A Critique of The U.S. Defense Department’s Documentary: Why Vietnam?

‘WHY VIETNAM? Asks the important and crucial question: Why did the U.S. send our young men to fight and suffer in Vietnam? This program answers this question through a historical look at the French, U.S. and other nations’ occupation of Vietnam. Also, it examines the U.S. involvement as a patriotic act to protect freedom – something we must fight for at any cost.’

Such is the blurb on the back of this rare VHS tape, Why Vietnam?, a 30 minute documentary produced by the U.S. Defense Department in 1965, as a plausible argument for our sudden deployment of ground troops to Vietnam to fight the Communists. In the summer of 2005 I ordered this tape on Amazon, since I was curious how our government had had first presented their case for going to war. This was shown, as 16 millimeter film, in high school auditoriums all across the country, to rally support and to secure recruits on this crusade against Ho Chi Minh.

I struggled with this film, read many books, watched many films, and finally wrote my own critique of this one-sided black and white documentary, that comes across as propaganda after so many years. I know that you are aware of how these events played out on the larger stage of American History. But for a moment try to put yourself back into the summer of 1965, “I can’t get no, satisfaction,.” ..right? At that time U.S. Intelligence did not have such a clear picture of what was going on in Southeast Asia. A line from The Doors hits the nail on the head, “you are locked in a prison of your own devise.” So please take a look at what I have written and consider yet again: Why Vietnam?


Why Vietnam

October 02, 2005






This documentary was produced by the Department of Defense, circa fall of 1965, in order to rally American support for the newly growing build-up of U.S. ground combat troops in Vietnam. It is thirty minutes long and in black and white, but frame by frame pulls a punch (though less noxious) not witnessed since “The Triumph of the Will,” directed and produced by Leni Rietenstahl. It begins with LBJ speaking and having to answer a mother’s difficult question of why her son has to serve in Vietnam, since it is so far away from the free United States. The entire documentary is a rationale for a perceived need, by the government, for military support to aid the South Vietnamese government and people from the aggressive incursions by the communist North. The government offering is a combination of speeches and footage of Vietnam, with a volatile invective from the commentator defending the need of the U.S. to cut off the poison of communism. It projects a persuasive voice filled with immediacy and despair-and even smacks of the inevitable demise of western freedom.


I am granting this documentary a five star rating because it efficiently makes the case for why the communists are so nefarious. In short, the film portrays them with ambitions as vast as world domination. The stately icons of Chairman Mao and Ho Chi Minh are mesmerizing, and if one can project oneself back to 1965, they might sense the immediacy for the call to arms against the red menace. I have thought of a crystalized phrase to capture this period, but I believe it to be an apt one-The Rococo Cold War Phase! This was really the overripe time period for the Cold War, its decaying stage, the apples on the ground-in metaphor. Red paranoia was at its apogee of expression; we had been through the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the unexplained shooting of JFK, and it appeared as if we must religiously hold the line in Vietnam, at all costs, or the systematic undoing of freedom and democracy in the world was a timely given! I believe that the viewing of this succinct film is an absolute must for all Americans, especially since it was produced before the long and tragic war; yet the seeds of tragedy are present, and Rusk, McNamara, and LBJ are all reluctant participants in the inevitable decision to accelerate involvement in a hazily-defined guerrilla conflict in Vietnam. We did not understand the history or the nature of the struggle there, the political tactics of the Vietcong, for example, or the zealous motive of nationalism against colonialism, that gave Ho Chi Minh the advantage there, after decades of oppression.


The argument begins with the hard lessons of WWII; that Neville Chamberlain appeased Hitler in 1938 in Munich. Moreover, Mussolini was unopposed in the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, despite Hailie Selassie’s pleas to the United Nations. Then there was the Nazi Anschluss in Austria, and “nothing was done.” But with the communist aggression across the 38th parallel in Korea “free men begin learning the lesson,” as LBJ says: “aggression unchallenged is aggression unleashed.” Then again LBJ asks the question: “Why should free men suffer in a remote land?” As we look back on this parallel drawn, between WWII and Vietnam, we see clearly that it was the U.S. who invaded Vietnam, whereas Ho was just defending and attempting to unify his country, and trying to purge his nation of foreign invaders. So thus this analogy falls on its face.


LBJ then gives us the approach that will be implemented. “Retreat does not bring safety and weakness does not bring peace. It’s this lesson that has brought us to Vietnam.” Then the documentary goes into the post-Dienbienphu period, after the French had been defeated in 1954, and the Geneva Conference that followed, dividing Vietnam into the North and South at the 17th parallel. This division was only intended as a temporary one until elections could be held. Yet the administrations of the U.S., from Truman to Eisenhower, then Kennedy to LBJ, hung their hat on this division of Vietnam, as arbitrated by the Geneva Conference, as if the North was wholly communist and the South was free and democratic. This then is a fundamental flaw in the perceptions of the U.S., shaping our policy and coloring our decision-making for two full error-prone decades.

Now there is footage of fleeing refugees going to South Vietnam, where “a free people support sovereignty.” This deceptively makes it appear as if there is an exodus from the North to the South, when it was really just a handful of Catholics. The Diem regime was anti-communist but was hardly a democracy. Now we see footage of Ho-Chi-Minh smiling and playing with children, and the narrator says: “but behind the smile is a mind that is planning a reign of terror in South Vietnam, where children and adults alike will be the victims.” Afterwards the narrator says that free elections were held, but actually Diem had arranged the elections, for if Ho had been on the ballot it would have been a landslide in his favor. Next it says that Diem is initiating land reforms so that farmers own their own land. This never happened! But as the narrator says, the North was making inroads into the villages of the South, creating political action centers, and successfully forging Ho Chi Minh’s “War of Liberation.” The documentary uses an insidious, raking, quasi-oriental type of music as a backdrop, as it shows assassinated villagers and posters of Ho with the yellow communist star. Then it points out that the communists are using a new plan, guerrilla warfare, and discarding traditional infantry warfare, such as they used in Korea. It is too bad that the U.S. never addressed this major change in tactics!


The U.S. perceived that the communists were after the wealthy resources of South Vietnam-such as coal, phosphate, zinc, tin, and manganese. These resources would aid industrialization and “feed a war machine.” The most important products were surely rubber and rice; the need for these products, should the communists not be stopped, would fuel their aggression to other Indonesian nations, such as the rice rich nations of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, and East Pakistan. The phrase: “a grain of rice is worth a drop of blood” summarizes the dramatic measures employed by the communists in order to secure South Vietnam. The film then projects a map of these countries, and then defines the domino theory-that the countries will fall one by one, like dominoes, if we do not hold the line at the 17th Parallel of Vietnam. This simple, yet befuddling political philosophy is essentially why the U.S. entered and escalated the “Vietnam Conflict,” because the administration never called it a war. In 1959 President Eisenhower said: “Unassisted Vietnam can not, at this time, produce and support the military coordinates essential to it-military as well as economic help is essential.” Ie the U.S. would have to go in themselves and take care of the job.


As the conflict entered the 1960s the communists increased their incursions into the South. As LBJ said: “This is a different kind of war-the goal is to conquer the South and extend the Asiatic dominion of communism.” Here the documentary emphasizes the perceived role of Red China in spurring the Vietnamese communists. We now know that this was greatly exaggerated, but at this time, the fear of Red China, after the Korean stalemate, was perhaps the greatest ingredient for the domino theory. The film says that the Vietnam people cried out for our help, but now we know it was really just the insecure Diem regime, that wanted to protect their archaic colonial regime in Saigon. Kennedy increased the presence of Americans in the way of technical and military advisers. The commentator of the film tints the scenario: “We find men whose freedom is at stake-eager and quick to learn, with instructors and advisors who are willing to teach.” Then it is revealed that the communists had altered their tactics, from a conventional conflict, such as in Korea, to guerrilla warfare, in order to dominate small, unstable nations. It is puzzling that the U.S. never comprehended or mastered this lesson about the guerilla warfare; this underscores the reason we lost the war-our inability to adapt to a third world, jungle-type struggle.

Thus, the only way that communist aggression can be curtailed, is by increasing the presence of Americans, with equipment and advisers. The commentator says that the “Peoples Liberation” is not playing fair, kidnapping inductees, and harassing citizenry, while the U.S. is protecting the villagers. Deceptively, the documentary then portrays the South as quick to respond to the Vietcong threat, but we now know this to be a falsehood. In fact, Diem commanded his generals to avoid fights in order to have the troops available to counter an ever recurring perception of an imminent military coup. Ironically, this would come to pass on November 1, 1963, in spite of that preventative maintenance. Again, oddly it was Henry Cabot Lodge, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, along with the CIA who okayed the coup, who assumed the role of Deus Ex Machina. Once more, the ill-defined nature of the war is shown, with no front lines, and the Vietcong coming and going as they please. Little did the makers of this film know that those methods would continue throughout the whole war. The taking of land was an absurd practice, since the minute U.S. combat troops vacated that land, the communists would infiltrate it again. Yet, this is the reality of what was happening in Vietnam, a far cry from the scenario portrayed in this government production!


In the Kennedy years the intensity of American presence mounts; especially the new technique of helicopter mobility, and the moving about of infantry. The ominous footage of captured Chinese munitions seems to add a greater threat of Red China, but what the film does not tell you, is that most of the captured weapons were American made, and were easily captured at old unprotected French outposts. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident in August of 1964 is covered at this point in the presentation; it was shortly thereafter that the intense bombing of the North began. Thus, despite McNamara’s intentions, the war was widened then, and would greatly expand throughout 1965.


This segment of the documentary exhibits a speech by then Secretary of State, Dean Rusk. It is a polemic defending the administration’s position, that they have made every effort to solve the Vietnam issue peaceably and through diplomacy. I will link a verbatim speech transcription here, so that you may peruse it (page 2). The bottom line is that Hanoi has refused to come to the negotiation table with the U.S. Here is the final lines of the speech that reveal the domino theory yet again: “And so the record seems clear to us, Hanoi is presently resisting the road to peace. Peiping even more so, to declare that doctrine and purpose of the Chinese communists remain clear: the domination of all of Southeast Asia. And indeed if we listen to what they are saying to us, the domination of the great world beyond.” Actually, the Red Chinese and the North Vietnamese were not really unified in their purpose. Traditionally, China and Vietnam were enemies, but U.S. Intelligence never processed this germane illumination. Our intelligence gathering was flawed, as was our interpretation of evidence, but this is not all too different from some of the techniques employed today!


Please look at the excerpts of LBJ’s speech in my link provided (page 3). In this speech LBJ emphasizes that we are defending South Vietnam’s freedom of choice, “the right to shape their own destiny in free elections in the South…” But this was a sham, free elections never existed in Saigon or the South. If this was the reason why Americans died in Vietnam, then it is an empty one! After the coup in November of 1963, that got Ngo Dinh Diem shot, the government of Saigon changed many times. The local surrounding villagers often sided with the Vietcong as a better alternative to the corrupt South. On December 24th, 1964 the Vietcong got high explosives into the barracks of the American Embassy in Saigon. The narration then takes a threatening tone, and with that the footage passes by of bombings, dead civilians killed by the Vietcong, and American flag-draped coffins moving on trucks. There is a backdrop of LBJ’s words: “Half a world away is our front door. If freedom is to survive in any American hometown, then the Communists must be stopped in South Vietnam.” Therefore, it is up to the U.S. alone to curtail the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.


Please read over carefully the bottom of page 3 and page 4 of the transcriptions of “Why Vietnam?”; it is a good idea to soberly measure LBJ’s words, for an epiphany will transpire, and you can see the build-up of American commitment right before your very eyes! “I have asked General Westmoreland what more he needs to meet this mounting aggression. He has told me, and we will meet his needs.” LBJ – The black and white footage now registers the American troops landing in Vietnam, exiting the landing craft, and the American flag is shown blowing in the wind. The narrator then says this is the first active combat zone since Korea, and that the present and future needs for the fight for freedom will be met. The so called “War of Liberation” must be defeated; but little did we know that the will of the communists was ironclad. The final comment is that if men can hope to realize freedom tomarrow, then those people will face hard realities today. How prophetic, as the days of confrontation would persist for another decade (1965-1975)!


The final part of the documentary has LBJ’s sentimental words about sending our young to war, and many photographs of the new inductees are displayed in a slideshow format. These heroes will stop the reds off at the pass, or more precisely, the Ho Chi Minh Trail that is. Again, the theme is hammered home; LBJ’s fresh take on The Truman Doctrine with his domestic programs of The Great Society as his model. “We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else. Nor would surrender in Vietnam bring peace. We learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression.” (LBJ) He then goes on to say that three presidents over eleven years have committed to defending the small, valiant nation of Vietnam. Johnson then reiterates how hard the South has fought to defend themselves from the communists. We now know that that is false; ARVN really went out of their way to avoid conflict, to minimize casualties, and to survive in a civil war with no end in sight!


The last celluloid footage captures Chairman Mao and Ho Chi Minh with the communist star, then a U.S. aircraft carrier with B-52s taking off for North Vietnam. Next in the sequence massive carpet bombing flashes in graphic, syncopated explosions, many tanks, and U.S. combat troops unloading from landing craft. GIs are fighting in live action riveted with angst in the jungle, then much echo is put on LBJ’s voice with the words: “This, my fellow Americans, is why we are in Vietnam.” The film ends with the logo of the Department of Defense; apparently, the producers and directors of this influential documentary.

This was shown in the public schools throughout the country; you know the routine, the principal calls all the classes on the intercom to the auditorium, gives a short introduction, and then starts the 16 mm film so that we will know why all our boys are making a beeline for those remote American staging bases in Southeast Asia. Additionally, the film was offered as educational fodder to new inductees in the early days of their basic training; this bit of propaganda could perhaps make them feel better, and provide them with a rationale for their Vietnam tour; for in short order they would be tossed into this ineffable part of the world-with steamy jungles, rice paddies, and elephant grass.

It is unnerving to watch this piece of celluloid over and over again, as I have done so over the last few months. I may be able to share it with you some time, because I doubt you will be able to locate this rare gem at any video store. Mysteriously, I will convert my unkempt flat, for the flagrantly curious, to a proper viewing room for your exacting inspection. Its conception really came at a time when the wounds were just beginning to open; the leaders could not see the albatross on the horizon. The first major confrontation with the enemy came in November of 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley, where more than 300 Americans lost there lives. This level of casualties was not something counted on by the administration, and as we went into 1966 many people could already see the grueling ordeal that we faced. Indeed, the final moments of the film are somber when LBJ sincerely says that he does not like to send “the flower of our youth” into battle. Images of Americans are flashed-black, white, students, and steel workers all heeded the call to duty, to fight the evil communists and keep Asia free. But Ho Chi Minh was trying to unify and free his country from the “yoke of western colonialism”-that was something that we little understood. Oh yes, he was relentless, ruthless, an S-O-B for the liberation of Indochina from the chains of western oppression!


I do remember having butterflies in my stomach as my family moved from Houston to “Friendly Dallas,” in August of 1965. Little did I know that I was moving into a hostile environment, a hotbed of conservatism, where tolerance for those opposed to the war was blocked by a “cement edifice of hate,” not all that dissimilar to the Wall of China-Dixieland style! Yes, our country was venturing off to a remote Indonesian country, one that we knew nothing about, and into a trap, a quagmire of indecisive grief that left permanent scars on our collective memory, even unto today. The primary culprit was our inflated fear of communism, a sort of cancerous side-effect of the Cold War. Vietnam and China were traditional enemies, but the U.S. policy makers never bothered to study the historical relations of these countries. Also, communism came in many shapes and textures; The Soviet Union and Red China had very different configurations and agendas. There never was a communist monolithic policy, such as espoused by Vladimir Lenin. Just recently, in Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, Robert McNamara has acknowledged the fissures in our thinking. In truth, Ho Chi Minh’s movement to unify Vietnam was actually a nationalist effort against western colonialism and less a communist strategy. More accurately, Ho’s nationalism mirrors the Thirteen Colonies of America defying England, and the U.S. recalls the redcoats as they persevere in an effort to snuff the rebellious NVA and Vietcong. I would argue with my neighbors about Vietnam, especially the high level of noncombatant casualties, but the domino theory was always tossed in my face. It was as if the 17th parallel in Vietnam was a substitute for the Alamo, and we had to hold the line at all costs. Profoundly, the words of Captain America in “Easy Rider” replay in spasms through the make-believe movie screen of my mind: “We blew it, Man!”


As I watch this black and white footage I am transported back to those times; the American flag-draped coffins are especially triggers for memories, and the compassionate drone of LBJ’s voice puts me back into that day. It was rock and roll, let’s go over and kick those commies asses! … Almost like a football game. But after a few years of many young men dying, untold deaths of peasants, – the rat-a-tat-tat of AK-47s or the whirling maelstrom of the Huey helicopters on the evening news- the enthusiasm, the will to search and destroy deteriorated. Perhaps Vietnam was not a microcosm for the struggle of contrary ideas-democratic freedom verses the evil of communism-it was all in our minds, a delusion, a paranoid nightmare-but nonetheless real-an over-ripening of the Cold War-the domino theory was the rotten remnants of McCarthyism! Yes, the butterflies, the fear factor does return when I view this little film. I have not bothered to think about the war since the Fall of Saigon in 1975; but the remnants have remained latent, festering, and I struggle to purge myself of these demons. And now with more distance, objectivity, I am able to begin to amass an archive of ephemera on the conflict by way of books, photos, DVDs, and web pages; I may even visit the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and view some of the evening news footage of that is stored there. But for now I intend to forget about it, as the demons reappear, even as I did in the spring of 1975!


As I watched this film, and as I studied many other documents, the butterflies returned in my stomach, and I felt great guilt once again that I did not serve, and so many young men were never allowed to come home. This is dramatically portrayed in the book “We Were Soldiers Once…And Young” by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway. It is a testament of the Ia Drang battles that first brought attention to just how serious the fighting was to be in Vietnam. I just kept staring at the snapshots of the soldiers with their families shortly before they were deployed to Vietnam. Two in particular, Tom Metsker and Jack Geoghegan, are heroically portrayed in the book, and this account brings needed details to the actual intense jungle fighting that characterized those unusual guerrilla-type, belligerent encounters. I was able to get a deferment from serving in 1971, because of an allergic reaction to bee stings.


By this time the war was already lost (1971); the will of Americans to exterminate the communists was sapped! I just wanted to forget about it, as most did, and escaped in chronic cannabis usage. This anodyne did help me to forget; after the fall of Saigon I have never read anything or watched any specials on Vietnam…just wanted to forget about it forever! So as I bombard myself now with the material of this highly recorded conflict, and thirty years have transpired, I feel as if it was just yesterday, and all of these more than 58,000 Americans are still alive, and you can just go over to their houses and drink a beer and watch a Yankee game. The guilt is that severe-but history repeats itself, especially as we see our nation continuing in the same vein of foreign policy.