Ken Burns: Worse for Vietnam than Agent Orange, Part Two


Yesterday we started explaining why Ken Burns’s new documentary on Vietnam rewrites history and totally sucks. Today we conclude the saga.

So what happened to cause the war? Taking a page from David Halberstam, the train of events is fairly simple.

The Second World War ended with the Democrats solidly in power and big business mortified by the prospect of a postwar alliance with the Soviet Union, whose labor organizing and anti-racism efforts were quite strong and made manifest in the Communist Party USA. [Note from editor: At the time people should have known that Uncle Joe Stalin and the USSR and the CPUSA were bad news, to put it mildly, but a lot didn’t because Stalin pretty much beat the Nazis and Communism and its adherents promoted some great ideas.] And so, once Harry Truman replaced Franklin Roosevelt, Corporate America and the right wing of the Democratic Party created a large and complex propaganda machine about the Red Menace that was intended to neutralize Communists and their progressive domestic campaigns.

Next, as burnt offerings, many career civil servants were blacklisted with Truman’s loyalty oaths. Then Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, knowing a ticket to the limelight when they saw it, changed tack ever so slightly and said that the Democrats had been engaged in Soviet espionage since before the war.

Simultaneously, Chiang Kai Shek, one of the worst military leaders of the last century, was finally defeated by Mao, who promptly declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. This, combined with Soviet expansion into postwar Eastern Europe, was used by Republicans to “prove” the Democrats were “soft” on Communism and conspiring with the enemy. (Sort of reminds you of today but both parties are actually guilty of conspiring with Russians, but rich individuals, not the Russian government.)

And so from 1946 onward a self-propelling lie machine, created by Harry Truman et al, was let loose on the American public and politicians who didn’t know any better. As a result, the two parties engaged until 1991 in a perpetual game of militarist one-upmanship that was based around seeing which politician could posture the most hawkishly in public while in private setting up killer deals for big business at the expense of the formerly colonized and just about everyone else. In this sense any post-colonial country seeking to gain independence from the Western imperial system was doomed to be tarred as Communist even if they actually weren’t interested in Leninism, i.e Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran.

Burns and David Koch (see previous story for why that’s relevant) leave all of this out. Instead of discussing one of the most significant journalism scoops in American history, which led to a president’s resignation from office over trying to further conceal the original lie, we get a banal hosanna to an American fantasia that never existed. Daniel Ellsberg was not even interviewed for this pathetic Burnsumentary. 

We are presented, on a Koch-branded platter with faux-solemnity, a retread of Cold War myths about international Communism that have a certain spin [Editor’s comment: and perhaps quasi-truth, though I haven’t watched any of this epic shit show nor do I intend to. I’d rather watch Burns’s series on Jazz while basting my own head in Agent Orange and slow-roasting it in a gas range.] to make them more palatable and believable.

And even here we have more lies! What Burns defines as “Communism” is in fact the absolute opposite of what the Soviet Union and the ruling party were all about by 1945. What Burns calls “Communism,” an ever-expanding internationalist current that cynically exploited the national liberation aspirations of the post-colonial world (the Orientalist racism about the wily red Asians is pretty thick here), is a strange amalgam of Leon Trotsky’s ideas about a “Permanent Revolution” and Rosa Luxemburg’s views on national liberation, both of which Stalin and the Communist Parties worldwide had totally repudiated well before Hitler invaded Poland. [Editor’s note: I have no idea whether that is accurate or not.]

In essence, the Vietnam War and the Cold War that spawned it were nothing more or less than a fantastic publicity campaign launched against Americans about an enemy that did not really exist, an ideology that did not exist, and which placed innocent peasants and workers on the firing line to be shot by American GIs who had been told the person in the the sights of their rifles were red Commie monsters. [Editor’s note: This is largely accurate but I’d question a few assertions.]

Of course, the person who bore a major responsibility for all this was David Koch’s father, Fred, and the John Birch Society that peddled it.

And this is just in the first fifteen minutes of the first episode! Our tax dollars at work, folks!

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