Ideology as History: a Critical Commentary on Burns and Novick’s “The Vietnam War”

After watching Episodes One and Two of the Burns and Novick Vietnam War series, I am reminded of the old adage asserting a valuable point for students of history: the class that controls the means of material production controls also the means of mental production.  Listening to the narrator scroll through the list of financial sponsors cautioned me to lower my expectations that the series would break away from the predictable liberal narrative that has been dominant in discussions about the Vietnam War.

What is that liberal narrative? It is a bundle of intertwined claims: Vietnamese opposition to the French and then the Americans was motivated by a nationalist desire for independence, the Saigon government of the South was a legitimate government, the rebellion of the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam against the U.S. supported Saigon regime was directed by the communist Hanoi government of the north, the military conflict in Vietnam was thus a civil war, and U.S. military involvement in support of the South was the result of a series of mistakes by American political leaders. It’s a narrative that has a certain plausibility not least because it has been repeated over and over for fifty years.

A more comprehensive scholarly reading of history produces a more accurate narrative: First, without discounting the significance of nationalism in Vietnamese society, a more important factor in the war was the goal of land reform offered by the communists to the peasants who comprised the majority of the population. The military struggle was in large part a social revolution against the landlord class and its foreign backers. Second, the Saigon regime that emerged after the failed French war of re-conquest was a U.S. creation financed and managed by the Americans who built its military and prodded it into fighting against the Vietnamese revolutionary forces. When an army such as the South Vietnamese Army is funded and trained by a foreign power to maintain the foreigner’s domination of that same country, that army is not fighting a civil war – it is fighting a war of counterinsurgency and is essentially an army of collaborators.  Third, the National Liberation Front was an autonomous Southern political entity that emerged from the failure of the Hanoi government to press a fight against the southern regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Dominated by communists it was in liaison with Hanoi as the North gradually gave greater assistance to the rebels’ efforts. Fourth, the U.S. involvement was not the result of a series of mistakes but was the result of a series of deceptions and provocations made by every U.S. administration running from Harry Truman all the way to Richard Nixon on the basis of the perceived political-economic imperatives of advanced capitalism in Southeast Asia. Let me amplify these points.

The land question – class struggle in Vietnam

The late Gabriel Kolko in his analysis of the Vietnam tragedy, Anatomy of a War, stressed that the crucial factor in peasant support of the communist movement was based on the land question. The question was, simply put, who should control the land – the landlords or the peasants, the exploiters or the exploited? The communists said the exploited peasantry should have the land because it was the only way for them to be free of their exploiters. “Land to the tiller” was their revolutionary slogan. The war, Kolko advised, cannot really be understood if this dynamic, the dynamic of class struggle, is ignored which it is in the first two episodes and apparently will be in the remainder of the series.  This is typical of liberal historical narratives; they favor analyses based on nationalism to the exclusion of analyses based on class struggle. Yet, because the enemy was communist, its viewpoint has to be taken into account if you want to understand its strategy and tactics and its ability to gather so much broad and deep support from the majority of the population – the peasantry.

Let me put the matter another way. Consider this: How did an underdeveloped country consisting mainly of peasant farmers defeat the world’s greatest economic and military power that had five times the population, deployed more than 500,000 of its own soldiers, used one million allied soldiers (primarily ARVN troops), controlled the air and the sea, dumped 19 million gallons of toxic defoliants on South Vietnam, and dropped 7.5 million tons of bombs including 400,000 tons of napalm? As James William Gibson pointed out in his book, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam (1988, p. 9), by the high point of U.S. deployment in 1969 the Vietnam War involved “40 percent of all U.S. combat-ready divisions, more than half of all Marine Corps divisions, one-third of U.S. naval forces, roughly half of the fighter-bombers, and between one-quarter and one-half of all B-52 bombers in the USAF Strategic Air Command.”  The U.S. controlled the air and the sea, used completely secure sanctuaries and staging areas  (Thailand, the Philippines, Guam), bombed four countries (South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), and invaded two (South Vietnam, Cambodia).  The communist-led opposition fighting in the South, in contrast, had neither air force nor navy nor secure sanctuaries and staging areas. It lived in jungles and underground tunnel systems and its main supply network (the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”) was subject to nearly continuous bombing by US forces. If any army fought with “one hand tied behind its back”, it was the armed forces of the Vietnamese communists.

To understand the Vietnamese communist victory we should keep in mind the adage that war is politics by other means and that for the out-gunned communists the only viable military strategy was people’s war in which “politics are primary”.

It was the moral commitment of the fighting forces that would prove most crucial in the military struggle. The communists won over the majority of the peasantry with their theory of the double or parallel revolution. Their idea was this: Vietnam had two intertwined problems: one was the exploitation of the people by the foreign power; second was the class structure that permitted the indigenous landlord class to exploit the peasants. The landlord class could not be overthrown without getting rid of the foreign power that kept it in place. Yet getting rid of the foreign colonial power without removing the Vietnamese landlords from power would only change the faces of the oppressors holding State power. Therefore, two simultaneous revolutions were required – a rebellion against foreign domination and a class struggle against the landholding class.  It was the class struggle with its promise of emancipation (“land to the tiller”) that brought the peasantry to the anti-colonial struggle.

French colonialism and class struggle

Watching Vietnam by Burns and Novick you don’t get a necessary understanding of the realities of French colonialism. Through their colonial rule the French transformed the economy from subsistence to export for the world market, transferred wealth from the peasants to the investor-landowner class through high rents for tenant farmers charging 40-60% of any hypothetical crop, lending to cash poor peasants at 50-70% interest, and taxing the Vietnamese to pay for the operation of the colony. Over several decades the French came to own most of the wealth in Vietnam. The observation of American journalist Robert Shaplen in his book, The Lost Revolution: The U.S. in Vietnam, 1946-1966 (1966, p.80) is telling: “The French still own practically all of the real wealth of Indochina, and their investment was close to two billion dollars; they owned all the rubber plantations, which, despite the war, were still operating – as they are operating today, in 1965 – and they owned two-thirds of the rice, all the mines, all the shipping, virtually all the industry, and nearly all the banks.”

What did French colonialism mean for the Vietnamese? It meant the creation of a landless peasantry, a small hyper-exploited working class, and a class of indigenous collaborators.  Through land grants and concessions the French redistributed the rice farms so that by the late 1930s less than 2% of the Southern population owned more than 80% of the land and 60% of the rural population in the South was without land.  By the time World War II began (1939) the majority of peasants were poor and economically insecure. The Vietnamese proletariat recruited from the peasantry numbered about 221,000 by 1931.  French companies subjected these workers to extremely brutal working conditions: about 30% of the workers building the railroad from Hanoi to the Chinese border died on the job and so many Vietnamese workers on Michelin rubber plantations died from overwork or malaria that the Vietnamese workers referred to themselves as “rubber tree fertilizer”. Those Vietnamese cooperating with the French and benefitting from such cooperation included urban businessmen, rural landlords, intellectuals, and colonial government bureaucrats. They would form the social basis for the anti-communist forces in the French and American wars.

The omission of the class struggle and the collective moral commitment required of the peasants is perhaps the most significant flaw of the new Vietnam War series.

It is omitted in Episode One’s discussion of French colonialism and again in the coverage of the anti-communist regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in the South.  Without an understanding of the class-based revolutionary struggle the default narrative becomes a story about nationalism and the quest of the Vietnamese to be free of foreign rule.

The Saigon Government – a product of imperialism

There are other grievous historical omissions within Episodes One and Two – omissions that obscure a phenomenon that remains unseen in the Burns and Novick series: imperialism.  It was the Vietnam War that brought back to political discourse the concept of imperialism as the main explanatory factor for understanding the foreign policy of advanced capitalist states. This is the perspective that saw U.S. involvement in Vietnam as an effort to keep the raw materials and cheap labor of Southeast Asia open for the postwar redevelopment of industry in capitalist Japan and also as an effort to enforce the rules of the international order: no small country has the right to break away from the grasp of the more powerful advanced capitalist states. If they try, they will pay an enormous price.

Burns and Novick make it easy to see corruption, malfeasance, stupidity, and hubris but they make it difficult to see imperialism. One point of neglect is the failure to thoroughly discuss Diem’s origins as the U.S. hope for a leadership in the South that would be simultaneously anti-communist and anti-French. It was the Americans who insisted in 1954 that Emperor Bao Dai appoint Diem as his Prime Minister in the South as the Geneva Accords at the end of the French War were negotiated. It was the Americans who encouraged Diem to hold a rigged election in 1955 asking the people living in the South sector to choose between him and Bao Dai for leadership of the government.  Nor do Burns and Novick point out that before Ngo Diem arrived in Saigon on June 25, 1954 from the United States he was preceded by CIA operative, Colonel Edward Lansdale, who had arrived three weeks earlier on June 1, 1954.  Lansdale was assigned to the U.S. Saigon Military Mission with two objectives. First, he was to set up a pro-U.S. regime in the South with Diem as ruler; second, he was to carry out covert operations against the Northern regime to promote disaffection and instability. Note that Lansdale not only arrived in Saigon before Diem but also before the Geneva Accords were finalized.  Note also that Burns and Novick fail to mention that the U.S. refused to sign the international agreement ending the First Indochina War so as not to be bound by it.  In other words, the United States began a process of subverting the Geneva Accords as they were being signed.

Just as Burns and Novick fail to adequately convey the provenance of the Diem regime as an American apparatus to secure U.S. power in southern Vietnam, they also fail to convey the reality of its brutal and dictatorial character and its class basis – a character and basis producing a sustained rebellion that eventually sucked in a massive American military force to save the Saigon regime. Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother and principal advisor, Ngo Dinh Nhu, established and controlled the only legal political party in South Vietnam: the Can Lao Party.  Through it the two brothers controlled the police, the officer corps of the army, and the civil bureaucracy. The U.S. trained the South Vietnamese police and military in methods of repression to be used against those who objected to the American client regime.  The training of the South Vietnamese police was done at Michigan State University to hide CIA sponsorship.

Another omission of the Burns-Novick production is the failure to mention that the relocation of almost one million people from North to South in 1954 and 1955 was not simply motivated by an inherent fear of communist rule but was a psychological warfare program run by the CIA as Operation Passage to Freedom to scare as many anti-communist Catholics as possible into going South to provide a social base for the American protégé, Ngo Dinh Diem.

As the American-installed ruler of the South, Diem did three things that made his regime so hated. First, he refused to honor the stipulation of the Geneva Accords that a countrywide election regarding reunification be held in 1956 on the grounds that, since he had not signed the accords, he was not required to observe them. He was encouraged by the Americans to make this refusal. Second, Diem began a program of land reform that took the farm fields away from the peasants who had seized them under Viet Minh protection during the French War. Now Diem’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) evicted the peasants from their holdings and returned the fields to the landlords who promptly claimed back rents for the years in which the peasants had occupied the farms. Finally, knowing that many former Viet Minh were living in South Vietnam, Diem in 1955 began his first wave of repression against them. About 12,000 people were arrested and executed and almost 50,000 others were imprisoned.  Diem followed this campaign of political cleansing by trying to control the rural villages. He abolished village councils (which destroyed traditional village democracy) and appointed as village “chiefs” his own loyal supporters  (many of whom were Catholic refugees from North Viet Nam).  In the years 1957 to 1959 a second wave of repression followed as Diem consolidated his rule; the police carried out searches and raids, arrests, interrogations, torture, deportations, forced relocation, jail, and executions.  In May 1959, Diem enacted Law 10/59 in which anyone charged with committing (or attempting to commit) acts against the security of the state would be arrested, tried, and executed within three days. These repressive policies caused former Viet Minh (and a few remnants of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects and the Binh Xuyan criminal syndicate) to flee into base areas of the Mekong Delta and to organize self-defense forces by 1958.

In December 1960 they would form the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam or, as it came to be known, the NLF.  It was this mixed group that Diem and the Americans called the “Viet Cong”.

While Burns and Novick cover, in Episode Two, Diem’s unpopularity in 1963 as evidenced by the Buddhist crisis, they neglect Diem’s repression of the peasantry and Viet Minh veterans in the 1950s and his support for the landlord class. Again, class struggle disappears from their story.

Further omissions – U.S. sponsored aggression against the Hanoi regime

Beginning in 1954, the U.S. immediately violated the stipulations of the Geneva Accords prohibiting foreign military actions in Vietnam by carrying out acts of aggression against the Hanoi regime. The Americans organized a paramilitary group (called “Binh”) within the Saigon Military Mission under Colonel Edward Lansdale and his assistant, Lucien Conein, to contaminate the oil supply of the Hanoi bus company to wreck the bus engines, begin delayed sabotage of the railroad in North Viet Nam, and to note potential future targets for further destruction. These activities were carried out in September and October 1954.

In February 1956 the CIA formed and funded the “First Observation Group”.  Equipped by the U.S. military but run by the CIA and South Vietnamese with nine paramilitary specialists assigned by the CIA to the Observation Group Headquarters, its purpose was to engage in covert operations against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.  Trained by U.S. Army Special Forces and Ranger Advisors at Nha Trang for seven years (1956-62), the “Observation” group involved about twenty, 15-man-teams.  It carried out kidnappings, assassinations, sabotage and intelligence gathering inside North Vietnam (and Cambodia and Laos) and was usually accompanied by U.S. personnel.  After 1960, with the growth of the communist rebellion in the South, the First Observation Group shifted to covert operations against the National Liberation Front (NLF).  In 1963 it was transformed into the South Vietnamese Special Forces.

With respect to President Kennedy’s actions regarding Vietnam, Burns and Novick should have pointed out that in the Spring of 1961 Kennedy authorized covert operations against North Vietnam sending South Vietnamese commandos across the 17th parallel to attack military and civilian targets. He also used the CIA to begin a covert war in Laos by arming about 9,000 Hmong tribesmen to attack the Ho Chi Minh trail. Finally, It was under Kennedy that the United States in 1961 began a decade-long program of bio-chemical warfare spraying 19 million gallons of poisonous chemicals (mainly Agent Orange with dioxin). Originally called “Operation Hades” the named was later changed to the less threatening “Operation Ranch Hand”. Birth defects continue to this day in Vietnam and are one of the American legacies of the war.

By excising these facts from their narrative, Burns and Novick avoid confronting the question of imperialism – the notion that U.S. foreign policy is deliberately committed to the exploitation of peasants and workers around the world, that it is on the wrong side of the class struggle.  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.


William J. Duiker, The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam (2nd edition)

William J. Duiker, Sacred War: Nationalism and Revolution in a Divided Vietnam

James William Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam

John G. Gurley, Challengers to Capitalism (3rd edition)

James P. Harrison, The Endless War: Vietnam’s Struggle for Independence

George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975  (4th and 5th editions)

Huynh Kim Khanh, Vietnamese Communism, 1925-1945

Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a Wa

Mark Atwood Lawrence and Frederik Logevall (editors), The First Vietnam War: Colonial Conflict and Cold War Crisis

Robert Shaplen, The Lost Revolution: The U.S. in Vietnam, 1946-1966

Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990


Chuck O’Connell is a lecturer in sociology at UCI.