Saturday, October 7, 2017

Leaving Ken Burns Behind

Followers and Leaders,

Our world turns.  Leaving the Ken Burns documentary about Viet Nam behind stirs memories.  For me, well into my thirties as the war played out endlessly, a lot of what happened was immediate, personal.  I remember emerging from a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. with Doris Kearns -- she was still a graduate student, not yet a Goodwin --  to find the streets in riot during an anti-war rally.  A phalanx of cops in black raincoats and gas masks were releasing a cloud of tear gas to calm the citizens down; Doris and I crawled on our bellies for at least a block to locate our cars.  The "Pogo Riot"! 

Those days I was running around piecing together my first book about Ted Kennedy.  Bobby, no doubt conditioned by his years working for family friend Joe McCarthy and all the recriminations about "losing China" during the Fifties and heavily influenced by General Maxwell Taylor, had pushed for troop involvement and was tagged around the government as "Mister. Counterinsurgency."   JFK had wavered.  Ted was already unreservedly opposed to our involvement, and in time hung an amendment onto a sure-fire piece of legislation that effectively ended the deferment racket by means of which rich kids stayed in school or produced overnight families to evade the draft. This provision alone had a lot to do with our ultimate withdrawal.  Viet Nam was never a preferred destination for the country club crowd.  I remember several heated exchanges with Ted and his cousin Joey Gargan over drinks between campaign stops over how in God's name to extract ourselves from this quagmire.

Individuals I had known well at Harvard were embroiled.  I was surprised that Burns had largely skipped over the flareups produced when David Halberstam kept on detailing in The New York Times how the Diem regime was hounding Buddhists, leading to the infamous "Buddhist barbecues" once individual martyrs started to immolate themselves in protest against the iron-fisted Catholic newcomers controlling the south..  Within months unhappy Buddhists were forming the cadre of the Viet Cong.  When CIA analyst Sam Adams -- a good friend of mine in college -- went to the mat on national television with General Westmoreland over how many Viet Cong there were in country -- Adams estimated that there were several times the number official U.S. Army numbers projected -- Adams was forced out of the Agency.  "Adams had it right, of course, but none of us intended to march over to the White House and lay anything like that on Lyndon," Richard Helms, CIA operations chief at the time and later the director, explained to me years later.  "If Adams was correct we would need to at least double the troop deployment over there, and everybody knew that was not politically feasible."

Very little of that seemed to get into Burns' documentary, although there has survived plenty of television footage  and press conference takeouts to demonstrate the lethal politics that poisoned those miserable years.  The impact of Gene McCarthy and Allard Lowenstein and even Sarge Shriver -- who is dismissed as George McGovern's incompetent running-mate -- remain unexplored.  In time individuals were forced to double back and quietly expunge their own positions.  I once asked Frank Mankiewicz, Robert Kennedy's companion when he was campaigning out West for the Democratic nomination for president in 1968, how Bobby of all people turned into such a ferocious dove.  "Mostly a political decision," Mankiewicz was willing to admit.  "Nothing else could possibly have beaten Lyndon."  Meanwhile, so many had died pointlessly and so many, many others came home broken.  Along with his endless patchwork of personal reminiscences by working-class survivors of both cultures, a sophisticated editorial confrontation of the savage geopolitical battles of the period might well have lifted Burns' work to a much wider significance.                                                                 
Most likely it doesn't pay to live in the past.  But it is ruinous to ignore it.

Cheers, whatever.

Burton Hersh 

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