• Sunday Essay #6: Government as Source of Fake News

    • Posted on Jan 07, 2018

    Here's today's (1-7) Courier column, which also serves this week as Sunday Essay, #6.  Spielberg's latest film THE POST is due out this Friday, and it ties into the Vietnam War film, as well as our ongoing need for a free press, able to expose government lies.  


                Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's recent “The Vietnam War” documentary deserves a careful viewing for anyone interested in American culture and history.  Granted, that’s no small feat—it’s over seventeen grueling hours of America’s Vietnam war history.     

                 I’ll be helping discuss the film in a March public forum as well as an April adult ed course, so I’ve been re-watching it and reading the accompanying book.   Also I’m researching other sources, including Robert McNamara’s mea culpa book: “In Retrospect—the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.”  And pondering the film “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” about Daniel Ellsberg’s role in getting Vietnam war facts to the media.    

                I can hardly wait for “The Post,” Steven Spielberg’s new film, about the sharp conflict between the Washington Post and the Nixon administration over the publication of the classified Pentagon Vietnam study, dubbed “The Pentagon Papers.”

                It’s all been depressing and heartening in equal measure.  

                Consider:  The “Pentagon Papers” study was nothing more than an accurate, detailed history of the Vietnam war from the beginning, commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and researched by 36 analysts.  McNamara asked for an “encyclopedic” history of the war up to 1967, and he got it. 

                It should have been required reading for Americans earlier in the war. Its knowledge might have saved thousands of American and Vietnamese lives. 

                Yet it was classified “Top Secret,” and in 1971 the Nixon administration desperately and unsuccessfully tried to prevent its publication.  Daniel Ellsberg, the New York Times, and the Washington Post were threatened with severe legal penalties if they published it. In fact, the New York Times had already printed some of it before an injunction halted further publication. 

                The “Pentagon Papers” revealed that four presidents repeatedly lied about the war and America’s involvement in it.  They worried that factual truth would have made America and its leaders lose face. Their fear of Russian and Chinese communism kept driving them deeper into what was basically a Vietnamese civil war. We now know that the U.S. created a country--South Vietnam--in order to fight communism. 

                Our Defense Secretary at the time, Robert McNamara, played a major role, and he confesses that he got it wrong, as did Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson.          

                In effect, our leaders fed the public fake news, which newspapers dutifully reported, thereby creating a country full of deceived believers.  Fake stories from the government inevitably led to false beliefs among the American public. 

                Sound familiar? 

                The only American institution that stood up against government lying was the mainstream media—large newspapers printing facts that might have saved us from a worse catastrophe. That’s the heartening part. 

                As Justice Hugo Black wrote for the Supreme Court, “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people. . .”

                Put another way, the media is only fake when it prints government lies.  




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  • Vietnam Story at Last

    • Posted on Sep 24, 2017
    Here's this morning's (Sun. 9-24) column on Ken Burns's documentary 'The Vietnam War" which deserves serious attention and discussion.  Our national trauma from that horror of a war continues, and the truths contained in this film may help move us toward reconciliation.   That was Burns and Novick's purpose in making it.  

    Over the years I’ve taught three Vietnam War films— “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket,” and “Apocalypse Now.”  All led to energetic classroom discussions about the purpose and meaning of that terrible war.   

    Yet those films, and many others I’ve viewed, were missing aspects that needed telling.   I’ve been waiting decades for a film that would get closer to the complete story. That story had to include the North Vietnamese’s version, and a clear-eyed look at America’s involvment from the beginning. In other words, ignored facts.   

    That film arrived on PBS last Sunday night.  

    “The Vietnam War,” Ken Burns/Lynn Novick’s 18-hour documentary is available free on PBS’ website and in segments on Iowa Public Television during the last two weeks of September.  It was my generation’s defining event, and deserves respect and discussion.   

    I watched the first four episodes last week and can’t stop thinking and feeling about them.  Like any great film, it affects you in the head, heart, and gut, often all at once. 

    For the head, there’s information that few Americans knew, and certainly none really wanted to know:  Ho Chi Minh, far from being an enemy, began his political career trying to free his country from all external powers, especially the French.  He believed our American Declaration of Independence and Constitution got it right.  

    He tried to tell both Presidents FDR and Truman, that all he wanted was independence, but got nowhere.  The U.S. supported the French, who occupied Indochina as part of their colonial empire.  Ho Chi Minh was far more a believer in his own country’s autonomy than in Russian or Chinese Communism.   

    Even more disturbing, we were lied to from the beginning, beginning with the “Tonkin Gulf Resolution,” which justified retaliation when we had been the attackers.  I had read about that phony attack in 1968 and realized then that we couldn’t trust our government.   

    Both President Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara knew we couldn’t “win” as early as 1965. As LBJ tells Defense Secretary McNamara, “There’s no light at the end of that tunnel.”  Yet they knowingly went on to escalate our involvement, sending thousands more U.S. Troops to fight in what was essentially a civil war.  That knowledge hits the gut.  

    No wonder citizens were protesting, loudly and en masse, during that whole conflict.  Had our soldiers left Vietnam when leaders knew we couldn’t win, we would have been spared a decade of slaughter and destruction that haunts us still.  

    Throughout the documentary, because our war destroyed so many lives on both sides,  individual stories get told in sharp detail. Young Denton Crocker’s story gets told throughout the third and fourth episodes, and left me choked up, thanks to current interviews with his still-traumatized mother and sister.  Denton’s story stands for thousands of other young men who left broken-hearted families. 

    Ken Burns hopes “The Vietnam War” will start a national conversation about that awful war. Our leadership went horribly awry, and we need to admit that openly.   
    Reconciliation must begin with truth.  

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