by Rick Bretz
Before analyzing these two documentaries, it is important to note the definition of a documentary.
From the Oxford English Dictionary–Documentary: Using pictures and interviews with people involved in real events to provide a factual report on a particular subject.
Documentaries strive to be objective but their reliance on human beings makes that goal honorable but a little out of reach. People have their own views and biases as witnesses to history and those who write their first draft of history are subjective. Documentaries are the truth according to who produces them. In the end, documentaries can be a source for information but just like all forms of research, a scholar must seek other sources and make his or her own conclusions.
Many Vietnam War documentaries have been produced but two stand out. One was done more than 30 years ago while the other aired recently on PBS. One was produced by a Canadian journalist and narrated by Richard Basehart while the other was produced by the noted documentary producer Ken Burns and narrated by actor Peter Coyote, airing recently on PBS.
The Vietnam story goes back centuries before the United States became a nation. The people of Vietnam were conquered and abused by the Chinese and French before the American government and military were major players in the Vietnamese struggle for independence. Ho Chi Minh wanted to speak with Woodrow Wilson after World War II in Paris. However, politics and diplomacy married with class defined government protocols can be complicated. Not seeing then how Ho Chi Minh could be a leader is understandable. What is not excusable is how the United States could ignore the Vietnamese leader after working with him during World War II to defeat the Japanese. It’s only because they believed France’s Charles de Gaulle when he suggested the communist ideology would be taking a foothold in Western Europe. Leaders saw the dominoes falling and became worried about the Red Menace. This was also the time that the United States government thought that communism was infiltrating American society from Hollywood to the local unions. The Korean War and the influence of Communist China was also dominating foreign policy strategy during the early 1950s.
They documentaries interview key players or use interviews recorded years ago. The 10,000 Day War is less passionate and more forensically produced. It tries to stay away from making judgments and conclusions. The recent Ken Burns documentary uses more editorial language and interviews veterans and other key players to illicit an emotional response. Both of them use archival news footage and photographs.
They were both ambitious in their attempt to explain why the world, an especially the United States, became entangled in a war many people thought we had no business waging. They both make the point that our commitments to our allies like France’s Charles de Gaulle and the strict following of the Truman Doctrine led to sending advisers that eventually led to more than a half million servicemen fighting there in the 1960s.
In both documentaries, the Presidential Administrations that were a part of the Vietnam problem don’t look good. The early administrations, Eisenhower and Kennedy, look better than others because they were wary of the South Vietnamese leadership in the early stages. In addition, the US wasn’t fully committed yet and the early administrations conclusions were that “this is their war and the South Vietnamese were going to have to win it.”
The one criticism of The 10, 000 Day War is that it is a US dominated production and doesn’t give any other country’s diplomatic view, and that it doesn’t take to task the French Government’s insistence in occupying Vietnam after World War II when France was liberated themselves from Nazi rule. The Ken Burns’ series points out that the only reason France wanted to control Vietnam was national pride and the economic exploitation of its resources. The PBS series points out that the French occupiers treatment of the local population gave rise to Ho Chi Minh’s recruitment efforts. The Burn’s PBS series also makes a better attempt to explain the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese points of view.
Ho Chi Minh for is part couldn’t understand why the Americans couldn’t see his side of wanting to gain his country’s freedom from colonial rule. He reasoned the United States was in the same position 200 hundred years ago so they must be able to relate to his struggle. He didn’t count on America’s fear of communism and the spread of it across the globe. What is fascinating to know from the PBS series is that Ho Chi Minh’s influence in the decision making process was diminished late in his life.
The 10,000 Day War documentary is called that because it lasted that long. Scholars might say the United States is still fighting the war by the decisions they make concerning other wars and because they are trying to make up for the ill-treatment of the Vietnam veterans after they came back. The PBS series does a good job of telling the veterans story and their experiences there.
Vietnam veterans are looked upon wrongly as fighters who went over, lost the war, were there to do drugs and commit war atrocities. As with many events, negative headlines become the perception and finally the reality. The movies from Hollywood never helped the perception. This is far from the truth. The majority of Vietnam veterans were honorable and went over there to do a job and come back alive. They were put in a situation they had little, if no control, over. They made the trip, they didn’t skip out or make excuses. Some of them came back alive but 58, 220 didn’t make it. That’s a high price to pay for a generation.
Both documentaries are worth watching but they are both just additional sources. Do your own research and make your own conclusions. You walk away from both of them shaking your head and wondering why decisions were made and why opportunities were not explored, especially after World War II.