Revising the Meaning of the Vietnam War

With “Last Days in Vietnam,” a full length documentary film contending for an Oscar in 2015, comes the disturbing realization that the spirit of the age has finally flipped the lessons of the Vietnam War from a progressive cautionary tale of longstanding, to a simplistic recitation of half-truths designed to nurture the turn toward reaction that grips the public mind today.  That a polemic supporting such a perversion of the record ushers from the artistic, ahistorical, politically muddled imagination of the daughter of a man who was assassinated when exposed to personal danger in 1968 as a highly visible presidential candidate in opposition to the Vietnam War, underscores my dire evaluation of the times.

Whether one views the filmmaker Rory Kennedy as a manipulator of the historical record, or as a victim of manipulation incapable of approaching a complex subject with sharper critical tools, her film objectively defies her father Bobby Kennedy’s legacy in its complete failure to address even the most rudimentary contexts that led Bobby, along with tens of millions of his fellow citizens, to reject an American military adventure that would dominate world events for over a generation.  In Rory Kennedy’s film the saga of Vietnam’s struggle to free itself of foreign domination is reduced to a sentimental micro-historical vignette focused almost entirely on the failure of the United States in the final month of the war to evacuate members of the South Vietnamese military elite and other collaborators of the puppet regime caught in Saigon when the liberation forces finally captured the city on April 30, 1975.

One might still shed a tear for those trapped in Saigon, whether by design or circumstance, and destined to face victor’s justice, and even admire the pluck of a handful of soldiers among the small contingent of Americans left as advisors in one capacity or another after the U.S. had evacuated its troops following the Peace Accord in January 1973.  These men are the heroes of Kennedy’s Vietnam War, and with the aid of some spectacular archival footage, she faithfully documents their acts of decency and loyalty toward South Vietnamese counterparts in the officer corps and Saigon government of Nguyen Van Thieu, moving logistical mountains – often in opposition to their superiors – to organize the means to evacuate the most compromised collaborators, or in some cases simply the family baby sitter.

Kennedy is relentless in her ridicule of the American Ambassador, Graham Martin, a man of great Southern charm we are told, and marvelously revealed through snippets of interviews in the final hours before his own departure, affirming his fantastic belief that the incompetent and uncommitted South Vietnamese military – the ARVN – would stem the advance of the armies from the north, which, incidentally, they not only outnumbered – at least on paper – but also outgunned thanks to the tons of materiel their U.S. sponsors had supplied them.  Recall that Saigon had an air force, while Hanoi did not.  Undoubtedly a larger number, if not a truly significant increase, of the high and middle ranking adherents to the southern regime and their families would have made good their escape if Martin had not so deluded himself.  But the fact was that the U.S. authorities had no mass evacuation plan, and the fates of their allies were sealed long before Saigon was threatened.

The two major factors, I think, confirming why that was the case were that, not only Ambassador Martin, but no one anywhere that I remember (except perhaps the Pentagon who held a calculus on ARVN ineptitude even greater than Hanoi’s) had an inkling when the North Vietnamese regulars launched their offensive from I Corps within South Vietnam in March 1975, taking advantage of the post-Watergate confusion then besetting the American government, that their forces would accomplish the objective of reunification with such lightning speed; moreover, it was generally assumed that the U.S. would rally militarily to the aid of the South, and not let the ally on whose behalf it had invested nearly sixty thousands American lives and billions of dollars, simply fall.

Kennedy addresses the scenario of an American comeback directly, but she misses the play of forces that determined that outcome, citing one of the obstacles to military intervention, but not others that were equally telling.  Kennedy gives the role of explainer to Henry Kissinger, if not exactly an architect of the conflict, ultimately a pro-war zealot who wielded the power of a field marshal.  Now, admittedly, antiwar activists of the Vietnam generation, including many war veterans like me, harbor unkind thoughts toward the man the author of Catch 22, Joseph Heller, famously described as “that little fat fuck.”  Kissinger is an offensive presence to us, an evil mastermind, a Moriarty, a corrupter of the guileless like Rory Kennedy.  Henry tells her that Gerald Ford, in office barely six months after Nixon resigned in disgrace, had asked the Congress to appropriate an emergency military funding bill of $722 million, and it failed to pass.  In Kennedy’s narration, this happened under pressure from the antiwar movement… allowing Henry to play the classic Dolchstoss card, the knife in the back by a Fifth Column that snatched defeat from the victory our brave combatants had deserved.

A friend of mine suggests that, in fact, “the peace movement had shriveled tremendously to the point that it did not engage in the emergency funding debate at all. The prime reason the funding did not pass was that the Pentagon opposed it.”  But if we parse the term “peace movement” into its component parts, we will find that the activist core of the movement remained thoroughly engaged, but was incapable at that moment of mobilizing on the street the kinds of numbers from a larger pool of non-activist opponents that would compel the immediate attention of the Congress.  Thus the mass movement might have been persuasive, but on this occasion it wasn’t.  That said, opposition from the Pentagon was a powerful deterrent; but even without the pressure of mass demonstrations, the Congress had taken the pulse of public opinion.  And if the public was done with Vietnam, then the antiwar movement could claim its share of the credit.

What fatally robs Rory Kennedy’s documentary of the moral force she claims for the Vietnamese victims, despite what was clearly an American failure of responsibility – some would say disinterest – in saving them, is the arrogance or chutzpah to debut such a work during the fiftieth anniversary year of the U.S. invasion that evolved into that long, bloody and ultimately futile land war in a remote and strategically insignificant corner of South East Asia.

Futile for us, devastating for the Vietnamese, not only in the loss of life into the millions, tens of thousands of whom (take note MIA stalwarts!) still remain among the missing; not only in the persistent poisoned landscape with its attendant and tragic public health consequences resulting from the wide scale spraying of dioxin-laced herbicides like Agent Orange, or the large patches of land still saturated with unexploded ordinance which primarily punishes the natural curiosity of children playing in the dirt; but also an economy “bombed into the stone age,” made infinitely worse by the postwar imposition of a vindictive American embargo, slowing Vietnam’s recovery, and benefitting least those left behind who had fought or worked against reunification.  In that project, as any serious history will inform you, Hanoi always enjoyed the overwhelming support of the Vietnamese population.

You would think from Rory Kennedy’s film that such a line of thinking about the events that gave rise to the devastation I describe above either pale in significance or are somehow irrelevant when compared to the personal tragedies of those in “the last days” of Vietnam who failed to get aboard the last chopper and therefore to a way of life they could not win on the battlefield.  It is that vision of “freedom,” measured against the stronger urge of a whole people – still mindful of its long exposure to French colonial subjugation – to resolve the national question, to expel this latest foreign invader, that Rory Kennedy offers as the new meaning of the Vietnam War in lieu of a single reference to the shameful horrors that the Americans and their Vietnamese clients inflicted on an entire nation.  Why, my friend Paul Cox has asked, does Kennedy “choose to ignore a vast reality, in service of a ripping good yarn?  There are war stories abundant.  What we need in this country is not some feel good battle flick, but a hard look at that vast reality.”

If the peace movement has lost the likes of the daughter of Bobby Kennedy, can we also then not imagine a day, given the structural political shift I assert at the beginning of these comments, when one’s history of opposition to the Vietnam War will become not merely unfashionable, but a potential source of overt repression?  I’m not playing Chicken Little here, but, to the degree we understand that an honest telling of the history of the Vietnam War defends a broader progressive and antiwar agenda, we can better anticipate why a falsification of that history best serves the war agenda of the radical Right.

Michael Uhl is the author of  Vietnam Awakening

This essay originally appeared on Vietnam Full Disclosure.

Michael Uhl is the author of  Vietnam Awakening