This Academy Award-winning documentary about the Vietnam War was directed by Peter Davis and released in 1974.
It has been described as the most compelling argument against war ever made on film. It presents a critical look at America’s all out effort in Vietnam in terms of lives, budget and honor. It includes the directors own war footage, newsreels, presidential speeches and interviews.
It opens in the tranquil Hung Din village northwest of Saigon. It presents the Vietnamese people as human, something never seen stateside during that horrible war.
By 1954 the United States was paying 78% of the cost of France’s war in Indochina. Shortly before they pulled out, John Foster Dulles offered Georges Bidantt, French Foreign Minister, two atomic bombs. The minister declined the offer.
What follows is a series of clips of speeches made by four U.S. presidents. Eisenhower defends our involvement because we value the tungsten and tin that comes from that area. Kennedy proclaims that things are not getting darker in Vietnam, but lighter. Johnson says our success depends on our winning the hearts and minds of the people in Southeast Asia. And Nixon claims that throughout our engagement there, the US exercised a degree of restraint unprecedented in the annals of war.
We are introduced to several veterans and Vietnamese civilians whose thoughts and reflections bind this excellent piece together. First is ex-POW Lt. George Coker. He is welcomed home to Linden, NJ as a hero. He proudly defends the war and cites his upbringing in faith and patriotism as the reason for his survival. War, he tells us, is very much like a football game where you have to be pumped up to take out the opposition. He reappears throughout the movie spouting jingoistic cliche’s about the greatness of war and duty. One chilling scene shows him addressing a group of young Catholic school children urging them to be willing to defend with their lives the democratic values that need to be imposed on those who do not think as we do.
Captain Randy Floyd explains how he came to hate communism through a high school course designed by the John Birch Society. It so motivated him that he enlisted after graduation. He speaks of the pride he felt flying jets and bombing villages. It was a job well done where you never had to hear the screams or see the broken bodies.
Native American Corporal Stan Holider of New Mexico was raised on the warrior legends of his people and joined the Marines because they were the warriors of the American fighting force. He recalls how he wanted to kill the gooks. And looking back feels he must have been brainwashed because while he was chanting that mantra, he was being called “Blanket Ass” and “Squaw” by his fellow Marines.
Father Chan Tin, in hiding for fear of his life, comments that “for twelve centuries we fought against China, for 100 years we fought the French and when the war was lost by the French in ’54 we thought Vietnam was liberated from foreign oppression. Then came the American invasion, 500,000 of them and it became a war of genocide. The people of Vietnam fight only for freedom, independence and national unity. Vietnam has 5,000 years of history. We fight against invaders. It is not the Vietnamese who are the savages. “This is a war of independence against American imperialists. Let me respectfully tell the American people that this is their longest and dirtiest war. The Vietnamese fight only in self defense. Ultimately the Americans will see the light. If not, they will defeat themselves.”
A wrinkled old man is shown hammering children’s coffins together to meet the demand in his city. He builds 800-900 a week. The outlying villages suffer far greater casualties, he tells us, but there they are too poor to afford coffins. When asked how so many die he replies: “Poison. The children die from poison from the air. The planes come daily and spray poison on our land. It destroys the intestines and so many children and old people die. So many die. So many die. No matter how many decades America fights, it will never conquer Vietnam. Never.”
Spec 5 Ed Sowders, an army deserter, is introduced. He has been living in Canada and underground in the US. He’s tired of hiding and plans to surrender to the army at a congressional hearing. He tells his mother his plans and she wonders how anyone can be proud of their child’s death. “How can they hold their heads high?” she asks. “They lost a child in Vietnam. I don’t think that’s much to be proud of. they’ve lost more than they will ever gain for the rest of their lives.”
At the hearing on Capitol Hill, Mr. Sowders told the committee,”We called them gooks and slopes. Their lives weren’t worth anything to us because we were taught they were all VC or VC sympathizers, even the children. Many of us began to understand because of our experiences in Vietnam the depth of the lies and deception practiced upon us and the American people by our country’s leaders. It was they who trained us to kill our enemy without question. “I make no apology for my act of resistance but underground life has become intolerable to me so I am here to draw attention to my case and the tens of thousands like me. Over half a million have deserted the military since ’65. Most of us have already returned to the military to be punished. It is ironic to be punished by the very same men who planned and executed a genocidal war in Indochina.”
William Marshall, an eloquent and outspoken veteran sums up his experience this way. “You let us go off to war saying ‘Yea team!’ You let us go fight in Vietnam and all this kind of shit through the 60’s. Now ’68 comes along and you bring the team home, but we can’t say nothing about it ’cause you don’t want to hear about it. It’s upsetting at dinnertime. Well goddam it, it upset me for a whole goddam year! It upset a lot of people to the point where they’re fucking dead. I’m gonna tell you about it everyday. Make you sit and puke on your dinner because you got me over there and now you brought me back and you want me to forget it so somebody else can go do it somewhere else. Oh no, you gonna hear about all day everyday as long as I live because its gonna be with me as long as I live. When I get outta bed in the morning I gotta put on an arm and a leg ’cause it ain’t there no more, you dig? Its real and its here and its gonna happen again unless folks get off their asses and realize what happened.”
Daniel Ellsberg is interviewed. “I bought into it. I went to do my duty. I thought we’d defeat covert aggression. It had an idealistic flavor to it but it was the underpinning of imperialistic policy. Truman lied from 1950 on about the nature of the colonial involvement in Vietnam that we were financing and encouraging. Eisenhower lied about the nature of our involvement with Diem and the fact that he was in power because of American support and American money. No other reason. “Kennedy lied about our combat involvement and about the recommendations that were being made to him for greater involvement. Kennedy lied about the degree of our participation in the overthrow of Diem. “Johnson of course lied and lied and lied about the provocations of the North Vietnamese prior to and after the Tonkin incident, about plans for bombing the North Vietnamese and the nature and behavior of American troops in Vietnam. “Nixon misled and lied to the American people about the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, the ground operations in Laos and the mining of Haiphong harbor which finally came about in 1972 but was envisioned as early as 1969. The American public was lied to month by month by each of these administrations. It’s a tribute to the American people that they had to be lied to. It’s no tribute to us that it’s so easy to fool the public.”
This intense film ends with Randy Floyd. He is asked if he thinks we learned anything from Vietnam. “I think were trying hard not to,” he replies. “I think America tries really hard to escape what we learned in Vietnam. To not come to the logical conclusions of what happened there. The military doesn’t realize that people fighting for their freedom are not going to be stopped by changing your tactics, by adding more sophisticated knowledge.
“Americans have worked extremely hard not to see the criminality that their officials and their power makers have exhibited.”
This is compelling footage. Watching it you can’t help but think, with different names and different faces, that you saw the same story in Iraq.