“Déjà Vu” (1858-1961) The Vietnam War, Episode 1


This episode’s title, “Déjà Vu” (1858–1961), is meant to suggest that the American experience in Vietnam had already been experienced by the French who ruled Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) as a colony since the nineteenth century and fought a brutal eight-year war (1946–54) in an unsuccessful effort to maintain control. The same communist-led forces that mobilized one of the greatest anticolonial revolutions in history to defeat the French would soon turn against the Americans who sought, in defiance of the Geneva Accords, to build a permanent, non-communist nation called South Vietnam.

However, “Deja Vu” devotes surprisingly little attention to the history that preceded U.S. involvement. Twenty minutes into the 18-hour marathon, we’ve already arrived at 1945. There is not a word about the early Vietnamese history that stretches back more than two millennia and includes a thousand-year struggle to overthrow Chinese rule, an important fact given that many U.S. policymakers in the 1950s and ’60s mistakenly assumed that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) was a pawn of its northern neighbors.

The documentary opens with footage of Americans in combat. The lingering image is of an American casualty, lying on a litter, being winched out of a Vietnamese jungle by helicopter. The first voice we hear is that of Karl Marlantes, an American veteran, saying: “Coming home from the war was close to as traumatic as the war itself.” He follows with a remarkable story—after the war he was close friends with another man for twelve years before discovering that both of them had served as marines in Vietnam. Neither man had said a word about that part of their past.

Thus begins the fundamental framing of The Vietnam War—American veterans (or their survivors), once silenced and shunned, will introduce and conclude the film as a whole and almost every episode. Although a considerable number of Vietnamese speak in the film, as well as a few American civilians, dozens of veterans like Karl Marlantes are clearly the stars of the show.

The next introductory sequence is also worth noting. It is a montage of some of the war’s most famous film footage played backwards. We see, for example, Kim Phuc, the young Vietnamese girl who, in 1972, ran naked toward the camera, her arms outstretched in anguishing pain, much of her body seared by napalm. Now we see her running backward toward the smoking ruins of her village, to a time before the horrible bombing, before the war. Bombs fly skyward back into their planes, troops march backward away from combat.

The sequence suggests, I think, that even our most iconic memories of the war may not be well understood; that they need to be brought back to their historical roots to be understood fully. True enough. For example, in the 1990s historian H. Bruce Franklin found that most college students recognized the famous image of a prisoner being executed by a man firing a pistol inches away from the victim’s temple. But most of the students believed the shooter was a communist officer, rather that General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the South Vietnamese national police, an American ally.

The sequence may also suggest that history is the product of human agency, not blind fate or the inevitable consequence of unavoidable forces. Had different choices been made, the Vietnam War might never have happened, or might not have lasted as long, or might have had a different outcome. The filmmakers wisely avoid speculative “what ifs,” but their attention to key decisions and events conveys the implicit message that history presented other possibilities.

In many ways, The Vietnam War is two documentaries interwoven. One is a densely detailed and heavily narrated chronological history and the other is a series of oral histories about personal experiences of the war. Sometimes the two strands are intimately connected and enlarge our understanding of key moments; elsewhere, the personal accounts have little relationship to the historical issues under review.

Nowhere are these two approaches more disjointed than in Episode 1. Every few minutes we jump from black-and-white archival images and accounts of French rule or the creation of South Vietnam under Ngo Dinh Diem in the mid-1950s to color footage of the U.S. war in the late 1960s and recent interviews with American veterans. Given the episode title of “Déjà vu,” we might have expected the interviewees to specify the ways U.S. intervention recapitulated the failures of the French or to recount how many Vietnamese came to view Americans as little different from the French (neocolonialists rather than old-fashioned colonialists). Instead, the American veterans speak about their own wartime experiences and the loss of comrades. It’s as if the filmmakers worried that viewers might get bored with the earlier history so they repeatedly previewed the main attraction.

In fact, Americans began playing a significant role in Vietnam in 1945. The film offers a brief, but riveting, account of the U.S. alliance with Ho Chi Minh at the very end of World War II and reminds us that members of the Office of Strategic Service (predecessor to the CIA) dropped into northern Vietnam to help train Ho’s rebel force, the Viet Minh. The film also documents Ho’s failed efforts after World War II to persuade the United States to recognize Vietnam as an independent nation. However, the film wrongly suggests that, when the French began to reconquer Indochina in 1946, the Truman administration remained neutral until 1950. In fact, the United States immediately gave its covert blessing and indirect aid to the French. By the early 1950s the United States openly financed the French effort to crush the Vietnamese revolution.

Though amply dramatizing the skill and tenacity of the Viet Minh, Burns and Novick begin to establish a kind of moral equivalency between the French and the insurgents by claiming that the Viet Minh were “every bit as ruthless as the French.” Though perhaps true in some narrow sense, it is a superficial effort at “balance” that ignores the reasonable argument that the brutally exploitative colonial rule of a foreign power is by definition more ruthless than its opponents (to say nothing of France’s use of bombs and napalm against insurgents armed only with small arms and artillery).

With the defeat of the French in 1954, the Eisenhower administration believed other Southeast Asian countries might fall like dominoes to communism. At this point in the film, talking head Donald Gregg of the CIA makes an important point: “We should have seen it [the French loss of Indochina]as the end of the colonial era in Southeast Asia, but instead we saw it in Cold War terms as a defeat for the Free World that was related to the rise of [communist]China. It was a total misreading of a pivotal event.” However, it wasn’t just a “misreading.” The United States intervened in Vietnam not because of “fateful misunderstandings” (as The Vietnam War would have us believe) but because policymakers automatically ignored or discredited any analysis that gave legitimacy to revolutionary movements of every sort, particularly those led by communists. The steps leading to massive war in Vietnam were founded on the deliberate and determined conviction that the maintenance and expansion of American power depended on a policy of global counterrevolution. The United States did not stumble unwittingly into Vietnam.

When the Geneva Accords of 1954 temporarily divided Vietnam into two zones at the 17th parallel, the agreement also called for an election in 1956 that would reunify the country under one government. The film accurately points out that “everyone knew Ho Chi Minh would win” a nationwide election, but does not make clear that it was the American-backed government in Saigon under Ngo Dinh Diem that cancelled the vote, with U.S. approval, in order to preserve what they hoped would be a permanent, non-communist South. By failing to emphasize this key fact, the film loses an opportunity to point out that a war fought in the name of “democracy” might have been entirely averted with a democratic election in 1956. Three million lives might have been spared. Nor does the film make clear that Diem’s regime was utterly dependent from the outset on U.S. support (including many CIA operations that go unmentioned).

This hodgepodge of an episode, ending with the election of President John F. Kennedy, includes many compelling pieces but no clear or coherent explanation of the overriding motives that drove American policy in these crucial years.

Christian G. Appy is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts. His next post, about Episode 2, will appear following its East Coast broadcast on Monday, September 18. He is the author of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (2015), Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (2003), and Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (1993). He also serves as an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.



  1. Thank you, Prof. Appy, for clarifying this episode and for providing a corrective commentary. I certainly wish the history of the Vietnamese-Chinese relationship had been included, for the reasons you state.
    As far as the episode title is concerned, I actually thought the clips of the French war and those of the Americans fighting in the 60s made the parallels clear. I look forward to reading this entire blog series.

    • Thanks for your response Historian104! I agree that there is some connective tissue between the US vets talking about the ’60s and the French experience, but there’s little suggestion of the deeper connections the VNese made between the older version of colonialism and the “neo” version–our effort to control things by proxy.

  2. Thank you Prof. Appy for your comments. I thought that some of the elements that concerned me was just me and that I have viewed the Vietnam A Television History too many times. There were many good elements in episode 1 but as you noted some that left confusion.

    • Thanks. I’m sure someone will eventually write a good essay comparing the Burns/Novick documentary to the 1983 PBS doc (“Vietnam: A Television History”).

  3. Thank you for pointing out the important omission of the thousand year Chinese interest in the territory that was to become Vietnam. The film gave the impression that the cry for independence and freedom was a result of harsh French colonial rule (which it was) rather than something deeply embedded in the Vietnamese psyche. I was also a little disappointed by the coverage of the Peace Corp. Although undoubtedly a noble idea l am still inclined to go along with the idea of a’ third way’ as expounded by Pyle, the American idealist, in Graham Greene’s novel ‘ The Quiet American’. I also found it strange that the documentary thus far has seemed to suggest it was a war fought by white Americans only. I am assuming this will be rectified as the series continues as l appreciate Ken Burns and Lynn Novicks work and their attempt to strive for a balanced look. However, since when has war been fair? Anyhow it is a much needed and really interesting series which undoubtedly will contribute to a greater understanding of this period of American history.

    • Thanks for writing. More attention to the Vietnamese perspective of history would have provided another historical context for understanding the war — an anticolonial one — not (as in so many American treatments of the war) just as a Cold War struggle to contain communism.

  4. An excellent account. Indeed, the Americans ignored the claims of anti-colonialism and nationalism and subordinated all to a program of counterrevolution and “containment”. To me, in Vietnam, the pivotal moment is the 1945 decision to back the French. As egregious as the 1956 decision to scupper elections was, it seems to me to have been inevitable given the direction set in 1945. In any case, both moments involve a betrayal or willful suppression of America’s own history and what should have been America’s values. Whether 1945 or 1956 is seen as pivotal, however, the lobster was well and truly inside the pot by 1961. Too much effort is spent chronicling the efforts of that lobster to escape, and not enough on how it got in there. That is where the lessons for the future might have been learned.

    • Excellent points. The promises of the Atlantic Charter–self-determination for all nations–was fundamentally contradicted by U.S. support for the French.

  5. I love the critique on this series and am looking forward to others. Years from now we will probably have simalar documentries on the Iraq fiasco. I am a Vietnam vet (Navy carrier pilot) who felt almost like the lone ranger in being against the Iraq invasion to the point it affected some of my relationships. I was seen as unpatriotic. Remember “freedom fries”. Hubris in our foreign policy, as in Vietnam’ has a way of coming back to haunt us.

    • Thanks. I was very surprised that this film makes no direct connections to the wars of this century.

  6. Patrick J Nedry on

    Thank you, professor, for the dissection of this episode. The skepticism that many Americans hold for their ‘government’ seems well placed. I am a member of the generation of men (and some women) who dutifully served (1966 – 1969) during the Vietnam Era, only later finding out that the events that to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution never happened. It took Secretary of Defense McNamara 30 years to ‘fess up. While it is easy to say that many were ‘conned’ in 2016, this (The Vietnam War) con job had deliberate roots in the events following WW II and they continued throughout the war. I understand it better, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about being a participant and pawn in these events.

    • Thanks for writing Patrick. And the McNamara fess up, as you know, was limited. He said it was not a moral failing, but a failure of judgment. This was a man who concluded by 1965 that the war was militarily unwinnable yet continued for almost three years to support escalation and to assure the public that progress was being made. I’d call that a moral failure.

  7. Ancient history: Talking about the Vietnamese struggle against the Chinese reminded me of when I found out about The Slave Market in Newport, RI. It is relevant, but I was told that “nobody cares”.

  8. First, the “thousand-year struggle to overthrow Chinese rule” is a nationalist myth invented in the twentieth century. In fact, for most of history, “Vietnam” was not a separate nation “invaded” or “colonized” by “China,” but part of (in various capacities in different historical eras) a broader East Asian world with imperial China at its center. Like many other parts of this empire, it experienced periodic tensions and conflicts with the center of political power. But for most of precolonial history, “Vietnamese” did not consider themselves as somehow outside of, let alone opposed to, the cultural and political world of East Asia (which is not at all the same as “China” in a modern sense). The sooner we dispense with that anachronism the better off we will all be.

    Second, it is inaccurate to say that South Vietnam was “created” in the mid-1950s. The state that became the Republic of Vietnam dates to the late 1940s, and the political and social visions of Vietnamese modernity that it represented go back much further than that. Moreover, the claim that Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime was “utterly dependent from the outset on U.S. support” has been (utterly) debunked by recent scholarship, which Burns (and the author of this post) regrettably seem not to have read. In my opinion, one of the most serious shortcomings of episode 1 was the utter lack of agency it grants to non-communist Vietnamese, who in fact go unmentioned entirely during the episode’s treatment of not only colonialism but (amazingly) the First Indochina War itself. To properly understand “the Vietnam War” is to conceive of it first and foremost as a Vietnamese civil war. And that, by extension, requires a proper understanding of the various Vietnamese parties involved.

  9. Thank you for a very interesting analysis.

    I try to think in practical terms as opposed to moral equivalency terms. To me the question was would the average South Vietnamese be better off under Diem or under Ho. I think there was not much difference so it was not worth it for the US to get involved.

    I think it was a misreading of events, because the US was so committed to the Containment policy. (And because of the poisonous political atmosphere created by the Republicans. Remember the “Who lost China” issue.). I just don’t understand why more of the “wise men” did not have the understanding or the courage to press Johnson to not escalate and to gradually withdraw the advisers

    I spent a year in Vietnam and saw the futility of our efforts. If Bush and Cheney had spent half an hour in Vietnam, they would not have sent thousands of Americans to die in Iraq

  10. Thank you for such a perceptive and informed appraisal. I thought you offered praise where warranted, and were unsparing with criticism when required. You bring out the odd conflict running throughout the episode: the risible “good faith misreadings” framing at the beginning was undercut repeatedly by the very evidence and narrative they presented. But equally present is the reflex to seemingly pull their punches. Have you had any thoughts as to what to attribute this to? Is it just a standard failure to look Empire in the face? I shall definitely look forward to reading each of your subsequent posts as as I made my way through the series.

  11. Thank you for this article.
    Why is it that Burns and Novick fail to mention the huge shipment of arms that the US shipped to Hanoi from Okinawa in 1945? It was enough to supply a 145,000-man army.
    They report that the OSS supported Ho Chi Min, but give the impression that it was only in small way by showing helicopters dropping in supplies. A major factor in the defeat of the French by the Vietminh was this huge supply of arms provided by the US. This is reported by L. Fletcher Prouty in his book on JFK.