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A Tale of Two Critics

Previewing the Burns/Novick PBS Vietnam documentary

Here’s how Bass makes that case: “Even before we get to Ho Chi Minh and his defeat of the French… in 1954 we are watching a US marine describe his homecoming to a divided America in 1972, a homecoming he says that was harder than fighting the Viet Cong.” By Episode Two, “we are heading deep into Burns territory. The war has been framed as a civil war, with the United States defending a freely elected democratic government in the south against Communists invading from the north. American boys are fighting a godless enemy that Burns shows as a red tide creeping across maps of Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.” But here’s the rub. “The historical footage in Episode One which disputes this view of the war, is either ignored or misunderstood. Southern Vietnam was never an independent country.”

From there Bass retells the story well known to any serious student of this history. After the French defeat, the South Vietnamese state was engineered by the U.S. through the manipulations of a super spy named Edward Lansdale, bankrolling an internal struggle to overthrow Saigon’s powerful drug lords who had helped to finance France’s colonial empire, and, with the collaboration of Vietnamese elements who had served the ancien regime, installed the Catholic mandarin, Ngo Dinh Diem, who, until his return to Vietnam, was being groomed by the CIA in the United States.

Diem then cancelled the elections “intended to unify northern and southern Vietnam – that President Eisenhower and everyone else knew would have been won by Ho Chi Minh.” Another election was quickly staged in the south, with Diem claiming to win 98.2% of the vote. Breaking their link to the opium trade was “the CIA’s announcement that the French were finished in Southeast Asia…” -- the Company now taking charge of that product line – “and it was time for the losers to go home.” After which came the American War, beginning with the ill-fated Diem, ultimately abandoned by his sponsors and assassinated, and the building of “the autocratic police state that survived for twenty years before collapsing into the dust of the last helicopter lifting off from the U.S. Embassy” [which, Bass informs us, was actually a CIA safe house]. Lansdale’s critical contribution to this sequence of events is absent from Burns’ film (although it is covered in the coffee table book that will accompanying the series).

Despite the overwhelming evidence, including the statement by Leslie Gelb, the senior Defense Department official [and later correspondent for The New York Times] who directed the project that produced the Pentagon Papers, that “South Vietnam… was essentially the creation of the United States,” Burns and Novick remains heavily invested in the narrative of the two Vietnams. Selected for the role to advance this historical distortion in their film is a Vietnamese woman named Duong Van Mai Elliott, who has also been a prominent member of the promotional tour Burns and Novick have been conducting throughout the country in advance of the film’s official airing. Elliott is a former interrogator of the Rand Corporation, married to an American for fifty three years, and a longtime resident of the U.S.

story | by Dr. Radut