What to Viet Nam is our 4th of July? Rethinking Burns & Novick’s documentary, Part 1

by Anh Lê

The Declaration of Independence, ratified in Philadelphia on the 4th of July, 1776, began with these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Vietnamese-President-Ho-Chih-Minh-steps-down-from-Ba-Din-Square-platform-fist-raised-after-declaring-independence-090245-300x216, What to Viet Nam is our 4th of July? Rethinking Burns & Novick’s documentary, Part 1, World News & Views
Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh steps down from the platform in Ba Dinh Square, his fist raised, after declaring Viet Nam’s independence on Sept. 2, 1945, before a huge crowd

America’s Declaration of Independence has served as a model for other nations. One hundred sixty-nine years after its ratification, on Sept. 2, 1945, the leader of the independence movement in Viet Nam, Ho Chi Minh, stood in Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi to deliver his Proclamation of the Birth of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam, “Tuyen Ngon Doc Lap Viet Nam Dan Chu Cong Hoa.”

His proclamation of independence to the Vietnamese people, which followed Japan’s expulsion from Viet Nam, borrowed from the American Declaration of Independence, beginning with these words: “My countrymen: All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776,” he continued. “In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

“These are undeniable truths.”

Ho Chi Minh then addressed the current threat: “The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer the country.

Crowd-listens-to-Vietnamese-President-Ho-Chih-Minh-declare-independence-Ba-Din-Square-090245-300x207, What to Viet Nam is our 4th of July? Rethinking Burns & Novick’s documentary, Part 1, World News & Views
A huge crowd assembled in Ba Dinh Square raised their fists as President Ho Chih Minh finished reading his Declaration of Independence.

“We solemnly declare to the world that Viet Nam has the right to be a free and independent country – and in fact it is so already. And thus the entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.”

As we reflect on these momentous historical events, the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, and Ho Chi Minh’s Proclamation of Independence for Viet Nam in 1945, we are confronted with the Viet Nam War, a war in which over 58,000 American soldiers and over 3 million Vietnamese were killed.

Many books and TV specials have been written and broadcast about the Viet Nam War, which will continue to be the focus of historians for generations to come, both in the U.S. and in Viet Nam. But how do we in the U.S., individually and collectively, regard the Viet Nam War?

How do our perceptions, views and insights regarding the Viet Nam War shape our opinions concerning our role in the world and how we believe our nation should conduct itself?

In September 2017, a television documentary, “The Vietnam War,” directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, was broadcast on PBS. Did this program offer the American people an unbiased search for the truth regarding the Viet Nam War?

The title of Burns and Novick’s documentary, “The Vietnam War,” is a misnomer. The title suggests that it is a definitive history of the War in Viet Nam. It is not.

Burns and Novick’s title suggests that it offers a critical, objective, and unbiased examination and analysis of the War in Viet Nam. It does not.

The title suggests that the documentary employs the best approach and methods to look in-depth at the history of the war to search for the truth that it reveals, so that we – Vietnamese and Americans alike – “can learn from the lessons of the Viet Nam War.” It does not.

This is unfortunate and disappointing, considering that the 10-part series took 10 years to produce and cost $30 million.

It does contain elements that deserve credit. For example, Burns and Novick do utilize some interviews with Vietnamese, and the amount of archival materials and film footage is impressive.

But the unfortunate truth is that Burns and Novick perpetuate lies about the Viet Nam War – about Viet Nam, the Vietnamese people and the culture of the Vietnamese people.

As one listens to the narrator, it becomes fairly clear that much of the script is based simply on the press releases, narratives and archival materials originating from the Pentagon, the White House, the U.S. military in Viet Nam – the United States government. In that sense, it unfortunately perpetuates still today a very warped, biased, pro-U.S. military, pro-U.S. government view of the history of the Viet Nam War.

The unfortunate truth is that Burns and Novick perpetuate lies about the Viet Nam War – about Viet Nam, the Vietnamese people and the culture of the Vietnamese people.

It perpetuates and glorifies the U.S. government’s and U.S. military’s own justification for waging their war on Viet Nam: the United States’ view of itself as idealistic and its sense of exceptionalism.

As long as such views of the Viet Nam War continue to be perpetuated, the “lessons of the Viet Nam War” will never be learned, and “What have we learned from the Viet Nam War?” is merely a farcical, rhetorical, hypocritical and self-deluding question.

The documentary begins by stating that “the war was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War misunderstandings.”

Burns and Novick’s thesis not only displays their bias but results in the perpetuation of a false and misleading narrative of why the U.S. waged war in Viet Nam and how and why it continued to escalate it, at the cost of the lives of over 58,000 American soldiers and over 3 million Vietnamese. Millions more Vietnamese were orphaned and widowed.

It perpetuates and glorifies the U.S. government’s and U.S. military’s own justification for waging their war on Viet Nam: the United States’ view of itself as idealistic and its sense of exceptionalism.

Throughout Burns and Novick’s documentary, whenever Vietnamese women, men and young people are rounded up and captured by U.S. soldiers and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam, the South Vietnamese army) soldiers, they are referred to as “Viet Cong,” “Viet Cong sympathizers” and “North Vietnamese soldiers.” This narrative is false. It perpetuates a lie about the Viet Nam War, the lie that the U.S. government and military used to justify its waging war in Viet Nam and its expansion and escalation of the war.

It also reflects a very racist view and ignorance regarding the Vietnamese people and their culture. Ordinary Vietnamese people dressed in black clothing are not “Viet Cong,” “Viet Cong sympathizers” nor “North Vietnamese soldiers.”

Similarly, throughout the documentary, whenever dead Vietnamese bodies are shown, they are referred to as “Viet Cong,” “Viet Cong sympathizers” and “North Vietnamese soldiers.” Again, this narrative is completely false.

In his book, “Kill Anything That Moves,” Nick Turse, a historian and investigative journalist, states: “Murder, torture, rape, abuse … were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam … They were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military.”

My-Lai-Massacre-black-blouse-girl-just-raped-or-molested-fightback-mom-about-to-be-executed-ordered-by-Lt.-Wm.-Calley-Jr.-031668-by-Ronald-S.-Haeberle-Time-Life-200x300, What to Viet Nam is our 4th of July? Rethinking Burns & Novick’s documentary, Part 1, World News & Views
This iconic Haeberle photo of women and children in My Lai just before they were killed is called “black blouse girl” for the young woman, just raped, seen buttoning her blouse. That’s her mother in front, so enraged she had to be held back from attacking the soldiers with her bare hands. – Photo: Ronald Haeberle

On March 16, 1968, in the hamlet of My Lai in Quang Ngai Province, U.S. soldiers killed over 500 Vietnamese babies, children, women and men. They were shot and killed indiscriminately, mowed down en masse. Vietnamese girls and women were gang raped, huts were set afire and destroyed, food supplies destroyed and livestock killed.

Photographs taken by Ron Haeberle, a U.S. Army photographer who accompanied the soldiers into My Lai, show the horror and war crimes that were perpetrated during the My Lai Massacre. Dead babies and children are shown lying next to their mothers and family members. A woman lies near a rice field, her skull shattered after being shot and her brain next to her body.

A young woman holding her young son is shown buttoning her blouse after being raped by the American soldiers. She stands with her family members, from young children to old women, all looking terrorized. A moment later, she and all her family members are killed.

Another photo shows a young boy and his younger brother crawling along the country dirt road, right before they were killed. Another picture shows an old man who had been thrown down a well.

On the very same morning, another massacre was committed by American soldiers in the hamlet of My Khe, a mile away. Over 90 Vietnamese civilians were reported slaughtered by U.S. soldiers there. Also, other nearby hamlets such as Co Luy and Tu Cung were targeted by soldiers from the same platoon that committed the massacre in My Lai that day. Let us remember: The My Lai Massacre and the My Khe Massacre were not an aberration.

Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. military commander in Viet Nam, congratulated the soldiers who had been at My Lai for their “outstanding action.” Westmoreland’s commendation stated that the American soldiers’ mission at My Lai “[had] dealt [the] enemy [a] heavy blow.” Why did Westmoreland view the massacre as an event to be praised?

My-Lai-ditch-where-Lt.-Calley-ordered-killing-of-dozens-of-civilians-by-Katie-Orlinsky-New-Yorker-2015-300x247, What to Viet Nam is our 4th of July? Rethinking Burns & Novick’s documentary, Part 1, World News & Views
The New Yorker, where Seymour Hersh broke the story of My Lai in March 1968, accompanied him on his return in 2015. Markers describe what he calls the “terrible event” to educate thousands of visitors who come every year. This is the ditch where Lt. Calley ordered people killed. – Photo: Katie Orlinsky, New Yorker

The Commemoration Program of the 50th Anniversary of the My Lai Massacre was held at My Lai on March 16 this year. The Vietnamese people who attended the Commemoration Program included some of the few survivors of the massacre.

There were also American visitors and veterans. Ron Haeberle, the photographer, returned to My Lai for his sixth trip, accompanied by his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. Vietnamese children wearing the traditional “ao dai” dresses honored those who perished at My Lai. Viet Nam’s government dignitaries were at the commemoration. No representatives of the U.S. government attended.

Tulips and roses were offered to the memory of those who were killed at My Lai. Incense was burned at their tomb and grave sites. People who came to the commemoration also visited the Museum of Remembrance of the My Lai Massacre.

For those who came, it was a pilgrimage to honor all who perished during the My Lai Massacre. It was a search, individually and collectively, for healing. It was also a call to humankind and for each of us to remember that the spirits of all the babies, children, women and men slaughtered at My Lai, My Khe, Co Luy and Tu Cung cry out to us to make sure that the holocaust of the My Lai Massacre not be repeated.

American armaments and weapons unleashed on Viet Nam and the Vietnamese people

Vietnamese-rescue-US-air-raid-victims-by-100-B-52s-Christmas-bombing-1272-by-Agence-France-Presse-300x215, What to Viet Nam is our 4th of July? Rethinking Burns & Novick’s documentary, Part 1, World News & Views
Vietnamese women rescue victims of U.S. air raids by more than 100 B-52s on Christmas 1972. – Photo: Agence France-Presse

The U.S. government and military unleashed all of the armaments and weapons it possessed on Viet Nam and the Vietnamese people. The U.S. military dropped 5 million tons of bombs on Viet Nam, 4 million tons in the southern region of Viet Nam and 1 million tons in the northern region.

Mai Nguyen, who was born and raised in Haiphong and lived there during the war, now lives in San Francisco, where she owned a nail salon for many years. She remembers the U.S. bombings of Haiphong vividly. Nguyen states, “The B-52 bombers and the other bombers dropped countless tons of massive bombs on my city of Haiphong. I will never forget it. …

“The bombers would approach from the direction of the sea. We could hear them. We could know exactly where they were. The noises they made as they approached were unmistakable. They lowered in altitude before they dropped their bombs and regained altitude after they dropped their bombs.

“We could hear and feel the bombs as they were being dropped. When the bombs hit, the whole ground shook; the entire earth shook loudly and violently. You cannot imagine it unless you were there. The violent shaking of the ground and earth and the explosions continued for a long while. I felt terrified, but I had to survive. We had to survive.

“When it was time to exit from our bomb shelters, I saw the terrible destruction. I could see dead bodies everywhere – children, women, men. Feet and legs, arms and limbs chopped off, severed heads, strewn everywhere, flung on to tree branches and rooftops, and thrown and scattered everywhere on sidewalks and streets.

“Crushed bones and skulls, split open bodies and human organs, raw human blood and flesh were everywhere. The smoke from the bombs, the physical destruction they left, the houses, buildings, streets and roadways, bridges, schools, and hospitals that they destroyed. …

“The bombings were indescribably cruel and inhumane, but our task was to survive and to live. And we had to survive. We did survive. But many others, from those as young as babies to the elderly, were killed from the bombings.”


Kim-Phuc-clothes-torn-off-flees-napalm-attack-Viet-Nam-060872-by-Huynh-Cong-‘Nick’-Ut-AP-300x235, What to Viet Nam is our 4th of July? Rethinking Burns & Novick’s documentary, Part 1, World News & Views
Kim Phuc (her full name Phan Thi Kim Phuc) having torn off her burning clothes, flees a napalm attack with other children on June 8, 1972. This photo, taken by a Vietnamese photographer, was the final straw that broke the back of what little support was left for the war. – Photo: Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut, AP

In his book, “Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson,” Willson, an Air Force officer during the Viet Nam War, documented what he witnessed in Viet Nam while conducting military assessments of the results of U.S. bombing missions:

“On my trips in April to visit the ‘targets’ of our bombings, what I found were the blackened, mangled and maimed bodies of women and children, innocents who had been destroyed by U.S. napalm … Just as earlier in U.S. history, it was said that ‘the only good Indian was a dead Indian,’ now official reports were essentially saying, ‘the only good Vietnamese is a dead Vietnamese.’ Human beings were reduced to ‘VC dead;’ villages reduced to (bombing) grid coordinates. We had lost our humanity.”

“By 1969,” Willson continued, “the vast majority of land in the Delta was designated as lying in ‘free-fire zones.’ These were areas in which the U.S. and South Vietnamese military forces were authorized to shoot or bomb any person, animal, or object, no questions asked – in effect, genocide zones. All buildings destroyed by bombs in such zones were considered ‘VC structures,’ a policy that originated as early as October 1961, despite the fact that almost all of them were peasant homes and farm buildings … No one seemed worried if planes missed their targets or killed civilians.”

Kim-Phuc-52-laser-treatments-of-burns-for-pain-relief-Miami-2015-by-Nick-Ut-AP-300x180, What to Viet Nam is our 4th of July? Rethinking Burns & Novick’s documentary, Part 1, World News & Views
In 2015 in Miami, Kim Phuc, then 52, received laser treatments for the burns still covering her back and arm, causing constant, intense pain. The same Vietnamese photographer took this picture. He has considered her a daughter all these years. – Photo: Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut, AP

The photo images of Tran Thi Kim Phuc, the 9-year old girl from Trang Bang Village running down the road naked and screaming in pain from the napalm burns on her body, are part of our collective remembrances of the Viet Nam War.

Napalm burns at 1,500 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. It sticks to skin and hair and clothing and causes unbearable pain and severe burns, asphyxiation and death. Even when napalm does not hit a person directly, when the napalm bombs land on the ground or are shot from other weapons, they cause firestorms and use up the oxygen in the affected area, killing the Vietnamese people in their path.

Napalm was manufactured by Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Michigan. In 1980, the United Nations declared that the use of napalm is a war crime. The poem, “Napalm Sticks,” speaks to the unconscionable war crime in the use of napalm against the Vietnamese people.

Vietnamese-forest-destroyed-by-Agent-Orange-web-300x200, What to Viet Nam is our 4th of July? Rethinking Burns & Novick’s documentary, Part 1, World News & Views
This is all that was left of a Vietnamese forest aerial sprayed with Agent Orange during the war. In “The Enduring Legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam,” the Yale Globalist reports: “During the Vietnam War, the United States military conducted a mass aerial spraying campaign in the effort to root out the Viet Cong, destroying more than 5 million acres of forests and crops. In the process, an estimated 4.5 million Vietnamese and hundreds of thousands of American soldiers were exposed to the toxin.”

Agent Orange

Agent Orange, which contains the most toxic dioxins, was also manufactured by Dow Chemical Co., and by Monsanto and other chemical companies. It was sprayed over a large percentage of the southern region of Viet Nam. It was sprayed as a defoliant to destroy Viet Nam’s forests as well as its rice and other croplands.

Secretary of State Dean Rusk advised President John Kennedy to use Agent Orange in Viet Nam, assuring him that such use would not violate international laws. Averell Harriman, another Kennedy advisor, warned Kennedy against its use, saying that if it were used, the U.S. could in the future be perceived as a “barbaric imperialist.”

Since the war ended, Agent Orange has remained in Viet Nam’s soils, farmlands, rivers, waterways and eco-systems. Scientists state that it will remain there for over a hundred years at least.

Kan-Lay-55-holds-son-Ke-Van-Bec-14-deformed-by-Agent-Orange-in-Viet-Nam, What to Viet Nam is our 4th of July? Rethinking Burns & Novick’s documentary, Part 1, World News & Views
In Viet Nam, Kan Lay, 55, holds her son, Ke Van Bec, 14, who is physically and mentally disabled by Agent Orange.

In the meantime, the Vietnamese people who have suffered the consequences of Agent Orange’s use in Viet Nam have been ignored by the United States government and the chemical companies which manufactured Agent Orange.

For the Vietnamese, the use of Agent Orange in Viet Nam has caused severe birth defects, horrific birth deformities, severe illnesses and disabilities, and cancers. The Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange include the emaciated children and adults lying in their cribs and beds, severely disfigured and helpless, and others crawling on the floor, as well as those who are preserved in formaldehyde jars as fetuses with severe birth defects.

Why did Burns and Novick not explore with their viewers that the use of napalm and Agent Orange is regarded as chemical warfare against Viet Nam and the Vietnamese people?

Watch the Bay View for Part 2 of this commentary.

Copyright © by Anh Lê. Anh Lê is a San Francisco writer, independent journalist and activist born in Vietnam who has worked in the Black community for decades, especially with seniors. He has also worked with the Vietnamese American, Latino and other communities. His writing has been published in the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, Oakland Post, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Oakland Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Los Angeles Daily News, El Tecolote newspaper, Asian Week, USA Today and The New York Times, as well as in Vietnamese-language print and broadcast media. To contact him, email editor@sfbayview.com.

Editor’s note: The headline for this commentary is inspired by “What to the slave is your 4th of July?“ excerpted from Frederick Douglass’ Independence Day address delivered on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York, at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence.