By David K. Shipler
Russians used to tell a joke in communist times: What’s the definition of a Soviet historian? A person who can predict the past.
Disfavored officials were air-brushed out of photographs and deleted from textbooks. Wartime atrocities were ignored, and history was burnished with heroism. It was done by government edict, making the synthetic past immune to correction. It also made the Soviet Union very different from open societies, where (we believe) facts will survive and truth will ultimately prevail.
But will they? Look closely and you can see that pluralistic democracies also manipulate history, notwithstanding their spirits of fluid inquiry and acerbic debate. Critics can dispute distortions, of course, as they do vigorously in both the United States and Israel, two countries where portrayals of history are often bent by the emotional weight of war. Yet distortions endure, for nature abhors a moral vacuum when it comes to war, and war is exactly that: a moral vacuum.
A fresh search for virtue is underway this spring, the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, illustrated by the air-brushed history in a new documentary, “Last Days in Vietnam,” directed and produced by Rory Kennedy, to be broadcast by PBS April 28.
The film is the anguished tale of panicky Americans rushing to evacuate as many Vietnamese as possible before North Vietnamese tanks roll in. Many of the images are familiar, the personal accounts less so. They are gripping stories of Vietnamese made vulnerable by their military service or their employment by the U.S. government, and of daring American officials organizing an airlift out of chaos.
The trouble is, the brief historical set-up to this climax is so badly flawed that after the movie was first screened last year, a strong letter urging revisions was sent to Kennedy, signed by more than 30 correspondents who covered the war (including me). It didn’t help. (See link to text of letter in righthand column.) The film’s crucial silences lead the viewer to think that the ceasefire called for in the 1973 Paris agreement was violated by only North Vietnam, that no misdeeds by the U.S. or South Vietnam contributed to the peace plan’s demise.
No mention is made of South Vietnam’s military offensives after the supposed ceasefire, of the rampant corruption and drug addiction in the South Vietnamese military, or of the failure by all sides to pursue the political settlement outlined by the agreement. Absent is the illicit involvement of American ex-military men in arming South Vietnamese aircraft for bombing runs violating the ceasefire.
The silences add to the dramatic effect—the South Vietnamese as innocent victims, the Americans as pure humanitarians—which heightens the nobility of those who struggled compassionately at the end. But by creating an occluded lens through which to view that finale, the film lets “a false narrative take root in the public mind,” the correspondents’ letter observed. The troubling result was aided briefly by WGBH, the sponsoring public television station in Boston, whose resource for teachers featured a six-minute clip of the one-sided history, until it was taken down around the time of a complaint about it by a former correspondent, Arnold R. Isaacs.
“If you consult reputable historians and any serious journalist who covered that history, I believe a large majority will tell you that this video presents fiction, not historical fact,” he wrote to WGBH. “It is a safe bet that only an infinitesimal minority of teachers or students who might see this video will know enough to recognize its faults.”
Isaacs (in the interest of full disclosure, my brother-in-law) had been there at the end, for The Baltimore Sun, and wrote a powerful, authoritative book, Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia, chronicling the period from the Paris agreement through those final weeks and days. Among his objections to the film’s history was its clip of Vietnamese struggling to get onto a World Airways flight from Danang to flee south, ahead of the North Vietnamese advance. “Watching that video,” he wrote to me last week, “if you didn’t know it beforehand you would have had no clue that the people mobbing the hatchway were virtually all soldiers who had shot their way through crowds of civilian refugees to get to the plane. As I wrote in Without Honor, it landed in Saigon with four women, three children, three old men, and 320 soldiers.”
The film is being broadcast under the rubric of WGBH’s and PBS’s American Experience, which has decided to brook no criticism on its site. Jim Laurie, who covered the war for NBC, wrote a solid piece on the historical inaccuracies but was told it would not be posted unless his direct criticisms of the film were deleted. For example, he notes that the film leaves unchallenged the assertion by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that officials thought the Paris accords could lead to permanent division, as in Korea, a fanciful argument that Kissinger himself could not have believed, given that “the United States has stationed more than 30,000 troops in Korea for more than sixty years to guarantee a two state situation on the peninsula,” Laurie wrote. “In Vietnam no such role for the US was ever envisioned.”
“Also missing from the film’s narrative is any reference to the incompetence and corruption of some of the South Vietnam command,” he added, quoting Loren Jenkins of Newsweek seeing South Vietnam’s Economic Minister in 1974 handing out $100 bills to commanders in Danang in Hue. “They lined up like school boys at a candy store for their handouts,” Jenkins said.
Even the history that survives WGBH’s hatchet will not be visible to the public until after the broadcast, Laurie told me. His piece will be posted only on Wednesday, although “I argued that people might go to the website for more information during or just after the broadcast and would find no corrective there.” Laurie sardonically called this “my ‘American Experience.’”
If Americans can’t agree on facts about a war long ended, imagine Israelis’ debates over the origin of their continuing conflict, their War of Independence in 1948. It took decades for textbooks to acknowledge that Israeli troops expelled Arabs, and longer for massacres of Arab civilians to be exposed. A respected Israeli historian, Benny Morris, documented about two dozen massacres but could not confirm one case in particular, at the village of Tantura, which recently embroiled both Israelis and Americans in a battle over artistic freedom.
An Israeli playwright, Motti Lerner, grew up near Tantura hearing stories of the killings. He believes that excavating history and listening to the other’s narrative are essential to Israeli-Arab coexistence. So he built a play, “The Admission,” around fictitious Arab and Jewish men, now friends, who were both at the village—the Arab as a witness, the Jew as a commander. Their children dig through layers of memory and denial, leaving the audience “deeply unsettled and unresolved,” in the words of Ari Roth, who produced the play in Washington, D.C., as the artistic director of Theater J. It is a genre designed “to break somebody open so that they can pick up the pieces outside the theater,” he said. Perhaps this can “ultimately effect change in society by leaving the theatergoer devastated, pulverized, opened up, and agitated.”
Theater J, in the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, had been under fire for years by a small group of conservative American Jews who decried, as slanderous, plays and discussions exploring Israel’s morality. Urging donors to withhold contributions, they made fundraisers nervous, particularly when the argument turned on a moment of disputed history.
“The Admission” got full houses and rave reviews, the usual index of theatrical success. But the Jewish Community Center, heading into a capital campaign, cancelled Roth’s annual Middle East festival, then fired him after he told the press about the conflict. He has now launched a new enterprise, the Mosaic Theater Company, which next year plans a new play by Motti Lerner, After the War.
You can bet that Roth will put unwelcome truths on his stage, resisting the admonition that even in an open society, you sometimes have to predict the past.