One of the things we've been asked most about regarding the Vietnam War episode we just published is where we got our information from. I can understand the question because, to be blunt, quite a few things in our episode contradicts information about the Vietnam War found in many mainstream texts.
First let me preface my response by saying that there is a tremendous amount of information about the Vietnam War 'out there' and wading through even a small percentage of it was pretty daunting. But we expected that. What we were not particularly prepared for is how much of the so-called 'factual' information we encountered from one source would be directly contradicted by other 'factual' information from other sources. Before making this episode both Bunny and I assumed, naively, that a fact can generally be depended on to provide an objective representation of some aspect of reality that basically everybody can agree upon (isn't that pretty much the definition of the word?). We basically assumed that debate and criticism is really reserved more for matters of opinion, not facts. Well, we've had to take a step back and rethink all of this, because so many of the 'facts' Bunny and I encountered in our reserach of the Vietnam War turned out to be, upon closer examination, simply untrue.
So the question is, what happens when historians write histories based on un-factual facts? And how do you try to piece together a coherent, honest retelling of how something as complicated as a war happened, based on research that includes those un-factual histories? Hmm… big problem.
In the end, we did have to decide which 'facts' to go with. And how did we do that? Well, in most cases, digging more deeply into each one usually revealed what (apparently, probably) really happened. But we also found out that sometimes it's very difficult to determine what really happened because the reporting of information is always so intertwined with the reporters' interests. There's really no such thing as completely unbiased, objective historical narratives.
In the case of our Vietnam War episode, an important test to figure out what was 'true' or 'false' was NOT to see how many people lined up on one side as opposed to the other (majority rules style, a la Wikipedia), but to go to primary documents and see what they had to say. It also mattered if we could find information that weakened a certain party's position, being presented by that party itself. And finally, of course, it mattered to us that any piece of information embody a high degree of explanatory power - some information, however much we would have liked to believe it, simply did not make much sense when placed next to other sets of (verifiable) information. So, for example, the Pentagon Papers were very useful in this regard, since there was so much self-incriminating information included therein, which really did help to explain why and how the ruling elite in the U.S. did what they did.
The episode is relatively short (only 40 minutes) but still has quite a bit of information in it that is repudiated by practically every high school textbook (U.S. history, American Studies, etc.) I've seen. Which makes me wonder, how are these people acquiring information for their texts? I've always been the skeptical type, but needless to say my paranoia (not my usual paranoia, but my research-related paranoia) has been boosted to new heights in the past several months. Pretty scary.
By the way, one of our friends, a high school history teacher in Los Angeles, lent us a history textbook he bought while on a trip to Vietnam. It's translated into English and tells the story of Vietnamese history (including the American War) from 'the Vietnamese perspective' - it's a fascinating read but sorry to say in many instances it's just as flashy, 'factual', and utterly inaccurate as our own American textbooks, albeit from the opposite direction. We did find a lot of interesting perspectives in that book, but like everything else we had to double- and triple-check any 'facts' containted therein before putting any of it in our episode.
I think our next episode will be about something less fraught with ideological (and emotional) struggle - perhaps something like My Favorite Ice Cream Flavors.
So continues our education as we make our little show.