The Ken Burns / Lynn Novick 18-hour series on The Vietnam War began its run on PBS on Sunday night and continues through this week and next. I felt about as familiar with that era as I could imagine—with its tensions at the time, with the journalism and literature that came out of it, with the historical assessments, with the war’s role in music and movies and others parts of pop culture and public imagination. Even so I found this a tremendously revealing series. I recommend it very highly. Please find a way to watch—now, or in the many streaming and download alternatives they are making available.
As with any attempt to grapple with a topic this vast and complex, and of such emotional and historical consequence, the Burns/Novick series is bound to be controversial. For one example of an avenue of criticism, see this review by veteran Asia-hand correspondent Jim Laurie, who was on-scene in Vietnam and Cambodia during the war.
Here’s another: When I did an interview with Burns and Novick for the upcoming issue of Amtrak’s The National magazine, I asked them about one of the central themes of their press-tour presentation of the project, as opposed to the video itself. Both Burns and Novick have stressed the idea that the divisions generated by the Vietnam war prefigure the polarization of Trump-era America.
To me, that seems a little too pat. Even though I argued back at the time that the “class war” elements of Vietnam were a central reason the U.S. remained engaged for so many years, so much has happened between then and now that it’s hard to trace a sensible connection from those times to these. Since the height of the fighting in Vietnam, we’ve had: the end of the draft; the disappearance of the Soviet Union; the emergence of China; multiple dramatic shifts in political mood (the arrivals of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, later Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump, were each seen as the dawns of new political eras); the 9/11 attacks; multiple wars; multiple booms and busts; multiple grounds for hope and despair. Donald Trump was on one side of the Vietnam class-war divide, with his student deferments and mysterious physical disqualifications. Figures as politically diverse as John McCain, Al Gore, John Kerry, Jim Mattis, and Jim Webb were on the other. But it’s hard to make a neat match of that cleavage 50 years ago to the multiple axes of disagreement now. To me, it seems easier to trace a line of descent from the Civil War—subject of Ken Burns’s first national-phenomenon film series, back in 1990—to Trump-era divides than from the Vietnam war.
I lay out this disagreement on a specific point as a set-up for emphasizing how valuable and informative I think the series is overall. It is remarkable in interleaving the accounts of participants from opposite sides of the same battle— the Americans and South Vietnamese, but also the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong—all describing what they were afraid of, what their plans were, how they reckoned victory and defeat in struggles for control of a particular hill or hamlet. It offers abundant evidence of battlefield bravery and sacrifice, on all sides—but precious few examples of political courage or foresight, especially in the United States. It’s hard to say whether Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon comes off worse for the combination of strategic misjudgment and flat-out dishonesty in management of the war. The White House recordings from both men are spell-binding.
Please watch. And since most of today’s Americans had not even been born by the time the last U.S. forces left Vietnam, it’s all the more valuable for generations who know nothing about that era first-hand.
Further on the theme of linkages between Vietnam and previous American engagements, a reader makes the evocative connection to the first war that troops of the newly formed United States ever fought.
A reader of the Vietnam era / Boomer era, who grew up in South Carolina, writes:
I saw your recent post in the Atlantic about the upcoming Ken Burns film on the Vietnam War and I remembered this place, the camp/hideaway for General Francis Marion and his irregular forces in the American Revolution. It is about as inaccessible now as then, even following designation as a national historic site.
SC requires a course on state history for all public school students in the 8th or 9th grade. I took the class in 1968 or 1969. My teacher emphasized the role of SC in the American Revolution. We dug deep into British strategy and the tactics of SC partisans to undo British work. At home, I watched the network news on TV with my parents. What I recall is coming home one day and telling my mother that Vietnam is like the Revolution in SC, but with U.S. forces being the British…
‘[Other generals] exhausted the British/Loyalist forces. Irregular forces, such as those of General Marion and other guerrilla leaders in SC disrupted British movement and communications while the Continental Army remained a viable military threat in the field….
In "Making Bricks without Straw", John Dederer argues, not with complete success, for the proposition that the Mobile Tactics of Mao and Giap are the same in essence as the tactics used in SC in the last year of the Revolution.
More convincing is a reply I received from Walter Edgar, the leading historian of SC. He has written several books on the Revolution in SC and served as a Captain in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He did not give a full-on yes, but a qualified agreement that there is meaningful similarity in actions of the Continental Army/partisan militia in SC in the Revolution and the VietCong/NVA in Vietnam.
In any case, it is useful, when looking at all the jungle footage on display in Burns documentary, to consider the situation of British Troops and their commanders as they wandered the swamps of the SC low country looking for fighters such as General Marion. This was alien land.
Whatever resonances you find to other struggles in American history, I hope you’ll watch this new saga of Vietnam.