Ken Burns’ ‘Vietnam War’ aims to show both sides of the conflict

Ken Burns has gone to war again. The filmmaker, so well known for his documentaries on baseball, jazz, prohibition, the national parks and the dust bowl, has already provided definitive films on the Civil War and World War II. But on Sept. 17 he launches his most controversial documentary yet, “The Vietnam War.” 

His aim, he says, was to tell the story from both sides of the conflict and in human terms. “It’s enough to spend 10 years just trying to wrestle this story to the ground, and we felt that it was hugely important because the story is rarely told from more than one perspective,” he says.

“Americans like to talk about this seminal event. And we believe that it’s the most important event in United States history since the Second World War. We tend to talk only about ourselves. And the triangulation that we thought we could achieve by having these other voices and other perspectives would lend credence to the idea that there isn’t a SINGLE truth in the war,” he says in a press gathering here.

“In fact, there’s many truths that can coexist, and that might help to take the fuel rods out of the division and polarization that was born in Vietnam that continues to this moment.”

The 10-episode, 18-hour series airs on PBS and includes rare and remastered archival footage, historic news broadcasts, home movies, and even rare audio recordings from inside the White House. It features music from the most famous artists of the era as well as original tunes from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and works of the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma and his mournful cello.

Burns and co-director Lynn Novick, spoke with thousands of witnesses in researching the project, and 79 are featured in the series.

There were also prominent people who they did not interview. “One of the first things we did is we went to John McCain and John Kerry and said, ‘We need your help. We’re going to do this, but we’re not going to interview you,” says Burns. “You will be in it in your archival selves, but you’re alive today. And we don’t want you in any way sort of spinning or anything like that.’ We didn’t quite put it that way,” he smiles.

“We weren’t going to talk to Dr. Kissinger or Jane Fonda or a number of other people.”

One of those directly involved in the conflict was retired Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak, who says he knew the minute he landed in Vietnam that we could not win the war.

“It was obvious to me that this was a losing effort. The Saigon regime was corrupt. Everybody knew it. We knew it. They knew it. They were not popular in their own country, and I concluded that this just wasn’t going to work because the policy foundations weren’t set properly to enable us to win,” he says.

“What did the war look like from the other guy’s point of view? That’s something I don’t think civilians worry about much, but professionals do.

“What were the policy foundations of North Vietnamese involvement? They were, first of all, to throw off the yoke of imperial power in their neighborhood. Not just the French, but the Japanese before them, and then the French before the Japanese and so on, Chinese, going back in history.

“We understand that, don’t we? We had a Revolutionary War of our own about throwing off imperial power and getting our own national independence. So that’s a pretty good, solid policy foundation to build a war on — if you’ve got an objective like that,” he says.

The country had also been divided by an earlier Geneva Accord, says McPeak, and many Vietnamese longed to unify the country. “And that was (perpetuated) in Hanoi. Well, do we understand that policy objective? We had a Civil War about that issue, that same issue here in this country,” he says.

“And in the north, you had … the person of Ho Chi Minh, a symbol that summarized all that into an iconic national figure. … So I think that if you try to look at this problem from the other guy’s point of view, you’ll see what was wrong with our intervention there. It was a losing cause from the beginning, and we put 58,000 names on a wall in Washington for no good reason.”

 

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