A Quintessential Leadership Perspective of Episode 1 of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

Posted: September 18, 2017 in Examples and Analyses of Lack of Leadership and Unquintessential Leadership
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Unquintessential leadership pervades the U.S.'s involvement in the Vietnam WarI have been anticipating Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War on PBS since I first heard about the project, because I knew it would be a comprehensive, thorough, and objective look at the Vietnam War from a before, during, and after perspective.

Episode 1, “Déjà Vu (1858-1961)” did not disappoint.

The Vietnam War was a watershed event in American history because it peeled back the layers – political, social, and cultural – that purported to be the foundation of this republic and laid bare how corrupt, dishonest, and immoral they all had been and were.

The Vietnam War was the seminal point when collective trust in the institutions of the United States began to break, precipitating the unmasking of the pervasive dishonesty that is what America and Americans, for the most part, fundamentally are and creating the eventual dissolution of all trust that this nation now functions amidst with no shame and no apologies.

sFrom President Truman, President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, President Johnson, and President Nixon came the understanding that while they were talking peace and victory, they were making war and defeat.

The French invaded Vietnam – Indochina then (Ho Chi Mihn, who was actively seeking independence from the French since the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, was successful in getting the name changed to Vietnam after World War II when Vietnam was granted independence with U.S. and British oversight) – in 1858 as part of the West’s (in particular, Britain and France) efforts to colonize (read: economic gains) – the world.

From the beginning, the citizens of Indochina resented and many, especially in the north part of the country, actively rebelled against French invasion and rule. The French never got complete control of the people of Indochina, although it controlled, with great brutality, the resources and the government.

With the Russian Revolution in 1917 during World War I, when the czarist government of Nicholas I was toppled by Lenin’s Marxist government, communism as a form of government came into being. 

Immediately after World War I, as the Treaty of Versailles created new countries, often composed of bitter enemies and tribal factions, communist sentiment began to spread throughout Europe and Asia.

The West was alarmed because it threatened their way of life, especially politically and economically. Communism was an enemy. Russia they couldn’t change, but they could prevent communism from spreading.

America didn’t share this sentiment until after World War II, mainly, I think, because of the immediacy and urgency of the Great Depression and the recovery from that, which precluded any other national or international concerns until the late 1930’s, when fascist governments – Adolph Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy – and authoritarian dictatorships both in Europe and the Middle East began to take shape.

Even so, the real fear of communism in the United States didn’t really take hold until after World War II. Fueled by the Pentagon and the OSS (the precursor of the CIA), anticommunism became public policy in the American government, intelligence, and military from 1947 forward until 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell (there has been a suggestion recently that we’ve entered a new Cold War period with North Korea’s nuclear testing).

Just before the end of World War II, Japan invaded Indochina in a power grab against the Allies. The Japanese were every bit as brutal as the French and their occupation of Indochina met similar resistance.

By now, a Vietnamese leader named Ho Chi Minh had emerged and waged guerrilla strikes from the countryside against the Japanese.

It was not enough to end the occupation (the Allies would do this at the end of the war, splitting the country into north and south regions, with the British in the south and the Americans in the north, with a demilitarized zone in the middle), but Minh, who had embraced communism in the 1930’s, was building an army and perfecting the tactics that made the Viet Cong so lethal by the time the American army had starting fighting against them.

The French tried, after World War II, to reestablish Vietnam as a colony. They fought, dreadfully unsuccessfully, for nine long years, with a strengthened resistance from the north led by Ho Chi Minh.

In the United States after World War II, communism as the number one threat became a reality.

It began in 1948 with the Truman Doctrine, which was created to thwart Russian geopolitical expansion. In essence, it committed the American military to fight for any country or people threatened by communism (whether they wanted it or not – the American government was quite good at demonizing anything that stood contrary to its economic, social, and political welfare [not that I’m advocating communism: all political systems are fraught with fatal flaws and the corrupt nature that we humans tend toward – unquintessential leadership – makes them ultimately unworkable]).

This led to America’s involvement in the “military action” of the Korean War, which ended in a stalemate with no clear victor, with the country divided into communist North Korea and the democratic republic of South Korea and a demilitarized zone in the middle.

Two events in 1949 escalated, at least for the American government, intelligence services, and military, the imminent threat of communism.

The first was Russia’s explosion of an atomic bomb, meaning they and the United States alone both had nuclear warfare capability.

The second happened in China. Communist forces led by Mao Zedong had been fighting a civil war with the Nationalist party for control of the country since the end of World War II.

In October 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong announced an end to the civil war and the birth of the communist People’s Republic of China.

Panic and hysteria broke out in western governments as the two largest countries on the planet were now communist, and the fervor to fight and get rid of communism or the perceived threat of communist at home and abroad reached a frenetic pace.

In the United States, a Red Scare campaign looking for communist spies launched in 1950, punctuated by Joseph McCarthy’s UnAmerican Activities hearings in Congress and the subsequent blacklisting – often inaccurately, but career-ending – of a significant portion of America’s artistic (actors, writers, musicians, etc.), government, intelligence, and military community.

McCarthy ran unchecked for four years until President Eisenhower essentially shut him down and he was subsequently unmasked as fraudulent and unstable.

But President Eisenhower made it clear that communism was still the number one enemy and actually committed American resources to Indochina in 1954 when the French, defeated by a burgeoning guerrilla militia led by Ho Chi Mihn, withdrew completely from the country.

And this was the unquintessential leadership point that Episode 1 of The Vietnam War brought out.

Because the United States was blinded by its obsession with communism, it failed to realize that France’s defeat and withdrawal from Indochina was another sign of the end of colonialism as countries around the world were breaking free of their colonial masters.

It was a costly blind spot that would entrench America in Vietnam for 21 years, claiming in death 58,000 Americans, and claiming in life in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousand more.

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