Ken Burns’s Vietnam, Part 2

Part 2 could well be titled “A Tale of 5 Leaders” as Burns compares the effects of the different styles of leadership on the combatants. Uncle Ho and John Paul Vann as usual get a pass, while Kennedy and General Paul D. Harkins get the post-revisionism treatment. Burns’s telling of South Vietnamese president Diem and the command climate he created reminded me of Hamid Karzai and his American advisors – absolutely determined to lose a sure thing, and loot the American treasury along the way.

The best way to describe Diem was he was Uncle Ho’s less able philosophical twin. Like Uncle Ho, Diem never married, and marked his interpersonal relationships with a toxic combination of suspicion, gaslighting, and contempt for the Vietnamese. The effects of this created a command climate that destroyed the integrity and competence of the South Vietnamese government and army.

While Uncle Ho carefully crafted his public persona to be a kindly, very wise patriarch, Diem was in charge by Divine Right and went out of his way to make war on his own people. If Kennedy wanted to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, Diem wanted their balls on his mantle.

Kennedy got the Camelot treatment much like Uncle Ho, but after the appropriation of Camelot by the Clintons, Kennedy received a vicious revision of his legacy. Honesty is the best policy, but Burns overlooked some larger questions to protect Kennedy.

What was Kennedy’s goal, or goals, and why did he change the American way of war in such as way as to disconnect command from control from combat?

Kennedy, like Giap, shifted the American way of war from what we consider “conventional” Desert Storm-like warfare to guerilla war coupled with sound societal measures. The Marine Corps AND the Peace Corps. Kennedy promoted the Special Forces, a practice revived by Donald Rumsfeld. The Peace Corps went in to assist the civilian population. The theory was sound and effective given the amount of resources expended by the communists to destroy the artifacts and effects of the Peace Corps in the countryside. Like Afghanistan, there wasn’t much coordination between the military and civilians fighting both Diem and Uncle Ho.

That responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of General Paul D. Harkins, CG of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). Harkins distinguished himself as Patton’s Ops genius, keeping Third Army moving, and as Commandant of Cadets during a major cheating scandal (90 cadets were dismissed). As CG of MACV, Harkins is presented as an ostrich dressed in a target thoroughly detached from reality and deceptive. What isn’t asked is ‘what is the mission of MACV?’ Was it to keep the South Vietnamese fighting the communists in such a way as to pull resources from Communist China and the USSR, or to develop a westernized conventional military? In both cases Harkins succeeded. If MACV’s mission was to win the war, Harkins failed.

Who never fails is Sam Cooke. Enjoy!

About DaveO

Retired soldier, micro-farmer, raconteur and pet owner from the great state of Oklahoma. Wandered in as a frequent commenter and have been enjoying blogging ever since.
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4 Responses to Ken Burns’s Vietnam, Part 2

  1. DLunsford says:

    What’s your take on the earlier Stanley Karnow history? Wasn’t that also made into a PBS documentary? Or was that on regular channels?

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    • DaveO says:

      Great question – I don’t recall Karnow’s work other than I did see it. I found it on Youtube so I’ll familiarize myself with it. What is your take on it?

      One question I do have is purely tactical: was the Pentomic force structure employed in Vietnam?

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      • burkemblog says:

        No.The Pentomic structure began to disappear in 1960 and in 1963 was replaced by the ROAD (ReOrganized Army Division) organization–that was in effect til the Division 86 model appeared. Pentomic lasted only about three years. Apparently, JFK’s change to a “flexible response” doctrine led to the demise of the Pentomic division, which assumed that any future ground war would involvenuclear weapons. Maybe when we fight North Korea, it will.

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    • I thought the book was pretty well balanced. At the time that is (1983).

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