Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s ‘The Vietnam War’: Bows, Betrayals and Questions✮✮✮✮

Most people can’t imagine what’s it’s like to have a dozen or so people of all ages scrambling toward them and bringing their foreheads in close proximity to the ground. In Mandarin Chinese, the act would be known as kētóu (磕頭 touch head) or koutou (叩頭 knock head) and in Cantonese kautau (also叩頭).  In Japanese, 叩頭 する(kōtō  suru) means to make a low or profound bow.


In American (Merriam-Webster) and British (Oxford English Dictionary) English,叩頭 as either koutou or kautau translated into kowtow. The first meaning being “to show obsequious deference” or to fawn (Merriam-Webster) and “Act in an excessively subservient manner” (OED). The second meaning reflects a better understanding of culture: “to kneel and touch the forehead to the ground in token of homage, worship, or deep respect” (Merriam-Webster) or “historical Kneel and touch the ground with the forehead in worship or submission as part of Chinese custom” (OEM).

Google Translate  when going from English kowtow to Chinese to gives several phrases including another phrase pāi mǎ pì (拍馬屁) which has nothing to do with heads or touching but directly translated means to beat a horse’s fart and translates back into English as to bootlick, toady, butter, kotow, kowtow, palaver.  The Chinese kowtow doesn’t translate back from English to Chinese. Bowing as a form of greeting is something that Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese cultures have in common. 

At this point, you’re probably wondering: What does this have to do with Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and the Vietnam War? During the PBS TCA Summer showcase panel presentation for “The Vietnam War: An Intimate History,” Burns noted that the 10-episode 18-hour documentary wasn’t meant to be a definitive history. “The Vietnam War” was meant to start a dialogue and get viewers to ask questions. The obvious question is: How does the US deal with losing a war? The less obvious question is: How does the US deal with decades and even centuries of emasculating of East Asian men and the cross-cultural clash between the so-called Far East and the vaguely defined West?

After watching the full series more than once, my quibbles with Episode 1 (“Déjà vu“) remain mostly a matter of nuance but when narrator Peter Coyote mentions the problems of the US POWs in Vietnam (Episode 5 “What We Do”) included being force to bow to their captors, I was reminded of the bitter memories of British POWs being forced to bow to their Japanese captors during World War II. That sentiment was shared by other Westerners and seems more about Western constructs of what a bow means as was memorialized in the musical “The Sound of Music.” The soundtrack from the Broadway original cast played endlessly during my childhood and I clearly recall Baron Von Trapp declaring, “I will not bow my head to the men I despise.” The baroness has just advised Von Trapp to “Let them think you’re on their side, be noncommital” and their mutual friend Max tells the Baron “You won’t have to bow your head to stoop a little.”

The baron and baroness do not think about the peasants who have for centuries been forced to bow to the aristocracy nor of the colonized peoples of Africa and Asia. Nor is the audience invited into acknowledging this irony. The British who maintain their monarchy still learn to curtsey and bow with somewhat less deference than in the time of George III (who was mad but still honored as a royal).

Bowing means something different in the West than it does in Japan, China, Korea and even Vietnam. Yet harking back to the words (via Rodgers and Hammerstein) of Von Trapp, what could be more despicable than bowing people considered as  less enlightened? And what about bowing to people one considers to be biologically inferior?

“The Vietnam War” reminds the audience of the state of race relations in the first episode.  If the Vietnam War draft was a point of controversy in the US, think of the kind of conscription that helped finance and build the colony that was Cochinchina for the French. The French claimed they needed to protect the Christians, but who was to protect the conscripted Vietnamese? According to the accompanying book, “one out of three of the more than 100,000 Vietnamese conscripted to lay its tracks is thought to have died along the way” as the French built railroads from Saigon to China to make their trade easier. The French hacked down forests, displacing tribes so they could plant rubber plantations and employ people that they “treated like human cattle.” In the mines, people were forced to work 12-hour days, seven-days a week and were beaten if they tried to escape their “employment.”

For some like Tran Ngoc Toan, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps of the Republic of Vietnam, “I always looked at the French as my enemy.”

Lieutenant General Lam Quang Thi notes while France’s motto is “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (ou la mort), and there was no égalité for the Vietnamese. This was a failure of democracy.


The Vietnamese people were enslaved by the French. Yet the French attitudes were not particularly misaligned with the rest of the West. The so-called unequal treaties were imposed first on China and then on Japan by Western nations.  Japan quickly learned and imposed one on Korea (to be followed by Western nations).  President Taft who had called Filipinos “our little brown brothers” was still alive (1857-1930) when Ho Chi Min was in Paris for the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had been signed by  President Chester A. Arthur–the first law to target a specific ethnic group–and been renewed in 1892 and then made permanent in 1902 . The Immigration Act of 1924 would ban the immigration of Arabs and Asians to the US. These are issues that aren’t highlighted in “The Vietnam War.”

It is in this context that Ho Chi Min delivered a letter in Paris asking for Vietnam independence. As the documentary notes, there is no indication that Wilson saw this document. Even if the missive delivered by Ho Chi Min had made it to President Wilson, what are the odds that Wilson would have cared? Wilson supported the segregation in the federal work force and left black supporters disillusioned after a fiery exchange with civil rights leader William M. Trotter during a meeting at the Oval Office in 1914.

In Paris, Wilson was no different; Wilson didn’t favor democracy in Paris. At the Peace Conference in Paris, in an attempt to end the unequal treaties, Japan proposed a racial equality amendment: “The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord as soon as possible to all alien nationals of states, members of the League, equal and just treatment in every respect making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.”

In an 11 April 1919 vote, 11 out of 17 votes were cast in favor (Japan 2, France 2, Italy 2, Brazil 1, China 1, Greece, 1 and Serbia 1) while the British Empire and the US, with two votes each, did not register a vote. Portugal and Romania (one vote each) also did not register a vote and Belgium (two votes)  was absent. Wilson claimed because of strong opposition (from the British delegation), the proposal required a unanimous vote. The French delegation objected, stating, “A majority had voted for the amendment” and the Japanese delegation demanded that the transcript show a clear majority had wanted this amendment.

The Racial Equality Proposal did not go unnoticed in Japan or the US. In Japan, there were demands for the anti-Japanese immigration laws be removed in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In the US, the Pacific coast and the South voiced negative reactions to the proposal for different reasons. This is something that the episode “Déjà Vu” doesn’t note, but could influence how one interprets what might seem like a missed opportunity.

The League of Nations was not a win for democracy in Paris or in the US. While Wilson supported the League of Nations, Congress did not. Under the leadership of Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican-controlled US Senate  did not pass the treaty. The Peace Conference did not bing peace. The War to end all wars ended sowing the seeds for the next war.

The Imperial Japanese armies are often vilified for their invasions of what were predominately European colonies; the Japanese called it: “Asia for the Asians.” But is imperialism ever a good thing? World War II would find Germany, Japan and Italy as Axis allies and the US military forces segregated. Pre-World War II, Asia was carved up into imperialist territories of European power; post-World War II, that map changed and Vietnam was to be part of that trend.  You ask people to fight for your aims–freedom and democracy; you provide them with the skills to fight for themselves.


The Korean War (1950-1953) would be the first conflict where the military was desegregated and yet as “The Vietnam War” indicates that didn’t totally cancel out the racism within  the ranks. Without the movie and TV program “MASH,” would we even remember this undeclared war at all? It wasn’t a win for the US-led UN forces.   Perhaps if this wasn’t the so-called “Forgotten War,” Americans would refrain from thinking that conflicts will be over in a matter of months–three for Vietnam or a month for Iraq.

“The Vietnam War” touches on the most blatant proof of the prejudice against East Asians, introducing us to a man born in the Japanese American internment camps, Vincent Okamoto, an Army Ranger and the most decorated Japanese American to survive the Vietnam War. The documentary notes that earning military medals doesn’t translate into being treated equal, not for blacks or ethnic Asians and that might be central to the problem that became the Vietnam War.

In Episode 3, “River Styx,” the Assistant Defense Secretary John McNaughton in a draft memorandum dated 24 March 1965, notes that of the US aims, 70 percent is “to avoid a humiliating US defeat  (to our reputation as a guarantor) and 20 percent to keep the South Vietnamese territory from Chinese hands and 10 percent to permit the SVN “to enjoy a better, freer way of life.”

And what could be more humiliating than losing a war to a race considered inferior, to men considered inferior to both white men and black men? If the photo of the then-Emperor Hirohito with Douglas MacArthur at the end of World War II and the beginning of the American Occupation reinforced a racial hierarchy and the notion that bigger is better, the photo of Ho Chi Minh, a full head shorter than the OSS officers (e.g. Carleton Swift) who saved him in 1945, was a contradiction.

Ho Chi Minh (third from left) and OSS Deer Mission in 1945.

As the documentary notes, the Vietnamese had been fighting with the Allies against the Japanese, but the French  still wanted their colonies back after World War II.

Henry Cabot Lodge and President Ngo Dinh Diem.

The French weren’t willing to give up the people who they had enslaved. Yet the documentary makes a point that for some, the French and the Americans were little different: burning homes, raping women and executing men suspected of aiding the enemy (“Déjà vu), a pattern that would be repeated by the US forces. The Viet Minh were no different, but they were Vietnamese. They spoke the language, they understood the culture and they could easily blend in. They were of the same culture and the same race. The Vietnam War was in some ways a Vietnam Civil War.

Did racism affect decisions? Kennedy authorized the use of napalm and Agent Orange. Crops were destroyed but the chemicals also affected people. Would the same measures been taken against a European power? Would soldiers have treated Europeans with the same savagery? Marine Corporal Bill Ehrhart recalled Vietnamese detainees being pushed off eight to nine-foot tall vehicles–their hands and feet bound–“They had no way to break their fall. People are screaming. You can hear bones snapping, shoulders dislocate.” (“Resolve”).  In “What We Do,” we follow Tiger Force as its members work to meet a goal of 327 kills under the leadership of a man nicknamed “Ghost Rider.” According to the documentary, Tiger Force members wore necklaces made of dried human ears trophies taken from dead Vietnamese. This claim and others were investigated by journalists at the Toledo Blade and the New York Times (Michael D. Sallah and Mitch Weiss wrote a book: “Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War”). Could the Vietnamese allies and unaffiliated civilians trust such men who would take body parts of their brothers and fathers, uncles and nephews?

If the enemy had been white would trophies of dried human ears have been acceptable? According to the documentary, Alpha Company’s Lieutenant Colonel Henry Emerson once asked for the hacked-off head of an enemy soldier, offering a case of whiskey as a prize. The trophy head was photographed by Horst Faas. Did US and British leaders ask their soldiers for the heads of Nazis?

Many East Asians believe they can tell one nationality from another. That is true to an extent. But to others, black and white, we all look the same. Okamoto recalled in his second night in South Vietnam taking shelter in a dark bunker as mortar rounds hit the base. “The guy sitting right next to me lit a cigarette with an Old Zippo lighter. And all of a sudden, I hear someone says, ‘There’s a gook in here!’…And it just happened that another second lieutenant that I had met the day before said, ‘Hey, Okamoto, is that you?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Be at ease, people, he’s an American.’ And then another voice, with a distinct southern accent said, ‘Hey, no offense, partner; but if I was you, I’d dye my hair blond and whistle ‘Dixie’ when it gets dark.'”

Okamoto and others (“The Veneer of Civilization”) recounted that body count is what mattered. “A kill ratio determined whether or not you called a firefight a victory or a loss.” Okamoto’s older brothers had served in the Japanese American 442nd in Europe to prove their loyalty. The prejudice that placed the Japanese Americans in internment camps didn’t magically disappear. When the number of bodies count, does the actual alliance matter at all. Some have suggested that there was a “mere gook rule” where killing or harming Vietnamese civilian had little consequence. The documentary doesn’t directly mention the mere gook rule but suggests this was the attitude toward the end of the war.

The desegregation of troops opened up problems from haircuts (blacks and their Afros versus whites with Beatle haircuts) to the prohibition against “Black Is Beautiful” stickers, but the open display of the Confederate flag. In May 1969, two white soldiers burned a cross in front of the mostly African American barrack. Racism was alive and well in the United States, and transported from the US to the military enclaves in Vietnam.

The question that rises is: What kind of country thinks it will get support from burning homes even if they are just hooches (thatched huts)? What kind of a country thinks it will win the hearts of people by taking away their mainstay (rice) and burning down their fields and forests? What kind of country believes it can win the hearts of a people when its soldiers wear necklaces of human ears?  Did the US government feel they would be grateful? Isn’t that the essential problem with imperialism–the thought that the exploited, enslaved and inferior peoples will be grateful for guidance?

The documentary has voices who clearly say that the Americans were not better than the French or even the defeated Japanese. With the Japanese, at least despite the conceit of superiority and a social Darwinistic hierarchy among Asians, a Vietnamese could possibly pass for Japanese–acculturate and assimilate. And like many other Asians, there would be similar customs like the bowing of heads.


The bow as a greeting is in many ways superior to the handshake. You can’t pass on viruses and bacteria with a bow. There is no such thing as a bone-crushing bow and it’s hard to aggressively bow in order to establish dominance.

When I was first in Japan, I didn’t mistake the bowing to mean that the people thought I was their superior or even their equal. Sexist men–Asian and white–would bow to me. Bowing was automatic. In Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, I’ve been able to pass sometimes as a local but I also know how to act like a minority and it’s a revelation when one is not.

The US troops went over to Vietnam without language or cultural skills and a large part of communication in most languages is non-verbal. Worse, I’ve observed that many US citizens do not know how to act like a minority. White men and women in the Far East are the minority. Without that kind of consciousness, how can they quickly understand the full implications of the rule of a minority religion (Catholicism brought in by the French) over the majority religion (Buddhism) in Vietnam and the kind of desperation that results in Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire?

During my first stay in Japan, I returned to the home of my paternal grandfather in Kyushu where I met my second cousins. At the time, that household was headed by a man who was the same age as my deceased father, the eldest son of my grandfather’s only older brother. My father was considered the head of the US branch of the family so even though I was a woman, even though I was the youngest daughter of that family, I was honored with low bows by people older than I for that first visit.

I think of that incident whenever I hear about POWs being forced to bow to their Asian captors. I think of how in Asian martial arts, men and women, girls and boys are taught to bow to the photo of a dojo’s founder. This is the kowtow curse, the cross-cultural clash between East and West.

My own experiences relating to the Vietnam War have been mundane. Instead of being called “Jap” or “Nip” or “Chink,” I’ve been called “Gook.” And then there was that one time, waiting alone at a bus stop that a man asked me, “What are you?” The standard, “I’m American” didn’t satisfy him. That I was born and raised in Southern California didn’t matter. When I finally confessed that both sets of grandparents were Japanese, he revealed his anger toward the Vietnamese, that he was working hard at a job that paid $20 an hour while the Vietnamese in Orange County, CA were driving around in nice cars and had flashy gold jewelry. He railed against the Vietnamese for what seemed like hours, but really was only about 20 minutes until the bus came and I left him behind. His bitterness burned fear into my heart and I never returned to that bus stop. I already knew to beware of military men who might “Remember Pearl Harbor,” but those men were mostly white. This man was black.

According to Merriam-Webster, the word “gook” is an offensive term for “a nonwhite or non-American person; specifically: Asian.” OED notes it as a North American offensive and informal term for “a foreigner, especially a person of SE Asian descent.” In both cases, the original of the term is unknown. Wikipedia’s entry suggests the word came from an earlier usage of “gook” to mean “prostitute” or from the Korean word “국” (guk) for country. In Korean, “한국” (hanguk), means “Korea” and “미국” (miguk), meaning “America.” Yet the recorded usage of “gook” predates the Korean War, and was used in 1912 by US Marines in Nicaragua to refer to the natives.

There are other ways in which World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War has resonated in my life. When I was single, some men tried to impress me as more virile than East Asian men, forgetting that my father, uncles and brother were also ethnic East Asians or expecting me to agree that somehow East Asian men were inferior. When  I turned men down, some reminded me that East Asian women were cheap and they probably bought a few brief moments with my mother for a dollar or two.

Yes, to some Asian lives are cheap. That too is reflected in “The Vietnam War” when we see that the punishment for the My Lai Massacre is reluctant and then little more than a slap on the wrist. Granted the prosecution of rape was problematic at the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals, but the deaths of those civilians–men, women and children? The excuse of following orders wasn’t an acceptable justification at the war crimes trials in either Nuremberg or Tokyo. Watching that episode (“The History of the World”) reminded me that once a Chines- American man named Vincent Chin (May 18, 1955 – June 23, 1982) was murdered in Detroit and two white men who thought he was Japanese were given three-year probation sentences. Chin’s father was a World War II vet.


The US doesn’t always win wars. The War of 1812 was not a win. Neither was the Korean War nor the Vietnam War. How does the US deal with such wars, by forgetting them? There is one loss that can’t be forgotten. As the documentary notes, during the Vietnam War, just as in recent protests, the flag of the Confederacy reminds us that the American Civil War was both a win and a loss. The literature of that Lost Cause waxes nostalgic over the loss of the beauty and gentility of the plantation owners’ lives, a place of lovely Southern belles and beaus and soulful faithful servants. Is that kind of  nostalgic myopic vision so different from the lost imperialism dreams of exotic locales where a white man or woman can be treated like royalty and find a fortune? Is the Lost Cause of the Confederacy so different from the whitewashed image of the British Raj (1858-1947)? The honorable struggle to sustain the questionable virtues of antebellum South and the honorable struggle to uplift backward people are not so different.

In that context, consider the romantic vision of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil  who looked back to the Orientalism of 1907 ( Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”) to created the 1989 musical “Miss Saigon.” In “The Semiotics of ‘Miss Saigon,'” D. Hideo Maruyama, called the musical “basically a Euro-American man’s wet dream” and stated,  “It’s time to see the real Vietnam, not the Miss Saigon version.  Whether or not America is ready to see the real one is up to question.” Yet just last year, the Daily Mail reported that Danny Boyle was in talks about a film adaptation. Is the US on the reconstruction road to the Vietnam War?

“The Vietnam War” shows different realities from both the Vietnamese and American sides. After watching and re-watching the 18-hour documentary, I wondered if the opponents hadn’t been slender Southeast Asian men, would the US have backed out sooner? In 2017, we can see black and white men as manly and the right stuff of heroes, but we still have problems considering an ethnic Asian man as a lead or even allowing an Asian to play an Asian character. In the mainstream movies, the preference is still to whitewash the movie or to yellowface. And in the eyes of many, black and white, as Michael Luo of the New York Times noted with his #ThisIs2016, Asian Americans are still considered foreigners. The question of racism is not black and white. The unspoken question that continues to haunts the US today is: How can East Asian men be inferior to white and black men when the US lost the Vietnam War?

 *Notes on War Crimes: The Nazi war criminals were not charged with rape and neither were the allies although rape did occur–including mass rapes of German women by Soviet soldiers–as well as forced sexual slavery on women imprisoned in concentration camps by the Nazis. The Tokyo war crimes trials did convict officers for failure to prevent rape during the so-called “Rape of Nanking.”  The Batavia Military Tribunal was concerned about the rape of Dutch women by Japanese men (including the “employment” of such women as comfort women), but not the rape of the native women who were also forced to work as comfort women. It wasn’t until the 1990s that wartime rape became recognized as a crime against humanity when the International Criminal Tribunal issued arrest warrants for Bosnian Serb soldiers, police officers and members of paramilitary groups who raped, tortured and enslaved Muslim women in  Foča.

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