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 17 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.

(Correction (Jan. 7): This column was corrected to give equal credit to "The Vietnam War" documentary to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. They were co-directors, co-creators and co-producers of the series.)

Scott Cawelti is an emeritus professor at the University of Northern Iowa. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not reflect those of the University of Northern Iowa.


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