The Vietnam War: A Conversation with Ken Burns

The Vietnam War: A Conversation with Ken Burns

America’s foremost documentary filmmakers lift the curtain on the country’s psychic wounds in this stunning new history of our most divisive conflict since the Civil War.

September 15, 2017

In fall of 1967, the Vietnam War was unraveling. The Marines had been battling North Vietnamese Army troops from their hilltop outpost at Khe Sahn near the Demilitarized Zone since the spring. “The true peace-keepers are those men who stand out there on the DMZ at this very hour, taking the worst that the enemy can give,” President Lyndon Johnson said in September speech in San Antonio. He was “ready to talk peace … tomorrow,” with Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam’s nominal leader, Johnson said. Weeks later, little had changed and 50,000 antiwar protestors marched on the Pentagon.

Half a world away in the DMZ, Roger Harris, a 19-year-old Marine Corps volunteer, tried to come to terms with the killing, the dying, and the unspeakable atrocities. In The Vietnam War, he recalls that his fellow soldiers told him: “this is war; this is what we do.”

The Vietnam War is the product of a more than decade of work by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick who brought together soldiers on all sides, family members, policymakers, diplomats, journalists, antiwar protestors, and others to unpack their searing memories and examine the haunting contradictions of this mistaken war. Americans, like the Vietnamese, have never wholly come to terms with the conflagration.

For many Americans, the 10-part, 18-hour series on PBS will be the deepest dive ever into the policies, politics, and personalities of a war that led to the deaths of 58,000 Americans and several million Vietnamese. It also may open a window on contemporary America. Rivaling The Civil War, Burns’s 1990 documentary, in its scope and impact, The Vietnam War illuminates, energizes, comforts, and infuriates. No viewer will be left unmoved. Ken Burns spoke with The American Prospect by phone from New York.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The American Prospect: Baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s are intimately acquainted with many of the episodes explored in The Vietnam War. But for many young Americans, Vietnam is their grandparent’s conflict. Why do they need understand the war?

Courtesy of Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, Audiovisual Archives

General William Westmoreland and President Lyndon B. Johnson, April 4, 1968

Ken Burns: So much of how we are right now, how we’re constructed for the good, but mostly for the bad, with the hyper-partisanship, with all the divisions, with the rancor, with the inability to remember the genius of compromise—which is at the heart of American success—all of these seeds were sown in Vietnam.

Lynn Novick and I believe that Vietnam is the most important event in American history since the Second World War. Beyond that, as a filmmaker, as an artist, as someone trying to tell a story, it’s one hell of a complicated story, a very complex American War and Peace that has so many backwaters, so many eddies, so much undertow, that those audiences of so-called young people that we’ve shared it with have been stunned by it, have been riveted by it.

Even a young intern who was 20, 21 years old was weeping after seeing the assassination of the North Vietnamese spy Lém on the streets of Saigon in the middle of the Tet Offensive by Loan, the head of the national police. He said, “I grew up with all these violent images in books and graphic novels, on TV and in movies, but especially in video games. But he is really dead, isn’t he?” It suddenly confronted him with a reality that was real and intimate.

Because so much of the way we are constructed now has its DNA in Vietnam, we are all obligated, whether we are of the Greatest Generation that is disappearing; whether we are of the baby boomer generation that fought in it or fought against it; whether a person is in the subsequent generations that follow—if you want to know how to handle today, you’ve got to understand Vietnam.

You said Americans have forgotten the genius of compromise. What do you mean?

We’ve done this many times in our history. Obviously, the Civil War is the most cataclysmic example of that. I had asked Shelby Foote, the Southern novelist, why the Civil War began. He said because we failed to do what we have a genius for. Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising people. But our genius is for compromise and when it broke down, we went to war.

One of our Army men in the film says, “Vietnam drove a stake through the heart of America and we haven’t quite recovered.” I am not willing to accept entirely that half-empty view. There are others, including an Air Force fighter pilot who said that the ‘60s were a confluence of all these different rivulets: of anti-war protest; of civil rights; the women’s movement; of the environment; and it produced some of the greatest music. The man said I thought that is what I was fighting for.

One of the Vietnamese soldiers that we interviewed, was also a foot solider in the North Vietnamese army. He came to our studios in New Hampshire during the many years of editing. Recently, Lynn took the film back to Vietnam and shared it with him and many other people in the film, and other soldiers and civilians. He said a really interesting thing. Because of state propaganda, he believed that the protests that were taking place in the United States were a sign of weakness. Now he understood them to be a sign of great strength.

That’s the kind of admiration of our political process that our [old] enemy has. He lived in a place in which morale remained high only because every thing was tightly controlled. No defeats were ever acknowledged, no deaths were ever acknowledged.

How does that translate into Vietnamese society today?

Courtesy of Contemporary Films, London

North Vietnamese soldier

They’re now as fraught about the war as we are. We have great relations with Vietnam now, and it’s part of the healing process for both sides. But they are dealing with same open wounds and toxicity, asking themselves, did we have to pay that price? Could there have been another way? Was negotiation something we missed? Why did our leaders say we will not count the costs and send the best of an entire generation or two to their deaths?

The opening of our film begins with an American marine admitting that coming home from Vietnam was nearly as traumatic as the war itself. He explains that he and his wife were friends for 12 years with another couple before the wives discovered that [their husbands] had both been marines in Vietnam. Nobody said a word about it.

You begin to realize that people came back from that war and just didn’t speak about it, and only now are they beginning to confront the very painful truths on both sides. What I think is so interesting is that North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong guerillas that we interviewed sound pretty much like our American GIs and Marines, and they have commented on that to us.

In fact, Vietnam has never completely come to terms with the divisions within their country between North and South. They haven’t treated the vanquished with any sort of equanimity.

Tell me a little bit about your Vietnam story. You were eligible for the draft.

I had a high draft number. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, from age nine to 18. Vietnam was very much a part of my consciousness. My childhood sort of ended with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the assassination the next year of JFK; and that basically then led right into our increased escalation in Vietnam.

My father was on the faculty of the University of Michigan Anthropology Department. The department had one of the first teach-ins in March 1965. I vaguely remember that. My mom was about to die the next month, so things were kind of distracted.

Ann Arbor was a hot bed of antiwar sentiment. At the same time, I had a profound anxiety about America losing. I loved to see that the body counts were higher with them than us. So coming into this project, I thought that I knew a lot about Vietnam, and I got disabused of that almost immediately. I lost my baggage very early on.

Why isn’t there a consensus on how the war was fought? People debate whether Vietnam was a civil war and whether or not Vietnam was a domino. Still others argue that the U.S. should have mined Haiphong Harbor earlier and that the armed forces should have had a better offensive strategy.

Because all of those things are true, and so are many other observations and perspectives. What we try to say in the film is that we are operating with only superficial and conventional wisdom. The years since the fall of Saigon have delivered such new and revelatory scholarship.  

We’ve opened up to Vietnam; we can listen to their side of the story. We now have veterans approaching an age when they are beginning to speak and their reticence is dissolving and sometimes those hardened positions are dissolving.

How should Americans view Ho Chi Minh? He was enamored of American democracy, and he reached out many times to American policymakers but was rebuffed, which is not widely known.

Just think about who was running the [North Vietnamese] government at that time. People on both sides would say Ho Chi Minh! Well, our film shows that that’s not entirely true. Ho Chi Minh remains a figurehead to his people and to the world, but [he was] eventually neutered in his effectiveness on the Politburo, which was filled with hardliners.

[He had reached out to] Woodrow Wilson [at the Versailles Peace Conference, and] was ignored. In some ways, it was probably this disillusionment at being ignored in Paris in 1919 drove him into the Soviet orbit. But he was always a nationalist first. The Soviets suspected that he was less a good communist. [Evidence has come out] that he was looking for more peaceful solutions and that angered the hardliners.

Enamored I’m not sure, but he did reach out to Truman. He was very apologetic about the accidental deaths of Americans [at the hands] of the Viet Minh army. When he declared Vietnamese independence on September 2, 1945, he quoted Thomas Jefferson. OSS officers had already armed his Viet Minh to fight the Japanese, and there was a faction within the U.S. government that supported him as the legitimate leader of a united Vietnam.

It just didn’t turn out that way. Cold war imperatives got in the way. [French President] Charles De Gaulle threatened to go into the Soviet orbit unless we helped them maintain or reacquire their colonies.

The stories of prominent Vietnam figures like Senator John McCain and former Secretary of State John Kerry appear in the film, but you decided not to interview them on camera. Why?

Some of the first conservations I had were with John Kerry and John McCain, both men I’ve known and respected for many, many years. I told them you are going to be in our film as title characters and you’ll play important roles. We’ll need your help as we go forward because you represented two polarities in our country [during the war] and you also represent some of the polarities that are still festering and divisive today.

But we are not going to interview you.

Courtesy of Tim Llewellyn

Ken Burns, co-director, The Vietnam War

They understood immediately. They are boldface names; you don’t want to give your audience your impression that you are allowing them to revise history—just as we wouldn’t interview Henry Kissinger and didn’t; or Jane Fonda, or Daniel Ellsberg or any of the more familiar people who are still in the news today. John McCain [has said that he thinks] this film is going to help us heal and get out of this in some ways.

We introduce viewers to 79 people who offer every possible range of American experience and try to see this in a kind of 360 [degree] panorama in which all of those perspectives are heard and respected. As filmmakers we didn’t have to say these people are right; these people are wrong. We just said, listen to all of this.

This film and the process of making it gives us an opportunity as Americans to begin to have civil conversations, not just about the war, but why that civility has continued to break down and has kind of reached a metastatic state in the United States today.

We have no political axe to grind. If you look at the underwriting credits, I went out and got funders from across the political spectrum. Bank of America had the courage and guts to take on something so controversial and so contested today because they are interested in how we speak to each other. They have been engaged with veterans; they know the toll of Vietnam in their work.

Don’t we need to hear from divisive figures like Henry Kissinger and Jane Fonda?

Sure, they are out there. But it is more important if we are going to get a handle on Vietnam to listen to what they said back then. Dr. Kissinger has written many books and he has revised a lot of what actually took place.

If you look at the movie, The Last Days of Vietnam, he said that South Vietnam fell because of the liberal media and the liberal Congress. We didn’t interview him because we didn’t want to have to accept or reject that contemporary Monday morning quarter-backing on his part.

Instead, we have tapes in which he said, look Saigon is weak and corrupt and it’s going to fall, and if it falls in the summer of  ’72, our re-election will be in doubt. So if we give them enough supplies and enough materiel, they can last out and when they do fall no one will remember and no one will blame us. That is a big difference from saying 40 years, 50 years later that it is just a liberal bias in the media and Congress that made Saigon fall.

How did advisers like Kissinger or the best and the brightest under Johnson, like Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, shape how the presidents they worked for viewed the war?

They’re central to it. Nixon found in Kissinger and his realpolitik views the pragmatic sense that they had to go in and get out before the 1972 election. But as with all presidents dating back to Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, they were driven by domestic political considerations to save face.

None of them wanted to be the president that lost the first war. To this day, we do not say that President Nixon was the first president to lose a war. Instead of accepting the [peace] terms in January of 1969 when he took office, they waited another four years until January of 1973, getting essentially the same kind of deal. But there were still hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese killed and thousands and thousands of Americans killed [during that period].

These are the kinds of political expediencies that are not Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s alone but also John Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s and his crew of all the Kennedy foreign policy people.

It’s all on all of their hands. These are tragic mistakes made by five American presidents belonging to both political parties.

How does Vietnam factor into presidential politics today?

All good history resonates in the present. Mark Twain is supposed to have said history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes. I don’t pay attention to those rhymes when I am making films.

Courtesy of Charles O. Haughey

Soldier of the 25th Infantry Division, 1969

Let me be clear. I began this film 2006. So what is The Vietnam War about? Well, it’s about mass demonstration taking place all across the country against the administration. It’s about a White House obsessed with leaks and in disarray; it’s about a president who is certain that the press is lying and making up stories about him; it’s about huge document drops of stolen, classified material that has made it into the public sphere; it’s about asymmetrical warfare; and it’s about accusations that a political campaign reached out to a foreign power at the time of a national election to help influence that election.

If we had finished it right away, we would have been talking about the quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan that was so similar to Vietnam and dozens of other kinds of things, including the presidential relationship to the media.

So, plus ça change. Nowhere in our film are we saying it’s like today.

How does the continuing war of words between the people who served and the people who did not help people heal?

I don’t know if that is a correct assumption. Former Secretary of State John Kerry was a United States senator who testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the early 1970s as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

But he had to continually defend his service when he ran for president in 2004.

That’s true, which only proves how central Vietnam is to the present.

You have men and women reliving their horrors right in front of you: How did that affect how you told the story?

We were faced with people sometimes expressing for the very first time anguish and pain of their experience there. It isn’t just soldiers. It’s civilians, people agonized over the decision to leave the army, to desert, or protest the war, or to go and to feel that that was an act of courage, and to stand and not go as well as the great bravery on the field.

The Gold Star mother, Jean-Marie Crocker, didn’t have to relive the worst moment of her life and yet she does. I find her one of the most heroic people in the film. But we find that wars are not between armies but within individuals.

The presidential tapes of Johnson and Nixon show a kind of intimacy that increases our appreciation of [the tragedy for the people] making the decisions, particularly LBJ.

I am now heading into working on a project on LBJ’s presidency because his domestic agenda is off stage and becoming weaker and weaker as the Vietnam consumes him. You can hear from the tapes, his anguish sending in Marines in the spring of ’65 and yet he’s confessing to [his mentor, Georgia Senator] Richard Russell that there ain’t no daylight in here.

That’s what is astonishing about Johnson: You can hear it in his voice. Yet he felt compelled to continue to the war.

Here’s the thing. They all knew— Johnson is the most Shakespearian and tragic—but from Truman on they knew that this was not a slam-dunk.

In the face of this, just withering doubt about it, they nonetheless plowed forward because of domestic political consideration—i.e., “will I get re-elected?”—took precedence over strategy, tactics, and foreign policy and what was best for the national security of the United States.

What got left on the cutting room floor?

People think you make film, you fill the film, it’s all addition. But really what it is is subtraction: We have thousands of hours of footage and tens of thousands of still photographs and hundreds of hours of interviews. So our cutting room floor is filled with wonderful things.

It’s just that we are charged with telling a coherent narrative; we can’t be the Oxford English Dictionary. We had film of Long Binh, the biggest American post, [that] was like a kind of little bit of America in Vietnam. It was the size of Manhattan and had swimming pools, PXes, massage parlors, and bakeries. The commander used to joke that if the Viet Cong ever attacked, they would have to take the regularly scheduled bus service to get around Long Binh. [But] there just wasn’t space for it [in the film].

We [left out an] entire conversation with John Musgrave, one of the Marines in the film, who counsels young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering the same kind of PTSD that he did, feeling the same suicidal thoughts, trying to go through with it and not doing it—the same way he did.

One of the most powerful moments in the film is a clip of white soldiers posing with Confederate flags with the voiceover an African American solider saying, “I think [there ought] to be some goddamn law to fucking outlaw those goddamn flags; the fucking Confederacy is gone, man!” Did racism contribute to military discipline breaking down on the battlefield, as the film describes?

I am not going to blame that on divisions of race, it mostly had to do with failures of the policymakers to understand the fundamental questions about the war across all administrations, Republican and Democratic, and military leaders failing to even learn anything about the enemy and leaving us in an untenable position.

Courtesy of Larry Burrows/Getty Images

Marines carrying their wounded during firefight near the DMZ, 1966

Unfortunately, early on in the struggle, the struggle fell disproportionately to poor whites, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans who didn’t have escape routes, didn’t have the deferments that the more affluent people did in the United States.

What you see in Vietnam is the story of how the dynamics of these struggles in America played out—kind of on steroids. And then you have a general population that is increasingly getting disappointed with the war and veterans coming home and realizing and telling stories about it. So you are getting an army that is disintegrating. General Creighton Abrams privately said, “I need to get this army home to save it.”

Did the military learn anything from the experience of racism in its ranks during Vietnam?

Tons. The military has done an extraordinary job of integration in its schools, in its teaching, in its promoting. Is there racism there? Yes, I’m sure. Do we have a proportional amount of African Americans in leadership at the highest level in the three- and four-star ranks? Probably not.

But I think the military understands now that it has a professional army liberated from a draft and from the political pressure that would come from a draft in which the sons and daughters of members of Congress would be drafted.

Now we have a military class that’s the best in the world, but it suffers it apart and alone. And that’s why you can have an Afghanistan War go on for years and years, because you don’t build up a mass public resentment the way we did in Vietnam, the way you would have if World War II had gone on for 10 years.

They didn’t like their planes being shot down. They wanted stealth technology; they got it. They also knew that the press had unusual access, the kind of access they didn’t have in World War II. So they limited it.

Now we have a fancy word—“embedded”—but that’s the way to make sure the press, unless they are individually resourceful enough, is never going to be filming a [naked] little girl on fire running down a street because she has been napalmed by her own air force, or see the assassination of a North Vietnamese spy on the streets of Saigon in the middle of Tet.

But the debate about Confederate flags continues.

Go back to the end of The Civil War when the scholar Barbara Fields says the Civil War is still going on and still being fought and, unfortunately, it could still be lost.

What surprised us about Charlottesville is that we also gave strength to the Nazi cause, the greatest cataclysm in human history. But apparently that is not over either. There are enough people that find the views of Adolf Hitler and the aspirations of the National Socialist Party in Germany something to emulate today. The Second World War may possibly still be being fought and could possibly still be lost.

I’ve spent my entire professional life dealing with American history and every single film, except maybe one or two, is therefore necessarily dealing with race. It’s going to be there whatever the subject, whether it’s Lewis and Clark, Jackie Robinson, or the Civil War.

I’ve gotten a lot of criticism in the ‘00s for continuing to say that race was central. Then when Barack Obama was elected, they said, now will you shut up?

And I said, just watch.

The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick premiers this weekend on PBS.

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