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An Immediate Response to….

Path to War (Dir. John Frankenheimer, 2002, HBO)


    I watched  the HBO production entitled Path to
War last night and found it to be intriguing and painful.
The film really captures the anguish of LBJ, a great
President who was impaled on a war he did not wish to fight.
What worried me was the lack of true in-depth historical
understanding reflected in an otherwise admirable production.
    The press release indicates that the writer for the film
was Daniel Giat, a "professional writer" who went back to the
recordings of  White House phone calls-fascinating items
available on the Internet from the LBJ Library.  Now Mr. Giat
is not an historian and is thus in the position of so-many Hollywood
people-ie, they know nothing about the literature on their topic
and go plunge blindly into original source materials.  The Christian
Science Monitor review indicates that Giat also consulted articles by
Clark Clifford, items published in the New Yorker.  Now
Clifford was not a disinterested party in these events; not
surpisingly, the film presents him as a paragon of placidity and
judgment in a stormy sea of historical conflict. (Interesting
casting…The Mr. X of Oliver Stone's LBJ [Donald Sutherland]
is tapped to play Clifford-get the connection?)

    What is missing?

1.  Any recognition of the misunderstanding of Tet.  The
positions of Peter Braestrup in BIG STORY or Don
Oberdorfer in TET are passed off as Establishment
fantasies.  If the Viet Cong attacked in such numbers,
it must have been triumphant with lots of back up;
actually, we have known for decades that the Tet
offensive destroyed the Viet Cong as a fighting force.

This show tells us, again, that the Viet Cong were in
the Embassy building in Saigon.  We even see someone
firing into what looks like the embassy-but is not.
No, the Viet Cong did NOT get into the Saigon Embassy
building and historians have known this fact since
the day after the attack on the Embassy.  Peter Braestrup
and Don Oberdorfer have corrected this misperception
in book-length works as early as 1972.  Unfortunately,
 the AP reports of Peter Arnett win out in  this "historical
film."  (See Don Oberdorfer, Tet [1972] and Peter
Braestrup, Big Story [1977].)

2.  Understanding of the numbers calculations.  The thesis
of the CBS documentary which provoked suit from General
Westmoreland, a CBS White Paper entitled "The Uncounted
Enemy: A Vietnam Deception" is upheld and this argument
is put into the mouth of Clifford, himself.  There have been
at least four books on the CBS program and most come to
the conclusion that the numbers debates were part of a
legitimate conflict between experts and not a conspiracy.
(See Don Kowet, _A Matter of Honor [1984] and also
my article for War, Literature, and the Arts on the
documentary and the numbers debate.)


3.  The call up of 206,000 men after Tet.  This story was leaked
to the New York Times and caused quite a commotion in the
public marketplace, but scholars on the subject are in
agreement that this request was NOT for Vietnam, but
for world-wide force strength needs-to include
Europe.  The initial misunderstanding by the New York
Times and others has long-since been dispelled. (See
Herbert Schandler, The Unmaking of a President, 1977)

4.  Compassion for LBJ.  As quoted by the Christian Science
Monitor, Giat claims to have discovered for the first time
that LBJ was in anguish about the war: "I think it will
come as a revelation to the public."  The ignorance revealed
by this statement-it seems to have been a revelation for
Giat as well-can only be matched by the remark by another
Presidential filmmaker, David Grubin, during a talk at
Dartmouth College last year when he admitted that he had
not realized that FDR was an "interesting man" until he
stated working on a major film project. These
kinds of remarks are very, very frightening since these
people in media pretend to be our "historians" and,
indeed-because we are lazy and untrained-are the
nation's historians. (See Television Histories [2001], Eds.
Edgerton and Rollins.)


Those of us who study history and culture for a living
need to critique these productions as they come out or we will
live with the consequences-in this case, a perpetuation of
misunderstanding rather than provision of historical insight.
Listening to presidential phone calls may lead to good drama,
but it is not the basis for accurate and insightful history writing.
Indeed, the person who listens TO those tapes needs a framework of
interpretation and a background in methodology of historical
studies or he will be led to repeat the tired historical models
 accepted by other well-read people of his age, class, and
-in this case-the Hollywood film colony. (Remember
Oliver Stone as "historian?")

The Path to War is poignant drama with surface verisimilitude
but it does not reflect a true historical approach to its
materials.  The acting is superb and there are many subtle
portrayals, but the substance of historical studies is lacking
in this historical docudrama.  I urge all historians to watch it
and for some to use it within a critical context for their
classes.  It is yet again a case of history being written at
the level of a Time-Life Books summary-and, as a result, a
tragic misuse of resources for the teaching of history
through television.

Peter C. Rollins
[log in to unmask]

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University of Alabama: http://www.tcf.ua.edu