The Public Broadcasting Service documentary series on the Vietnam War has provoked angry and insightful responses from anti-war and anti-imperialist commentators — and rightly so.
However, many will see this series as the definitive “history,” especially of the 1960-1975 period. It may become a frame of reference for many youths interested in the history of U.S. imperialism and its revolutionary opponents.
Those who went through that period of genocidal war against the Vietnamese, which provoked anti-war solidarity against the U.S. imperialist government, have the responsibility — some would say, the duty — to fight for an account of the war that exposes the U.S. government’s complete criminal brutality. We must make it harder for today’s Washington regime to wage war.
Workers World first commented on this series before its release, based on its makers’ statement that it would be “something all can embrace.” After viewing the first three of 10 episodes, there’s no need to retract a single word of our comment.
An understanding of the role of U.S. imperialism and how Washington used its military and economic power after World War II helps dissect this “documentary.”
From 1945 on, Washington and Wall Street were the center of the imperialist world, whose domination over the colonies was soon challenged by national liberation struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
In Europe, British and French imperialism were weak. German and Japanese imperialism had been nearly destroyed. It was the specter of communist-led workers’ uprisings and the mere existence of the Soviet Red Army that motivated the U.S. and Britain to start the Cold War.
In every class battle of that period, the U.S., the Pentagon and the CIA opposed any gain by the workers — whether in France, Italy or Greece after World War II or Portugal in 1974.
In every struggle for national independence and sovereignty of the colonies, the U.S. allied with the colonial power against national liberation.
In Korea, the U.S. waged a brutal war against the revolutionary north. In Kenya and Malaya, it backed Britain. It overthrew the nationalist Mohammed Mossadegh in oil-rich Iran in 1953 and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. It pushed out Kwame Nkrumah from Ghana and was behind the murder of Patrice Lumumba in Congo. It supported apartheid South Africa and fascist Spain. And this is just the short list.
Thus, it is either naive or extremely cunning to suggest, as the early episodes of the Vietnam “documentary” do, that the U.S. policymakers and presidents of that period were well-meaning people who through some blunders — or perhaps because they saw Vietnam in Cold War terms — wound up being entrapped in a brutal and losing war in Indochina.
The war with the Soviet Union, with “communism,” was part of the war the imperialist U.S. ruling class waged then and still wages against the working class and oppressed peoples on a global scale. They feared the communists would seize the means of production, which the bosses called “their” property — although they never spent a day working in it. When workers take over the means of production, the imperialist ruling class can no longer exploit their labor. Of course, the U.S. rulers hate communism — and they were ready to blow up the world to protect their domination over it.
Today’s ruling class also nurtures a strata of spies, generals and intellectuals who will battle communism. One of the worst aspects of the PBS documentary is that it gives voice to these U.S. strategists, from Gen. William Westmoreland and John Negroponte — the butcher of Central America — to Leslie Gelb and lesser actors in the imperialist machinery of death and lies.
The documentary does expose the U.S. presidents and their cabinet officers and generals for telling one lie after another to sell the war to the U.S. population. It also gives voice to some Vietnamese revolutionaries and fighters who fought to free their country. This is one small part we can embrace, but it’s not enough.
To reiterate, however, it is not enough to rate the series’ pluses and many minuses. Our job is to battle for an anti-imperialist explanation of this important part of global class-struggle history. The PBS documentary has reopened the discussion, and we will continue to fight for class truth about this criminal war.
For an honest history of the Vietnam War, get John Catalinotto’s “Turn the Guns Around.” From the movement to resist the war in Vietnam, by both civilians and GIs (whom Catalinotto primarily focuses on), to the Black Power movement. Available on Amazon.