Ken Burns’s Vietnam, Part 3

Ken Burns presents the US escalation of involvement in Vietnam as a couple living together: committed to remain uncommitted. As is the norm, whomever goes all in wins. Maybe VMI’s football team could learn a thing or two from that. Maybe? But I digress. Burns presents the theme of commitment in three acts: political empowerment, the operational arts, and mobilization.

Act 1 opens with Burns telling of Le Duan’s seizure of power away from Ho Chi Minh and the subsequent consolidation of that power the Moscow Playbook of Purges. The North Vietnamese Politburo met in November 1963 and voted in favor of Le Duan. This gives Burns a reason to excuse Uncle Ho from further responsibility for the war. Ho’s allies were purged and Le Duan committed North Vietnam to active if not formally declared warfare in the south.

Burns starts his contrasting illustration using LBJ as an almost-sympathetic figure, an inheritor to a meandering mess, and pushed by the provocation of Le Duan and Barry Goldwater (because aren’t Republicans responsible for everything?). Le Duan committed. Johnson would not.

Act 2 continues the Little Lost LBJ meme through the absence of the operational level of war on the part of the RVN and US. There was a strategy – stopping communism and creating an environment that allowed for the Far East to stabilize and restore itself after WWII and the Korean War. There were tactics emphasizing mobility and firepower. There was nothing in between – no invasion of North Vietnam, no indirect approach to stretch the North’s resources to breaking. Perhaps the presence of 320,000 Chinese PLA soldiers performing support duties in the North caused Johnson and the JCS to blink.

The North had an operational-level plan and carried it out, with allies in the US, USSR and China. The Anti-war Movement was a cheap investment that paid huge dividends, and having spawned today’s Antifa, continues to return on the investment. For the American people and their military, the absence of a larger vision meant Vietnam was about patrols, in combat, with casualties broadcast during the evening’s supper – young men resembling meatloaf to watch with leftovers.

Other evidence of commitment was the mobilization of civilians to maintain and act as porters on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The USSR and Communist China committed men and materiel to prop up North Vietnam so more men and women could be sent into combat with the single tactic of attrition – and the North refused to count the cost. The US responded with first 3 battalions of Marines. Then 2 more. Then Army units. Then a request for 200,000 troops while still maintaining a presence in West Germany, Korea, and across the globe.

Some questions that Burns doesn’t ask:

Had LBJ not had to focus on Vietnam, could he have effectively ended Jim Crow without the pain and creation of abiding anger? Could his Great Society actually have achieved at least 1 positive thing?

Where did the Anti-war (now Anti-fa) come from? Why did they only protest wars and incidents in which the USSR had a vested interest?

Marshall, Ike, Nimitz and MacArthur were gone, so whom among their lieutenants – the Vietnam-era generals and admirals gave a thought to the operational arts?

Communist China would have had to react just like it did in Korea had the US decided to reunify Vietnam as a one, pro-democracy country. Could China and the USSR afford to react, or would they have folded from the increasing internal contradictions that make up communism?

Would a similar anti-war movement in the USSR and China have caused them to restrict support?

Does a new, pet theory of war – in this case JFK’s belief in limited, guerilla warfare obligate the officers of our armed Services, and the diplomats and spies, to forget how to prosecute warfare at the strategic, operational and tactical levels of war? To integrate, synchronize, and to go all in?

Has Anti-fa and the Progressives ever actually studied the Moscow Playbook? I know that means being exposed to real history, not Zinn’s horsesh*t. It never ends well for those committed to the ideals of the resistance/revolution.

Über DaveO

Retired soldier, micro-farmer, raconteur and pet owner from the great state of Oklahoma. Wandered in as a frequent commenter and have been enjoying blogging ever since.
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Eine Antwort zu Ken Burns’s Vietnam, Part 3

  1. burkemblog schreibt:

    I notice you don’t discuss Westmoreland in this, yet the documentary examines his operational and tatcical decisions in some details, finding them lacking. Where do you stand on this?

    Burns talked about the Ho-Le Duan business when he spoke here in St Louis earlier this month–he said more than once that when he began researching this film, he was surprised to find that Ho was not the central political figure so many Americans assumed he was. So that suprirse may manifest itself in this production. I don’t think he’s excusing Ho so much as showing that he was not the prime NV actor at this particular point in the conflict.

    You also don’t discuss the role of the draft as one of the underlying causes of the antiwar movement–self-serving though it may have been, The way the draft operated til 1969 and the end of student deferments (I was 1-D, ROTC) was profoundly unfair. We could argue about whether we should raft at all, of course, but I think we have to look at the way the draft worked at the time to see how it could split the country in the many ways that it did.


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