A wise man once wrote that “the past is prologue,” meaning that everything happening today most probably has its roots in yesterday. The new PBS documentary miniseries by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about the Vietnam War engraves that point in stone.
We think of Vietnam as a series of 1960s clichés: rock-music anthems, antiwar demonstrations, General William Westmoreland reporting on “light at the end of the tunnel,” and Walter Cronkite asking on camera while reporting during the Tet Offensive, "What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning this war."
In fact, as the first episode of the documentary—titled, appropriately enough, “Déjà Vu”—reminded us, what happened in Vietnam in the 1960s owed a great deal to World War II.
Follow the logic. Vietnam had been a colony of France since 1858, when French troops landed at Da Nang. Natural resources were the lure, since Vietnam was one of the world’s greatest sources of natural rubber. The French acted badly, as colonial masters always do: a plantation economy seeking to extract raw materials as cheaply as possible, exploitation of cheap local labor, and vicious suppression of any native bold enough to demand civil or political rights. The Vietnamese hated their French masters, the French despised the supposedly inferior natives, and a vigorous anti-French resistance—led by a shadowy figure who burned through one alias after another but eventually settled on “Ho Chi Minh”—had already arisen by the 1930s. And here’s where World War II changed Vietnam forever. In 1940, the German army sliced through France like butter. Germany’s ally, Japan, eventually invaded Vietnam and replaced the French as colonial masters. Vietnam was now a Japanese colony, and that put it squarely in the crosshairs of US foreign policy after 1941. Washington wanted to weaken Japan anywhere it could, but couldn’t devote too many military resources to the place. The result was the insertion of a team of Office of Strategic Services (OSS) agents into the country. The OSS used covert agents to move events in America’s direction: making contact with local anti-Japanese patriots like Ho Chi Minh, carrying out acts of sabotage against the Japanese, and helping rescue downed American pilots.
When Japan surrendered in 1945, Ho—by now a legendary figure to Vietnamese patriots—declared an independent Vietnamese state. He actually presided over a great parade in the northern city of Hanoi and gave a speech drawn liberally from that great statement of American liberty, the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” he proclaimed to a delirious, cheering crown, “that all men are created equal.”
From here it all went south. The United States wasn’t interested in an independent Vietnam. In the new Cold War of the postwar era, Washington wanted to reinstall the French as rulers of Vietnam. Ho and his followers launched a vicious guerrilla war in the countryside to drive out the French, and France was soon in deep trouble—with losses rising in Vietnam and dissatisfaction at home at the cost of the war. By 1950, America was footing 30 percent of the bill for the French war to suppress the Vietnamese rebels, and a few years later the subsidy had risen to 80 percent. Ho was a patriot, yes, but also a committed communist, and that labeled him an enemy of America in the 1950s. By the time the French suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, it almost seemed inevitable that the United States would step in and try to succeed where the French had failed.
Burns and Novick handle all this in the first episode of The Vietnam War in typically deft fashion: strong visuals, narrative flow, and first-person testimony (including a welcome number of Vietnamese voices). It moves slowly at times, but only because of the denseness of the historical material. The underlying idea comes through clearly, however. America’s fateful involvement in Vietnam happened for a lot of reasons, but mainly it happened because of World War II.