“Ideology as History”: critiquing Burns and Novick’s The Vietnam War documentary.


I’m suddenly struck by the number of times we walked into a bar or restaurant in Belgium and Holland, only to find not even one functional television. Heavenly.

While we were gone, the documentary event of the season debuted.

Vietnam: ‘The war in south-east Asia is now the subject of an epic 10-part, 18-hour series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.”

I’m struck by this observation in The Guardian’s article: “Two thirds of Americans who served in Vietnam are no longer alive … while the majority of Vietnamese people were born after the war.”

It’s why history matters.

Even before pre-truth became post-truth, the tricky part has always been getting the history right, and that’s why people like Howard Zinn matter.

Learn about Howard Zinn and “What the Classroom Didn’t Teach Me About the American Empire.”

Howard Zinn died in 2010. A few years ago, when I tried listing the most influential books in my life, Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was not among them, and this was an unfortunate omission, to be rectified in a future update.

Now more than ever, you need to know these things.

It’s about sifting though the evidence and following it to a conclusion, not cherry-picking the parts that support pre-existing beliefs — and in the case of the new series about the Vietnam War …

Ideology as History: a Critical Commentary on Burns and Novick’s “The Vietnam War”, by Chuck O’Conell (CounterPunch)

After watching Episodes One and Two of the Burns and Novick Vietnam War series, I am reminded of the old adage asserting a valuable point for students of history: the class that controls the means of material production controls also the means of mental production. Listening to the narrator scroll through the list of financial sponsors cautioned me to lower my expectations that the series would break away from the predictable liberal narrative that has been dominant in discussions about the Vietnam War.

What is that liberal narrative? It is a bundle of intertwined claims: Vietnamese opposition to the French and then the Americans was motivated by a nationalist desire for independence, the Saigon government of the South was a legitimate government, the rebellion of the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam against the U.S. supported Saigon regime was directed by the communist Hanoi government of the north, the military conflict in Vietnam was thus a civil war, and U.S. military involvement in support of the South was the result of a series of mistakes by American political leaders. It’s a narrative that has a certain plausibility not least because it has been repeated over and over for fifty years.

A more comprehensive scholarly reading of history produces a more accurate narrative: First, without discounting the significance of nationalism in Vietnamese society, a more important factor in the war was the goal of land reform offered by the communists to the peasants who comprised the majority of the population. The military struggle was in large part a social revolution against the landlord class and its foreign backers. Second, the Saigon regime that emerged after the failed French war of re-conquest was a U.S. creation financed and managed by the Americans who built its military and prodded it into fighting against the Vietnamese revolutionary forces. When an army such as the South Vietnamese Army is funded and trained by a foreign power to maintain the foreigner’s domination of that same country, that army is not fighting a civil war – it is fighting a war of counterinsurgency and is essentially an army of collaborators. Third, the National Liberation Front was an autonomous Southern political entity that emerged from the failure of the Hanoi government to press a fight against the southern regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Dominated by communists it was in liaison with Hanoi as the North gradually gave greater assistance to the rebels’ efforts. Fourth, the U.S. involvement was not the result of a series of mistakes but was the result of a series of deceptions and provocations made by every U.S. administration running from Harry Truman all the way to Richard Nixon on the basis of the perceived political-economic imperatives of advanced capitalism in Southeast Asia. Let me amplify these points …