greenpete58 above. And, incidentally, the post’s point was about the general tenor of discussion of the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy, not specifically the Burns/Novick series.

      As to who I am, you could have read the “About” page.

      • I can handle it, since I’m a liberal Democrat and resisted the US attack on Vietnam. Your by-the-numbers criticism of US policy is prefaced by several paragraphs about the Burns/Novick series, which is central to the present “tenor” of the discussion about Vietnam, after which you launch your know-it-all riff that includes the obligatory reference to Noam Chomsky.

        • You assert that critiquing U.S. foreign policy constitutes a “know it all riff” and snidely imply that Noam Chomsky is not credible. It is always sad when someone slides rightward over the years. May you find your way back some day.

  7. tubularsock says:

    Tubularsock is to this day so angry about our country’s mass murder of the people of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia that Ken Burns with all his musical scores and all the photographic pans ins and outs can’t alter that gut feeling that Tubularsock carries.

    And all those foundations that supported this bull shit effort of explaining the “good faith by decent people” and the lie that was the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” should just be carpet bombed in mass! But only in good faith!

    But even more maddening is THAT WE ARE STILL FUCKING DOING IT TO THE WORLD TO THIS DAY! Explain that to Tubularsock, Kenny-boy!

    The reason people fall for this propaganda shit is the use of emotional, “real people views” which gives an impression of “caring”. WE AS A PEOPLE DON’T CARE! Or we would collectively STOP IT.

    No the best we can do is push the blame for mass murder onto “not understanding the complexity” of the action! Horse-Shit!

    And now we Americans can all collectively settle back feeling all so much better about ourselves and buy a new fucking iPhone and tweet President-Orange-Tweet about his bombing of Puerto Rico!

  8. Thank you for this. When I was growing up and making sense of the world there was on one side the Washington establishment promoting the American world order and on the other side there was Noam Chomsky by himself.

    The American world order had a lot to be said for it. There was growing prosperity and personal liberty in western countries, some level of rule of law, and decent institutions and governance. Problems like continual unrest, poverty, and corruption appeared to affect places that were unlike the US, in Latin America or Africa. To be sure, in Europe there was a lot of sympathy for communism, but that could be dismissed as naive idealism and the Eastern Block had obvious authoritarian problems. It was easy to believe the Washinton world view as the only one with credibility. Either that or be a wide-eyed idealist.

    Against all this, it was Chomsky who painted a consistent picture of what US “interests” were really like in the world. They were and still are mainly racketeering interests. Protect this company who exploit that resource, secure friendly terms with a regime, back a ruthless ruler who will do the dirty work of crushing local opposition. Chomsky revealed this picture point by point with evidence, showing a world ruled by cynical and occasionally racist US interests, until that world view became more credible than the image that Washington was painting for itself. Chomsky single-handedly unmasked the American knight as the gangster that he was.

    On Vietnam he had this to say (I paraphrase from memory): The Vietnam war is presented to the American public as a failure, which was arguably too costly or avoidable or somewhere in-between. In fact, the war was a great success. The purpose of the US intervention was to prevent successful development based on communism and to teach other countries a lesson. It did that by punishing the Vietnamese in exemplary fashion.

    It’s a pretty big difference in world view to see a major war as a failed rescue or as a successful shake-down operation. Chomsky changed my perspective and that of many people. The master is getting on in age, and he world needs a new set of voices like yourself to collectively carry the torch.

    • tubularsock says:

      And we can all rest assured that that “American knight” as “crime syndicate” has been operating just fine under the mantle of National Interests. The End.

    • Noam Chomsky was far from alone in critiquing U.S. foreign policy and its imperial adventure in Vietnam, but he most assuredly was and is a leading voice for those critiques, a voice almost totally censored in the U.S. corporate mass media. (He’ll only be quoted there in terms of his work in linguistics, with no reference to his political work.) And, indeed, the task of the U.S. military was to punish the Vietnamese in exemplary fashion. As was done to Chile, Nicaragua and so many other places.

  9. arsenios says:

    The American man order had a Lot to be said for it.
    And all those foundations that supported this pig shit attempt of explaining the “skillful religious beprevaricationf by nice people” and the prevarication that was the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” should just be rug bombed in people!

  10. Ricardo2000 says:

    I am overjoyed to have read this article and resulting comments. The Burns-Novick documentary was contemptible anti-history. They made worthless excuses for the Vietnam War in an attempt to construct an acceptable mythology for this, and every war. Almost any war can be shown to be based on greed, the brutal exercise of power, and contemptible bigotry that require complacent lies as a disguise. That the Chinese would overrun southeast Asia; that the Vietnamese were dangerous communists; that they couldn’t be reliable allies; that they didn’t deserve to run their country as they wished; that US political and military strength couldn’t survive without imposing US will everywhere; that the US didn’t sabotage peace at every turn; that the Vietnamese started the war; that the war wasn’t started to profit the military-industrial complex; that the US conducted the war according to international law and in a humane manner; that the US didn’t commit war crimes as national strategy, and individually as a natural part of their soldiers’ trained bigotries; that the war wasn’t a futile, ignoble Western failure. Burns-Novick made no attempt to confront the lies at all. I doubt they were ever considered. These criminal stupidities the ‘MAGA’ folks will not abide being laid at their feet. So the reality that this war started with self-serving lies, and was conducted with brutal, bigoted stupidity just can’t be shown to the US public.

    • Greetings, Ricardo. As I wrote in the original post, a debate between those who characterize the Vietnam War as a noble effort that tragically failed and those who argue that the war should not have been fought if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about it is no debate at all; it is an obfuscation.

      Burns and Novick beautifully present the former and although that position might be seem more palatable than the latter to those liberals who continue to whitewash the Pentagon’s war crimes in Vietnam it remains a denial of the reality of the war as you have so well put it.

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