Ken Burns’s ‘Vietnam’ revisits a barbaric war and asks, what went wrong?

How could this happen? In the years between the fall of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, two years after our troops left, the United States was severely divided by race, war and a generational split, a state of polarization not seen since the Civil War.

A member of a military family, I entered the Jesuits after serving two years in the antiaircraft artillery in Germany, where we had been advised that the Russians might attack at any time. Theology, just war ethics, the influence of fellow Jesuits, summer internships at America, the march against the Pentagon led by intellectuals like Norman Mailer, the riots in Detroit and New Jersey and, especially, the violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, which I witnessed—all of these taught me that something was wrong with the U.S. value system expressed in our foreign policy.

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Now, more than four decades after the end of the war, Ken Burns’s “The Vietnam War,” written by Geoffrey C. Ward as a 10-part documentary series totaling 18 hours, tries to answer what went wrong and what lessons are to be learned. Burns offers the testimony of 80 witnesses, including U.S. and Vietnamese participants on both sides—such as New York Times correspondent Neil Sheehan and soldier-turned-novelist Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried.

It all begins with the two-month battle of Dien Bien Phu, in which the French had fortified their position so as to draw the Vietnamese Army into an attack where they would all be killed. But the Vietnamese outsmarted the French, pounding them with artillery from higher slopes and shooting down planes delivering food and ammunition. The French artillery commander shot himself in his despair.

From then on the United States gradually replaced the French as a colonial occupying army, not realizing that as the French were hated so would we be. President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural commitment to “pay any price” to protect liberty led him and his successors, step by step, to replace the French with what they considered a “limited war.” U.S. aircraft dropped napalm bombs and Agent Orange to kill the forests that hid the Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers, but these eventually also killed U.S. soldiers, as well as causing cancer, birth defects and psychological breakdowns.

We uprooted farming communities and forced the inhabitants into strategic hamlets, where we thought they would be safe from enemy influence. While we policed them we sometimes killed the wrong people, and every person killed would lead to 10 more Vietnamese willing to fight the U.S. intruders.

President Lyndon Johnson was constantly overwhelmed by the job: “What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? To the country?”

President Lyndon Johnson was constantly overwhelmed by the job: “What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? To the country?” He tells the leaders of South Vietnam to “get off their butts and leave me alone.” Still, Republican presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater claims Johnson is not tough enough. So, to flex a muscle, the United States charges, without evidence, that North Vietnam has attacked a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin, and our war expands its scope with our bombing North Vietnam.

Burns interrupts the combat narrative with personal stories. In one narrative, we meet Dinton (Mogie) Crocker, 17, who loves his country and, typical of many in his generation, wants to serve it. As his sister now recounts, Crocker’s parents resist, he is still too young. He leaves home for a while, returns, enlists, becomes bored and disillusioned, but now, at 19, in the 101st Airborne, he takes part in an attack on an enemy-occupied hill. He is up front, the point man; a machine gun cuts him down. We follow him home to burial in Arlington Cemetery and see his name engraved on Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial.

General Westmoreland takes charge of the war. Back in the United States, antiwar movements begin to spring up, including the Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam and various student-led protests on college campuses across the country.

Protests against the Vietnam War

Two scenes linger. We see again, in more detail, the napalm landing on a family as they race out of their homes and down the road toward a group of cameras. The moment produces the infamous shot of the little naked girl running and crying down the road, 30 percent of her body burned with napalm. The reporters embrace and clothe her and get her to the hospital. Another scene is from the Tet offensive: A policeman has captured an enemy and, in front of a camera, blows his brains out.

Dead bodies clutter scene after scene of “The Vietnam War.” We do not get close enough to examine them, but they are in shambles, body parts spread around, limbs gone, chests crushed. Among both the Americans and the Vietnamese friends and enemies, the corpses are sacred, and both sides risk lives to collect them.

Both Presidents Johnson and Nixon must keep assuring the public that the United States is winning the war, providing shabby statistics of a “body count” that show we always kill more of them than they kill of us. They know the war cannot be won, but they pretend it can be by adding more troops. They repeatedly stop the bombing then bomb again, especially near election days.

In the 1968 Tet offensive, 84,000 North Vietnamese systematically move south, penetrating Saigon itself. Over the course of 26 days, 6,000 civilians die in battle, many shot in the head for supporting the wrong side. Walter Cronkite, at the end of his visit to Vietnam, reports the war to be in a stalemate. Robert Kennedy declares his candidacy for the presidency. President Johnson, aware that 63 percent of the public disapproves of his handling of the war, declines to run for re-election. Martin Luther King Jr., who has come out against the war, is assassinated. Robert Kennedy, too, is killed.

Missing from the documentary is Daniel Berrigan, S.J., and the role of religion in opposing the war.

On the home front, on Oct. 15, 1969, millions of U.S. citizens protest against the Vietnam War and take part in demonstrations across the country. Known as the Vietnam Moratorium, it is the largest outpouring of marches and demonstrations in U.S. history. In response, President Nixon goes on TV to argue for “patience” and unity. But reporter Seymour Hersh breaks the story of the massacre at My Lai, where, led by Lt. Calley, U.S. troops had systematically murdered 557 civilians in a little village. (A mile away, another village of 97 had been wiped out.) Asked why he participated in the atrocity, a soldier replies, “I was ordered to.” Lt. Calley is convicted of murder but has a life sentence reduced to a few months and house arrest. A half million protest at the Washington Monument. Nixon reacts: The “dirty rotten Jews were behind it.” In 1970 at Kent State University the National Guard shoots four student protesters to death.

Missing from the documentary is Daniel Berrigan, S.J., and the role of religion in opposing the war. John Kerry, a hero and a Catholic, helps fill that void. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, representing 2,000 Vietnam veterans against the war, he opposes the “glorification of body counts,” asks why we cannot admit a mistake. People must die lest Nixon be known as the “first president to lose a war.” Kerry asks, “Where are the leaders of the country?” He dares to open his talk with testimony of fellow soldiers of their own crimes, especially rapes and mutilations.

The war’s horrible climax is Nixon’s resumed bombing of the North, the “Christmas Bombing” of Hanoi and Haiphong, in which B-52s sweep in every 15 minutes over 24 hours, leaving 1,600 civilians dead. On March 29, 1973, the troops leave. There is no bloodbath when the North eventually marches into Saigon. Over one million Vietnamese refugees leave, 400,000 to the United States, and thousands of children fathered by U.S. soldiers are left behind.

Burns hesitates to say that anyone won or lost the war. My visit to Vietnam in 1995 made it clear to me. The victors had built a War Crimes Museum in Saigon that included a guillotine, used to punish them during the French occupation. A photo on the wall showed smiling U.S. soldiers, posing like a group of fishermen, displaying the hideous shredded and blackened corpse of a Vietnamese young man. I also visited a hotel where U.S. correspondents had stayed in Saigon (Two hundred journalists and photographers gave their lives to cover the war.) It featured large pictures of two soldiers ready for battle: One was loaded down with ammunition, weapons, a helmet and grenades; the other was slight, shirtless, with nothing but his rifle. His side had won.

John Kerry deserves the last words: His last mission, he told Congress, is “to search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war, to pacify our own hearts, to conquer the hate and fear that have driven this country these last 10 years and more.” Amen.

Correction, Sept. 20: The nickname of the soldier mentioned who was killed in combat in Vietnam has been corrected to Mogie. Napalm was dropped from various American aircraft, not only helicopters. 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Wasson Henry
2 months 1 week ago

That the Vietnam War never took place.
But it did.
Why the French went back into "Indochina" after World War II
is something I would like an answer to.
Why North Vietnam waged war on the very people it claimed to
be liberating and why it sacrificed an entire generation to
liberating whom - certainly not themselves - is something rarely
addressed.

One can wonder how long America would have fought for the
freedom of West Germany had East Germany invaded it in the
early 1960's.

As a nation we have failed to acknowledge that many people against
the war were against dying for Asians.

As for the Bloodbath after Saigon fell - Fr. Schroth S.J.
do you know of what you speak ? I tutored, helped, sponsored Vietnamese
who fled Communist Vietnam, the stories of parents/neighbours/friends
being taken away to "Re-Education" camps never to return were myriad.

"Tet" - was just another example of the Dictatorship of War Criminals
in the North throwing away the lives of their countrymen and those who from the South who fought on their side. Of the 6,000 civilians were
were murdered - I think the number is much higher - those murders were
carried out via instructions from North Vietnam.

"Another scene is from the Tet offensive: A policeman has captured an enemy and, in front of a camera, blows his brains out."

Could you not provide historical background: Nguyen Ngoc Loan
was the Chief of Police when Nguyen Van Lem - was brought
before him. Lem was an NLF operative who killed the South Vietnamese
Lt. Colonel Nguyen Tuan, his six children, his wife and his grandmother.
When captured Lem was next to a mass grave of 34 murdered South Vietnamese civilians that Loan admitted he had helped to murder.

If anyone lost the war Father Schroth it was the Vietnamese people who
did not want to be ruled by a Communist Dictatorship lead by war criminals.

Scotty G
2 months ago

"If anyone lost the war Father Schroth it was the Vietnamese people who
did not want to be ruled by a Communist Dictatorship lead by war criminals." Agreed. I'm the son of a Vietnamese woman whose family fled North Vietnam in 1954 during Operation Passage to Freedom. She still has vivid memories of the atrocities committed by the communist North. My mother eventually married my father, an American soldier, and moved to the United States. Because his daughter married an American soldier, my grandfather was sent to one of those "reeducation camps" after the South fell in 1975. If Ho Chi Minh really cared about the people of Vietnam, he would have been merciful to those who fought for the South during his "reunification" of Vietnam. The American people had no problems liberating Europe but wanted the U. S. to sit on the sidelines while a brutal communist regime took over Vietnam suggesting, as you stated, European lives are more important than Asian lives. Fr. Schroth's politics shines through in this piece.

Rob Jacobs
2 months ago

"Why North Vietnam waged war on the very people it claimed to
be liberating and why it sacrificed an entire generation to
liberating whom - certainly not themselves - is something rarely
addressed." You could ask the same question about the American Civil War. The answer? It was a civil war. This is what always happens. And as far as war crimes go, we Americans are in no position whatsoever to make self righteous pronouncements. My Lai was just the tip of the iceberg. We dropped more bombs on that tiny country than all the bombs dropped in all of WW2... by all sides. We napalmed human beings, sprayed cancer causing defoliant over vast swaths of the countryside. I could go on but I won't-- the entire war was one giant war crime.

Henry Starr
2 months 1 week ago

I think comparisons to WWII are apt when talking about what happened in Vietnam, but not for the reason the other commentator makes.
Vietnam showed us again the barbarity that can be unleashed in modernism. Extermination from the air. Chemical weapons on jungle and villages. A truly, truly sorry war.

Mike Aquino
2 months ago

As Jacob Bronowski put it: "The push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine." He was talking about what he called the "dilemma of the 20th century", the first being that the end justifies the means, the second being "the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts—obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts."

rose-ellen caminer
2 months ago

JFK,a staunch anti communist cold warrior told the French when he was in Congress to get out of Viet Nam who they were colonizing. You can see the French influence still; fusion food, architecture, left wing ideology? He the called them imperialistic. As soon as they did, the US went in to stop that "godless commie" domino from falling.

The Viet Nam war was a war against the people of Viet Nam; the men, women and children. [remember what was said about the people of Viet Nam by these American vets; "they are not like us ,they are barbaric; you can't tell who is on our side and who isn't, the civilians even the children are fighting us," as they engaged in atrocities ,war crimes galore and mass murder of the men, women and children of Viet Nam. Of course we could not tell who was on our side and who wasn't because we were fighting not merely a military but we were fighting THE people. like Iraq when we attacked , and like our 16 years war in Afghanistan. The only way to win decisively when you are fighting not regimes and their military's but the people of the country is to kill 'em all. That's why we're still in Afghanistan and Iraq is still not pacified.

Americans are nostalgic about world war 2 where we won because we were fighting regimes and their military's and the goal was to get the emperor or the general to surrender, and when he did, the troops surrender with him, and that's the end of that! Now in our post world war 2 era we've been fighting the people of the countries, not regimes and their military's, who don't take kindly to shock and awe invasions and occupations.

Scotty G
2 months ago

When you reference "THE" people, are you including the millions of South Vietnamese (and those who migrated from the North to the South, like my mother), many of whom fled for their lives after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 and are now living in the United States, who did not want to be ruled by a brutal communist regime?

michael baland
2 months ago

Although I did not spend two years in the military in Germany, I would like to make one correction to the author's polemic. The war was not won by a slight shirtless man with a rifle. It was won by many slight, uniformed men with a lot of tanks and artillery. They were called the North Vietnamese Army.

Mary Kambic
2 months ago

My involvement with the Vietnam Antiwar movement was the direct result of Catholic religious activists at the time, particularly Frs. Daniel and Philip Berrigan and their friends, so I appreciate Fr. Schroth's observations. As a high school student in NJ, I remember reading Father Berrigan's and Thomas Merton's essays on war and peace in Jubilee magazine, a great Catholic publication of happy memory! Neglectin the religious part of the peace movement is a serious oversight, given the spiritual power of the Catholic activists and Dr. Martin Luther King's wonderful antiwar address at Riverside Church in 1967. Anyway, I am forever indebted to the religious mentors of that time, particularly Dorothy Day and Fr. Dan Berrigan, who took the time to help many of us find the way. My background includes my father, a colonel in the US Army Reserves, who was a liberator of Dachau concentration camp and later served in the religious affairs division of the Military Government of Bavaria in WWII and my uncle, a Dominican priest and chaplain at Iwo Jima, and two cousins who served in Vietnam in the Marines. One, Pvt. Jack Quinn, was killed in Vietnam.

J Cosgrove
2 months ago

I doubt that watching Ken Burns or reading Fr. Schroth will lead to understanding what really happened in Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese leadership were some very bad people and committed a multitude of atrocities in the south. They were ideologues which are the worse types of people to fight.

The US fought the war with its hands tied behind its back because they were afraid of what the Chinese might do. Remember Vietnam only started 10 years after the North Korean war ended and there were very vivid memories of what had happened there.

By doing so, the war was prolonged with millions dying. Essentially Watergate ended the war as Nixon's strategy of enforcing a peace based on something similar to what was done in Korea went down the drain when a large Democratic congress was elected in 1974.

Rob Jacobs
2 months ago

I think we need to put a swift end to this absurd old canard that we "fought the war with both hands tied behind our back." With all due respect sir, that is fatuous nonsense. We did everything short of using tactical nukes, and that was discussed. By '68 we had over a half million troops in that tiny country. We had B-52 bombers running round the clock missions from Guam. The amount of bombs we dropped in sheer tonnage is mind boggling. Vietnam, to this day, is riddled with craters. Over 2 million civilians died on both sides, not to mention over a million NVA & Viet Cong. And their leaders were ideologues? Do you think Dick Helms wasn't an ideologue? Or Rusk or McNamera or the entire Johnson administration? The war was never winnable. As Ho Chi Minh said, "You will kill 10 of us for every one we kill of you but in the end it is you who shall tire of it."

J Cosgrove
1 month 4 weeks ago

I think we need to put a swift end to this absurd old canard that we "fought the war with both hands tied behind our bacK

You are obviously not familiar with how a war can be fought. The United States made no attempt to send troops into North Vietnam. They could have been in Hanoi in a short time and interdicted all bases and supply routes to the south. They did not do so because they were afraid of a Chinese invasion from the north.

This prolonged what should have been a short war. As it was, a potentially lasting solution was achieved in 1972-73 but Nixon lost support for it after Watergate and the Democrats pulled the plug on it after the election of 1974.

As I said the leadership of North Vietnam were ideologues and would fight as such (to many communism had the same effect as religion.) But they could be defeated or contained just as in Korea. A possible long term solution was reached similar to Korea only to be undermined by the Democrats.

Mary Lund
1 month 3 weeks ago

I was struck by how little we have learned from the Vietnam experience. Our reckless entry into Afghanistan and Iraq has led to the same problems we had in Vietnam. The generals need just a bit more and a bit more to get the (undefined) job done. The Presidents acquiesce, more concerned with their elections than with the destruction. When will our reluctant "allies" be able to defend themselves and against whom? Never - and besides they hate us. (And deep down we hate them.) It is a new form of colonialism. The military-industrial complex is the only winner.

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