My Reactions to The Vietnam War, a film. In Two Parts.
By Carlos B. Gil
PBS broadcast The Vietnam War, a documentary by Ken Burns, during the month of September 2017. The 10-part series received a lot of publicity, so I spent numerous hours watching it because the war itself had a strong impact on me. You may have seen it too, or heard about it. I know it affected most Americans of my generation. You may have known someone stirred by it, perhaps more than stirred.
I was a young Foreign Service Officer working for the State Department when we really got involved in Vietnam (“we,” the U.S.), first in Honduras (1963 to 1965), then in Chile (1965 to 1968). I was in my early 30’s and served as an Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer assigned to work in the Binational Center Program organized by the United States Information Agency. This is one reason I did not serve in Vietnam: I was already serving the government. Another is that I already possessed a discharge from the Air Force Reserve; and thirdly, I was married with children.
Some of the young Hondurans I worked with began asking me about the war and why the United States was sending soldiers there. I didn’t have a good answer, even as local newspapers reported our increasing involvement. The Burns film reminded me that the number of our troops rose to about 3,500 the year I finished my duties in Honduras, 1965, and got transferred to Chile. While in Honduras, I tried to obtain information but didn’t get too far. There was no Internet, of course. I remember that our induction training in Washington D.C., in 1963, included “counter insurgency programs” which we were applying in Vietnam but I think it was too early to provide us with a more solid rationale. None of us working for the United States Embassy in Honduras really had a good answer, outside of the pro-forma “communist menace,” that North Vietnam was supposed to have represented. This explanation was satisfactory in the beginning but it began to weaken in my mind. In any case, we didn’t have “canned” answers, and my recently obtained Master’s Degree in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University, helped little.
Burns’s film reminds us that the Cold War became the only way we Americans came to understand our presence in Vietnam. It was America vs. the “communists.” That made it easy, if you didn’t think about it too much. The film emphasized the fact that the Vietnamese people saw it both as a civil war, between the North Vietnam and the South Vietnam, and a colonial war. We represented the colonial power they wanted to get rid of because our soldiers were physically on their land killing their people and destroying their farms and cities. The film reveals this in a horrifying way. It also stresses how our involvement in the war was the result of complex political factors. A war is always a political act. We place our soldiers in harm’s way for political reasons, casting a shadow of ambiguity on patriotism.
I felt the impact of the war more in Chile than in Honduras. One reason was that our involvement in Vietnam became more intense and controversial while I was working in Chile. The bloody Tet Offensive, which served as a watershed event, took place in 1968. That was my final year in that South American country, when the number of our soldiers fighting there rose to 53,000, and I put my growing family on a plane to return home. All hell was breaking loose at home too because of the war.
There is another reason why I write this article. The Cold War, along with the Vietnam War, took on a special meaning for me in Chile because Chile became the locus of a diplomatic tug of war between the United States and forces on the Left, including Communists. The country where my son, Carlos, was born, served like a playing field between “us,” the Americans, and “them,” the Leftists. Moreover, I became personally involved, as I was the only U.S. representative in my district. Please note that I am the first to admit that my role was peripheral and microscopic for the reason that I was just an Assistant Cultural Attache, a minor figure; however, it cast an imprint on me so I’m writing about it for the first time. (End of Part I)