There’s a saying: “[w]henever text taken out of context there is a pretext.” In Part I of Ken Burns’s documentary on Vietnam, the text – what was presented to you – left out context. So, what is the pretext? I’m still considering the presentation, the facts, and the editorial view of Burns and how these came together to form the story.
Ken Burns and his company made a technically excellent film. You won’t get any argument from me on that score. Speaking of scores, the music was perhaps the most honest aspect of Part I. A hard, hard rain coming down indeed! The use of parallels – to compare the combat between the Vietnamese and the French, then the Vietnamese and the Americans provide a text of brutality, hatred, and trauma. This comparison sets the pretext of tying Americans, and the larger questions of ‘what is good,’ ‘what is honor,’ and integrity in matching deed to words to intrinsic evils illustrated in 19th Century colonialism: racism, ethnocentrism, and the savagery of enforcing rule.
Burns does present the view that the Vietnamese were no angels when it came to savagery, but this doesn’t balance the scales. There is context missing. Uncle Ho carried out the early stages of the revolution straight out of Moscow’s textbook. He kept his public image above the fray, leaving his two lieutenants, General Giap and Le Duan, to ruthlessly purge the revolution of everyone less than 110% committed, and enact brutal strategies modeled on Russia, the Warsaw Pact countries and Russia’s client states, China, and North Korea.
Burns continues the old trope of “Uncle Ho is as American as Apple Pie” through repeated associations with Progressive idols Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, FDR and JFK. Uncle Ho’s inclusion of Jefferson’s words from the Declaration of Independence were hailed by Burns as proof of Ho Chi Minh’s benevolence. The absence of context is noted in questions:
1. If General Giap and Le Duan were as ruthless as claimed, how did Ho Chi Minh escape purging since he was 1) Americanized; 2) western (meaning European in philosophy); and, 3) not violent in and of himself?
2. If the Russians believed Ho Chi Minh was more nationalist than communist, why did they let him live?
Burns doesn’t ask that question in Part I. There are more questions left unasked. With that, I leave you with this review by Dr. Nguyen Ngoc Sang who asks:
To me, in order to determine who won and who lost the war, one needs to answer three fundamental questions: (1) what was the goals of the involved parties. (2) What price did they have to pay? (3) The overall assessment of the war.
Finally, some context. But not from Ken Burns.