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Dropping The Bomb On CD-ROM.
Joseph m. Perry
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Justice Too Long Delayed
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Dropping The Bomb On CD-ROM.
A review of Vietnam War history as presented in six Multimedia Encyclopedias.
- Encarta (c) 1992-1994 Microsoft Corporation
- Grolier (c) 1993 Grolier, Inc. (c) 1987-1993 Online Computer Systems, Inc. (c) 1993 The Software Toolworks, Inc.
- Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia (c) 1992-1996 Softkey Multimedia, Inc.
- Webster's Concise Interactive Encyclopedia (c) 1994 Attica Cybernetics Ltd. (c) 1994 Helicon Publishing Ltd.
- ZCI Publishing Concise Encyclopedia (c) 1995 by ZCI Publishing, Inc.
- Circle of Knowledge Encyclopedia (c) 1996 CD Titles, Inc.; portions (c) 1995- 1996 The JLR Group, Inc.
CD-ROM encyclopedias are promoted by their manufacturers as vast interactive storehouses of knowledge--software that will, according to Microsoft, transform your home computer into "a rich resource of information, education, and entertainment" via a combination of print, audio, graphics, photos, and video presentations. Behind all the dazzling high-tech window-dressing, however, lurk many of the same banal apologetics for U.S. foreign policy that can be found in most print encyclopedias, textbooks, and other historical references readily available to young adults.
This apparently generic shortcoming is glaringly evident in the accounts multimedia encyclopedias present on the various Indochina wars. Even a cursory review of these concise (and in some cases, very concise) histories reveals a high level of faithfulness to long-debunked official propaganda, coupled with a nearly complete omission of references to the more heinous aspects of U.S. policy in the region.
Though this is not a surprising discovery, it does represents a disturbing "popularization" of the brand of revisionist history that has typified mainstream Vietnam War scholarship over the years. Unlike their ungainly print cousins, multimedia encyclopedias are designed to be fun. Youngsters who may be loathe to crack a history book are likely to find the sort of "edu-tainment" now offered on CD-ROM extremely engaging. And reference works like Microsoft's Encarta are frequently included with new multimedia home computers.
This being the case, versions of the articles in this review may well represent the resource of first resort for school papers, history tests, and casual reference amongst those young people fortunate enough to have access to a personal computer. It is reasonable to assume that excerpts from these and other similar interactive histories will be copy-and-pasting their way into academic work for years to come.
In general, these articles all tell the same story; that of a well-intentioned United States reacting (and sometimes over-reacting) to crises in Indochina, responding to pleas for help and threats to the peace, and making the occasional death-dealing "error." A short audio-visual presentation in Encarta (1995) is representative of the general point of view provided throughout. Here a solemn voice describes how the U.S. "slowly became more involved in the conflict" because of its belief "that Communist aggression in Vietnam could lead to the takeover of Southeast Asia." Citing "tactics [which] included search and destroy missions...and heavy bombing of North Vietnam," the Encarta narrator reports gravely that the effort "did not work" and that "although not considered a military defeat, the Vietnam War was a humiliating political defeat for the United States."
As Noam Chomsky and others have pointed out, one of the crucial elements of mainstream journalism and scholarship on the war has been the predisposition to stress neither the illegality nor immorality of the effort, but rather its failure to achieve success. Factual distortions aside, the Encarta "movie"--like the surrounding article--conforms to this central theme. In fact, none of these accounts ever truly depart from it.
As far as basic facts about the war are concerned, each work leaves out important details about American and, to a lesser degree, French military and diplomatic intervention in the political and social development of Indochina following World War II. By failing to present a fair segment of this sordid history, they help to distort the reader's understanding of what took place and of the extent to which our country was responsible for suffering on a truly appalling scale.
What, precisely, is missing? A great deal more than I can detail here, but the more noteworthy omissions include:
· American support for the French War effort--Completely missing from ZCI, Compton's, Webster's, and Circle of Knowledge. Encarta and Grolier touch upon U.S. aid, but neither provides even a round dollar amount.
· Ngo Dinh Diem's repressive policies--Though Grolier alludes to what it calls Diem's "uneven" economic reforms and Encarta reports that the "failure [my emphasis] of his social and economic programs" put Diem "in trouble," none of these accounts elaborate on the brutality of his regime. In fact, Compton's suggests that Diem's manipulative brother Nhu was behind most of the RVN's excesses, and that Nhu's "bitterly outspoken" wife stirred up unrest as "Communist guerrillas...infiltrated across the border [sic]" from the North to help "disrupt [Diem's] social and economic improvement programs."
· The bombing of South Vietnam--Only Grolier mentions "intensive bombing and defoliation," as well as "massive firepower" used against "Viet Cong-held areas" in the South; however there's nothing to suggest that most of the ordinance used in the war was employed in the South, or that bombing South Vietnam preceded bombing the North.
· The bombing of Cambodia--Very little said. ZCI mentions "over 3500 raids since 1969" but gives no reference date for this number; Grolier claims American air strikes targeted "North Vietnamese sanctuaries" and that Sihanouk "quietly accept[ed]" the bombing; the other works say nothing about it.
· The bombing of Northern Laos--No specific reference.
Refusing The Olive Branch
As mentioned above, these encyclopedias generally adhere to the official version of events, following positions taken by American administrations at various points during the war. Encarta's account of U.S. negotiating proposals between 1965 and 1968 exemplifies this.
Encarta repeatedly portrays the Johnson administration as genuinely interested in peace, while characterizing Hanoi as rejectionist and intransigent. Most of Encarta's examples open with a bombing halt in the North, either enacted or proposed by Johnson "in the hope of initiating peace talks." All end with a predictable response: "...North Vietnam rejected all negotiations." "Again [Johnson] was unsuccessful..." "The offer was rejected by North Vietnam." "As in the past, Hanoi rejected the offer."
Encarta goes a long way to make this strategy seem well-intentioned. The caption to a bombing photo explains that the "regular bombing raids" in the North were calculated "to stop Communist aggression in South Vietnam," and that "periodic halts...were called in attempts to bring North Vietnamese officials into peace negotiations. But until 1968, those efforts were in vain." This is basically the rhetoric of the Johnson Administration circa 1965-68. The facts are hardly obscure, as the 1966 work The Politics Of Escalation In Vietnam by Schurmann, Scott, and Zelnick so aptly illustrates. Encarta has simply chosen to exclude them. (Compton's does a similar job with the issue, though with greater brevity.)
Even when it comes to the major diplomatic documents, we find gross--if familiar-- distortions. The various treatments of the Paris Peace Agreement (1973) provide instructive examples. All are inaccurate to a significant degree; some ludicrously so. Consider the description of the Accord provided in Circle of Knowledge:
Everyone compromised, and Vietnam was divided into two separate countries, as Korea had been.
Other works, to a varying extent, mimic aspects of the Nixon administration's public misrepresentation of the Paris Accord's terms. Thus when Grolier suggests that the document left resolution of political questions "to negotiations between the two Vietnamese governments," one might naturally take this to mean the governments in Hanoi and Saigon, given the context provided by the rest of the article. In fact, the Accords designated the PRG (the "Viet Cong" cosignatories) and Saigon as the "two South Vietnamese parties" exclusively empowered to seek "agreement on the internal matters of South Vietnam" without foreign interference. Kissinger may be Grolier's source on this, as the misrepresentation echoes the Nobel laureate's obfuscatory public comments at the time of the negotiations.
The 1954 Geneva Agreement gets sloppy treatment as well. None of these articles carry any of the actual language of this important document. The works that deal with Geneva at all suggest Vietnam was divided into two separate political entities by the agreement, when in fact the Accord only established "a provisional military demarcation line" that, it stressed, "should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary." Nevertheless, we learn that Geneva "divided the country at the 17th parallel" (Encarta): left Vietnam "temporarily divided politically" (Compton's); provided for a "temporary division" (Grolier); left "Indochina...divided into the separate states of North and South Vietnam" (Webster's); and so on.
* * *
Just as William Griffen and John Marciano demonstrated with respect to high school textbooks almost 20 years ago, these CD-ROM histories carry substantial factual distortions and dramatic historical omissions that tend to serve the narrow interests of those who implemented and supported U.S. war policy. As such, each portrays our invasion and destruction of Indochina as very much the noble effort our leaders claimed it was 30 years ago, with most of the gory details missing.