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.


HD Download

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.

Burns: Oh, completely and this is what we have to say is that none of these governments in Saigon, Hanoi or Washington were frank with their people. Obviously in a repressive communist regime you're going to expect the utter control of media which happened. No, you only talk about victories. You never mention a single defeat and that's important but you're not going to ever know what happened to your son and why he's not back.

Novick: The justification for the way, the reason, why are we there kept shifting for Americans and for our leaders, sort of explaining first it was to contain communism. Then it became to preserve our reputation and to help South Vietnam and to contain China, or to restrict China's expansion, but the ground kept shifting and we didn't see any real benchmark that we actually were making progress. That was always the huge challenge. That's why McNamara, they were so obsessed with the numbers and they couldn't find-

Gillespie: You have a scene where, I can't remember if it's on "Meet the Press" or "Face the Nation" but where General Westmoreland is, 'Well, I can give you a bunch of statistics on how we're winning,' and it's all like we're stopping this many flights. We're shooting this many bullets but there was no real indicator of what success would look like.

Novick: Right, exactly. They couldn't figure that out. One of our scholars, we have an incredible panel of advisors and one of them, Greg Daddis, a great historian, he wrote a whole book about how it was impossible to measure a victory and they tried and tried and tried and they collected so much data. They were drowning in data but they weren't measuring the thing that really mattered, the feelings of the Vietnamese people and ultimately they didn't really fully understand how our conduct of the war and our inability to actually have a coherent reason for being there that resonated with the American people over the course of it, that's part of the calculus and they couldn't find a way to measure that.

Burns: Part of the tragedy is that many people in government at high policy levels understood this …

Novick: Exactly.

Burns: … and did not reflect it. You can hear in the tapes the anguish of LBJ or the anguish or Richard Nixon and then they both go out later at day or the next day and say the exact opposite of what's going on and what we know as the Pentagon Papers is in fact Robert McNamara's, a study that he commissioned that was going to I think satisfy all these nagging doubts that he had about the war and it shows that from Truman on everybody understood that this was a resilient insurgency, that the notion of a proxy war or the containment of communism wasn't quite the right fit for what was happening in Vietnam.

Gillespie: One of the mistakes that the generals and the presidents or the politicians made is they mistook a civil war for a cold war proxy.

Burns: Yeah, I think that's one way to say it but as we found out, it was really impossible to say with certainty about anything so what we've done is try to present all the cases and as many perspectives as we can and just say, 'Look at the mess.' That's the element of tragedy. They're always free electrons and our own philosophies and ideologies would attempt to tie everything up in a neat bow. That's certainly the great tragic flaw of Marxism was that it thought it could explain everything in a simple dialectic and what we know is that human nature and human experience will always sabotage.

Gillespie: At what point did the American political class know that this was not going to be a winnable war?

Novick: I think one of the really interesting moments that we show in the film is there's hearings on Capitol Hill of the Foreign Service Committee shared by J William Fulbright and the senate has hearings about the war in 1966 and some very respected foreign policy experts, including George Kennan come forward and say, 'Containment's not relevant here and if we were not already in Vietnam, I see no reason why we should get involved in Vietnam.'

George Kennan: I have a fear that our thinking about this whole problem is still affected by some sort of illusions about invincibility on our part that there is no problem, a feeling that there is no problem in the world which we, if we wanted to devote enough of our resources to it, could not solve. I disbelieve in this most profoundly.

Gillespie: He's the father of containment theory.

Novick: Containment, thank you. Yeah. It's a gradual dawning. There's information in many places that the war's not going well, CIA reports, army reports, intelligence analysis and I think our leaders have access to all of that but they don't see a way out, nonetheless. After the Tet Offensive, it became okay to say out loud inside the White House, inside the Pentagon and have a credible voice, maybe this isn't going to work out. Before that, there was no way to really say that publicly.

Gillespie: Each of the presidential candidates, or the major ones, George Wallace, Nixon and Hubert Humphrey all campaigned in '68 saying they wanted a swift and honorable peace …

Burns: That's correct.

Gillespie: … in Vietnam.

Burns: That's correct.

Gillespie: It's kind of bizarre that each of them is saying the same thing.

Burns: I think one other factor we bring in would be the press which had gone there in classic American fashion, almost jingoistically, in support of this effort to contain communism and help the people of South Vietnam free themselves from this horrific threat and then began to say that the press releases coming out of Saigon or Washington were not what they were witnessing or hearing from the field commanders and so you had almost, at the very beginning, these very respected journalists. It's like David Halberstam and Neil Shein and Malcolm Brown all beginning to say, 'Hey, what's going on here?'

You do have everybody making decisions for domestic political consideration, meaning, 'will I get elected.' It's Truman who is being blamed for losing China. It's JFK who has come in and inherited the disastrous Bay of Pigs. He's been humiliated by Khrushchev in Vienna. He can't stop the Soviets from building the Berlin Wall and he's decided not to intervene in an insurgency in Laos that ex-President Eisenhower's pushing him to do and so he feels he has to draw the line or not be reelected, as he admits. Of course we can hear on the tapes with Johnson and Nixon, this is the operative policy making decision. How will it look, and so we ended up getting a lot of Americans killed because, as one of our marines says in the film, the ego of some of these people.

Gillespie: Talk about Neil Shein. He's one of the reporters that you mentioned and he's a major voice in the documentary and he says he went there and I guess it's a holdover from World War II and Korean where the press corps were pliant and compliant with a national security narrative. They show up in Vietnam and they're buying into it and then they have an awakening.

Novick: I think it raises the question of what is patriotism. I think they felt, and he says this very beautifully in the film, that as a patriotic American, you wanted to help us win the war and to win the war was to tell the truth about the war so we could do it better. That was his initial impulse. Over time, he became disillusioned, as many, many people did who spent a lot of time in Vietnam, seeing that it really wasn't working the way we thought. He had some very enlightened field commanders explain to him why the way we were waging the war was actually counterproductive. If you get sniper fire from a village, you send artillery, you obliterate a village. That makes a lot more enemies than the one sniper you were trying to get. You multiply that exponentially over many villages over many years, you have a hard time winning the hearts and minds of the people. That's not how the narrative of the body counts really adds up. He really believed in the cause and wanted to help and, over time, wanted to then expose what was going wrong in the war.

Gillespie: There's a moment, and I think it's episode five, where a news report is talking with a bunch of soldiers and they're kind of like, 'This is all kind of fucked up. It's weird. Things are not going well.' That kind of access to troops in the field is stunning. How has the Pentagon …

Burns: This is the key.

Gillespie: … changed …

Burns: This is the key ingredient.

Gillespie: It's, yeah.

Novick: Yes.

Burns: World War II, it was really constricted and limited, and Korea as well. Vietnam, everybody, you just sort of checked in. You got your credentials. You promise not to betray ongoing operations and then you're free. What happened is that the Vietnam War revealed itself to the press and they reported it back to the United States. This is a huge and very important factor and a lot of very brave journalists lost their lives and a lot of very brave journalists gave us time to tell us what happened and it's a significant factor in all of this. What the military learned thereafter is that we're not doing that anymore. The imbed idea is a way of babysitting a journalist and making sure-

Gillespie: Under the guise of saying, 'Hey, you can be in on the action.'

Burns: Yeah, you can be in on the action but what it means is that you're not going to ever get to the point where you're going to watch, as Morley Safer did, soldiers burning a village in retaliation for the fact a they received some fire from that and then, quite frankly, just saying as teenage warriors often do, we have no feeling for these people even though the obvious calculus that is saying that if you destroy the village, you're creating more enemies seems so self evident.

We even have a tape back from a young army guy who comes from South Central Missouri and the Ozark Mountains and he takes a reel to reel tape recorder. He makes tapes for his family, his family which owns the general store, gathers all the neighborhoods and they give reports back. It's really just beautiful, real life but at some point he says, 'You know, the army does everything backwards here because they're having us burn down these village but that's going to just make more enemies.' Here you got what we would say was a dumb hick who's very much equal to the so-called best and the brightest who are plowing us deeper and deeper into this disaster.

Gillespie: If you can, talk briefly about the documentary method. I mean, there is so much footage, so much still photography, so many data. If you just wanted to do a report on the Pentagon Papers that could be 1,000 hours. How did you sift or collate through the material?

Novick: First, we should say that it's our colleagues that do most of that sifting and combing. We have an incredible team of products and then our editors and our writer Jeff Ward all put in hours and hours and hours of work trying to find the perfect quote, the perfect photograph, the perfect piece of footage for the huge story that we're trying to tell. We have great organizational systems of keeping track of all this material and kind of color coding it in a way so we can find it again and then getting the rights from the archives all around the world and getting access to the Vietnamese archives so we could actually represent their story the way they saw it at the time. It's an epic undertaking and what you see on the screen has a lot to do with the genius of the people who we work with.

Burns: You could do an entire episode on the Pentagon Papers and it's fine.

Novick: Which would be great.

Burns: We're trying to put together kind of an epic novel in which you have many primary, secondary, tertiary characters and do it as a saga over many generations that we believe this story is. Necessarily, you're constantly making decisions. There was one point in the script where the Kent State killings is one line. It's now a significant scene in our film of 10 or 15 minutes which is forever in a film of this size.

Gillespie: Even though we're looking at 10 90-minute episodes.

Burns: No, some are two hours. Six are two hours and four are 90 minutes.

Gillespie: It's a lot of time but I know what you mean.

Burns: It's a lot of time but even a minute is a lot of time and then there are things that are perhaps worthy of a full two-hour treatment in a documentary that we reduce down back to that sentence because there's a kind of respiration to storytelling. Everybody knows this. Journalists know this, too, that the thing you think is going to be expanded is actually contracted and this moment that you thought was just going to be that deserves some other thing. We're mindful of it and having to spend 10 years on it, which we demanded of ourselves, made it possible for us to make those kinds of decisions and we know now, as we've experienced in other films we've made on the Civil War, on baseball, on jazz, on the national parks. Other film makers are going to go in and take that 15 minutes, the subject that we covered perhaps in 15 minutes, and turn it into a wonderful film on their own. Our job is to try to stitch together the complicated narrative so that you at least can apprehend or maybe appreciate a part of the whole.

Gillespie: In a lot of ways the painful and revelatory episode was the final one. Each episodes has a kind of timeline on it and this one, I think it says 1973 and onwards. It details in a way that I had not seen before and I'm 53. I was born in '63. I'm at the end of the baby boom so Vietnam is kind of like a vague memory but then I lived through the growth of the Vietnam movie in the late '70s and things like that, but you detailed the fall of South Vietnam in the mid '70s and part of what you're doing is kind of underscoring that America had already tuned out.

Burns: Yes.

Gillespie: Why had America lost interest?

Burns: If you're fighting a proxy war it means that, rather than have nuclear Armageddon with the Soviet Union or red China, you've decided that you're going to do this and we haven't really learned how to do limited wars as our current policies have shown as well. When you begin as policy makers realizing that there's much bigger fish to fry, there's an unbelievable tape from Nixon and saying, 'We're playing a Russia game. We're playing a China game. We're playing a reelection game.' These are much more important than Vietnam.

Richard Nixon: regarding this. We're playing a much bigger game. We're playing a Russian game, a Chinese game, an election game. We're not going to have the.

Burns: It's easy to suddenly renege on your promises or just say, 'See you later,' and, two, the president of Vietnam understood that. He says, 'You know, it's like Nixon, when he found China, he's found a new mistress. We're old and tired.' That's not far from the truth and this is part of the sobering reality of trying to order what actually happened and not just be susceptible to the conventional wisdom that has kept us, for 42 years since the fall of Saigon, arguing at each other and over each other.

Gillespie: Speaking of that, there was a spate of movies, certainly by the mid '70s, things like 'Coming Home', 'The Deer Hunter' …

Burns: 'Apocalypse Now'.

Gillespie: … 'Apocalypse Now' certainly, that were all Oscar bait, were widely discussed. Tim O'Brien, the brilliant writer of 'The Things They Carried' and 'Going After Cacciato', is in the documentary. Just thinking about him reciting some of his words, it gives me chills. It's really fantastic but what did they fail to kind of excavate, to kind of exercise the ghost of Vietnam?

Burns: I think what they were is they were fictions which meant they could take liberties with the truth and that's what fiction is there to do. I mean, my goodness, the greater switcher of timelines and even countries and the conflation of characters is a guy named William Shakespeare who we think does a pretty good job of that and we're not going to prescribe the people, even now, the Oliver Stones. We work in public broadcasting which is the only place where something like this, this enterprise could've taken place. The marketplace does not support an enterprise like this.

Gillespie: The marketplace created public TV.

Burns: No, it did not.

Gillespie: No?

Burns: No, not at all.

Novick: No.

Burns: It was an act of congress …

Burns: … created by Lyndon Johnson and we have one foot in that marketplace but the other tentatively out. Nobody would've been able to devote the millions of dollars and the 10 years. There's no business model that would've had that happen to permit us, almost like a scholarly study, where we've gone off and worked with scholars over that time to be able to tell that story. I think it's less the failure, we don't wish to make the other movies. They had their own fish to fry and axe to grind and perhaps political axe to grind but we didn't. We had a much larger charge that we made to ourselves that required the 10 years, which no Hollywood studio would permit, and the kind of resources that we were able to bring to bear, money that we raised from public and private sources and our corporate underwriter. That's all how we were able to do it. We would just like to say we'd like to add this. We've heard back from some of those directors saying, 'Wow. This is fantastic and I wept all the time.'

Novick: 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 and in our research in trying to put our arms around the subject, we did find useful to read 'The Things They Carried' as well as Tim O'Brien's memoir and to read a novel by a North Vietnamese soldier B?o Ninh called 'The Sorrow of War' which was the first novel published in Vietnam to give voice to the experiences of ordinary soldiers and it's a devastating book. It's been likened to 'All Quiet on the Western Front' in terms of just wrestling with the scale of loss and the scope of the tragedy for their country, even though they won the war. We all read that book multiple times because you can't find in written history of the ordinary soldiers of North Vietnam. If you want to understand their experience you have to actually read this book, to be honest.

I was just going to say, the other thing is there's a new novel that came out a couple of years ago called 'The Sympathizer' by a wonderful Vietnamese American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen and he kind of brings together Vietnamese perspectives on both sides and he makes the critique, I think very valid, that in all those American movies, Hollywood movies about the Vietnam war, there's no Vietnamese characters. They don't say anything so you don't hear from them so you're sort of making the, not a mistake but you're overlooking, as Ken said earlier, pretty important people who have an important part to play in this story.

Gillespie: Yeah, in a way they're replicating the mistake that the generals made …

Novick: Indeed.

Gillespie: … not really knowing-

Burns: The author of 'The Sympathizer' says that when Americans talk about Vietnam, they talk about themselves.

Gillespie: Right.

Burns: How can you talk about the word 'Vietnam' adding war to it and not feel obligated to find out who these people were, whether Vietcong guerrillas or North Vietnamese civilians or North Vietnamese soldiers or the South Vietnamese, our erstwhile allies who we do a really good job of sort of dropping off at the corner and saying, 'I'll be right back,' and not showing up.

Gillespie: In one episode, it's actually the marina. Karl Marlantes says, and I'm quoting here, 'Think about how many times we get ourselves into scrapes as a nation because we are always the good guys. Sometimes I think that if we thought we weren't always the good guys, we might actually get into less wars.' Has America changed its self image when it comes to military interventions?

Burns: We learned some lessons and the military was very anxious to learn the lessons and applied it certainly with Desert Storm to have a very clear rationale, a very clear sense of beginning and middle and end and to sort of-

Gillespie: That, you're talking about the 1991 …

Novick: Yes.

Burns: The early …

Novick: Yes.

Gillespie: … invasion of …

Burns: Exactly.

Gillespie: … brief occupation of …

Burns: The bombing campaign in January of '91 and then the subsequent, very brief land war and then the halt of that. That was all a magnificent sort of demonstration of the military trying to apply all the lessons.

Gillespie: That, in a sense of getting a true multinational consensus …

Burns: Consensus, yes. Exactly.

Gillespie: … a very specific ideal that we were going to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, et cetera.

Burns: Right and we had a very clear enemy who had done a bad thing, invaded another country so it hearkened back to other very clear delineated world wars that we fought. The military I think still continues to wish to understand this but it's the policy makers who actually succumb for domestic political considerations, read: will I get reelected. Also, the kind of sentimentality and the very deep and darkest secret is that, as Karl Marlantes says in our film, 'We are not the dominant species on the planet because we're nice, and people say that the military turns young men into killers. I would suggest it's only finishing school.' Somewhere in our human nature, we are susceptible and our memories are very short with regard to the cost of war. We become susceptible to war as a legitimate policy, not just alternative but a first choice.

I remember when my 'Civil War' series came out in the fall of 1990, the month before Saddam Hussein had gone into Iraq, and the American public, 85% were excited about going to war. Yes, we should go to war. We hadn't had one in a long time and we can win this baby, right? After the 'Civil War' series was aired that dropped by like 25%, the pollsters said, and we consider that the best review we've ever had which is all this was, was a reminder of what war's cost is. The other thing that we do is encrust it with sentimentality and nostalgia. We call the second world war The Good War. It's the worst war ever. 60 million people, it's the greatest cataclysm in human history and somehow it's morphed into The Good War and we understand why. We were unambiguous about why we went in. There wasn't half the population that was for and half the population against and we thought the country was coming apart and we sort of yearned for that clarity. You're not going to get it if you romanticize war and its cost.

Gillespie: While I was watching the series, there was a deep, very disturbing generational irony at work. Vietnam was prosecuted largely or was orchestrated by the greatest generation, the people who won World War II and Korea, or fought to a draw there, and they inflicted it on the baby-boom generation who hated, at the time, they hated their parents' generation for many things including the Vietnam War but now the wars we're in are being prosecuted and they were orchestrated by the baby boom generation on millennials, essentially. What did baby boomers fail to learn from Vietnam, what it?

Burns: It's what I just said. It's the human sort of inclination toward war but I would say that the baby boomers didn't hate the previous generation. They were adapting new musical tastes and they were adapting new sexual tastes and they were adapting new dynamics about race and about other things and countercultural stuff but many of the people that we interviewed, particularly in the early part of the year, were trying to actually be like their parents and ran into a brick wall of 'this isn't the clear cut thing that my dad did by fighting in the Pacific or fighting in France.' There was a huge disconnect there. Later one, as the anti-war movement grows and that army grows completely disillusioned, and I think what happens is that each generation is the same. Human nature never changes and so it's going to inevitably, war will seem attractive, memories will be short and we'll say 'Let's go and do that.' You can hear saber rattling at almost any time in our culture.

Gillespie: Can I just interrupt you briefly to say, though, that it's interesting. There were basically five presidents, three Republicans, two Democrats involved in Vietnam. If you include Bill Clinton with Iraq because he pushed for a regime change as the official position in the late '90s, we've got four or five presidents, all of whom are baby boomers, some Democrats and Republicans, involved in these limited wars that are longer than Vietnam, actually, in Afghanistan and.

Novick: Indeed and-

Burns: In the case of Clinton and Bush, they both got deferments.

Gillespie: That's right. That's a whole other story …

Novick: And Cheney. Right.

Gillespie: … and Trump as well. Trump was not a …

Novick: We've been wrestling with what is going on. How does it relate to what happened in Vietnam, and I think we're not making the same mistakes. We seem to be making other mistakes that are related and one of them, though, that's a theme I think, is that we Americans, even though we've learned many lessons about how to fight a limited war better or counter insurgency or limits of power and having to make friends and not just worry about body count, there's certain things, and the press access, all that. Those are lessons that we have absorbed in the military and the politicians have absorbed.

The thing that we can't let go of, and maybe we shouldn't but this is a question, is that we still seem to think that people far away in other countries want, what we have to offer, and that we can bring them democracy and the kind of open society that we have and that if we just offer them from the menu of options that we have in Afghanistan or in Iraq, they're going to embrace who we are and what we're bringing. That, the idea that you can go to a country far away and insert yourself into something and somehow understand it well enough and make things happen, that's tricky.

Gillespie: This is the argument about nation building or region sculpting or whatever.

Burns: Right.

Novick: Yes.

Gillespie: It's much easier said than done.

Novick: Indeed.

Burns: Yeah, it's a big tension between what our role is and you see the pendulum swinging back, that we should look inward, it's isolationist now, it's populist, it's nationalistic, it has all the dangers inherent in that but the other swing of the pendulum is a kind of robust military presence in every place, the world's policemen. I remember once during the Vietnam era my father read an article to me and it said that if the United States gave every South Vietnamese $600,000, which is staking them to an incredible capitalist opportunity, we would have bought out the entire country and not spent what we had spent in the war. If you think about our early success in Afghanistan, the CIA alone goes in there with bags of money and buys the end of the Taliban and the regime there and that's an amazing thing. Then somehow we lose sight and there are not enough big contractors who are getting the money in so it …

Novick: How long is it going to last?

Burns: The idea that Eisenhower warned us about, quite correctly, of the military industrial complex, which he did at the end of his second term, he wasn't saying, 'This is something I just noticed grew up last Thursday.' This happened in 1945 when those enormous profits that were made in prosecuting the second world war, they didn't want the profits to end and so a good deal of this is market influences and forces.

Gillespie: I would argue it's more politics but it's stunning that, yeah, that Eisenhower in 1960 is talking about the problems with the standing army, the guy who won World War II …

Burns: Exactly.

Gillespie: … and was not listened to.

Burns: You could make an argument, and I'm sure that there will be some person much smarter than me that will bring up the example, but we've won all the wars we weren't prepared to fight.

Gillespie: Yes.

Burns: Right?

Gillespie: Yeah.

Burns: All the wars we were prepared to fight, we have not won. We had an army in 1940 the size of Romania's and people were running around with leggings from the first world war and tin hats and we had more cavalry horses than we had tanks. Five years later, we were the dominant army on Earth.

Gillespie: My father and uncles were in that and they were not prepared for war.

Burns: No, they weren't.

Gillespie: A couple weeks later.

Burns: I don't know. I mean, politics is a huge force but I think we have all of these things. TR, who was a complicated and very flawed leader, understood that government could sometimes be a countervailing force between, what Marx would say, was the dialectic between laborer and capital. I do think that if you're making billions of dollars in profits on an effort and somebody says the war is over and you make tanks, you want to sell more tanks. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Gillespie: No, no. This is crony capitalism at its most blatant.

Burns: They drive politics in the end if you talk about crony capitalism and the influence of money, not just now but then on that. I would say the interrelationship of all of these forces is so impossible to separate in a kind of ideologically pure way that we have to sort of see human endeavor as a big mess and try to superimpose some narrative structure on it that makes some sense and is honest. Right now that's not a given because we live in a world of fake news and deliberate disinformation that's being planted and seeded within our own society and by other societies. That makes our job much more complicated.

Gillespie: One of the things that is fascinating, and I think it's true both about your documentary and the current moment, where this is not contained by obvious ideology of Democrat, Republican, liberal or conservative. Vietnam started as a kind of liberal hawk project in many ways and then it became a conservative project as well, just as the wars in Afghanistan or the Middle East are. That's worth thinking about. It's not abstract now.

Burns: You know, the last time we spoke was about Prohibition and the only reason why Prohibition happened is because all of the sudden the progressive, we might say left, suddenly had common cause with the conservatives who were trying to keep the booze away from the immigrants and from the blacks that had been newly freed and progressives thought you could, through social engineering, fix things and all of the sudden you have a majority that can pass the legislation and the amendment necessary to happen. I think in some of the, as Karl Marlantes also says, we quoted him a lot to day.

Novick: He's our philosopher.

Burns: The shit sandwich of Vietnam, a lot of that is coming from the fact that you had all of these best and brightest whose ideologically, I think the lines are pretty blurred. It just, maybe in the end, it's maybe money behind it. Maybe in the end it's something else but we ended up with what happened.

Gillespie: Talk about the soundtrack. It sounds almost trivial but the soundtrack, because Vietnam was, as you called it, it's a decade of but also the soundtrack is pretty rich from the beginning of the early '60s through the end into the '70s.

Burns: It's not a bad period. Music is the fastest art there is. Two notes and you can actually begin to feel something so with that in mind, it is not trivialized. It is a central part of it and too often people add a soundtrack at the end to sort of add the icing for hope that it's pumping up emotions you hope, you hope are there. We do it differently.

Novick: You know, we had the great privilege, extraordinary opportunity to work with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Ken and I really could not believe our luck. To this day we'll never get over it. They're just great, great artists in a way that they're able to distill complex emotions, many of them contradictory at the same time and graced us with extraordinary original compositions that are woven throughout the film and really sort of embody the complexities and contradictions of this incredible tragedy that we're trying to tell. We also had the privilege to work with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, and these are the greatest musicians from around the world on some very interesting instruments, to give voice to Vietnamese music but also sort of universal human feelings. We can't imagine the film without the music that they gave us.

Then to top it all off, we had, through the incredible work of our producer Sarah Botstein, the privilege of working with the greatest recordings of this era and this is, as Ken said, some of the greatest music that America has ever created and England as well. Everyone you've heard of, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin.

Gillespie: Chubby Checker makes an appearance.

Novick: Yes.

Burns: Led Zeppelin.

Gillespie: How does-

Novick: Johnny Cash, right. Sarah Botstein was able to talk to the artists, their estates, their publishers, their representatives and explain to them what we're trying to do and they all wanted in. They wanted to be part of the story because they wanted their music to be understood by a new generation in particular that didn't know it in context. They've heard it on the radio. My kids love this music, too. It's sort of iconic, timeless music but it actually did happen in a time and place so we're putting it in the time and place in which it happened and also showing that it was listened to by the soldiers in the field and also the people back home. There wasn't sort of us and them in terms of music. Music was the glue that really sort of kept the country together. It's like a kid in a candy store. There's just not even a metaphor we can use to say what are your favorite songs of the greatest music that you can imagine, and okay.

Burns: We can use it.

Novick: Let's fit it in the film and then it can be shown. It creates an authenticity for the people who lived through it when they see the film, that they remember those moments and the music makes sense to them because that's what they heard then. If you didn't live through it, then you now understand what they're saying when they're singing some of these songs. That's for me.

Gillespie: I have to say, there's a moment in the final episode, so it's maybe like '74, '75 and 'Kashmir' by Led Zeppelin …

Burns: 'Kashmir.'

Gillespie: … comes on. I'm like, 'Okay, this is worth waiting for.'

Burns: No, no, no. I agree completely. When our editor put it in, I told him, I said, 'That was brilliant,' because it's a lesser known. It's not an obvious thing but it speaks instantaneously to the moment and to the emotion just like the Reznor music and the Yo-Yo Ma music does as well but it's so great. In fact, we're trying to figure out the playlist of it and I've been arguing for getting 'Kashmir' …

Novick: For a soundtrack.

Burns: … instead of 'Dazed and Confused' which seem like a more obvious choice for a great rock and roll.

Gillespie: We will leave it there. We have been talking with Lynn Novick and Ken Burns. Their latest series debuting on September 17th on PBS is 'Vietnam'. Thanks so much for talking with Reason.

Burns: Thank you.

Novick: Thank you for having us. Great conversation.

Burns: Yeah, really, really wonderful.


Subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Like us on Facebook.

Follow us on Twitter.

Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes.