The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (PBS, 2017) DVD.
The documentary television event of 2017 was the 10-part PBS series titled The Vietnam War, directed by both Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The series took 10 years and more than $30 million to make. Released last September, it garnered rave reviews all over the mainstream media and became the second-highest-rated TV series by Ken Burns in the past two decades. An average of 6.7 million people watched every episode and in total the series reached 34 million people. In fact the first episode became the most streamed show by PBS in the entire history of the network.
This was not the first time PBS tackled the Vietnam War. In 1983 Stanley Karnow served as chief correspondent to a 13-hour PBS series titled Vietnam: A Television History, which had interviews with dozens of high-level participants in the War, including Col. Edward Lansdale, who helped to create the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in South Vietnam. This series was tied to Karnow’s book on the War titled Vietnam: A History, which became the standard work of history on the topic. I’m working on a history of the War myself and have found uncut interviews from the Karnow series a great resource with tidbits not available in books. That series, though, generated a conservative outcry that caused some PBS stations to air an hour-long rebuttal by Charlton Heston produced by Accuracy in Media, which argued that it downplayed the threat of international communism. At the time, the Cold War was still on and the Soviet Union had yet to fall.
Ken Burns has bragged that he avoided any such controversy by getting funding from sources across the political spectrum, from David Koch to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and corporations such as Bank of America. “That’s a way of telling people, ‘You can re-sheath your knives,’” he told the New York Times.
For Stanley Karnow the War was a major part of his life, for he worked as a reporter in Vietnam. Burns and Novick did not and were teenagers during the 1960s. That gives them a bit of a different perspective on the War and perhaps is a reason they have a different agenda. That is shown in the opening prologue, when the narrator declares that the War was “begun in good faith, by decent people.” Burns explained to the Washington Post that he had no interest in getting into the debates over the War. There are people today who think that the War could have been won and others who think it was a huge mistake and that it could never have been won.
Instead of using their series to try to answer questions about the War itself, Burns and Novick hope that they can bring people together with it in a time in which the nation feels as though it is growing more divided. As a Washington Post reporter explained, Burns
isn’t blind to the fact that the atomization of the Internet, the loss of trust in any unifying source of truth, and a cynicism that verges on paranoia make it harder for any one person to gather a mass audience, much less to sell them on a single idea about America. But Burns believes fiercely that his audience hasn’t given up on the desire for community and reconciliation. His mission with ‘The Vietnam War’ is to create a different kind of public space, where people with very different views and perspectives can have a shared experience.
“The seeds of disunion we experience today, the polarization, the lack of civil discourse all had their seeds in Vietnam,” Burns told the New York Times. “I can’t imagine a better way to help pull out some of the fuel rods that create this radioactive atmosphere than to talk about Vietnam in a calm way.”
No one is to blame.
The series sought to do that by focusing on the experiences of soldiers who served in Vietnam, including some from North Vietnam and the Republic of Vietnam in the South, and a few figures in the anti-war movements, instead of policy-makers and historians. The series shows suffering on all sides of the War. It was a war of many atrocities and whenever one is mentioned in an episode it quickly shifts to talk about one committed by the other side in order to equalize any blame and simply make war itself bad.
That creates a safe space for the viewer by avoiding any controversy. “Today, we suffer from too much certainty,” Burns said. “I like the middle, the uncertainty of things. I think that’s where all the progress, all the healing, takes place.” In other words a person watching the series in his home can do so with the knowledge that millions of others of people are watching it at the same time he is too, many of whom may have voted for a different candidate in the last presidential election, but all who are watching are united in watching and seeing the suffering of the War.
The 10-part series is really structured into two parts. The first part is episodes one through five, which depict the growing American involvement in the war, from support of the French colonial war to John Kennedy’s support of the Diem regime and Lyndon Johnson’s decision to send more than half a million combat troops to South Vietnam and engage in a mass bombing campaign of North Vietnam.
From a historical standpoint I found those episodes to be very problematic, to say the least. Many people have picked the episodes apart already, so I’m not going to go into too much detail. One good resource, though, are the articles by James DiEugenio about the series on his website, KennedysandKing.com. He found it amazing that the series did not mention the name John Foster Dulles and showed only an image or two of Colonel Lansdale, both of whom were key figures in the very creation of the government in South Vietnam. The series also simply skipped over the fact that Kennedy made plans to withdraw from Vietnam by just not talking about them at all.
One problem I had is that Burns and Novick made it appear that Kennedy and Johnson made very few decisions on the War themselves, and thus it was practically inevitable. All they are shown doing is responding to events. A key moment in the escalation of the War was the so-called Gulf of Tonkin attacks of August 2 and 4 of 1964. The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Maddox was pursued by three small North Vietnamese torpedo boats during the first incident, with both sides exchanging fire with each other. South Vietnamese CIA-trained commandos had attacked a radar installation on Hon Me island shortly before this naval confrontation and the North Vietnamese mistakenly thought the Maddox was part of the commando attack.
The second incident, on August 4, occurred when the Maddox and the USS Turner Joy were ordered to go inside the 12-nautical-mile territorial waters of North Vietnam to show the flag. Capt. John J. Herrick reported that he came under torpedo attack. Episode three of The Vietnam War shows this information being relayed to Johnson, who then decides to respond with air strikes and gets Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gives him a blank check to intervene in Vietnam.
The Burns and Novick series presents Johnson as only reluctantly getting involved in Vietnam and being almost a passive responder to events. Today we know for certain that the second Gulf of Tonkin incident did not occur, because the National Security Agency released its account of the event based on message transcripts from both the forces of the United States and North Vietnam, which they intercepted. Just about every single book on the Vietnam War doubts that the second attack happened and shows that in fact Washington had reasons to suspect it didn’t happen on that day. Captain Herrick, for instance, sent a message to his superiors that was passed on to McNamara saying that he doubted that the attack happened within a few hours of his first message. But the episode doesn’t even mention this second message! It only reveals the first one. And then Herrick an hour later sent another message ignored by the series saying he didn’t think the attack happened and recommending daylight reconnaissance to find out for sure.
In my view the series does not attempt to cover up the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, but the omissions show how far Burns and Novick went to portray the Vietnam War as something beyond the control of Johnson and Kennedy so that no one can be blamed.
The next few episodes depict a growing intervention in Vietnam and rightly show how it failed and led to disaster, even if they also are a bit misleading on the nature of the War itself.
For instance the series talks about Lyndon Johnson’s Rolling Thunder mass bombing campaign of North Vietnam and makes it appear that the War was primarily directed against it, which makes the War look clean, so to speak. But in reality there was mass bombing in South Vietnam directed at areas outside the control of the Republic of Vietnam. The problem is, that was most of the country. A result was that a mass of refugees flooded into Saigon and other cities, which doubled and tripled in size. A good source on this is the Nick Turse book Kill Anything That Moves. He quotes Westmoreland and other military leaders as saying that the migration could drain the people away from the Vietcong insurgency and help the United States win. It didn’t work. The War was much worse for civilians than this TV series shows.
The first episodes of the series lead to what it really seems to want to talk about, and that is the divisions that grew inside the United States over the Vietnam War as it went on. After the first four episodes there is more and more mention of those divisions in each successive episode until they culminate in the Kent State shooting of May 4, 1970, in which 13 students were shot by Ohio National Guardsmen, with four students dying during demonstrations against Nixon’s decision to expand the War into Cambodia. After that, the divisions over the War simply exploded, with the same American veterans who in previous episodes recounted their war experiences, now revealing their own involvement in demonstrations against the War, with some even throwing away their medals in protest.
I could not help but note that the series had zero sympathy for Richard Nixon in comparison with Johnson and Kennedy. Whereas the latter are depicted as merely reacting passively to events Nixon is shown making decisions not only to expand the war, but to attack demonstrators for political gain.
All together, the series makes the War look like an unfortunate accident and indeed in the final episode some of the commentators even say that. The series was not designed to engage in any of the debates about the Vietnam War itself, but instead appears to be made to avoid them in order to create the highest ratings possible. It in effect generated massive television ratings by pandering to its viewers by treating the Vietnam War almost the same way that most of the audience experienced the war on terror and witnessed the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Most Americans today view those wars as mistakes and simply watched them unfold on their TV sets. They were told and many believe that the George W. Bush administration simply made mistakes when it decided to go to war in Iraq. It thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was posing a threat and so it intervened. In effect the viewers of the Burns and Novick series are essentially told that the Vietnam War was not that much different. The human agency of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and their advisors, is stripped away in order to maintain that illusion in much the same way that the Bush administration has been portrayed as merely responding to threats instead of making decisions. By doing that The Vietnam War series does a disservice to anyone who wants to understand the real causes of the events it depicts.
All of that raises a question though. Does the Burns and Novick series succeed on its own terms? As far as providing a big hit it did indeed. But it seems very unlikely that it will bring people together as the directors hoped. For one thing today’s political climate of disunity and partisanship did not really start with the Vietnam War or Richard Nixon. There was a Cold War panic over spies and communists in the early 1950s before Americans went to Vietnam with blacklists and loyalty oaths. There were labor riots during the Great Depression and race riots too before the 1960s. And Vietnam wasn’t really the first controversial war the United States fought in, either. Mark Twain and others formed the Anti-Imperialism League to oppose the war the United States fought in the Philippines. Woodrow Wilson even jailed people who were against American entry into World War I.
But more important, it is probably impossible to bring the American people together for long with a television event. Once the viewer is done with the final episode of the Burns and Novick series he is ready to change his television channel or streaming device to view another show. A portion of the viewers will head over to MSNBC to hear about the latest dope on the Russian scandal and Donald Trump, while others will go to Fox News to hear what a great leader he is.
In the end, what will bring people together is a recognition of shared values and an understanding that even if we disagree on this or that we are all consumers of media, much of which all too often is designed to scare and divide us. In fact people were brought together for a period of time in support of the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, too, with propaganda and scare tactics, none of which could be recognized as such in this series. And it was done on TV, too. Lyndon Johnson’s poll numbers skyrocketed the night he got on TV and announced that he was retaliating against the second Gulf of Tonkin attack. And he knew what he was doing, just as George W. Bush did. If we can’t even ask what the real causes of events are, then we are doomed to repeat the “mistakes” of the past.
This article was originally published in the March 2018 edition of Future of Freedom.