Picture this: An economic and military superpower fighting a seemingly endless asymmetrical war, incapable of achieving a clearly defined victory. A political campaign that allegedly reaches out to a foreign power during an election to try and determine that election. A White House in disarray, frustrated with leaks, and a newly elected president convinced that the news media is purposefully misleading the public.
These are the times we live in. No, wait! These also were the times we lived in. The feelings of military impotence, the allegations of collusion with a foreign power, the charges of “fake news” and a sense of general disorder within the political landscape describes the United States at the height of the Vietnam War.
Ken Burns’s latest documentary, The Vietnam War premieres September 17, 2017, on PBS. Along with co-director Lynn Novick and writer Geoffrey C. Ward, Burns tells the story of one of the most consequential, divisive, and controversial events in American history. The 10-part, 18-hour is series narrated by Peter Coyote and laced with the music of Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (of Nine Inch Nails fame), and some of the most brilliant rock and roll music ever.
Ten years ago, when Burns and Novick completed the documentary The War, they knew then that one of their next films had to be about the Vietnam War. Several factors played into this decision: during the filming of The War, they found themselves in a race against time. Many of their interviewees were World War II veterans in their 80s and 90s. Some didn’t live long enough to see the finished production. Burns and Novick didn’t want the same thing to happen with The Vietnam War, so production had to begin sooner rather than later. The pair also believed that enough time had elapsed for the divisiveness and emotion about the Vietnam War to have cooled and for perspective to have emerged. Finally, they also recognized that to tell the story of the Vietnam War in the breadth and depth it deserved, it would take them the better part of a decade.
The Vietnam War begins with the French conquest of Indochina in the mid-19th century. The series quickly jumps to post-World War I reconstruction of a new world order with European nations clinging on to remnants of their colonial glory days. France, in particular, battered by an unprecedented war, needs its colonies to regain its strength. But a tall, slender, 29 year-old Nguyen Tat Thanh (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh) had different ideas. His 50-year quest to gain independence for his country is the back drop for what will become “the war America lost.” France will once again meet up with “Uncle Ho” and is unflappable resolve to make his country free, regardless the cost. This time France will lose its precious colony and in an attempt to stem the tide of communism, the United States will take its place.
As the series progresses, The Vietnam War tells the story of one of the most divisive, consequential, and controversial events in American history. Immersive and expansive, the documentary plunges the viewer deep into the Vietnam era on many levels. Chaotic scenes of battle, some from network news reports that blazed into America’s living rooms in the 1960s and 70s and changed our understanding of war. Other images come from Vietnamese archives with photos and film that has never been seen by American audiences. Also shown are deeply personal and sincere testimonies from nearly 100 witnesses to the war from all sides—American GIs, North and South Vietnamese soldiers, Viet Cong militia, civilians, diplomats, family members and those opposed to the war. White House audio tapes reveal how privately, government officials from five presidential administrations—Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon—feared the United States was slipping into a conflict it could never win, while publicly presenting a united front of righteous purpose and supreme confidence.
Throughout the documentary, the life experiences of over 20 individuals who lived during the war are explored. American pilots who were shot down and captured over North Vietnam, tell harrowing accounts of their stay at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” and their eventual release to a world totally unfamiliar to them. Testimony is given by several veterans, from both sides, who joined the military very young, full of patriotic enthusiasm and vigor, only to experience a loss of purpose, disillusionment and horrific fighting that they were never trained for. Some were able to weather the experience and come through with wisdom and understanding. Others came home with physical or psychological damage and difficult adjustments in a shattered homeland. As the war endlessly waged on, American government officials from Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, and Henry Kissinger continued to reassure Americans that the end was just around the corner. Leaders from North Vietnam did much the same, willing to endure losses of 10 to 1 in one disastrous offensive after another.
The Vietnam War also explores what was going on at home, as the war devolved from a righteous crusade fending off communist expansion to a hopeless imperialistic crusade against a weaker enemy. The film presents many different perspectives of the homeland, both American and Vietnamese. The tenacity of over thousands of North Vietnamese civilians, working around the clock, rebuilding roads and bridges after air raids. The South Vietnamese soldiers who feared communist domination but loathed American occupation. The American families who steadfastly supported the war effort while counting the days when their sons, daughters, husbands or wives would return. And a lack of civil discourse and a good deal of disunion that spilled into the streets of American cities and college campuses.
The documentary explores the wide-ranging patriotism expressed by different segments of American society. African Americans and Latinos who, like their World War II counterparts, experienced the dichotomy of fighting for equality for others when their homeland hadn’t quite granted equality to them. Also examined are powerful questions of what loyalty to country means. Many feared that opposing the war was not only disloyal, but a threat to the future of the nation. Conversely, there were those with equally passionate arguments that not only had the nation’s moral compass had gone astray, but that America was losing its core values.
For all sides, The Vietnam War, poses questions that may never be fully answered. Who was right? Who was wrong? Can citizens be patriotic and at the same time strongly disagree with their leaders? Was the war necessary? Did government officials fully understand the nature of the enemy and what was at stake? Were the sacrifices in blood and treasure too high? Could the war have been won if American leaders had made different military or political choices? Burns and Novick take special care not to draw any conclusions for the audience, but rather provide an informed forum for greater discussion about the deeper questions relating to humanity and inhumanity, racism, political power, the use of propaganda, the willingness to sacrifice, winning and losing, and the true costs of war.