I’m once again watching the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick PBS ten-part series, The Vietnam War. I bought the DVDs when the series was first broadcast in 2017 and watched them galvanized. As this blog has shown, my view of the Vietnam war has changed over the years. I returned to the series because I wanted to continue my research (I have read every major book on the war) and to refresh my memory for my writing but also to reevaluate the series.
I’m now more than halfway through the series, and my judgment remains the same: excellent. When I’ve completed the series, I’ll have more to write. For the moment, here are some immediate reactions.
The series early on equates the National Liberation Front (NFL, short for the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam) with the Viet Cong. That is a grave error. The NFL was a fiction created by the North Vietnamese. Its manifesto was drafted in Hanoi and transmitted to South Vietnam in 1961 with orders to launch the front as an independent movement in South Vietnam opposed to the South Vietnamese government. The NFL never existed except on paper, and its supposed leaders and members were all subservient puppets of the communists.
The term “Viet Cong” is an abbreviation of the Vietnamese việt nam cộng sản which means “Vietnamese communist.” Americans came use to the term to mean independent South Vietnamese fighting against the government of Vietnam in allegiance with North Vietnam. Eventually “VC” came to mean the same thing. In fact, there were no independent South Vietnamese communists. All of them were under the iron control of Hanoi from the end of the war against the French (1954) until the North completed the conquest of the south in 1975.
The U.S. use of NFL and VC is a propaganda victory for the North Vietnamese. They worked hard to depict the war as an uprising of South Vietnamese patriotic forces against a foreign-imposed regime. It painted the members of the front and all engaged in the war against the government of South Vietnam as independent patriots. The U.S. was fooled. So too were virtually every writer about the war ever since.
How do I know that the NFL was fake and that the VC were indistinguishable from the North Vietnamese? Because I was reading North Vietnamese communications to their clandestine operatives in South Vietnam in the early 1960s. I was assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) as a soldier and later was employed by the agency. It was obvious to me that the North Vietnamese never gave up on their efforts to conquer the south from 1954 onwards.