In 1990 the filmmaker Ken Burns, then in his late thirties, commanded what is still the largest-ever audience on U.S. public television with his nine-part documentary series The Civil War. In September, Burns and his longtime producing partner Lynn Novick released what may be their most ambitious project since: a 10-part, 18-hour video history of the Vietnam War (now available for streaming on PBS’s website). As with The Civil War, which aired on five consecutive nights and built cumulative national attention and discussion, The Vietnam War’s debut was intended to be a shared public event of a kind rare in the era of fragmented media attention.
The new series obviously differs from The Civil War in that it features the firsthand recollections of many participants—Vietnamese and American, combat veterans and journalists, men and women, supporters of the war and opponents, family members of soldiers who came home and those who buried their loved ones. But like The Civil War it attempts to present history mainly as an interlocking set of personal narratives—including, in many gripping instances, the contrasting recollections of American, South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, and Vietcong troops all fighting for survival, or control of an area of jungle, in the same engagement.
The series begins with the Vietnamese struggle for independence during the era of European colonialization and ends with the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington, D.C., in 1982. Its video images, apart from interviews Burns and Novick have conducted, are mainly footage from the war era.
In August, James Fallows spoke with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick at the office of Burns’s production company, Florentine Films, near Penn Station in Manhattan, where the bookcases, desktops, and most other flat surfaces are crammed with hundreds of histories, memoirs, and analyses of the Vietnam War. The conversation, over nearly two hours, has been condensed and slightly reordered for clarity but is otherwise verbatim.
The National: Why this project? There have already been so many books, movies, and series about Vietnam. And it’s in that gray zone of history—not long enough ago to seem really “historic” like the Civil War, not recent enough that most people actually remember it to be interested in it.
Ken Burns: After The Civil War, I vowed I wouldn’t do another war. It had been psychologically hard on me. I live in New Hampshire, and the film was made and edited in New Hampshire. People there say it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. It’s like that with a film. It’s additive and constructive, but then you subtract. So I felt all the images we left out of The Civil War to save the viewers the pain—but they stayed with us. Civil War veterans said they had “seen the elephant” when they had been in combat. I didn’t want to see the elephant again.
But [after doing The War, a series on World War II, to capture memories before that generation of veterans disappeared], I turned to Lynn and said, We have to do Vietnam next.
Lynn Novick: I was born in 1962, so to me the Vietnam War is sort of the defining event of my whole coming-of-age. It was always happening. I don’t remember a time when the Vietnam War wasn’t happening when I was growing up. And I remember feeling that something very disturbing was happening, but I didn’t understand as a child why.
Ken and I had talked off and on over the years about doing something having to do with Vietnam, maybe picking a particular year or a company of soldiers or following a family. And I remember when we were finishing the film on the Second World War, Ken turning to me and saying, How can we not do Vietnam? I remember saying, What part? And he said, All of it.
Burns: This was back in 2006, even before Barack Obama had announced that he was going to challenge Hillary Clinton and run for president. Even back then, we had a sense of the centrality of Vietnam. It was the most important event in American history since the Second World War. And we sensed that a good deal of the divisions we experienced today have metastasized from Vietnam.
Vietnam is an event about which, because we lost, Americans have stuck their heads in the ground like ostriches. That has helped to foment a lot of division and polarization—because we have so little information about it. But the intervening decades have permitted unusual scholarship, and the normalization of relations with Vietnam, and the willingness of the subjects, unlike the reticence of the World War II generation, to talk about it. We though, If we could take advantage of that and [begin a discussion], we could do something [valuable].
Karl Marlantes [a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam and author of the celebrated Vietnam novel Matterhorn] opens the entire movie with what I think is the most stunning comment of all. He says that coming home from Vietnam was almost as traumatic as the war itself, and that he and his wife had been friends with another couple for 12 years before the wives discovered that both of the men had been Marines in Vietnam. That begins to tell you the sort of stubborn lock, the sort of door that’s swollen and you have to push against in order to get into Vietnam.
So much has happened since the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Most of today’s Americans hadn’t even been born when that war was going on. We’ve had 9/11, several more wars, economic booms and busts, the almost unbelievable sequence of Barack Obama followed in the White House by Donald Trump. Is it too pat to say that divisions over Vietnam gave us divisions today?
Burns: What if I told you that I’d been working for ten years on a film about mass demonstrations all across the country against the current administration; about a White House in disarray and obsessed with leaks; about a president absolutely certain that the media is making stuff up and lying. Or if I told you that the film is about a huge drop of classified media into the public sphere, which has destabilized the conversation because of the revealing of the facts of the documents. Or that it’s about accusations that a political campaign reached out during the time of a national election to a foreign government.
You’d say Jeez, Ken, you’re not doing history anymore. But those are only a few things from Vietnam that resonate from a project we began back in 2006, which we felt resonate with the present, too. Our restraint, our discipline as filmmakers is to never go: See, isn’t that like today? But after the film is done we have the luxury of saying, history has the potential of holding up a mirror, not only to who we are collectively, but who we are individually.
Novick: There’s not a linear connection. The divides of today are not so simple, and we all struggle to understand them. But I think [there are connections]. You have people now arguing about basic facts. You see that in Vietnam. And there was a certain dynamic that happened then, of pushing people into their separate camps. So going back to Vietnam, you can see some continuum in the choose-your-facts and choose-your-friends cultural landscape of today.
I think an aspect of the film that will surprise most American viewers is the simultaneous accounts, by North and South Vietnamese soldiers along with Americans, of the very same battles as witnessed by opposing sides. How did you find the Vietnamese military and civilian figures you interviewed?
Burns: I want to give Lynn credit, because she was so ferocious in her insistence that we include the Vietnamese perspectives.
When Americans talk about the war—in fiction, in all the works you could mention—it’s all just us. There’s zero dimension to the Vietnamese. But what if we could—as we have done—interview North Vietnamese civilians and North Vietnamese soldiers, and Viet-Cong guerillas and South Vietnamese civilians and South Vietnamese protesters, and South Vietnamese diplomats, and South Vietnamese soldiers, in addition to more than 50 Americans representing many Marine and Army guys, and the young journalists who went there expecting to report on U.S. victory and the death of communism but found that what they were seeing in the field didn’t jibe with the reports coming out of Saigon?
One of our earliest contacts was Tommy Vallely, who had served as a Marine in Vietnam. He fell in love with the country and is essentially responsible for getting John McCain and John Kerry and Bob Kerrey [Vietnam combat veterans who were all serving together in the U.S. Senate] to push forward the move to normalizing relations [which occurred in 1995]. Then, as a teacher at the Kennedy School at Harvard, he’s taught a generation and a half of Vietnamese leaders, and he helped identify people to interview there.
It allowed us to tell stories like that of the battle of Binh Gia, late in 1964. To describe it, along with the Americans, was a Viet Cong participant, who’s no longer a “gook” or a one-dimensional enemy—as war wants you to make the enemy—but a guy who’s lost his brother in war, and his future-sister-in-law commits suicide because of that loss. So you can’t abstract him. You have to actually treat him as a human being. It’s almost like Shakespeare’s Rialto scene in The Merchant of Venice and Shylock saying “Have I not hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?”
And as his last statement, our Viet-Cong guy says, “and if the Americans hadn’t come in”—meaning, boots on the ground, not advisers—“the war would have been over” in a few months. And our Marine [who was fighting on the other side] says essentially the same thing five seconds before. It’s the triangulation that permits us, I think, to see the battle from different points of view. I think that helps fix more clearly not just the geographical and physical relationship of the battle, which is always important to communicate, but also its importance within the dynamic of time.
Novick: We learned that in Vietnam, people had also been reluctant to discuss the war. It’s not just in America. We were surprised to hear people talk about issues of morale—that soldiers would desert and go home. We had heard about the mystique of the war and the shared national commitment, of the great struggle that everybody couldn’t wait to join.
I’m not trying to take anything away from their commitment but rather to recognize how difficult it really was. There were deserters. There were people who shot themselves in the foot. War is horrible. Even in a very determined country with a very strong sense of purpose, the war was so terrible, and people are people. We heard over and over again in Vietnam that “we’ve never really had the conversation about the war,” and whether this was really the only way we could have unified the country.
Most of your interviews are with Vietnamese or Americans who survived the war and so can look back on its hardships from many decades’ perspective. But, without spoiling any suspense, you introduce early in the series the parents and sisters of a young man who did not come home. How did you find this family? Why did they talk with you?
Novick: That was really shoeleather. We started out talking to people at the Wall, to see if they could recommend any Gold Star mothers. We ended up going to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, where veterans of all wars can deposit their stories. The librarian there told me about a World War II veteran who came to deposit his story, and while he was there, his wife gave the library a copy of her unpublished memoir about their son dying in Vietnam. We read the memoir and called her and went up to Saratoga Springs, New York, and talked with her without a camera about what had happened. She had never spoken publicly about her loss, but she said she would do it.
The young man in this family was starry-eyed about military service and joined the Army to go to Vietnam practically as soon as he was old enough. This was in the early days of the war, when the U.S. government was still projecting a very confident tone. Knowing how eager he was, at least before he got on-scene, made his family’s grief more complex.
Burns: There is a moment at the beginning of our third episode, where his mother is remembering reading the “band of brothers” passage from Henry V to her son, as a little boy. It’s one of the greatest passages in all of literature—“we happy few, we band of brothers”—and a look just passes across her face. She didn’t say it, but her look is that of a mother thinking: “Oh my God! Did I lead him to do it? I was reading a passage about how you’re not as much of a man if you’re not shedding blood with your comrades.”
Students who are entering college this year are too young to even remember the 9/11 attacks. What do you expect them to learn from this? Do you think they’ll watch at all?
Burns: We’ve found unbelievable curiosity about it. Survey courses in American history, in 8th or 11th or whatever grade, or even in college, sometimes don’t get up to Vietnam. Sometimes they give it a paragraph. Sometimes it’s too controversial for younger grades, and teachers would rather leave it alone.
But a good story well told is attractive to anybody. I’ll use the example of one of our interns, Frank, who is around 20 years old. We finished looking at Episode Six, which involves, of course, a very famous photograph and footage of the assassination of a North Vietnamese spy by a South Vietnamese general, on the streets of Saigon. [This photo, by Eddie Adams, ran on the front page of The New York Times in 1968, won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for spot photography, and was one of the two most influential news photos of the war. It depicts a South Vietnamese general at the moment he shot a North Vietnamese prisoner through the head with his pistol. The other photo, by Nick Ut in 1972, was of a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running naked down a road after being burned by napalm.]
So we got through the screenings of that episode, including the photo. And we ask all the staff what they thought. I asked this young man, What did you think? He said, “I’ve grown up with violent images, in comic books, TV, graphic novels, and, of course, video games.” And then he stopped, and he looked like he was about to cry. And he said, “That guy is really dead, isn’t he?” And he started to cry. We said, “Yes. He’s really dead.” He felt it.
I mean, he’s spent his life blowing off the heads of bad guys in these video games. But to see this assassination, a real assassination … I thought, you know, all we have to do is just tell a good story and be honorable about how we do it—to carry through, and honor the testimony that we feel so privileged to have been given. From both Vietnamese and Americans.
If you tell a good story about a complicated subject, it doesn’t matter if you’re 90 or 9. Actually, a 9 year old should not watch this, but if you’re 90 or 19, it’s gonna be, I think, effective.
What do you hope people learn from this series?
Burns: I just want to have a conversation. A courageous one. I mean the intimate conversation. Granddaddy, what did you do? Pop, what happened? Mom, you were a nurse? Tell me more about this. I just saw this documentary, it must not have been fun.
Novick: I hate to make too grandiose a claim for a documentary film. Sometimes you find you can tell a good story and people can be very moved, but that’s all that happens. But we’ve found, in screenings, we would have people on the right and on the left, people who fought in the war and people who protested—people who did both. Something interesting would happen. People start to have a different kind of conversation and listen to each other in a different way.
And maybe that’s the way the story unfolds onscreen, and the kind of risks that so many of the interviewees take, in really revealing themselves, and describing events that are hard to talk about and also may not put them in the best light. They reveal their own inner conflicts and loss and grief. It seems hard for people who’ve come to the screening with their firm, fixed ideas about the war to stay there.
Burns: At the end of the day it’s the story—the quality of the story. I wouldn’t presume to say how someone should react to it.
The only wish is that perhaps by understanding a little bit more of the complication and dimension of Vietnam, we may begin to have more civil conversations today. We live in a media culture and a computer culture that is so binarily preoccupied, ones and zeros—but life is much more complicated than that. I would love to complicate the story so that it would be impossible for everyone to retreat to their hardened silos. People on the extremes will do that anyway. But there is a vast group of us in the middle who are really interested in having our molecules rearranged in our thinking, as I know mine have been in the course of this project.