Some initial reflections on the introductory episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary.
I suppose few nations are truly adept at looking at themselves in the mirror, but the USA does seem especially bad at it.
Last month I visited the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, which has an entire building devoted to explaining the course of the war in the Pacific, but the section covering the detonation of two atomic weapons over major urban areas is so tiny as to be completely miss-able.
Having watched just this opener, it does immediately strike to me that the USA is still not ready, culturally, for a no-punches-pulled interpretation of this conflict. The origins bit at least.
Many of the facts here were new to me, and interesting, but the underlying tone of much of the analysis rankled. It was essentially apologetic, at times seemingly determined to deflect as much of the blame from the US as an intelligent audience might bear.
So, we witnessed some archetypally arrogant and perfidious Froggy behaviour (followed by the inevitable capitulation), as well as that of duplicitous native political actors that the Americans ‘didn’t understand’
The French and Japanese presence was put down to a naked compulsion to exploit, whereas the Yanks apparently just wanted to protect freedom and stem the red tide - yet were slowly drawn into conflict against their better, anti-colonial, instincts.
Crucially, we are expected to believe that Eisenhower and his CIA underlings in Indochina were at their most ingenuous in 1954-5, precisely the moment Guatemalans were learning just how cynical and ruthless they could be.
This ‘all men are created equal’ business is the foundational doublethink at the heart of the American project and has led to some extraordinary bouts of hypocrisy over two and a half centuries or so. The irony that it is something Americans broadly share with the French is apparently lost on these film-makers.
It permits its users an enhanced perception of the failings of others vis-a-vis such a precept, whilst making them almost oblivious to their own.
Before watching episode two I think I shall need to have another go at The Quiet American...