Wednesday, April 29, 2015

PBS and Vietnam

Over the past two nights (April 27 and 28, 2015), PBS broadcasted four programs relating to the Vietnam War, marking the fortieth anniversary of the final retreat of Americans from that country when Saigon was captured by the North Vietnamese forces. The four programs are: The Draft, Dick Cavett’s Vietnam, The Day the 60’s Died, and Last Days in Vietnam.
These programs serve as a useful reminder of how tumultuous a time the late 60s and early 70s were. The current political divisions in the U.S. pale in comparison with that period. Sometimes it appears that there has been a collective amnesia about this period; losing a war as decisively as the U.S. lost in Vietnam is not a part of American history people like to dwell on. Also, it is instructive to note that those born at the time Saigon was captured by the North Vietnamese are now 40 years old and have no memory of this period. To someone of my generation, 40 is not old, but neither is it young.

By far the most interesting documentary of the four shown on PBS is Rory Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam. It details the chaotic departure of the last Americans form Vietnam, the chaos at the American Embassy in Saigon during the final days, and the efforts of American government officials, sometimes against official orders, to evacuate Vietnamese who worked with the Americans and were in danger. It is a fascinating history.
The least interesting, though worthy program, was the one on the draft. It reviews the history of conscription in the U.S. and presents the arguments pro and con for the draft as opposed to an all-volunteer army. It is the least interesting, since the arguments, though fairly presented, are not new to anyone who has thought about this subject.

Dick Cavett’s Vietnam reminds one not only of the turmoil of the period but also what a good late night talk show he had. He was an engaging host with more interesting guests who currently show up on the late night programs.
The documentary I have mixed feelings about but think is terrible flawed is Last Days in Vietnam. It focuses on the killings of four students and the wounding of nine by the National Guard at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Some of the material it presents is interesting, and it is worth watching because it shows how the Vietnam War had badly divided the country.

However, the implication that the documentary seeks to convey is wrong. It implies that the antiwar movement lost and points to Richard Nixon’s landslide win against George McGovern in November 1972 as proof. This is a perversion of history.
The antiwar movement had a profound effect in changing public attitudes toward the war until what had been a fringe opinion became the majority view. For me, I saw the turning point at my high school graduation in 1970. The commencement speaker was Otis Chandler, the father of a classmate of mine (Norman Chandler) and the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, which did not have the reputation of being a leftist newspaper. He announced in his commencement speech that the L.A. Times would run an editorial the next day arguing that the U.S. should effectively call it quits on Vietnam. Most of my classmates and I had long before come to that conclusion and were pleased at what he said. The view that the U.S. should get out of Vietnam had become mainstream.

As Rory Kennedy’s documentary shows, when Saigon was threatened, President Ford was unable to get the Congress to appropriate any more money to try to fend the North Vietnamese from taking the capital of South Vietnam. Public opinion had turned. The Day the 60s Died ignores the significant role of the antiwar movement in changing public opinion. It is a serious flaw. We need to get history right.

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