Vietnam – A Television History (1985) review and comparison to the 2017 PBS documentary

Rated: 3.5 / 5


So this documentary series was recommended by a reviewer or two after watching the Ken Burns and Lynn Novack PBS documentary from 2017 (which left me wanting, and feeling cheated, by the end). When I found out that this documentary series was censored via its 2004 DVD release (compared to it’s 1987 VHS release), that sealed the deal. I would watch this, but not before tracking down the original VHS set, which I acquired on eBay for about as much as I payed for the Blu-Ray Ken Burns documentary. Watched it in its original VHS glory, then burned them onto my computer, and later compared and contrasted the VHS versions with the DVD version (the latter of which are currently available on youtube; only a couple of the VHS episode versions are on youtube as of this writing). And unfortunate to say, I’m seeing a pattern here with documentaries of old compared to documentaries of new, and revised versions of documentaries of old. But either way, I can definitively say this, Vietnam – A Television History is a far better documentary on Vietnam than the 2017 PBS version is. While the PBS version spent a respectable 18 hours on the subject spanning over 10 episodes, the VHS version spends 13 hours over a span of 13 episodes (while the DVD version only has 11 episodes, thus only 11 hours), and still manages to provide a better understanding of it all.

I’ll be referencing the uncut VHS edition from here on (at least up until the end). If you want to see how badly the DVD version fucked things up, I uploaded several youtube videos (and 1 bitchute video, because fuck youtube and its censorship bullshit) highlighting the differences between the VHS and DVD versions, mainly showing what was left out (not in any stylish way, I decided to keep it simple and therebye subtly encourage those who are interested to track down the VHS editions to get the full experience if they’re interested). You can see them here (though the last episode is missing simply because the DVD version left out the last episode entirely):

Review (well, more of a comparison)

So while the 2017 documentary began its history lesson of Vietnam in 1858, which was basically when the French took control of the country, this documentary begins in 100AD, with the revolt of the Trung sisters rebellion against China (a rebellion that failed, but their story became permanently etched in history). Quite a time gap. So what happened during those ancient years? China happened. Apparently they also have a bit of history when it comes to oppressing Indochina. Like with France, the Vietnamese (though they didn’t have that name/identity back then) rebelled against China’s rule off and on until the French came in. On top of that, just prior to WWII, the Japanese came in, seemed to liberate the Vietnamese from the French, but then began oppressing them just as badly as the French were, mainly utilizing the country for its resources and somewhat strategic position, which ended up leading them one step closer into a confrontation with the U.S. in WWII. Then WWII ended, the U.S. and Brits stepped in to let the French regain power (though funnily enough, even the Japanese assisted in this process), and we’re back on track with what Ken Burns discussed in the 2017 documentary.

Seems like a lot of relevant information to keep out of a modern documentary doesn’t it? Hence to say, I was hooked from the first episode. The rest of the series follows a consistent pacing, never dwelling for too long on an individual giving their side of the story (which Ken Burns most definitely did), and cramming in a lot of information into each episode, even mentioning (albeit a tad too briefly) the land reform campaign which Ho Chi Minh was responsible for, giving insight into his darker side of which many hate him for, going against the saintly portrayal Burns gives him in his documentary. Even one of the interviewees mentioned how he left Minh’s party because he felt he was lied to, that Minh said he would enforce nationalism over communism, but didn’t do that.

Many are interviewed, but the majority, like in the Burns documentary, tend to be from North Vietnam, of the Viet Cong, and anti-War vets/protesters. It doesn’t spend as much time with them as the Burns documentary does, and thus makes it feel more on the less biased side, but the bias remains. At least it makes a better attempt at hiding it by occasionally interviewing others and/or showing opposing footage to offer the other point of view. Not as much time is spent on the pro-war side (because let’s face it, even today it’s considering “the norm” to be taught that the Vietnam War was wrong on a number of levels, if not every level), but it comes off as more fair because the documentary isn’t dragged down by only covering a single person/event for an over-extended period of time. This strength does become a weakness on a few occasions, such as only briefly mentioning My Lai (practically in passing), and only briefly mentioning the Kent State shooting (again, only in passing), which makes the Burns documentary superior in that regard (especially since it’s the Burns documentary that encouraged me to take a closer look into those events).

The other major pro-side of the 2017 PBS documentary is that it makes a strong attempt at highlighting how the Vietnam War influenced cultural change in America, the consequences of having the first televised war that allowed U.S. citizens to not only see war in a more realistic and brutal light, but also to show that the U.S. government isn’t as honest and trustworthy as they hoped it would be.  Make no mistake, the 1985 VHS documentary covers this aspect too, but it focuses more heavily on covering events in Vietnam than on covering the cultural change aspects in the U.S., so I guess both documentaries balance each other out in that regard, though it’s nearly impossible to cover cultural changes in a non-biased manner (ie both documentaries should’ve balanced things out more with the pro-war civilian side), and Ken Burns definitely failed in this regard standing clearly on the anti-war protest side.  On the other hand Burns’ documentary also has a more decent epilogue, considering 2017 has more hindsight (and more access to what was once classified information) compared to the 1980s documentary. But in my opinion, the pros outweigh the cons. Those significant events mentioned earlier have a couple stand-alone documentaries of their own (I’ve watched a few of them).

Also worth noting is that some fairly significant political figures are also interviewed, including Diem’s wife, Bao Dai, an ex-CIA official, John Kerry, just to name a few. They offer significant insights the 2017 documentary was missing.

Anyway, here’s the pattern I’ve picked up on as the years went by. So 1984-7, the documentary is anti-war and critical of America’s involvement in Vietnam, and it does give Ho Chi Minh a bit of praise (but less so than the 2017 doc), but it’s also critical of communism. After all, this was made when the Cold War was still on. It mentions how North Vietnam didn’t just fight off the French and U.S. alone, it also had help from China and the USSR, which funneled in money and supplies just as the U.S. did to South Vietnam, the difference being the U.S. got more involved. The 2004 re-release, aside from trimming down a few inconsequential scenes here and there for dumb reasons (trimming down bits of carnage, dancing scenes, longer scenes of people walking, mostly inconsequential stuff; but it’s still irritating it was trimmed down), the main thing I’ve picked up on is that the 2004 release removes virtually any mention of China and the USSR altogether, and largely downplays the role of Communism. The 2017 Burns documentary maintains this pattern. The documentaries on the war have gone from being critical of the U.S. and Communism, to just being critical of the U.S., and in the process making the whole ordeal come off as the French and U.S. being an oppressive regime interfering with a country that didn’t want/need their interference, because being unified under the Ho regime would’ve been the best thing in the end, especially since it was inevitable. The later documentaries remove that context to create a more biased narrative, attempting to negate the grey areas of the war. That’s reason enough to hold the 1987 VHS version superior to all the others.

For those who really want an introduction to the alternative viewpoint compared to commonly taught beliefs, I can recommend the Richard Nixon book, No More Vietnams. And I know what you’re thinking, “Nixon? Seriously? That guys a corrupt asshole!” Newsflash, every politician is a corrupt asshole. But that shouldn’t dissuade one from acknowledging their strengths. In this case, Nixon was very intelligent when it came to foreign policy and having an understanding of foreign affairs. You’ll see he’s very knowledgeable in the whole ordeal, likely had a passion for history, and brings forth a counter-viewpoint that everyone should see at least once. He challenges many “myths” about Vietnam which are still taught today: that the war was unwinnable, the Viet Cong won the hearts and minds of villagers, the 1962 Buddhist protests against Diem arose from religious oppression, the domino theory is false, etc. Surprisingly relevant book despite its age. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect; Nixon still claims that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was started by the Vietnamese and that the U.S. only retaliated (which was likely true for the August 2nd 1964 attack, but not for the August 4th attack), and there may be a few other instances where he’s pro-American to a fault despite his criticism of some officials and of anti-war protesters, but it’s by-and-large a very valuable source for those seeking an alternative viewpoint that is largely ignored and hindered in today’s society.

For instance, this famous image that had been utilized by the famous anti-authority anti-war band Rage Against the Machine.  Never mentioned that the Buddhists were either led or inspired by Viet Minh infiltrators to destabilize South Vietnam under Diem to make it ready for invasion by the North.  A political/cultural attack so successful, it affects America to this day.

While that viewpoint may have been largely ignored during the 80s, it sure as shit is hindered today, considering the censorship of previous documentaries, and with what is left out of today’s teachings on the war. All sides should be given a voice, so that the listener can make up their own mind on the issue.

The video below is the last episode (left out of the American Experience DVD version), for your consideration:

So with that all said, anyone want to see this review ended with a debate?  To those who say no, fuck you, it’s happening anyway.  Taken from:
Bill Miller
I think that Larry’s assertion that US policy is driven by ignorance and arrogance is very accurate. It is called “hubris”, and CIA insiders have written about it in regards to US involvement in Afghanistan as well. The Vietnamese didn’t need Chinese infantry. In a (CIA) poll prior to the proposed Geneva Accord elections of 1956, it was found that 80% of Vietnamese intended to vote for Ho Chi Minh. There should have been no surprise, that “the Viet Cong were everywhere!” The threat of a larger involvement by China and Russia were certainly limiting factors in US operations.
Anomalous Host
Not quite accurate, and there’s some context to consider there, especially when reading Richard Nixon’s book “No More Vietnams” (and yeah, I know, he’s a corrupt bastard who is responsible for Watergate and being overly paranoid, blah blah blah, but don’t let that take away from his strengths in terms of knowledge regarding foreign policy). Ho Chi Minh had Diem (the one who would be leader of South Vietnam by 1976 [edit: correction, it was 1956]) imprisoned and had one of his brothers killed in 1945. Diem managed to make it out of that, and was put into an impossible situation of leadership that he made possible in 1954 by Bao Dai, which he made the best of and miraculously brought a sense of order from the disorder in South Vietnam by 1955. Granted, he accomplished this by means we in a first world country would deem questionable at best, utilizing methods including the fixing of some election polls and land redistribution; but it would be peanuts compared to the methods uncle Ho would use to achieve and maintain power in the North. Where Diem would fix polls to where he would get about 98% of the vote (in the South), uncle Ho would fix polls so he would get 140% of the vote (in the North), which is clearly impossible (much less improbable) unless the polls were fixed. On top of that, one must consider the thousands who fled North Vietnam between 1954-1955 to escape Ho and his radical land reforms and communist policies which were killing tens of thousands (which makes Diem’s land reform casualties look minuscule by comparison).
So, fixed polling, wiping out competitors (ie other political parties) and bribing the other competitors to go in-line with Ho, and making many Vietnamese fear him more than respect him, it makes it questionable as to whether Ho would’ve won an election or not (which no one ever thought was going to happen, and even if it did, they didn’t foresee Diem’s rise to power). And even if he did win, it would’ve been fixed one way or another, and more due to Communist influence than by American influence (who didn’t want the reunification/leadership vote to happen anymore than Diem did).
So in a nutshell, there was much more going on than U.S. hubris.
When it is impossible to achieve a democratic solution through elections, there is always gun barrel democracy. Having advised the southern zone (there never was a country of South Vietnam in the eyes of the international community), to avoid the 1956 elections promised by the Geneva Accords of 1954, the US then began to arm, train, and equip the forces of the southern zone in preparation for war. In 1965, after numerous attempts to have the northern zone retaliate militarily for aggression on its coast, the US staged a black flag event called “The Gulf of Tonkin Incident”. This fabrication would serve as justification for the introduction of US combat forces into Danang, South Vietnam. Eventually, 58,200 US lives, 5,000 South Korean lives, and 500 Australian lives would be given in an attrition ratio which was established at LZ Xray in the Ia Drang Valley in November of 1965, and found to be acceptable by the antagonists. (1:12). But, that ratio proved unacceptable to the American public who had to provide their sons and daughters to fill the equation. One way of guessing how an election might have turned out, is to look at the sacrifices of the ARVN soldiers vs the Viet Cong and NVA.
The ARVNs were famous for making enough noise on patrol to avoid accidentally making contact with their enemy. The communists would impress their American adversaries by standing in their trenches and firing their AK-47s at aircraft until they were immersed in flaming napalm. Or standing in a field and firing at Cobra attack helicopters to allow their comrades to escape to safety. A common question among Americans was “why do their Vietnamese fight, and ours do not?” American patrols rarely found military aged males in rural hamlets. No, they weren’t out fighting for the ARVN. The Domino theory was also a farce. At no time in history did the Soviet Union, China, and Vietnam share foreign policy goals……except perhaps for the period of US military involvement in South East Asia. Once the US left the area in 1975, China and Vietnam resumed hostilities and China invaded Vietnam in 1979 with a division sized force and their relations remained sour for a decade after. So much for the domino theory. President Eisenhower warned the American people of the threat to US democracy posed by the Military Industrial Complex. The MIC and CIA saw opportunity in Vietnam. JFK was eliminated and they had their way. USMC General Smedley Butler wrote a book about war being a racket. Now, the US wants a military base in Poland.
Agreed with most up until the last 12 or so sentences (though I’m still researching this broad topic in my own way, started by watching the Ken Burn’s PBS Vietnam War documentary, which ended up acting as a stepping stone for my studies). First off, the Southern Vietnamese forces were never going to be all that efficient after Diem was ousted (and killed); their government never reached that strength again from what I understand. Yes, they were less disciplined and less eager for warfare (most of the populace didn’t want anything to do with the war, they just wanted it to end one way or the other; they wanted peace after all these years, and who could blame them), and the Viet Cong were more determined. The thing is though, communist policies have a way of doing that (either fight or we kill you like we did those other people during our land reform campaign). The Viet Cong didn’t really have anything much to lose, and much to gain. The South, on the other hand, did have much to lose and little to gain (they weren’t fighting to gain, they were fighting to keep, and as the years went on the stuff to keep became less and less appealing when the government got more and more corrupt).
Second, the domino theory. I’m still on the fence about that. On the one hand, many today claim it was a farce, many are taught it’s a farce, and Ken Burns certainly supports the idea that it was a farce. Some even say that the guy who made the statement about it in the first place (by the Truman administration in 1952, predating Eisenhower’s declaration of the theory in 1954, if I recall correctly) wasn’t fully serious about it or something (haven’t exactly verified that yet). On the other hand, one should consider just what exactly happened after the Vietnam War, after we pulled out, stopped helping/supplying the south, and after Saigon fell. Better yet, consider what happened before. The French wouldn’t have been defeated at Diet Bien Phu (despite how stupid from a tactical standpoint it was for them to be there) if China hadn’t fallen under Communism and Mao’s rule (China was arguably the first domino). Diet Bien Phu was the first and biggest blunder when it came to prevent communism from taking over Vietnam, and America would continue to make several more blunders from then on, both politically and militarily, ultimately leading to Vietnam falling to Communist rule. From that point, the United States went into a period of isolationism, not wanting, “another Vietnam.” Not wanting another failure/humiliation/waste/division/etc. This lead to more dominos falling, not just Cambodia (a perfect example of what happens should we choose not to intervene; excluding the very brief period where we did try) and Laos, but also in Africa, the Middle East, and Central America. The domino theory doesn’t seem so far-fetched in hindsight now does it?
This changed when we intervened in the Middle East during the whole Charlie Wilson’s War period, where we would end up learning from our mistakes in Vietnam (to some extent), and use China’s/USSR’s tactics against the USSR, supplying rebels, letting them fight, and allowing them to drive out the USSR. What the USSR/China did against the U.S./French in Vietnam, the U.S. did to the USSR in Afghanistan, after finally stepping out from our period of isolationism. Granted, it was a short-lived victory after we stopped intervening when they were driven out, but that’s the irony, as the same thing happened to the Chinese post-Vietnam. Guess they didn’t learn from all of the mistakes of the past.
That aside, I am curious to learn more regarding the MIC and CIA role in Vietnam.
For your studies: Who killed Diem, and under whose authority? Who killed JFK, and under whose authority? You spoke of folks fleeing north Vietnam during 1954-56. Well, it was open season. The Geneva Accords permitted relocation. The French had ruled Vietnam for 100 years. They ruled through a bureaucratic network of indigenous Vietnamese (mandarins) who spoke french and practiced Catholicism. Diem was a Catholic. So was his brother Nhu, who ran the south through his brutal police network. Let’s not forget his lovely wife, Madame Nhu. (Let’s barbecue some more monks). The answer to the above questions is: The CIA. The CIA doesn’t work for Congress, it works for the Military Industrial Complex. I don’t see how the outcome at Dien Bien Phu was affected by the 1949 revolution in China. You suggest China was the 1st domino. Do you understand that colonialism was coming to an end in the world? Ho Chi Minh approached President Wilson at the Treaty of Versailles and Wilson was given the opportunity to make good on his pledge to allow former colonies to achieve independence. He was rebuffed. Ho Chi Minh worked for the OSS during world war II, rescuing pilots from bombing missions over tokyo. The Viet Minh were armed and trained by the predecessor of the CIA (OSS). The Western powers ignored and rebuffed Ho Chi Minh until Ho was forced to seek help from the Communist Bloc in his goal of independence. The US presence in Indo China upset the balance of power in the entire region. The Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in response to the US installing right wing General Lon Nol as prime minister. The Khmer Rouge came into existence as a direct response. After the killing fields, who defeated the Khmer Rouge and established order in Cambodia? (The Khmer Rouge were supported by China). North Vietnam did. The US had already fled the arena. The US secret war in Laos dropped more bombs in Laos than in Germany and Japan during WWII. This activity spurred the expansion and control of the Pathet Lao communists who assumed power in 1975. Another domino? Bwahaha. The US is its own worst enemy. Listen to JFK’s speech on secret societies. The US is supposed to be a democracy which answers to its citizens. Secret wars indeed. Nations don’t “fall” to communism. Nations dont “fall” to communist rule. Nations form communist governments because it is the desire of their citizenry who are willing to fight and defeat technologically superior enemies such as the United States of America. And, Afghanistan is another example and this time, the ism is not communist. Recommended reading for you is “Neil Sheehan’s “Bright Shining Lie” which won a Pulitzer in non fiction in 1986. Also, David Halberstam’s “Best and Brightest”. When you are done, see your local Marine recruiter for a career pep talk. If you want to be current on Afghanistan, try “Directorate S”.
The CIA killed Diem? You’re giving them too much credit. JFK kinda sorta okayed the coup to overthrow Diem (but he never wanted him dead). Not only does the Ken Burns documentary cover this, but so does the book Dereliction of Duty by H.R. McMaster. It wasn’t the CIA, at least not directly. If the CIA was involved, all they did was just give the go-ahead for Vietnamese rebels to go about overthrowing him.
As for how Dien Bien Phu was affected by the 1949 revolution in China, it’s simple. Because of Mao’s ascent to power, he let communism thrive, wanted it to spread, and thus assisted the North Vietnamese (and thus Ho Chi Minh) with weaponry and supplies. Hell, they even supplied trucks to drive much of those mortars/artillery to the strategic positions around Dien Phu (contrary to popular beliefs, it wasn’t just Northern Vietnamese willpower and determination alone).
As for colonialism coming to an end, on that we agree. The issue was what would replace it. And that’s primarily how countries fell/converted to either communism or democracy or whatever other form of government. That’s what happens when they want to become independent. And as you should be able to plainly see, other countries can influence which direction they will go in. The U.S. wanted them to go in the direction of democracy, China and the USSR wanted them to go in the direction of Communism. The difference between the two in terms of the immediate end-result, each country that becomes ruled by a communist government inevitably has many of its own citizens killed and “re-educated”, not to mention how half of them tend to suffer economically, like what happened to Vietnam for at least a decade when it tried out socialism. As we’ve seen with China, USSR, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Nevermind the whole freedom of the press and elections elements.
If the U.S. upset the the balance of power in the entire region, then so did China’s involvement (much less the USSR).
I must admit, you currently have me at a disadvantage here when it comes to knowledge of the Khmer Rouge and the how/why of their initial ascent to power. But regardless of Cambodia’s claim as a neutral country, that sure didn’t stop the Viet Cong from building and utilizing a Ho Chi Minh trail through there. And Cambodia’s leader, Sihanouk (a communist), sought help from Mao Zedong (among others) with preventing the Vietnam war from spilling over into his country, even though the Viet Cong had already infiltrated the country and were using the Minh trail to their advantage to help with their own war. In fact, Zihanouk broke off relations with America for a time during the 60s. Plus Nixon had secret bombing runs done in Cambodia without notifying or even asking permission from Zihanouk. This is relevant because the Khmer Rouge were around while he was in power, and were gaining strength at this time, before the so-called puppet leader Lon Nol came to power. And even so, it was the North Vietnamese who helped the Khmer Rouge come to power. So even if the U.S./CIA was involved with instigating the Khmer Rouge’s initial rise to power (which seems highly unlikely), then North Vietnam was also involved. And China was involved near the beginning, at least when Sihanouk was in power (thus prior to Lon Nol). Plus, puppet leader or not, you can’t really use the U.S. or the CIA as a scapegoat, excusing the fact that the Khmer Rouge killed more of their own people (roughly 25% of the entire Cambodia population) than the U.S. killed Vietnamese (civilian and military combined) during the entire Vietnam War. Plus they were also supported by the North Vietnamese army. The Khmer Rouge were around and involved, the Viet Cong were around in Cambodia, and Cambodia was hardly neutral in this endeavor prior to U.S./CIA involvement.
As for those books, if they’re available at the library, I’ll see about checking them out (have a few other Vietnam books I’m looking into).


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