When the conflicts between North and South Vietnam began in the mid-1950s, anti-Communist rhetoric was at its peak in the US and the American psyche was engulfed by fear. President Eisenhower was keen to prevent communism spreading to South Vietnam, but so soon after the First World War and the Korean War, he felt he would have had trouble generating support for another war from the American people. Consequently publicity around America’s efforts in Vietnam was kept to a minimum for some time and really, it was not until the late 1950s that America’s involvement in Vietnam started to be widely known. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon each inherited a deepening conflict, sending more troops and counting more casualties than the previous president had seen. By 1967 some 250,000 American troops were fighting in the Vietnam War, and as Eisenhower had feared over a decade before, dissent among the American people quickly spread, and anti-Vietnam war rhetoric began to replace the patriotic voice of the post First World War era.
The anti-war attitude bled into popular culture throughout the late 1960s and the early 1970s, with regular demonstrations and protests taking place across America. Numerous anti-war organisations and societies began and young adults (in particular, students and black Americans) were angry at what they viewed as the needless loss of life in a war which they felt America should not be fighting. With celebrities from across the music, art, film and television and the political spectrum weighing in to add to the pressure being placed on the US government, America’s efforts in Vietnam began to slow. In 1975, President Ford announced that America would be pulling out of Vietnam and that the Vietnam War was over "for America".
Post-war consideration and assessment had by the 1980s led to two main schools of thought. On the one hand the war was seen as a foolish, costly and tragic error on the part of the US government, and on the other hand it was seen as a capitalist necessity which the US government could not avoid. However, whilst there were many people who felt the US had taken appropriate and necessary action during the Vietnam war, the depth of anger and resentment by so many people in the US at that time, and the absolute loss of faith in the government, seems to have led to a muting of support for the war and it seems that by far, it is the anti-war rhetoric which dominated during the 1980s and continues to do so.
Two popular documentaries emerged during the 1980s, which I watched in full for the purpose of this blog. These were Vietnam: A Television History (1983) and Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam (1987).
From its opening line, it is fairly easy to discern the angle that Vietnam: A Television History is going to take. George Ball, Under Secretary of State from 1961 to 1966, is shown saying, “I think Vietnam was probably the greatest single error that America has made in its national history.” This is a grand statement when one considers some of America's 'errors' in history such as the ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans, and the slave trade. As you might expect from a documentary of this title, it is filled with footage from the Vietnam War, and relies heavily on the use of images that have become representative of the world’s view of what the Vietnam war was about. The first images seen are very emblematic, such as helicopters flying over the American Embassy in Vietnam and communist leaders followed by images of Vietnamese refugees, tanks driving through the streets, and these images are intercut with many images of US soldiers in their camps or with their troops.
This documentary takes a strong anti-war stance and focuses on the legacy of the Vietnam war, examining how war veterans found themselves unable to talk about their experiences because of the cold reception they received from their fellow Americans. This perspective is perhaps understandable given that documentary was made in 1983. The war had been over for less than a decade, the terrible effects of the war including the deaths of some 60,000 American servicemen, over 150,000 injured, and over 1500 soldiers missing in action, meant that America was experiencing a collective bereavement.
At the end of the documentary, it features a full five minutes of footage of veterans and their families, and the families of those American soldiers who died in Vietnam or were still missing, visiting the Vietnam War Memorial, a 75m long wall engraved with the names of the Vietnam servicemen, which was opened in November 1982. Playing over this footage are the voices of many veterans talking about what the unveiling of the memorial, and their post-Vietnam experiences, had meant to them. In watching this documentary one is left with the clear message that the veterans were deserted by the country for whom they fought, in some cases for nearly 30 years.
Vietnam: A Television History ends with the narrator’s comment, “America’s Vietnam war is over but it lives on in all those who experienced it. This and all future generations will have to turn to this long dark and hard chapter of history to define the meaning and determine the lessons of Vietnam.” This sums up the negatively questioning nature of this 1983 documentary.
Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam is one of the most emotional documentaries I’ve ever watched. The premise of this documentary is to tell the story of the Vietnam war in the words of the American servicemen through the letters they sent home while they were fighting in Vietnam, separated by real footage and news reports from the time. With actors such as Martin Sheen, Robert De Niro, Judd Nelson, Ellen Berstyn, Willem Defoe, Matt Dillon, Kathleen Turner, Sean Penn, Harvey Keitel, Robert Downey Jr, Tom Beringer, Randy Quaid, Elizabeth McGovern, Michael J Fox and Robin Williams all featuring in the documentary, reading the letters of the veterans, this film certainly attracted attention following its release in 1987 and its anti-war stance would likely have been very persuasive for the audience. Many of those actors who have contributed to this documentary were already very well known for their left-wing anti-war views.
The documentary begins with images of young men surfing and having good fun at the beach. These images are playing to a soundtrack of Beach Boys music, but suddenly the images change to graphically abhorrent pictures of young US soldiers fighting in the Vietnam war. The images are of helicopters, tanks, bombs, injuries and death. Compared to Vietnam: A Television History, this documentary is graphic and edgy right from the start, and it is absolutely apparent that this documentary is not only taking an anti-war stance, but it is pulling no punches - the intention is to offer a non-sanitised representation of the war.
The soundtrack to this documentary is full of pop music from the time which really helps to create a sense of the contrast between what was happening in America at the time versus what was happening in Vietnam at the same time, and it really does give an impression of two very different worlds.
The film walks the audience through the Vietnam War year by year, beginning by showing the young American soldiers as they sign up and are measured up for their new uniforms and ending with footage of families at the Memorial wall, images of bodies being repatriated, and the letter of a mother to her dead son. It is an in-depth and truly tragic depiction of the war. I consider its message is distinctly anti-Vietnam.
For this exercise I also watched many excerpts from online documentaries in an attempt to find a documentary that presented the war from a different perspective. I hoped to find a documentary that celebrated the capitalist successes of the Vietnam war and presented a pro-war stance. Instead, and in spite of knowing that there are many people who support this view, I found I was unable to locate any documentary from the 1980s that took an openly pro-Vietnam position. I feel this in itself sums up how the Vietnam war was being viewed during the 1980s - such was the level of resentment and anger that even the war's supporters were not prepared to take too great a public stand in defense of the actions of the US during that time.
Vietnam: A Television History (1983),
Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam (1987)
Boat People (1987).