An after-action report on Ken Burns’ Vietnam

I watched all episodes of Ken Burns’ Viet Nam which concluded this week. The series assembles an outstanding array of contemporary film footage and is worth watching just for that. It brings home the grief many American families suffered when a couple of uniformed military officers came to their door to inform them of the death of their son or husband, and in some cases it might have been their daughter. Later, telegrams were used to make such notifications because the number on daily deaths of Americans in Viet Nam exceeded that which could be carried out by a personal visit.

The death notification to the mother of Denton “Mogie” Crocker who had been killed on June 6, 1966 at the age of 19 can’t be Viewed by anyone without tears. He had persuaded his parents to sign so he could join the Army at age 17. He wanted to go to Viet Nam to serve his country so bad he ran away from home until his parents agreed to sign off on it. The life of Mogie and his family was brought forth earlier in the series. When he was killed every viewer was certain to feel the personal impact that it had on his family.

The feature image for this post is a photo of Mogie with his younger sister and brother before he was shipped out to Viet Nam. My chest is heaving just writing these words, looking at that photo, and remembering that segment of the Ken Burns’ PBS series.

I was two years older and in the Navy when Mogie Denton and was was killed. After I got out of the Navy in 1966 I was not much aware of the growing protests of the Viet Nam war. When I went to college soon there after I became fully absorbed in all of it.  If you were a young man of college age and you wanted to have a girl friend, it was not in your interest to be an apologist for America’s involvement in Viet Nam.

Ken Burns’ Viet Nam is a story told from a Leftist point of view. That doesn’t mean a right-wing political junkie like me wouldn’t want to watch it. I was glued to it. I’m glad I watched it.

Since I’ve aged and no longer have to fake my political beliefs to keep a girl friend I’ve tried to understand America’s involvement in Viet Nam by reading as much as I can about it. Among the books on my book shelf that come to mind without trucking upstairs to look, those include Triumph Forsaken by Mark Moyar, A Bright Shinning Lie By Neil Sheehan, The Best and Brightest, by David Halberstam, Marine Sniper by Charles Henderson, Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn is a novel but if you weren’t in Viet Nam this terrific novel will take you there).

I love truth even when it hurts and if you do also then you want to know, what is the truth of Viet Nam?  Was the Tet Offensive really a defeat for the U.S. forces? I’ll cover that last one some other time, but for now here is what I have gleaned to be the truth of why the United States got into it in the first place and what were the separate goals of North Viet Nam and South Viet Nam? Was is just a civil war or something else, something bigger?

Why the United States Government got us into Viet Nam. The Pentagon Papers was a top-secret Pentagon study of US government decision-making in relation to the Vietnam War from 1945 to 1967. This study sets forth that the goal of the United States was to contain Asian Communism to within China and to keep Communism from spreading to the rest of South East Asia.  The containment policy was first set forth by George Kennan (1904-2005). Kennan had also be influential in the development of the Truman Doctrine for containment of the Soviet Union. No doubt some in the U.S. Government also wanted to save the independence of South Viet Nam from Communism, but that was not the official goal of the United States. Rather, saving South Viet Nam’s independence was a ruse to justify U.S. entry into what might have been rightly called a civil war up until the first U.S. military advisors were sent in, but certainly not after. It’s unclear why the United States government thought it needed a ruse to hide its true intentions since those intentions were already clearly understood by nearly everyone.

North Viet Nam’s goal was determined by Ho Chi Minh and Le Duan. Its goal was to conquer South Viet Nam and use it as a base for the spread of Communism throughout South East Asia.  Le Duan had been a committed communist since he was a teenager in China. His mentor was Moa tse Tung. Thus the United States rightly understood North Viet Nam, and explains perfectly why the United States got involved in Viet Nam.

South Viet Nam wanted to be independent of North Viet Nam. It did not want to become a communist state. It truly wanted to maintain its independence and sovereignty. North Viet Nam had the backing of China, the Soviet Union, East European Communists and Cuba.  South Viet Nam could not have survived as long as it did without the help of the United States. It probably would have fallen to the North by the early 1960s without U.S. assistance in training its army.

This is big subject. I’ll revisit it again later.


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