A Letter from London: Cinema and History

Poster của phim “The Vietnam War.” (Hình: PBS)

WESTMINSTER, Calif. (NV) – Lately, I haven’t wanted to follow anything related to Vietnam, including all the things people write about the Vietnam War. It wasn’t until a friend called to ask for my opinion about the new PBS series, “The Vietnam War,” that I knew anything about it.

But when I spent my time watching the series ― not all 10 episodes with 18 hours of air time, but several important parts ― I was very disappointed.

In truth, cinema is not an environment to show the complexity of history. To attract viewers, cinema has to simplify the gray areas to highlight the contrast of the black and the white. Therefore, I did not expect much from the documentary regarding its historical angles.

But with the series ― directed and produced by noted documentary maker Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and written by Geoffrey Ward ― being praised as the most comprehensive documentary about Vietnam War, I expected a more accurate retelling of the war that killed more than 2 million Vietnamese and claimed the lives of 58,000 American soldiers.

First, we have to state that this is a film by Americans about an American war in Vietnam in which that country is just a background. So, we should not expect any understanding about the history of Vietnam by the authors.

And even parts of American history were not done properly by the authors.

The incomplete story starts with the cause of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. The authors did not try to explain the geopolitical complexities of the era; the Vietnam War was just a small part. That was the fight for survival of two systems — the western bloc that was led by the Americans and the communist bloc that was headed by the Soviet Union and China. So when condemning the war was an ill-fated American battle, the authors avoided answering the question as to why the fight against the communist invasion in Berlin in 1949 or in Korea in 1950 was justifiable while the fight against the communists’ invasion in Vietnam during 1960-70 was ill-fated.

And perhaps to avoid that question, the documentary described Ho Chi Minh and his communist comrades as “countrymen” and that they only followed communism to achieve the goal of liberating their people. It was never explained why those countrymen created an invasive war against their own people under the name of Marxism-Leninism. And why, after they took control of the South, they imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people and sent these people whom they called fake soldiers of a fake government to reeducation camps and pushed millions of “boat people” to escape their homeland.

The description of the war’s development also showed a clear bias. Even though the documentary mentioned the atrocity on the communist side, it focused mainly on the cruelty of the Republic of Vietnam and the Americans. The northern communist leaders were never called “corrupt.” Adjectives such as that were used to describe the leaders of the Republic of Vietnam, the United States and President Richard Nixon, whom the filmmakers saw as a criminal.

The documentary also spreads the legend that Nixon prevented the Peace Agreement in Paris in 1968 when he persuaded President Nguyen Van Thieu to refuse to attend the Paris Convention prior to the U.S. presidential election in 1968. Through that, Nixon prolonged the war so that he would win the election.

In reality, in 1968, Thieu didn’t need to be persuaded by Nixon to know that attending the peace accord meeting was just a formality to give the Americans a reason to run away and let Vietnam fight against the communists. Thieu finally was forced to sign the Paris Accord under the threat from Americans that they would abandon Vietnam if he did not sign. He also signed an accord separately with the communists ― with Nixon’s promise that even though the United States was withdrawing its military out of Vietnam, the Americans would continue the military and economic aid to Vietnam to continue the fight against the communists.

It was the U.S. Congress that was the main culprit behind the fall of South Vietnam when they initially reduced and later cut off the military and economic aid to Vietnam. That proved the determination of Congress to guarantee the fall of the South regime. All of these factors were not mentioned in the documentary.

The last episode of the documentary is titled “Reconciliation.” There was no reconciliation for the Vietnamese, however. A lot of air time was devoted to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., and to stories of American veterans returning to Vietnam 20 years after the war and shaking hands with the ex-enemies. We have a feeling that it is the North that is the friend of the Americans and the Southerners who are the enemies.

It is too sad.

Note:  Hung Manh Le is a History scholar who received a Doctorate in Philosophy (Ph.D.) in History from University of London, England and graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with master degree in Engineering. Prior to 1975, he worked for the Bureau of Economics for the South Vietnam. After 1975, Le was forced to re-education camp by the Communists, during which time he self-taught himself Mandarin Chinese. After the re-education camp, he relocated to Australia. Le later worked for BBC in London and RFA in Washington, DC. Currently, he is retired and devoted himself full-time to historical research and writing.