Lyndon Johnson gave this Oscar-winning documentary its title (“The ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there”) and, with his escalation of the war in Vietnam, its purpose.
Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds is an admirably paced, continuously passionate, frequently moving, sometimes shocking, once or twice savagely funny propaganda film and I would be as well pleased if it were not being shown. Since it is edited from pre-existing footage, it is being called a documentary, but that is an absurd designation, for the picture makes no pretense of being an even-handed report. But because its bias is overt and one that I have held about Vietnam for, it sometimes seems, most of my adult life, I do not object on that score. Nor am I put off merely because, after litigious delays, the picture arrives at a moment when the folly of America’s cruel intervention in Southeast Asia must be evident to the most knee-jerk intelligence–I would, I think, have deplored Hearts and Minds two, five, even ten years ago.
The fact is that it operates to arouse hatred against hatred, to induce a gut reaction against gut reactions, and by so doing serves to sustain a morbid emotionalism of the very sort it claims to abominate. There are moral differences, of course: American policy in Southeast Asia was built on false hypotheses buttressed with lies and, to the best of my observation, the film does not lie. Nevertheless, it manipulates its viewers, as for example when it juxtaposes Westmoreland’s notorious statement about the low value Orientals place on human life against scenes of Vietnamese families mourning at the open graves of their beloved dead. That sort of editing teaches nothing except that we should despise Westmoreland, which is a waste of nervous energy.
Davis is ruthless with Rostow, who loses control of himself and collapses into mad giggles when sharply questioned by an unseen interviewer, but in truth the lachrymose narcissism of Ellsberg is no more reassuring, though he is presented as a spokesman for “our” side. A returned Navy POW, who mouths patriotic religiosity to captive audiences of children and eager gatherings at women’s clubs is distasteful, and a hysterical father who assures us that the death of his son in a blazing helicopter was a noble sacrifice is horrible. Boys who realize too late that they were crippled for life in a fraudulent cause make you ashamed, and the torments suffered by the fragile-seeming but inexplicably tough Vietnamese people make you grit your teeth.
But of what use is this emotional convulsion? What do we gain by glaring at the chopfallen Johnson or sneering at the infamous hypocrisy of Nixon? We were lied to by every President from Truman to Ford. Did that cause the war in Vietnam? Eisenhower, who was the least expert of liars, let slip a mention of tungsten and tin when seeking to justify the assignment of troops to that bizarrely remote military theatre. Did we induce a holocaust to assure our supply of essential alloys? Hearts and Minds deals not in causes but effects; not in motives but in agents, and then only the proximate, obvious and thuggish agents. If five Preidents in a row turned out to be liars, was that only a baleful coincidence? Since Vietnam was perhaps the most vocally protested war in history, why did it persist? If the White House was a citadel of villainy, what sort of camp was Capitol Hill? Hearts and Minds preaches a devil theory of this terrible war, and parades the wicked for ritual execration. But this is not the Middle Ages, though points of similarity could be cited, and excommunication is not our task. We need to armor ourselves with understanding, and to that end the film contributes nothing. Worse, it encourages the luxury of blinding hatred, which becomes a substitute for understanding. I don’t condemn the anger that motivated Hearts and Minds; indeed, I share it. But I also see it as a weakness.