Thomas A. Bass

Selected Works

Review of Ken Burns's Vietnam
"This is an eye-opening, disturbing, and altogether fascinating account of censorship in contemporary Vietnam." —Tim O'Brien
“This book is precious. It makes a real contribution to our struggle for liberty and democracy in Vietnam.”
—Bui Tin
The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An's Dangerous Game
"I was deeply impressed by this book."
—John le Carré
"A team of physicists take on the bull market of the late 1990s with hilarious results." —Reader's Catalogue
"A funny and outrageous tale of gambling and high tech."
—Tracy Kidder
"It will undoubtedly prove to be one of the essential documents about that war."
—Tobias Wolff
"A disturbing and totally compelling account."
—Maxine Kumin
"Thomas Bass overwhelmingly fulfills his intention to convey the incredible richness Africa offers the inquiring mind. He explores the continent with impeccable research, enthusiasm, wry humor, and unsentimental humanity."
—Nadine Gordimer
Iconoclasts, rebels, and Nobel prize winners talk about science as the dominant metaphor of the twentieth century.
"In Reinventing the Future we get close to the minds of eleven restless individuals who do not dot the 'i's in sentences written by others."
—James D. Watson
Magazine Articles
April 8, 1996. All hell has broken loose in the Chicago exchanges.
Wearables are already bringing us "heads up, hands free" augmented reality in the workplace.
On the advice of an astrologer, Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam's last president, changed his birthday to a more auspicious day. The spirits were not fooled.
A profile of Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab

"America's Amnesia"

Thomas A. Bass

A film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
PBS: 2017

Geoffrey C Ward and Ken Burns
Knopf: 2017

Everything wrong with the new ten-part PBS
documentary on the Vietnam War is apparent
in the first five minutes. A voice from nowhere
intones about a war “begun in good faith” that somehow
ran off the rails and killed millions of people. We see a
firefight and a dead soldier in a body bag being winched
into a helicopter, as the rotor goes thump, thump, thump,
like a scene from Apocalypse Now. Then we cut to a
funeral on Main Street and a coffin covered in Stars and
Stripes, which multiply, as the camera zooms out, into
dozens and then hundreds of flags, waving like a hex
against warmongers who might be inclined to think that
this film is insufficiently patriotic.

Everything right with the documentary is apparent
in the next few minutes, as the film rolls back (literally
running several scenes backward) into a trove of archival
footage and music from the times and introduces the
voices — many of them Vietnamese — that will narrate
this history. The film relies heavily on writers and poets,
including Americans Tim O’Brien and Karl Marlantes
and the Vietnamese writers Le Minh Khue, and Bao
Ninh, whose Sorrow of War ranks as one of the great
novels about Vietnam or any war.

The even-handedness, the flag-draped history,
bittersweet narrative, redemptive homecomings and the
urge toward “healing” rather than truth are cinematic
topoi that we have come to expect from Ken Burns and
Lynn Novick through their films about the Civil War,
Prohibition, baseball, jazz and other themes in United
States history. Burns has been mining this territory
for forty years, ever since he made his first film about
the Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, and Novick has been at
his side since 1990, when he hired her as an archivist
to secure photo permissions for The Civil War and she
proved the indispensable collaborator.

In their interviews, Burns does most of the talking,
while the Yale-educated, former Smithsonian researcher
hangs back. Novick receives joint billing in the credits
to their films, but most people refer to them as Ken
Burns productions. (After all, he is the one with an
“effect” named after him: a film-editing technique, now
standardised as a “Ken Burns” button, which enables
one to pan over still photographs.) One wonders what
tensions exist between Novick and Burns: the patient
archivist and the sentimental dramatist.

The dichotomy between history and drama shapes all
ten parts of the PBS series, which begins with the French
colonisation of Vietnam in 1858 and ends with the fall of
Saigon in 1975. As the film cuts from patient Novickian
exposition to Burnsian close-ups, it sometimes feels
as if it were edited by two people making two different
movies. We can be watching archival footage from the
1940s of Ho Chi Minh welcoming the US intelligence
officers who came to resupply him in his mountain
redoubt, when suddenly the film shifts from black and
white to colour and we are watching a former American
soldier talk about his Viet Cong-induced fear of the
dark, which makes him sleep with a night light, like his
kids. Even before we get to Ho Chi Minh and his defeat
of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, we are watching
a US marine describe his homecoming to a divided
America in 1972, a homecoming that he says was harder
than fighting the Viet Cong.

By Episode Two, “Riding the Tiger” (1961-1963), we
are heading deep into Burns territory. The war has been
framed as a civil war, with the United States defending
a freely elected democratic government in the south
against Communists invading from the north. American
boys are fighting a godless enemy that Burns shows as a
red tide creeping across maps of Southeast Asia and the
rest of the world.

The historical footage in Episode One, “Déjà Vu”
(1858-1961), which disputes this view of the war, is
either ignored or misunderstood. Southern Vietnam
was never an independent country. From 1862 to 1949,
it was the French colony of Cochinchina, one of the five
territorial divisions in French Indochina (the others
being Tonkin, Annam, Cambodia and Laos). Defeated
French forces regrouped in southern Vietnam after
1954, which is when US Air Force colonel and CIA agent
Edward Lansdale began working to elevate this former
colony to nationhood. The US installed Ngo Dinh Diem
as south Vietnam’s autocratic ruler, aided him in wiping
out his enemies and engineered an election that Diem
stole, with 98.2 per cent of the popular vote.

The key moment in Lansdale’s creation was the
month-long Battle of the Sects, which began
in April 1955. (The battle is not mentioned in
the film. Nor is Lansdale identified in a photo of
him seated next to Diem.) A cable had been drafted
instructing the US ambassador to get rid of Diem. (A
similar cable, sent a decade later, would greenlight
Diem’s assassination.) The evening before the cable went
out, Diem launched a fierce attack on the Binh Xuyen
crime syndicate, led by river pirate Bay Vien, who had
2,500 troops under his command. When the battle was
over, a square mile of Saigon had been levelled and
20,000 people left homeless.

The French financed their colonial empire in Asia
through the opium trade (another fact left out of the
film). They skimmed the profits from Bay Vien’s river
pirates, who were also licensed to run the national
police and Saigon’s brothels and gambling dens. Diem’s
attack on the Binh Xuyen was essentially an attack on
the French. It was an announcement by the CIA that
the French were finished in Southeast Asia. The US had
financed their colonial war, paying up to 80 per cent of
the cost, but after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, it
was time for the losers to get out of town.

Once the river pirates were defeated and other
opposition groups such as the Hoa Hao and the Cao
Dai neutralised with CIA bribes, Diem and Lansdale
began making a “free” Vietnam. By 23 October 1955,
Diem was claiming his electoral victory. Three days
later he announced the creation of the Republic of
Vietnam, better known as South Vietnam. He cancelled
the elections intended to unify northern and southern
Vietnam — elections that President Eisenhower and
everyone else knew would have been won by Ho Chi
Minh — and began building the autocratic police
state that survived for twenty years, before collapsing
into the dust of the last helicopter lifting off from the
US Embassy.

Lansdale was a former advertising man. He had
worked on the Levi Strauss account when it started
selling blue jeans nationally. He knew how to sell blue
jeans. He knew how to sell a war. Anyone knowledgeable
about the history of Vietnam and its prolonged
struggle against French colonialism could see what was
happening. “The problem was trying to cover something
every day as news when in fact the real key was that it
was all derivative of the French Indo-China war, which
is history”, said former New York Times reporter David
Halberstam. “So you really should have had a third
paragraph in each story which should have said, ‘All
of this is shit and none of this means anything because
we are in the same footsteps as the French and we are
prisoners of their experience.’”