The Vietnam War led to more than 1.3 million deaths and it's one of the most divisive, painful, and poorly understood episodes in American history.
Documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have spent the past decade making a film that aims to exhume the war's buried history. Their 10-part series, which premieres on PBS next week, is a comprehensive look at the secrecy, disinformation, and spin surrounding Vietnam, and its lasting impact on two nations. The 18-hour film combines never-before-seen historical footage, with testimonies from nearly 80 witnesses, including soldiers on both sides of the conflict, leaders of the protest movement, and civilians from North and South Vietnam.
A two-time Academy Award winner, Burns is among the most celebrated documentary filmmakers of our time, best-known for the 1990 PBS miniseries The Civil War, which drew a television viewership of 40 million. He and Novick are longtime collaborators, and in 2011 she co-directed and produced with Prohibition with Burns. In 2011, Reason's Nick Gillespie interviewed Burns that film and the role of public television in underwriting his work.
With the release of The Vietnam War, Gillespie sat down with Burns and Novick to talk about the decade-long process of making their new film, and why understanding what happened in Vietnam is essential to interpreting American life today.
Produced by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Meredith Bragg, Austin Bragg, Mark McDaniel, and Krainin.
This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Nick Gillespie: This is an exhaustive comprehensive look at America's involvement in the Vietnam War, which you note began in secrecy and ended in failure. What prompted the project for you and why should we be talking about Vietnam now?
Ken Burns: I think it's time to talk about it. It's some repressed memory for many of us and deliberately avoided subject for perhaps the rest of us. Lynn and I were finishing a film on the second world war called simply 'The War' and before it was done in 2006, we already knew intuitively that we would have to jump into Vietnam. We think it's the most important event in American history in the second half of the 20th century. If we want to know a little bit about the political divisions and the lack of civil discourse that beset us and bedevil us today, we think that a lot of the seeds of that were planted in Vietnam.
If you could unpack, literally unpack the fraudulence of the conventional wisdom and repack it benefiting from the testimony of people who lived through it and the recent scholarship that's taken place, and also to triangulate with the South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese perspectives which are almost always left behind, that you have an opportunity to perhaps understand it better and maybe pull out some of these fuel rods of discourse and sort of get back to what we often do very well.
Gillespie: Early on, and I think it's in the first episode, I can't remember if it's one of the commenters or the narration but-
Burns: Our narration would never do that. We want to be strictly neutral, it is a talking head.
Gillespie: Okay, so somebody likens the experience of Vietnam to living with an alcoholic father. How does that speak to this idea of a repressed memory or a ghost that's hovering everywhere but can never be fully acknowledged?
Lynn Novick: When you're talking about a family living with an alcoholic, there's a lot of shame and not knowing what to say and just avoiding it and pretending it's not happening. I think those are very common to just work that metaphor that he uses, Karl Malantis, who's a marine. That was his personal experience of coming home and finding that no one talked about the war and you just shut that door and just move on, and if you really try to unpack that like Ken and I have done, I think it's an enormous trauma for our country that we just have never actually been able to talk about because it is so painful. We were curious to find out why and then just put the pieces back together, as Ken just said, but the idea that you can ignore something and hope it will go away, and we all know that doesn't work too well. The result of that is that we're still kind of arguing. In a way we sort of fought the Vietnam War many years ago but we're still fighting the way we remember it.
Gillespie: Talk about that and various sequences or episodes. Talk about particular Lyndon Johnson, who opened up what became known as the credibility gap and was clearly saying one thing privately, another thing publicly to a point where he couldn't even run for president in '68. Is that what you're talking about when you're saying, I mean this is a place where Vietnam kind of is the start of the world-
Burns: It's one of the places because, of course, that's on one political and policy level. There's another military one. There's another intimate one that may involve protestors or gold star families or the soldiers themselves who are walking on eggshells. The film very clearly says that, from Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy and particularly Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and, to a lesser extent, Gerald Ford, nobody was straight with the American people. Nobody. That credibility gap began with Truman when so much stuff was done in secret, continued with Eisenhower, continued with Kennedy, escalated significantly with Kennedy and even more, exponentially so, with Johnson and then you had in Richard Nixon, somebody who came in with his national security advisor absolutely understanding the real politic, as they would say, of it, of we need to end this war and fast and find themselves using some of the same rationales, the same sort of justifications and the same sorts dissembling that the other presidents had used to sort of kick the can down the street and not deal with Vietnam, which gets a lot of Americans and even more Vietnamese killed. This is an ongoing, if you want to talk about rolling thunder, there's a kind of rolling dissembling-
Gillespie: Explain for people who won't get that-
Burns: Rolling thunder is the big bombing campaign that Lyndon Johnson initiated to sort of, what they thought would bring the North to their knees, bring them to the bargaining table saying, 'What do you need?' And the North, making its own horrific calculus and not consulting with its own people, are going to decide that they will not, as they said, count the cost and that means that when we looked at the body counts on the news, it was always 10 to 1 or even sometimes in 20 to 1 and they said that we'd absorb it. In a democracy or something similar to that, it became very clear that there's just so many years where you can accept even that one before you say no mas.
Gillespie: That, I think, is one of the really fascinating elements of this series. As you were saying, both South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese as well as Vietcong perspectives but it was a weird mirror of, as Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense is talking about the body count, how can we lose? We're killing them 10 to 1 but it was the exact opposite on the North Vietnamese side and there's a hubris there and an arrogance.