This week, Vietnam veterans sent a letter to PBS, Ken Burns, and Bank of America setting the record straight about the Vietnam War.PBS’s new documentary TV series, “The Vietnam War,” produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and funded by Bank of America, left out key aspects of the war, including the communist connections of North Vietnamese dictator Ho Chi Minh and the brutal repression after the war, veterans alleged.
“The whole cause of all this agony and bloodshed was the aggressive North Vietnamese invasion of the South. If it hadn’t been for that, none of this ever would have happened,” Lewis Sorley, a Vietnam War veteran, historian, and director at Vietnam Veterans for Factual History (VVFH), told PJ Media in an interview Wednesday. “Burns never seems to find that worth mentioning or condemning and I wonder why.”
Sorley alleged that Burns and his fellow filmmakers “had clearly decided that they wanted to tell the standard left-wing narrative of an unwinnable, unjust war.” The PBS documentary also obscured the evil of communism throughout the war and afterward. The veteran suggested that presenting the American and South Vietnamese forces as heroic would be “anathema” to the filmmakers.
In the letter VVFH sent to PBS, Burns, and Bank of America, Vietnam veterans emphasized four key omissions and distortions with broad-reaching consequences. The documentary presented a view of the war “very negatively slanted against both the nation of South Vietnam and American involvement there” that “exacerbates” the current cultural polarization in America today.
1. “Blustering, blundering jingoism.”
First, the documentary portrayed “U.S. support for South Vietnam as blustering, blundering jingoism,” with “Burns’ choice of music, graphics, and interviewees” demonstrating “a bias in favor of the militant leftist anti-war cliches of the 1960s.”
Although Sorley took part in a three-hour interview for the documentary, he only appeared “four times” in the actual program, for only “about half a minute each.” He remembered the interviewer giving off “very dismissive” body language. “The person interviewing me was offended by my understanding of the nature of the war and how it was conducted.”
In a 1980 survey, 91 percent of Vietnam veterans said “I am glad I served my country.” A full 66 percent said they would serve again, even knowing the outcome of the war. According to VVFH, the Burns documentary “demonstrates a prejudice against” these veterans and “the more than 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers killed by the Soviet-equipped and trained North Vietnamese Army and its Viet Cong subordinates.”
2. Minimizing Ho Chi Minh’s communism.
Perhaps more subversive, the PBS series “minimizes Ho Chi Minh’s life-long dedication to ruthless Leninism, his years of Soviet training and professional work as a covert communist subversive, and the mass atrocities of his supporters in North and South Vietnam.”
In the 1920s and 1930s, Ho worked for the Comintern in Moscow and advised Chinese Communist forces, returning to Vietnam in 1941. According to VVFH, the PBS documentary brushed aside this history, presenting Ho as a Vietnamese freedom fighter.
“Ho Chi Minh, as far as they’re concerned, was a nationalist,” Sorley told PJ Media. “His lifelong devotion to international Communism is largely glossed over.” The historian noted that North Vietnam enjoyed support from Communists in China and the Soviet Union, so portraying Ho as a nationalist is extremely deceptive.
3. Ignoring South Vietnam’s valor.
The VVFH letter also attacked Burns’ documentary for ignoring “the actions of leftist U.S. politicians in cutting off funding for vital military supplies for the South Vietnamese Army” and restraining U.S. air power.
Sorley presented the war’s outcome as the result of the U.S. holding back support while the Soviets continued backing Ho. In his telling, the South Vietnamese fought heroically, and could have won with the right help.
In his interview, Sorley told PJ Media that the South Vietnamese proved very effective in the war, pushing back the Easter Offensive in the spring of 1972, when most of the American troops had already gone home. While many credit U.S. air power for securing the South Vietnamese victory, General Creighton Abrams said the resolve of the South Vietnamese won the day.
“I didn’t see anything in Burns’ portrayal” about that offensive, or about the valor of the South Vietnamese, Sorley said.
4. Glossing over communist atrocities.
Finally, the VVFH letter faulted the PBS documentary for its “inadequate discussion of the results of the communist victory, the tens of thousands of executions, the million-plus sent to concentration camps, the curtailing of all civil liberties, and the oppression that led to the first ever mass exodus of Vietnamese from their homeland.”
While accounts of mass executions have been contested, up to 300,000 South Vietnamese were sent to re-education camps, not including “dissidents detained in the many prisons.” There, many endured torture, starvation, and disease. Additionally, between 200,000 and 400,000 died at sea while fleeing the communist regime. At least one million people left.
“All those people were guilty of was trying to maintain their freedom,” Sorley said. He lamented discrimination against South Vietnamese under North Vietnamese rule — “other people were taken from their homes and villages and sent out to new economic zones where they had to start from scratch to make a living in areas not prepared for agriculture.”
Furthermore, the communist victory in Vietnam helped Pol Pot conquer Cambodia, unleashing his reign of terror which killed one third of the country’s population.
While the documentary gave Sorley short shrift, it devoted considerable time to Duong Van Mai Elliott, a Vietnamese woman who appears in all eight episodes of the documentary series. “I felt relief that the destruction, the killing, finally came to an end, and I didn’t care which side won,” Elliott said.
It seems hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam would have strongly disagreed. Over one million left the country. Sorley praised those who came to the U.S., calling them “some of the best citizens we could ask for.” He said “the Vietnamese refugees have stood out for their hard work and decency and family values and education — all the things that we would say were characteristic of the American Dream.”
“This Burns show doesn’t mention that,” he added. “I think it’s disgraceful.”
Every five years since 2002, patriotic Americans have met at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. to read through the 58,318 names of American soldiers who were either killed or missing in action during the war.
“I got up at 3:15 this morning so I could be there,” Sorley recalled. The year 2017 marks the 35th year since the memorial opened in 1982. The veteran said he had asked for the 5 a.m. slot, but that slot was given to another man who had a boyhood friend on the list to be read at that time. Sorley, who admitted having “sour grapes” about having so little air time in the documentary, was glad to give up his 5 a.m. time slot.
Why would Vietnam veterans be so proud of their service in a war many consider unwinnable and unjust? Sorley spoke about the close companionship of soldiers in battle, but he also suggested something else.
“It does seem to me that all you need to do is look around the world and see where people are freest, where they are most prosperous, where they are happiest,” the veteran said. “That’s where they have the most degree of control over their own lives and the least imposition of outlooks and ways of living from the government.”
“In Vietnam, we have the worst of what communism brings to countries: There is no freedom of speech, the minorities are badly persecuted by the communists, and Vietnam is now viewed as one of the most corrupt and repressive societies in the world. How that’s better than democracy is very hard for me to see.”
Sorley had a message for millennials who have a positive view of socialism and even communism: “If they think communism as represented in Vietnam and elsewhere in the world is more attractive than what they can expect from a democracy like ours, they’re in for a shock.”
With Veterans Day around the corner and self-avowed socialists winning in Tuesday’s elections, one of the best ways to honor Vietnam veterans is to consider what they fought for, and why so many South Vietnamese fought, died, and left to preserve their freedom in the face of big government tyranny.
Vietnam veterans are proud of their service, and Americans should be proud of the South Vietnamese who fought for their freedom and the Americans from Vietnam who add so much to this country. Ken Burns, PBS, and Bank of America should be ashamed that their documentary tarnishes their valor.