Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “Vietnam War”: Some Predictions

This Essay is an Experiment

How Ken Burns and Lynn Novick became the semi-official film documentarians of United States history is an interesting question.  Part of the answer lay in the way they manage to whitewash the criminal record of U.S. imperialism.  One example of this came in their 2007 “Public” Broadcasting System (“P”BS) documentary on World War II, where they re-transmitted the myth that Harry Truman atom-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki – killing 146,000 Japanese civilians with two weapons – to “save [U.S.] lives.”  Burns and Novick ignored compelling primary source evidence and historical  literature showing that top U.S. military and intelligence leaders understood that Japan was defeated and seeking surrender at the end of World War II and that the atom bomb crimes were perpetrated to demonstrate unassailable U.S. power to the world and especially to the Soviet Union in the post-WWII era.

Along the way, Burns and Novick’s “The War” accepted without comment the notion that the Philippine Commonwealth (seized and suppressed with massive bloody force by the U.S. during and after the Spanish-American War at the turn of the 20th Century) belonged rightfully to the U.S. before it was attacked by the Japanese in 1941.  The filmmakers also pretended that Washington had no reason to expect the Pearl Harbor assault – this even though the U.S. had been waging crippling economic war on Tokyo for many years.

I have not been watching Burns and Novick’s much-anticipated and highly publicized “P”BS (the “P” in “PBS” stands for “Pentagon” and “Petroleum” far more often than “Public” when it comes to this highly corporatized network’s political and ideological content) documentary “The Vietnam War.” By the time the present essay – an essay about a series I am not watching – appears, the Burns-Novick Vietnam documentary will have passed through its fourth originally broadcast episode.

Part of my failure to watch the series is about time. I don’t really have 18 evening hours to spend watching television across this and next week.

Another part is about self-protection.  I just can’t hear any more laments about America’s “mistakes” in Vietnam. It drives me up the wall. It’s like hearing people weep because the Nazis screwed up by attacking the Soviet Union before taking out England. Not my cup of moral tea.

A final reason is that this essay is something of an experiment. I want to see how much of the documentary’s essence I can predict based largely on the knowledge (I doubled-checked) that Burns and Novick (all-too predictably) failed to interview the nation’s leading intellectual Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky, it is worth recalling, made his first political mark on the national political culture with his brilliant writings against what he called Washington’s “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (COSA).

The American Imperial War on Southeast Asia

There’s one thing I can say with 100 percent confidence without watching one frame of the documentary: its title is absurd. It’s not for nothing that the Vietnamese call the COSA “the American War.”  A better name for the conflict would be “The America Imperial War on Vietnam.”  Chomsky’s phrase – the COSA – is even better.  It captures the savage depth of the American destruction and broadens the geographic lens to include Laos and Cambodia in describing a remarkably one-sided war in which world history’s most powerful industrialized state and military empire assaulted a small peasant nation and some of its neighbors with massive force for more than a decade. As the Detroit-based writer and activist Frank Joyce notes on AlterNet:

“A very simple truth is buried in millions of dollars of [Burns and Novick’s] filmmaking rubble…Did Vietnamese troops invade the United States? Did the Vietnamese air force spend years spraying millions of tons of Agent Orange onto forests and crops in California and Ohio? Are there pictures of naked girls fried with napalm in Alabama that we haven’t seen? Were hundreds of thousands of civilians in Canada and Mexico killed to pursue Vietnamese military objectives in the U.S? Did Vietnamese troops massacre women, old people and babies and dump their bodies into mass graves in Missouri, Montana and Michigan?… The United States government invaded Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; not the other way around. Before that, the U.S. provided financial and military support to the French war to keep Vietnam a colony. Any suggestion that the U.S. was somehow the victim of the war is not just wrong, it is yet another example of the moral confusion for which our nation pays a far greater price than we are willing to admit.”

Good point!  The United States lost 58,000 soldiers in an imperial invasion that killed as many as 5 million Southeast Asians between 1962 and 1975. The massive U.S. assault laid waste to vast stretches of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. It spread disease and birth defects across the region. The Vietnamese did not kill a single American solider – much less a U.S. civilian – on U.S. soil.  Just one joint CIA and U.S. military program alone, Operation Phoenix, killed 40,000 South Vietnamese, equivalent to more than two-thirds of the total U.S. body count in Vietnam!

“Good Intentions” and “Mistakes” in a War We “Lost”

But now, to my predictions.

Later, perhaps, I will find time to watch some of the key episodes online and find out how well I did with the forecasts that follow.

Here’s what to look for in “‘P’BS’s” “The Vietnam War.”

The documentary will be chock full of interviews, some quite compelling. You will hear from people on different sides of the conflict, including former government officials, guerilla fighters, American soldiers, and some antiwar activists.  Still, you should very much expect elite U.S. policy insiders and commentators to get special attention and to provide a lot of the basic historical and political framework for what happened. You may hear from some antiwar activists before it’s over, but do not anticipate hearing all that much, if anything from serious Left intellectuals who criticized and analyzed the imperialist war.

Expect Burns and Novick to present America’s war on Vietnam as a tragic but well-intended “mistake” rooted in defensive but “over-zealous” and basically benevolent Cold War reckonings and as a war that the United States “lost.”  Expect to hear words and phrases like “Cold War miscalculation,” “tragic mistake,” “best of intentions,” “honorable,” “principled,” “good faith,” “good people” (the criminal policy makers, that is), and “over-confident” in the documentary’s descriptions of U.S. aims and conduct. This is the standard Establishment “liberal” position, what passed for the official “dove” take on the so-called Vietnam War by the late 1960s and ever since (Look, for one among countless examples, at the foreign policy chapter in Barack Obama’s remarkably conservative and American Exceptionalist 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope).

And it is complete bullshit. As Chomsky has shown numerous times [1], the COSA was a monumental crime rooted in Washington’s grand imperial and world-systemic ambitions. The “Vietnam War’s” American casualties were imperial gendarmes sent by Washington to keep Vietnam savagely unequal and under the thumb of the world’s rich nations.

That mission was largely accomplished. The COSA was largely successful in that it so pulverized Vietnam as to make it impossible for the Vietnamese revolution to become a good example of the great gains Third World people could make by breaking the chains of Western capitalist-imperial control to build an independent socialist country. The Unites States, Chomsky argued correctly, achieved its minimal but most essential goal: killing the threat of a good anti-imperial/non-capitalist Third World example and making it clear that anyone who challenged U.S. imperial domination would face devastation on a practically unimaginable scale. The real and biggest threat to U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam was that the Vietnamese revolution might succeed in showing others within and beyond Southeast Asia that impoverished Third World nations could defy Uncle Sam and the West to develop their economies and societies without a grossly unequal distribution of wealth and without serving the needs of the imperial metropolis.

That danger was averted.  The Vietnam “domino” may have fallen out of formal U.S. control, but it fell in such a devastated and crippled way that it could not spark or inspire further socialist and national independence uprisings around the vast impoverished periphery of the U.S.-supervised post-World War II world capitalist system. “Contrary to what virtually everyone – left or right – says,” Chomsky noted a quarter century ago, “the United States achieved its major objectives in Indochina. Vietnam was demolished.  There’s no danger that successful development there will provide a [egalitarian and anti-imperial] model for other nations in the region.”

By Chomsky’s estimation three years after U.S. officials acknowledged that their “maximal” military and political objectives would not be attained in Vietnam, the empire had good reasons to see its illegal invasion as “a moderate success.”  The “imperial drive” to prevent Vietnamese revolutionary nationalism from stimulating “other significant groups in the Third World” to act against “the destructive impact of integration in the global economy dominated by the industrial powers” had been “blunted by the unexpected resilience and obstinacy of the Vietnamese.  Nevertheless, it has partially achieved its aims,” Vietnam was exceptional in the historical record of American imperialism’s opposition to Third World independence “only because familiar objectives have been so difficult to achieve.”

As Chomsky wrote in 1971, more than three years before the formal end of “the Vietnam War”:  “Perhaps the [real] threat [posed to the American empire by the Vietnamese national and social revolution] has now diminished, with the vast destruction in South Vietnam and the hatreds and social disruption caused by the American war.  It may be that Vietnam can be lost to the Vietnamese without the dire consequence of social and economic progress that might be meaningful to the Asian poor.” That statement seems prophetic today, with Vietnam reintegrated into the world system as a source of cheap labor and raw material.

Looking back on this sick U.S. victory (which killed 2 to 3 million Vietnamese) victory a generation later, Chomsky explained yet again in 2006 that U.S. policymakers “went to war in Vietnam for a very good reason. They were afraid Vietnam would be a successful model of independent development and that would have a virus effect – infect others who might try to follow the same course. There was a very simple war aim-destroy Vietnam. And they did it. The United States basically achieved its war aims in Vietnam by [1967]. It’s called a loss, a defeat, because they didn’t achieve the maximal aims, the maximal aims being turning it into something like the Philippines. They didn’t do that. [But] they did achieve the major aims” (emphasis added) They did so by turning Vietnam into a model of the kind of destruction one can expect for defying Washington.

The Marching Red Tide

Expect Burns and Novick to naturally and effortlessly omit Chomsky’s dark but brilliant and accurate analysis.  It’s not what you are going to hear from Burns and Novick’s talking heads of choice. Along the way, expect them to perpetuate the narrative of the “Vietnam War” as a global conflict between an “aggressive” Communist world (the Soviet Union and Red China) and a bumbling and over-confident if principled and decent United States failing in its basically noble effort to “contain” the Red menace. This story line deletes the imperial aggression of the U.S., dedicated to maintaining a world in which the poor nations of the global periphery fulfill their Western-imposed role of complimenting the needs of the world’s rich white nations (Japan receiving formal admission to that club) by providing the “core” (Immanuel Wallerstein’s term) with cheap raw materials and labor.

The United States as the Worthy Victim

Expect Burns and Novick to spend disproportionate time and energy bemoaning how “the Vietnam War” hurt the United States.  One of the key ideological roles of America’s corporatized media (and “P”BS is every bit as corporatized in its own way as the more openly commercialized segments of dominant U.S. media) is to “manufacture [domestic] consent” to the nation’s giant imperial war state, which eats up more than half of U.S. federal discretionary spending while it accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending and has military personnel deployed in more than 150 nations. A fundamental part of that mission is to portray the imperial predator as victim, not perpetrator.

This is consistent, of course, with longstanding and self-serving, nationalist political doctrine.  As U.S. president Jimmy Carter claimed in 1977, explaining why the U.S. owed no special reparations or apologies to Vietnam for “the Vietnam War,” “the destruction was mutual.”

Indeed: what good American Baby Boomer can ever forget the fearsome fleets of Vietnamese bombers that wreaked havoc on major U.S. cities and pulverized and poisoned our fields and farms during the 1960s and 1970s, the legions of Vietnamese killers who descended from attack helicopters to murder U.S. citizens in their homes…the Vietnamese gunships that strafed our schools and hospitals…the Vietnamese bombing and mining of U.S. harbors…the naked American children running down streets in flight from Vietnamese napalm attacks. Yes, the Vietnamese occupation of the U.S. was Hell. I’ll never forget the terror I felt when the North Vietnamese planes descended upon Chicago and leveled my neighborhood in the summer of 1969. Then came the North Vietnamese troops and NLF fighters to set fire to the ramshackle huts we built to live in.  My relatives out in DeKalb were burned alive by the Vietnamese napalming of northern Illinois.

I’m sure Burns remembers when. during 1971 – his final year at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School (also my first high school [2]) – Vietnamese troops rained artillery down on the University of Michigan.

Kill Anything That Moves: Downplaying U.S. Atrocities, Playing Up “the Enemy’s” Atrocities

Expect Burns and Novick to significantly downplay U.S. atrocities in Vietnam and Southeast Asia while playing up real and alleged atrocities committed by North Vietnam and National Liberation Front (“Viet Cong”) fighters. A recent New Yorker profile of Burns reports that one of the key advisors to the documentary is U.S. General Merrill McPeak, former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff.  McPeak flew 169 “combat [peasant-bombing] missions in [against] Vietnam.” He raised objections to a script change in which Burns and his team replaced the term “murder” with “killing” in the documentary’s description of horrific and infamous incident in which U.S. troops massacred 500 unarmed civilians in the South Vietnamese village of My Lai on March 16, 1968. By the New Yorker’s account, the final “corrected” script read as follows: “The killing of civilians has happened in every war.” This bothered McPeak, a former bomber of Vietnamese civilians.  He wanted the obviously accurate word “murder” retained.   His argument was “Let’s open the kimono – let’s tell it all, see it the way it is.'” Imagine.

Burns, the effete “liberal” documentarian with the bizarre Captain Kangaroo-Beatles coiffure, vetoed the warrior. The filmmaker claimed that My Lai still has “a toxic, radioactive effect” on public opinion. “Killing” was the better word, Burns said, even though My Lai is murder.”

Orwell would have been impressed.

Don’t look for Burns and Novick’s documentary to quote Col. Oran Henderson, the brigade commander whose unit carried out the My Lai massacre. On May 24, 1971 Henderson told U.S. Army investigators that. “Every [U.S.] unit of brigade size [in Vietnam] has its My Lai hidden someplace,” he said. The only reason these other “My Lais” stayed invisible was that “every unit doesn’t have a [My Lai whistleblower Ron] Ridenhour.”

It will be interesting to see if “The Vietnam War” includes any reference to an “elite” 45-man unit of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division known as “Tiger Force.” It conducted a murderous march through Vietnam’s central highlands between May and November of 1967. A detailed and courageous four-part series published by The Toledo Blade in the fall of 2003 showed that “Tiger Force” killed an untold number – certainly well into the hundreds – of farmers, villagers, and prisoners. One medic interviewed by Blade reporters “said he counted 120 unarmed villagers killed in one month.”

The left author Mike Davis helped bring the Blade series to national light. The “Tiger Force atrocities,” Davis wrote:

“began with the torture and execution of prisoners in the field, then escalated to the routine slaughter of unarmed farmers, elderly people, even small children…Early on, tiger Force began scalping its victims (the scalps were dangled from the ends of M-16s) and cutting off ears as souvenirs.  One member – who would later behead an infant – wore the ears as a ghoulish necklace…A former Tiger Force sergeant told reporters that ‘he killed so many civilians he lost count.’”

A Tiger Force private remembered thinking that the killings were “wrong” but recalled that they were considered an “acceptable practice” for US military personnel in the central-highlands’ many US-designated “free fire zones,” where (by a former Tiger Force Lieutenant’s account) “anything living…was subject to be eliminated.”  The rolling slaughter was sponsored and protected by senior officers (including one who went by the name of “Ghost Rider” and named his battalions “Barbarians,” “Cutthroats” and the like). It never resulted in the prosecution of any of the perpetrators, despite an extensive Pentagon investigation that was buried by the White House in 1975.

The title of Nick Turse’s 2013 book says it all: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.  Based on years of research in secret Pentagon archives and extensive interviews with U.S. veterans and Vietnamese survivors, Turse’s volume exposed the crimes of “a military machine that resulted in millions of innocent civilians killed and wounded-what one soldier called ‘a My Lai a month.’”

Perhaps the killing of civilians has happened in every war, but the U.S. slaughter of innocents in Southeast Asia was off the charts, consistent with the atomic crimes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I’m guessing that Turse didn’t hear from Burns and Novick either.

The Profits of Empire

Expect Burns and Novick to say nothing or close to it about the imperial “defense” contractors – Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” – who profited handsomely from the carnage.  Or about the regressive class consequences of imperialism. This will be a critical deletion.  As Chomsky noted in 1969,

“There are, to be sure, costs of empire that benefit no one: 50,000 American corpses or the deterioration in the strength of the United States economy relative to its industrial rivals. The costs of empire to the imperial society as a whole may be considerable. These costs, however, are social costs, whereas, say, the profits from overseas investment guaranteed by military success are again highly concentrated in certain special segments of the society. The costs of empire are in general distributed over the society as a whole, while its profits revert to a few within.”

It’s not for nothing that “P”BS has pretty much blacklisted Chomsky, the nation’s leading left intellectual (very possibly its leading intellectual of any political stripe), for the last five decades and counting. The “public” network’s news and public affairs departments are de facto outposts of the Pentagon, the military-industrial and Big Carbon complexes, the State Department, and the Council on Foreign Relations.   You don’t get privileged broadcast space there, or big filmmaking grants from Bank of America and the Koch brothers – two leading funders of Burns and Novick’s Vietnam series – by exposing the immoral, imperial, and unlawful essence of U.S. foreign policy.

Sinclair’s Dictum

Burns and Novick know this very well and will play along accordingly.  There’s no censorship required.  Smart historical documentarians know in advance what they can include and what they must delete if they want the good stuff – money, status, a sense of importance and relevance –  coming their way. It’s one small but significant part of how the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire rule.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something,” the American socialist Upton Sinclair once wrote, “when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Sinclair’s dictum applies with a vengeance to Burns and Novick.

I never got a chance to confront him about the curious role he was slated to play in defense of U.S-imperial arrogance and criminality.

“Who controls the past” Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”


[1] See Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins (New York: New Press, 2002 [1967, 1969]); For Reasons of State (New York: New Press, 2003 [1970, 1971, 1973]); What Uncle Sam Really Wants (Berkeley, CA: Odonian, 1992); Understanding Power (New York: New Press, 2002); “A Tale of Two Quagmires,” ZNet Magazine, January 4, 2006.

[2] Two other and more respectable Ann Arbor Pioneer High veterans:  Iggy Pop and Bob Seeger. Burns graduated from Ann Arbor Pioneer High two years before I started there, with my parents contemplating a move to Canada because of the “Vietnam War” draft.


Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).