First episode of Ken Burns’ ‘The Vietnam War’

Ho Chi Minh, third from left, stands with Americans of the OSS in 1945. Not sure, but I think that's Dewey to his left.

Ho Chi Minh, third from left, stands with Americans of the OSS in 1945. Not sure, but I think that’s Dewey to his left.

The first American military death at the hands of Vietnamese communists was possibly the most tragic, because it helped lead to all the others.

Lt. Col. Peter Dewey, only 28 years old (which makes his rank rather startling), was our man in Saigon at the end of World War II. As the various powers who had just won the war were figuring out their relationships in Southeast Asia, Dewey — the head of our OSS team in Vietnam, was leaning toward supporting Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh.



This made some sense, as Ho at the time still had pro-American leanings, despite his devotion to Leninism.

But the senior Allied officer in country was British Maj. Gen. Douglas D. Gracey — a colonialist who was all for helping the French reassert control over their colony. Gracey ended up sending Dewey home. On the way to the airport, Dewey refused to stop at a roadblock, yelled at the Viet Minh sentries in French, and was shot and killed by them.

Ho Chi Minh wrote a letter of condolence to President Truman.

From then on, Western powers increasingly sided with their French allies, and things got worse and worse…

That’s one thing I learned from the first episode of Ken Burns’ latest opus, “The Vietnam War.”

On the whole it was very helpful and educational. I only have one beef:

The episode told a clear, coherent story that set the stage, starting with the beginning of French rule in the 1850s and running up to 1961. As long as it stuck to that, it was solid. But the filmmakers kept cutting away to little snippets foreshadowing our involvement at its height in the late ’60s. We’d be learning what happened in the1940s, and suddenly someone would be talking about his experience as a marine in 1969.

It was jarring and distracting, and, I felt, rather condescending. It was as though Burns and Lynn Novick were saying, “We don’t think you have the attention span to stick with this narrative, so we’ll give you little bits of what you tuned in to see…”

I didn’t like that a bit. But on the whole, a solid start…


15 thoughts on “First episode of Ken Burns’ ‘The Vietnam War’

  1. clark surratt

    Brad, you are certainly right about the disruptions marring the excellent documentary on the long run-up to our involvement in Vietnam War. But what jumped out me, perhaps oddly, is white supremacy, a much-used term lately. The colonial conquests by England, France and Spain and the harsh treatment of people in their servitude makes hate of us white superiors understandable. The Vietnamese were hoping the U.S. would be the one country to help them out in their independence. But we knuckled under to our fellow white supremacists as we have done in the Middle East, South America and Africa. What a grim historical backdrop.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, that would be Ho’s interpretation, and I could certainly see him looking at it that way.

      But there are other factors involved.

      I think Dewey may have been right. But the bonds between us and the Brits and the French were something you can’t lightly dismiss. And sometimes your friends have terrible traits that come along with the good. With our European allies, that included their colonialism.

      Dewey saw a path to disassociating ourselves from that. Which would have been tough given Ho’s allegiances, once the Cold War got going. But once he was gunned down, and we no longer had someone like him in-country, it was probably inevitable that we would back the French, disastrously…

  2. Barry

    I thought the flash forwards were great, not distracting at all, and great film-making.

    Tesuday night’ episode was also outstanding.

  3. Phillip

    Really well done. I didn’t mind the “flash-forwards,”

    I learned a lot from part 1—knew that Ho had reached out to the US on several occasions but learned of even more instances from this episode (like that letter to Truman that never got to him)…also did not know that Peter Dewey story. Also interesting to see the transformation of JFK’s attitudes from pretty sensible in the 1950s to unfortunately going more all-in with Diem and South Vietnamese government after he became President.

    To me it seems (at least from the first episode) that Burns and company are being pretty fair-minded, they did a good job (with those repeated maps of the region with large swaths of “red” colored in) of trying to explain the perspective of those who saw Vietnam as another “domino” in danger of falling. At least as far as the initial US involvement, they seem to want us to understand this mindset and to try to place ourselves in that time and place in the decision-making corridors of power in the US, without benefit of knowing what we later came to understand. And they are not sugar-coating the atrocities committed by the Viet Minh either, reminding us that families were split apart, that this was indeed a civil war. The interviewees from both the North and the South remind us of that.

    The only side that comes off as more or less uniformly bad, in episode one anyway, were the French.

    1. clark surratt

      Good points Mr. Phillip. I agree the French, with their obvious practice of white superiority in this colonial venture, came off looking the worst. Which makes the US involvement to follow behind France even more bothersome.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, you know… the French… 🙂

      Seriously, though, someday I need to read a good biography of De Gaulle. He’s often at the fringes of other things I’m reading, and apparently he was a real piece of work.

      Yes, it’s good so far, as I would expect of Burns. Very enriching. Although I suspect few minds will be changed. For instance, those red areas you mention… For me, being the satellite’s-eye-view guy, it’s especially important when the narrative pulls back and we are reminded of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin Wall and Laos… At one point last night, was a litany recited of recent failures during the Kennedy administration on the global scale that contributed to JFK’s conclusion that he could NOT back down, or be seen to back down, in Vietnam.

      If you’re Charlie hunkered down in the bush with an AK-47, none of that stuff matters. But when you’re the leader of the Free World looking at the whole chessboard, they do.

      I also like the way the series communicates the idealism of the moment — all those young people inspired by JFK, willing to give their all to help others achieve freedom. (And as you say, the North Vietnamese were NOT people you wanted in charge of your life.) They saw things the way I did, the way I do. As I’ve often said, if this were 1962, I’d be very comfortable being a liberal Democrat — but not now.

      One gets so weary of antiwar people throwing around words like “imperialism,” and speaking as though JFK and LBJ and our other leaders were some sort of venal scumbags motivated by a desire to kill and oppress brown people. The reality was quite the opposite.

      What we had was two things: the idealism of the time combined with some Realpolitik considerations about the global struggle to contain the Leninists and Maoists. And so Vietnam happened.

      I may post about last night’s installment later. My attempts to watch it were pretty disjointed, as my mind and heart were in Dominica

      1. Doug Ross

        American imperialism isn’t as much about killing people.. it’s more about “We’re so great, why WOULDN’T anyone else want what we have?”

        I haven’t had a chance to start watching it yet due to travel.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Ah, well that explains it! No wonder people were calling it imperialism… they were using the word wrong. 🙂

          As to your point: The issue isn’t that we’re so great. It’s that we’re so blessed. And why should only Americans be so blessed?

          I think Ho Chi Minh would have agreed with that proposition, especially back when he was going around quoting Jefferson and still open to being a friend to the U.S. Why shouldn’t Vietnam enjoy the a) freedom b) prosperity and c) independence that is ours?

    3. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oh, as to things we learned…

      Something I learned in the first installment — and I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know this — was that the Viet Cong didn’t call themselves that. I didn’t know what it meant, so I had no idea.

      Of course, what they called themselves was painfully generic. Viet Cong was a better name, despite the meaning…

  4. Bryan Caskey

    I thought the first episode was well done. It was smart to go back in time to WWI, to really get the larger picture. I was trying to draft a motion while I had it on in the background.

    Didn’t know about Dewey or Ho Chi Minh’s leanings towards America. Seems like we really missed the boat when we sided with the French rather than really try to be a neutral broker. When de Gaulle threatened to “join the Soviet orbit” if the US didn’t support France, I thought, “that son of a gun deGaulle”. It’s all HIS fault.

    France threatening to join the Soviets right after we saved their bacon? Good gracious.

    1. Kathleen

      The first episodes have painted a clearer picture than anything I recall reading and have certainly expanded my knowledge of how we got there. Brad and Bryan are right about DeGaulle. He was never known for his humility and I seem to recall hearing even some French found him “a bit much” but he was a symbol of France.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      And what sort of Englishman was that general who sent Dewey home? An Englishman who wants to advance French imperialism? Was he another Wray, or Ledward?

      Probably not. Just another bull-headed lobster with no sense. His Majesty should have sent an admiral, or an enterprising post captain. Imagine if Stephen had been there, working hand-in-hand with Dewey…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Thinking further about it…

        That real-life situation turns Graham Greene’s The Quiet American on its head. That novel turned on the relationship between an idealistic but unwise young American (Stephen would describe him as an “enthusiast”) and the seedy, world-wise middle-aged Brit in Vietnam in the 1950s.

        But with the true Dewey story, we have the opposite: The wise young American being fatally undone by the older, senior Brit…


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