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Vietnam as a no-win movie

Most of us might well think that the major TV newcasts and documentaries exert more impact on public opinion than anything else -- with the press not far behind.

I wouldn't dispute that view out of hand, but I am beginning to wonder whether on some important issues the opinion-slanted motion pictures, when many get in a similar groove, don't shape public thinking more substantially than either television or the newspapers.

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Consider the fact that most of the principal films dealing with Vietnam during recent years were dominantly hostile to what the United States was doing to protect South Vietnam from aggression. These films exhibited notable one-sidedness in picturing America's efforts to help the people of small distant nation retain their freedom to elect a government of their own choosing.

Certainly one should respect the right of the producers to artistic and editorial freedom. But the number of films critical of what the US was trying to do to save South Vietnam from being overrun by the communist regime in North Vietnam seems to me rather high.

These motion pictures seem to me unfairly and, I would say, sincerely biased. Their producers were not primarily seeking huge box- office profits. They were, as the Hollywood phrase puts it, seeking to "make a statement"; that is, they were filming editorials mostly on the same side of the issue.

What these films are doing is to nourish and to keep alive a version of the motives and acts which moved three presidents -- John Kennedy who first put us into the war, Lyndon Johnson who expanded the war, and Richard Nixon who ended it -- to do what they did for the defense of South Vietnam as something worthy and in the national interest.

There is plenty to criticize about our role in The Vietnam War -- and plenty to learn from it.

President Eisenhower refused to commit American troops to the Asian mainland. The greatest mistake of all was that JFK, in sending US fighting forces for Vietnam, never went to Congress for approval.

There is no doubt that we got deeply involved in the Vietnam fighting by creeping stages and, I suspect, without adequately and publicly measuring the costs and consequences.

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Surely two lessons emerge:

Never go to war anywhere, as we did in both Korea and Vietnam, without the approval of Congress. It is fatal.

Never go to war unless we are going to use the means to win.

But the sequence of Vietnam films appears to me unbalanced. It is an impediment to perceiving the lessons to be learned from the Vietnam experience. "No more Vietnams' is a slogan not a policy and is of little help in confronting the present challenges in Iran and Afghanistan.

One corrective is Henry Kissinger's book, "White House Years." It is not without its own element of personal bias, but it deserves to be read. Fortunately, it is easy reading.


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