Watching “The Vietnam War” directed by the amazing Ken Burns and Lynn Novick left me mentally exhausted. I posted on Facebook that it was like taking a graduate-level class on the war. I was 16 years old when Saigon fell and I didn’t really have first-hand knowledge of the Vietnam War, nor have I studied it in-depth.
I’m still sorting through my thoughts and emotions, but here are the top 5 things I consider my takeaways from the series.
Secrecy is immoral.
American leaders, starting with President Harry Truman, then Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon all kept citizens in the dark about aid to South Vietnam and then certain bombings. Of course I get that there needs to be secretive actions at times, but when it comes to the lives of America’s citizens and its treasury, leaders have to be forthcoming.
Ego drove the Vietnam War, not fear of communism.
Time and again, Burns and Novick reveal how the politicians were terribly concerned about how it would look if the United States “lost the war,” how it would affect their election and re-election opportunities, etc. Richard Nixon committed treason by having his people contact the South Vietnamese leaders before his election to ask them to scuttle the peace talks and wait for him to become president to get better terms. Military generals also were all about not having anything to do with defeat.
We need whistleblowers.
Thankfully Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, a secret study focused on how our government made decisions related to the Vietnam War but the leaking didn’t happen until 1971. Most importantly, the papers revealed how Johnson had repeatedly lied to the American people and Congress about the expansion of U.S. involvement in the war. But what if someone had leaked the secret memos written by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to Johnson, in which McNamara advocated for a halt to the bombing, to the ceasing of sending more troops, to deepening this country’s involvement? Instead Johnson ignored McNamara’s advice and did what the generals wanted.
We have to be relentless in questioning our government.
Thankfully the First Amendment is the backbone of our country. During the Vietnam War, protests in the United States grew to a huge crescendo, thanks to our right to peacefully assemble (although some protests were far from peaceful). And what if the journalists had not been able to report the war via pictures, film and words? The war would have gone on even longer. (I distinctly recall a body-count graphic that was in my hometown newspaper every day, thanks to the editor being anti-war. ) I was impressed that at the end of the “Vietnam War” series each night, there was a credit thanking the journalists who covered the war, some of whom died doing their jobs.
We should think more about the families and lives of our enemies.
Listening to the former Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers and citizens talk about the war from their point of view and the conditions they endured resonated deeply with me. We are all human beings who love and laugh. This is the first time that I’ve thought much about the soldiers on the other side. Families went for years not knowing about the fate of their sons and daughters. One soldier talked about how when he returned home, his mother and he could not even celebrate publicly because so many of their neighbors had lost sons in the war. It’s estimated that a total of 3.1 million Vietnamese soldiers and citizens (from North and South Vietnam) and 58,000 U.S. soldiers died.
Every military leader and politician should be required to watch the series and then visit Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial before they commit us into conflicts around the world.
If you missed watching the series, you can stream it here.
What are your takeaways from the series?