The Vietnam War. Dr. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Perf. Peter Coyote (Narrator), Huy Duc, Duong Van Mai Elliott, et al. Florentine Films, 2017. Documentary.
Review by Matt Masur
America’s war in Vietnam, which ended almost fifty years ago, has never really faded from the country’s memory. Every American military intervention since the mid-1970s has elicited inevitable comparisons to Vietnam. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial remains one of the most popular destinations in Washington, D.C. The Vietnam War and Vietnam vets continue to crop up in American movies and television programs. Colleges and universities around the country offer courses on the Vietnam War, and Millennials have shown no signs of losing interest in the topic.
This year in particular the Vietnam War seems to be on the minds of Americans. The Post, Steven Spielberg’s most recent film, recreates a pivotal event related to the war: the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret Defense Department study of American involvement in Vietnam. Coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of some of the War’s most fateful years, the New York Times has been publishing a series of articles looking back on the events of 1967 and 1968. Last fall, PBS began broadcasting Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part series The Vietnam War.
The Burns and Novick series is of particular interest because viewers tend to judge documentaries as more credible and “truthful” than Hollywood adaptations like The Post. And The Vietnam War it is likely to reach a wider audience than the New York Times series, and will certainly reach more Americans than most scholarly articles and books on the war. If earlier Burns and Novick productions are any indication, The Vietnam War will be watched and re-watched in living rooms and classrooms around the country. High school teachers and college teachers may lean heavily on the series, not only because it is a convenient way to present the war but also because it is powerful and informative. In other words, The Vietnam War may, for the time being, become the single most influential source in shaping Americans’ understanding of the history of the Vietnam War.
As would be expected for an 18-hour series, The Vietnam War offers ample material for analysis. Early reviews have applauded the series for its powerful use of first-hand recollections of the War. Some critics have lambasted Burns and Novick for favoring “balance” over accuracy. These critics feel that the series presents a false equivalence between the United States and its Vietnamese enemies, thus failing to hold the U.S. fully accountable for the war. Many have focused on one line of narration that comes early in the series: the assertion that American officials acted in “good faith” when they oversaw U.S. intervention in Vietnam.
Whatever the documentary’s virtues or shortcomings, Burns and Novick have made an effort to “Vietnamize” their account of the Vietnam War. (“Vietnamize” is a loaded term, of course, as it refers the strategy of shifting military responsibility from the United States to South Vietnam. President Nixon, most closely associated with “Vietnamization,” found the term preferable to its synonym: “de-Americanization.”) The series is available with Vietnamese subtitles, a nod to the fact that the Vietnamese themselves are not only sources for the series, but also a potential audience. Viewers will also notice right away that Burns and Novick include numerous Vietnamese interviewees throughout the series. Less obviously, the historical narrative in the series relies on important recent scholarship on North and South Vietnam during the war. Although The Vietnam War still gives primacy to the war as an American experience (not surprising for a film produced and broadcast in the United States), it gives Vietnam and the Vietnamese a more prominent place in the story.
The most riveting segments of The Vietnam War come from the first-hand accounts of the war. A few stand out. Marine Corps veteran John Musgrave vividly describes his combat experience in Vietnam, his post-war struggles, and his decision to protest against the war. A soldier from Roxbury, Mass. recalls a conversation with his mother, who assures him that he’ll make it back alive because she “talk[s] to God every day and your special.” “I’m putting pieces of special people in bags,” he replies. Viewers hear the story of enlisted man Denton “Mogie” Crocker from his sister Carol and his mother Jean-Marie. The fact that Mogie himself is present only in pictures and letters tips off viewers to his ultimate fate. The foreshadowing makes it no less heart-wrenching when Carol and Jean-Marie describe the day that they learned of his death.
In an effort to present a more complete account of the Vietnam War, the series also includes interviews with numerous Vietnamese participants. Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese veteran and novelist, appears in multiple episodes and provides some important insights about the War. In episode nine, he describes the conflict as a “civil war”—a characterization that is generally at odds with the Party-sanctioned narrative that the Vietnamese were fighting primarily against a neo-imperialist foreign enemy. Bao Ninh also offers a touching anecdote near the end of the series. Describing his return home after the war, he says that his mom was overwhelmed with emotion:
For six years my mother had no idea if I was alive or dead. . . . My mother cried [when I returned]. But we didn’t make a scene. . . . In our apartment building, six young men were drafted, and I was the only one to return. We didn’t dare celebrate, didn’t dare express our joy, because our neighbors lost their children.
The series reflects the prominent role that Vietnamese women played in the conflict. Duong Van Mai Elliott describes her experience as a young woman interviewing NLF captives for the RAND Corporation. A North Vietnamese woman talks about her time as a truck driver ferrying materials down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, constantly threatened by American bombing. Americans may not be surprised to hear American soldiers talk about killing the enemy, but it is still a bit stunning when soft-spoken NLF veteran Nguyen Thi Hoa cooly describes her actions during the Tet Offensive: “When I found them, I shot them. An American, not that far away, about three meters. He opened fire. I raised my AK. I aimed. I had to shoot him. [Pause.] And I dropped him.
While the interviews with Vietnamese participants do provide much-needed balance to the series, they do not quite carry the emotional heft of many of the American accounts. The series includes some story arcs that span several episodes: the Crockers worrying about Mogie’s fate; Hal Kushner undergoing a harrowing ordeal as a POW and not seeing his family—including a son born after he left for Vietnam—for over five years; Matt Harrison volunteering for a second tour to prevent his brother from being deployed. For the most part, the interviews with Vietnamese participants do not have the same depth, limiting their dramatic power.
The series includes Vietnamese perspectives in other ways as well. The historical narrative that is woven throughout The Vietnam War incorporates some of the most recent scholarship on the war, much of it exploring the political, economic, social, and environmental conditions in North and South Vietnam during the conflict. Several episodes depict the political and social unrest that plagued South Vietnam during the war, but the series also acknowledges that the South Vietnamese generally enjoyed more political freedom than their counterparts in the North. In a stunning revelation, a North Vietnamese Army veteran admits that up to 3,000 South Vietnamese civilians from Hue were massacred in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. “We rarely speak of it,” he says. “So please be careful making your film because I could get in trouble.”
The Vietnam War also incorporates recent scholarship revealing that Le Duan, rather than Ho Chi Minh, was the most powerful North Vietnamese official for most of the war. A hardliner, Le Duan generally pushed for a more aggressive military strategy in the South and seemed willing to accept high numbers of casualties as the cost of victory. Until recently, Le Duan has usually appeared as a secondary figure in scholarship on the war—if he is included at all. His name appears only eight times in Stanley Karnow’s 700-page tome Vietnam: A History, the companion book to PBS’ 1983 multi-part Vietnam documentary. The second edition of George Herring’s America’s Longest War (1986), for years the most popular textbook on the war, did not include him at all. (Even during the war the United States was slow to realize Le Duan’s significance. Episode 5 features a recording of a conversation from early 1966 that appears to be the first time Lyndon Johnson had ever heard his name—Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has to spell it aloud for the President.) But Le Duan crops up again and again in the Burns and Novick series, usually pushing for another bloody military offensive that he hopes will finally bring victory.
In spite of its efforts to show the war from many perspectives, The Vietnam War does have some unfortunate omissions. The series briefly describes the devastating effects of the war on Laos and Cambodia, but does not include any Lao or Khmer interviewees to tell their stories. Several American interviewees express their sadness at what they consider America’s betrayal of its South Vietnamese allies at the end of the war. The Hmong who participated in America’s covert activities in Lao were similarly left to fend for themselves, often experiencing similar oppression and suffering. And yet they are not even mentioned in the series. By the same token, the final episode briefly mentions that ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam were singled out for oppression in the years after the war ended. Their stories would provide even more evidence of the tragic nature of the war.
Any account of the Vietnam War will necessarily include some gaps and oversights. But viewers who watch the entire series—no small commitment—will encounter the central historical themes of the war. They will also be rewarded with a very human depiction of the Vietnam War, one which places the experiences of the participants at the forefront.
Matthew Masur is professor of history at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. He is the editor of Understanding and Teaching the Cold War (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017) and he has published several articles and book chapters on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.