Hearts and Minds, Peter Davis, 1974

Hearts and Minds, Peter Davis

Hearts and Minds, 1974, 112 minutes: The film is a compilation of newsreel and documentary footage, as well as original interviews, about the Vietnam War and its aftermath, including the following scenes: in Hung Dinh Village, Vietnam, peasants toil in the fields, guarded by armed soldiers; an aide to former U.S. President Harry S. Truman, Clark Clifford, reflects that America felt an elevated sense of entitlement after WWII, which translated into a desire for world domination; in the 1950s, the U.S. funded seventy-eight percent of the French war in Indochina, fearing a Communist uprising. According to retired French Foreign Minister Georges Bidault, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles suggested the use of two atomic bombs in Vietnam. In the early days of the war, future President Lyndon B. Johnson tells a news conference that the success of the war depends on the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people. At a homecoming ceremony, prisoner of war Lt. George Coker tells a cheering crowd that faith in God and country kept him alive. However, an aide to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Johnson, Walt Rostow, admits that the administrations had no evidence to prove that the Vietnamese people wanted a Communist government. Rostow claims that the U.S. was involved in the war only to protect the country from outside forces and says that the Soviet Union was perceived as a greater threat after the launch of Sputnik, on 4 Oct 1957. Arkansas Senator J. W. Fulbright concedes that in 1964, Johnson relied on false information about supposed North Vietnamese naval attacks against the U.S. in the Tonkin Gulf to rally the country to war.

Former U.S. Capt. Randy Floyd reminisces about his youth, when he and his schoolmates were indoctrinated with John Birch Society literature and learned to loathe Communism. Other veterans explain their desire to prove their manhood and their patriotism; hatred of Communism proved a convenient outlet for aggression. On the streets of Saigon, Vietnam, U.S. soldiers are solicited by prostitutes and by impoverished children. Back in the U.S., former Defense Department aide and RAND Corporation executive Daniel Ellsberg states that the Vietnam War was approached with benevolent assumptions that were pervasive in WWII, but these ideals were the underpinnings of imperialism, not compassion. Veterans Capt. Floyd and Lt. Coker discuss the thrill of piloting bombers, while Vietnamese peasants Nguyen Van Tai, and sisters Vo Thi Hue and Vo Thi Tu, share stories of their immense losses on the ground. Religious leader, Father Chan Tin, describes Vietnam’s history of fighting foreign invaders and argues that the war with the U.S. was genocide; the Vietnamese were fighting for independence against imperialists, not unlike Americans during the Revolutionary War. According to Senator Fulbright, Vietnam President Ho Chi Minh was familiar with the U.S. Constitution and originally thought that America would act as an ally.

Back in Vietnam, coffin maker Mui Duc Giang reports that he constructs up to 900 caskets a week for children alone and seven of his own offspring have died from napalm. Army deserter, Former Sec. 5 Edward Sowders, visits his mother, who begs him not to return to Vietnam. As the war continues, young men prepare for enlistment, playing high school football. Others, who are already stationed in Vietnam, recreate with prostitutes while their comrades capture prisoners and set fire to peasants’ homes. Vietnam businessman Nguyen Ngoc Linh explains how capitalism can benefit the country. Presidential advisor Clark Clifford describes Gen. William Westmoreland’s appeal for a surge of troops in 1968, noting that there was no plan to end the war and the Vietnamese had not exhibited a desire to cease fighting. Meanwhile, Americans demonstrate against the war, but according to Daniel Ellsberg, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy provoked a pervasive sense of hopeless. Veterans describe loss of faith in their country and Ellsberg explains from his perspective the lies advocated by U.S. presidential administrations from Truman, in the 1950s, to Richard Nixon, in the early 1970s. Ellsberg argues that although the Vietnam conflict was portrayed as a civil war, it was entirely financed by the U.S. government and casualties on both sides were a consequence of failed American foreign policy, not Communist aggressors.

The former President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, is praised by President Johnson, but later assassinated in 1963. Similarly, Diem’s successor, General Nguyen Khanh, was coerced into resigning, even though the American Ambassador to South Vietnam at that time, General Maxwell Taylor, publically claimed to embrace Khanh’s leadership; Khanh plays a tape recording in which Taylor confirms an order for Khanh to step down. President Nixon appoints a new leader to South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu, and funds his government with $2 billion annually, but Father Chan Tin reports that the country is a police state, where citizens are arrested, tortured and imprisoned without trial. Former political prisoner Nguyen Thi Sau describes how she was beaten and held captive by Thieu’s soldiers. According to Father Chan Tin, anyone who advocated for peace was considered a Communist; however, the government’s actions backfired as citizens increasingly associated Communism with liberty and justice.

Back in the U.S., government official Walt Rostow makes no apologies for the war. David Emerson, who lost his son in Vietnam, insists that the sacrifice was not too great for preserving American ideals and he finds solace and faith in President Nixon. At a May 1973 White House dinner for returned prisoners of war hosted by Bob Hope, President Nixon is applauded for his decision to extensively bomb North Vietnam in December 1972. However, the campaign was devastating to North Vietnam; a farmer describes the death of his family and calls Nixon a murderer, while children clutch photographs of their deceased parents and mourners wail in agony at a cemetery. Back in the U.S., Gen. Westmoreland claims that Eastern religious philosophies do not value human existence and therefore “life is cheap.” Veteran Randy Floyd admits that the suffering of the Vietnamese people did not effect him at the time of the war and reflects that Americans have never endured the same kind of violence in their own country. Attempting to hold back tears, Floyd contends that Americans are in denial about Vietnam and argues that people who are fighting for freedom can never be constrained by violence or foreign oppressors.

(Additional resource: Hearts and Minds: The Right Side of History. Judith Crist, Criterion Collection, 2002.)