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The Vietnam War Is the Key to Understanding Today's America: Q&A with Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Their 18-hour miniseries looks at one of the most divisive, painful, and poorly understood episodes in American history.

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.

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  • loveconstitution1789||

    I remember watching some of Ken Burn's Civil War and how much was left out, how skewed it was, and how lacking in any military understanding Burn's had.

    He found and added a bunch of never before seen or hardly seen photos and letters from soldiers.

    I would guess this story about Vietnam is similarly lazy. Especially when the who tv exec world loves Ken Burns and gives him enough time for a series.

    His series on the Roosevelts had him so far up their ass, his nickname was "Rough Rider". The series was despicably lacking in any real discussion about Teddy's genocide of Native Indians and Franklin's imprisoning Japanese-Americans in concentration camps.

    I would call Ken Burns a lefty hack but "hack" is being generous.

  • Number 7||

    but instead of just putting a picture on the screen, he pans across the picture. I remember hearing how he revolutionized documentary filmmaking by doing that.

    I've seen most of the baseball series and jazz series which were both good but watched like 1 episode of the civil war one and gave up.

    He's overrated and you notice how PBS is his chosen venue? Sucking off the government teat.

  • Zeb||

    I find historical documentaries that use reenactments annoying. Even if the visual style is a cliche at this point, I like his use of original materials for the visuals as well as the spoken words.

    I definitely agree that he's overrated. But not bad for TV documentaries.

  • mtrueman||

    "but instead of just putting a picture on the screen, he pans across the picture."

    Pans left, no doubt. If I'm not mistaken, his films are also edited, a notorious device used by communists since the days of Chaplin.

  • DaveSs||

    As long as you turn on a filter in your head that whenever you hear anything about a Roosevelt, it is colored by his huge man-crush on both of them, his film are aren't bad.

    In large part his films seem to be no so much telling the broader story which you can get that anywhere. He seems more to be telling stories of the mostly unknown individuals who lived it.

    I've seen all the 5hr+ works he's done except The Roosevelts, Jazz, and Baseball and to be honest I don't regret taking the time to watch any of them.

  • Zeb||

    I agree. He's not some amazing genius, but he figured out how to make long TV documentaries that are decent to watch.

  • Crusty Juggler - Lawbertarian||

    Plus he inspired an awesome episode of television, which included this.

  • mtrueman||

    The best take on the American Civil War I've seen was Gettysburg, a long feature length drama with Martin Sheen as Lee, and many other notables aside. It wasn't afraid to delve into the details and background, though the script was a little stilted, translating letters and diaries into one-sided conversations.

    Anyone else find it strange how Gillespie refers to Vietnam as a 'civil war?' The Vietnamese struggled for decades to rid themselves of meddling French and then Americans. Is it a widely held belief that Vietnam was about something else?

  • MSimon||

    No mention of the Drug War (opium) aspects.

    I go into it some here: The Trillion Dollar (a year) Drug War Scam

    "The Politics of Heroin" by McCoy is especially good. - Earlier editions free on the 'net.

  • DC_36||

    Novick lost me here:
    "Yes. I mean, I would just add to that that ** I don't think we have to distinguish between fact and fiction in terms of trying to understand this enormously complicated story** because there's no one right way to see it"

  • Remnant Psyche||

    Pure postmodernist bullshit

  • Brandybuck||

    What I learned from the Vietnam War: Wars are good when started and conducted by Democrats, but evil things when Republicans inherit them. Sure, some hippies protested Johnson back in the day, but they're all good Democrats now so it's impolite to bring that up. The Vietnam War was bad because Nixon. Nevermind that Nixon got us out.

  • Number 7||

    sorry but no, Johnson and McNamara were roundly derided by the young left, the demonstrations in 68 happened at the Democratic convention not the Republican. The draft occurred during Johnson's administration.

    Frankly it helped Kennedy's legacy that he died before the war got going in full swing as he is not remembered for starting it.

  • Zeb||

    Yeah, I've never encountered anyone (particularly among the sorts who would have been protesting at the time) who tries to deny that there were massive protests against the Johnson administration about Vietnam.

  • Crusty Juggler - Lawbertarian||

    "Hey-hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"

  • IceTrey||

    Nov 1, 1955 is the official start date of the war.

  • DJF||

    The "The Old Negro Space Program" will always be Ken Burns best work.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6xJzAYYrX8

  • GILMORE™||

  • GILMORE™||

    So, has kenny B decided to chime on the current fad of confederate iconoclasm?

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: The Vietnam War Is the Key to Understanding Today's America: Q&A with Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

    The Vietnam War is the key to understanding how big government can fuck up our country, another country and everything and everyone in it.

  • Episteme||

    The Vietnam War is the key to understanding how the Baby Boomers think everything is still about them.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    I thought his Jazz documentary was awesome. It deepened my understanding and appreciation for a type of music that I already knew pretty well and really enjoy.

    His short series on Prohibition was also really good, in my opinion. I wouldn't go so far as to say he takes a libertarian perspective in that one, but it's hard not to come away from that without shaking your head at just how terrible such government interventions are.

    Right now I'm about two episodes into his series The West, which is a bit soon to give my opinion on it.

    In general, I would say he does an excellent job keeping things interesting when it's just old film clips and still photos being shown. Of course, some of that is through his use of multiple narrators who all tend to be excellent voice actors.

    I haven't seen any of his other stuff, so I can't say how much a lefty he is or isn't. Still, based on the quality of what I have seen so far, I would certainly give this Vietnam series a try.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The problem witH getting any honest analysis of the Vietnam war is that the Left is still reluctant to do any honest analysis of the death toll of any Communist revolution. If you hold their feet to the fire, you can get them to admit that Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot all make the lokes of Franco and Pinochet look like frickin' boy scouts. But a minute later they will be demanding to know how I can defend supporting the likes of Franco.

    Because his enemies were worse, you morons. In most of the world we are not offered a choice between angels and devils, but a choice between retail devils and wholesale devils.

  • Marshal||

    I remember when that footage was shot. Joker wanted to be the first kid on his block with a confirmed kill.

  • IceTrey||

    My father won a Bronze star at the Battle of Mike's Hill, the first action of the Tet offensive, and commanded Hill 689, the western most Marine outpost, during the Battle of Khe Sahn. He was in the shit.

  • The Last American Hero||

    The notion that state run, I mean, public television is some great place is a joke. Sorry, Ken, but there are many channels that offer what public TV does, and the notion that Amazon or Netflix wouldn't throw money at him to make a series or would start making editorial choices for him is just silly.

  • mtrueman||

    We all know that documentarians are the creme de la creme of leftist scum. They would be perfectly happy if all television were state run. As for Amazon and Netflix throwing money at him, they'd probably sell rope to their hangman, too if they were in the rope-selling business.

  • MSimon||

    No mention of the Drug War (opium) aspects.

    I go into it some here: The Trillion Dollar (a year) Drug War Scam

    "The Politics of Heroin" by McCoy is especially good. - Earlier editions free on the 'net.

  • Warren||

    When Ken is good, he's very good. But he's so married to his abhorrent politics. Loved Jazz, because I learned a lot about Jazz music. Hated Baseball because all it had to say was, America is racist.

    Can Ken put his own vile agenda aside to tell the story of:
    Roosevelt? Fuck no.
    Vietnam? I doubt it.

    Also, he's so far up his own ass in this interview. Like 'The 10,000 Day War' was never made and doesn't exist.

  • jp1960||

    I think this is wasted thinking. It really doesn't matter if Burns is a leftist or not, the mistake of the Vietnam War was STARTING it on a LIE, The Gulf of Tonkin "incident", which never happened as the US Government said. We should never have been involved in the war to begin with. Like just about every war in the 20th Century,(and now,21st Century!), we were lied, or maneuvered into a war. Wilson was elected on a platform to keep us out of WW1, guess what, we get into the War when the USG put munitions on a passenger ship! now we have the excuse to get into the war! And so it goes, all the way to the Iraq war and the mythical "weapons of mass destruction", which were NOT THERE! Anyone who continues to believe the USG is a fool.

  • ||

    This was a great interview. Whether you agree with Ken's side or Nick's, we can all agree that Vietnam was a cluster fuck. And we're not going to make any progress if we can't have a civil conversation and cooperate a little. I, for one, am pleased to see a PBS documentary discussed on Reason, and hope to see more like this.
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