Dropping The Bomb On CD-ROM.



Works reviewed:

  • 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,
  • 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encyclopedias, textbooks, and other historical references readily available to young

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

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.)


Mistreated Treaties

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

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.