Twenty-seven years ago, Ken Burns mesmerized American audiences with The Civil War, an 11-hour documentary that took five years to produce. Forty million Americans watched the initial airing, and many more watched reruns or read the companion book. The series rekindled popular interest in the Civil War, stimulating a flood of books and battle reenactments that continues to this day.
Burns and co-director Lynn Novick spent ten years and $30 million producing The Vietnam War, an 18-hour, ten-episode production. Anyone tuning in to media coverage or attending one of the public panels featuring Burns and Novick is likely to conclude that the new documentary has equaled The Civil War in historical and artistic virtuosity. But if one listens to American or South Vietnamese veterans of the conflict—more easily heard today, thanks to the Internet—the verdicts are less complimentary.
During the months-long publicity blitz preceding the documentary’s release, Burns and Novick vowed that The Vietnam War would not malign American veterans of Vietnam or blame them for the war, as had happened so often in the past. Instead, the film would portray veterans as patriotic Americans who answered their nation’s call to duty. The documentary would support the troops, without necessarily supporting the war. As for the war itself, the production would not promote a particular viewpoint. “We don’t have an agenda,” Burns told the media. “We’re just umpires calling balls and strikes.” So why aren’t veterans as enthused about The Vietnam War as they should be?
The foremost reason is that Burns and Novick are not actually impartial referees, but instead use the documentary to promote an agenda, in ways glaringly obvious to veterans though not readily apparent to those too young to have lived through the war. Burns and Novick wish to show that America fought a war that was unnecessary and unwinnable, and that it did so out of national hubris.
With the consistency of a jackhammer, the documentary highlights the events most conducive to a negative interpretation of American involvement, while ignoring those supporting more positive interpretations. During 1962 and 1963, for instance, the Vietnamese Communists lost nearly every battle, yet the only battle from this period that Burns and Novick cover is the Communist victory at Ap Bac. Compounding the distortion, the documentary characterizes Ap Bac as historically representative.
During 1966 and 1967, American forces inflicted hundreds of lopsided defeats on the North Vietnamese, but the six battles that Burns and Novick feature in the episodes devoted to those years belong to a small minority of engagements where both the American and North Vietnamese forces suffered heavy losses. In the battles that it covers, the documentary takes little note of the heroism of American veterans, aside from a few fleeting references. Nothing is said of the 259 Americans who won the Congressional Medal of Honor, or the tens of thousands who won other combat awards, or the many more whose valor was recognized only by their comrades.
It’s as if a football team won 150 games, tied 10, and lost 2 over seven seasons, but its video chronicler focused only on the ties and losses. The players on that team would hardly be expected to view that videographer as their supporter, no matter how much he professed to be one, and no matter how often he claimed to have no agenda.
U.S. Army and Marine Corps officers generally committed more errors in the battles where the Americans sustained the most casualties; Burns and Novick consistently emphasize these errors as evidence that American military leaders were inept. John Del Vecchio, one of the finest novelists of the Vietnam War, blasted Burns and Novick for vilifying American officers in his online rebuttal of the documentary. “I wish here to openly thank leaders and commanders of 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) units from platoons to brigades for their leadership which was so vastly superior to what I’ve seen portrayed by Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick,” Del Vecchio wrote. “Surely I was blessed to soldier under such NCOs and officers.”
Burns and Novick restricted their on-camera interviews to individuals who participated in the war, leaving out historians, aside from those who were also veterans. The first-person perspectives are highly valuable, but sole reliance upon them is problematic when it comes to larger issues of military strategy and politics. Most of the senior military and political leaders are now dead, and thus unable to respond to criticisms from the narrator, or from people who observed the war on the ground—where they could see the trees but not necessarily the forest.
Among the disgruntled veterans featured so prominently by Burns and Novick, a favorite complaint is the fighting of battles for terrain that gets abandoned after the Americans gain control of it. The veteran of a fierce hill fight says, “To take tops of mountains in the triple canopy jungle along the Cambodian-Laotian border accomplished nothing of any importance.” Fighting for remote mountains made sense, though, if one took into account the constraints that U.S. political leadership imposed upon the war. President Lyndon Johnson prohibited his generals from conducting ground operations in Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam, based primarily on fears of Chinese intervention in the conflict. Given this prohibition, the U.S. had to choose between fighting for the remote hills or waiting for the North Vietnamese to move into the populous regions closer to the coast. Experience showed that when the North Vietnamese came near the population, the presence of civilians greatly impeded the use of American air power and artillery, to such an extent that defeating the North Vietnamese was at least as costly as defeating them in remote areas.
The fears that drove Johnson to confine the ground war to South Vietnam proved to be misplaced, according to what we have since learned about Chinese foreign policy and North Vietnamese strategy. The Chinese, it turns out, were not willing to intervene in North Vietnam or Laos, as they had done in North Korea in 1950. General Vo Nguyen Giap reportedly said that if the United States had conducted operations in Laos and North Vietnam, it could have stymied Hanoi’s war effort with 250,000 troops—less than half of what the United States ultimately deployed. It’s one of several instances where poor decisions by U.S. political leaders squandered opportunities to preserve South Vietnam at an acceptable cost. Other errors include the overthrow of Diem in 1963 and the breaking of promises to support and protect South Vietnam after 1972. The war’s outcome was not the inevitable result of superior North Vietnamese dedication or American arrogance, as Burns and Novick would have us believe, but of errant U.S. strategic choices—and, in the last case, the antiwar sentiments of American members of Congress.
Veterans also object to the production’s favorable depiction of antiwar activists. Burns and Novick lead the audience to believe that the men who stayed home and protested against the war were as well-intentioned as those who served in Vietnam, and were actually supporting the better cause. Their opposition is presented as principled revulsion at the war, untainted by selfish desires to avoid the dangers of military service. Veteran Charles Krohn, writing about the ninth episode as a guest contributor on Tom Ricks’s Best Defense blog, lamented that the episode “favors those who opposed the war more than those who fought it. Soldiers’ sacrifices seem trivialized, compared to the energy and idealism of the demonstrators.”
Burns and Novick give inordinate weight to the words of antiwar veterans, with at least one-third of those appearing onscreen having expressed antiwar views or supported antiwar causes prior to filming. Few of the series’ other veterans express support for the war—at least not in the interview segments that were aired—even though supporters far outnumber opponents among the general population of Vietnam veterans. This distortion rankled the veterans whom reporter Tatiana Sanchez interviewed for a Mercury News article. “A lot of us have a tremendous sense of pride for what we attempted to do and defend,” said veteran Jim Barker. On the New York Sun website, veteran and author Phil Jennings berates Burns for failing to include the huge numbers of veterans who “wholly supported the war, [were] proud to have appeared in arms, and sickened by the United States’ abandonment of its freedom-seeking ally.”
Many of the antiwar interviewees express disillusionment not only with the American cause in Vietnam but also with the United States more generally. Several state that the Vietnam War convinced them that the concept of American exceptionalism was a fallacy. This theme is a particularly sore point among veterans who believe that they fought in a worthy war for a worthy country. During a panel discussion on the PBS series at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Vietnam veteran and historian Lewis Sorley said that Burns was “profoundly wrong” for “referring disparagingly to what he called Americans’ ‘puffed-up sense of exceptionalism.’” Sorely added, “Clearly, Burns does not much like America.”
Though Burns and Novick resisted putting historians on screen, they did make use of an historical advisory panel. Consisting almost entirely of scholars on the left, the advisory panel makes its influence felt throughout the production, particularly in those parts read by narrator Peter Coyote (himself an antiwar activist). Reviewers for NPR, NBC, and the Washington Post who lavished praise on Burns and Novick for their evenhandedness ignored the panel’s lack of balance; one suspects that they would have taken a different view of a supposedly neutral 18-hour documentary on abortion that relied almost entirely on historians who considered abortion morally repugnant.
One veteran on the advisory panel, James Willbanks, submitted his resignation to Burns several years ago after seeing a preliminary version of the script that merely rehashed the antiwar movement’s narrative. Promising to take his concerns into account, Burns convinced Willbanks to stay on. To his credit, Burns included intermittent statements from Willbanks that provide valuable correctives to the production’s content and tone. Willbanks is seen disputing the notion that the “Tiger Force” atrocities were in any way representative of the conduct of U.S. forces in Vietnam. In the episode covering the 1972 Easter Offensive, Willbanks says that the South Vietnamese ground forces, not just U.S. air power, were essential to the defeat of the North Vietnamese. Unfortunately, these momentary expressions of views prevalent in the veteran community are overwhelmed by countervailing testimony and imagery.
The filmmakers’ bias is most evident in what is omitted. The documentary stresses the Communists’ success in marshalling Vietnamese civilians to move supplies and equipment during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 but makes no mention of the massive logistical support provided by the Chinese, including 1,000 trucks and tens of thousands of troops. This omission fools viewers into believing that the Vietnamese Communists were self-reliant, in contrast with the anti-Communists, who are depicted as puppets and dependents of the United States.
Narrator Coyote tells us that an international consensus held that Ho Chi Minh would have won a national election had it been held in 1956, as called for in the 1954 Geneva Accords. South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem’s refusal to participate in such elections, therefore, appears to have been an abrogation of the will of the Vietnamese people. What goes unsaid is that most South Vietnamese and American observers believed that Ho would have intimidated the North Vietnamese population into voting for him, which would have guaranteed his victory because the North was more populous than the South. In a subsequent segment, Burns and Novick criticize the Diem government for manipulating elections and winning 98 percent of the vote, but they’re silent on the North’s equally flagrant election-rigging.
The documentary accuses Diem of sending troops to round up Buddhists at their pagodas in August 1963, after he had promised to avoid repressive measures. His heavy-handed duplicity, it seems, precipitated the military coup that took his life. What’s missing here is the crucial fact that Diem authorized these raids at the urging of the same generals who later overthrew him. The generals turned against Diem because Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and an American press corps led by David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan badly misread the situation and promoted a coup. The film also neglects to mention that the Buddhist protests persisted long after Diem’s death, convincing even their initial American supporters that the militant Buddhists were Communist pawns, rather than selfless champions of religious liberty, as American reporters originally portrayed them.
The episode on 1966 includes clips of a congressional hearing in which diplomat George Kennan, founder of the American containment strategy, expresses doubt about the war’s value in containing Communism. “We would do better,” Kennan says, “if we really would show ourselves a little more relaxed and less terrified of what happens in certain of the smaller countries of Asia and Africa, and not jump around like an elephant frightened by a mouse every time these things occur.” Kennan, the film implies, viewed the war as hopeless, and saw withdrawal as the only viable choice. Most of the film’s heroes, in fact, allegedly recognized early on that the American effort was doomed, reinforcing the aura of inevitability that hangs over the production.
In truth, Kennan, like many others, was not adamantly opposed to the war, nor so confident of its outcome. In sections of his testimony that the film does not show, senators press Kennan to explain how the United States could extricate itself from Vietnam without doing great damage to American interests. Kennan acknowledges that he did not favor immediate withdrawal because it could facilitate Communist expansionism in neighboring countries and endanger world peace. He advocates a negotiated settlement that would allow the U.S. to withdraw without giving the appearance of selling out an ally.
In the most telling exchange, Democratic senator Frank Lausche of Ohio confronts Kennan on the question of how negotiations would produce the desired outcome. “Have not the U.S. government and the people of the United States,” asks Lausche, “probed every avenue through which there could be discussion toward reaching a settlement, and has there not been constant rebuttal of those efforts by China and by Hanoi?”
Kennan: “It is correct that we have gotten nowhere.”
When Lausche asks what the Johnson administration should do, Kennan says, “I would propose that we limit our aims and our military commitment in this area, that we decide what we can safely hold in that region with due regard to the security of our forces, that we dig in and wait and see whether possibilities for a solution do not open up.”
“There are many, many people who believe that this is exactly what our nation is trying to do,” Lausche responds.
Burns and Novick further mislead through selective use of tape recordings of the Nixon administration. Those who hear only the excerpts presented here will conclude that, for reasons of political self-interest, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were planning to stand by the South Vietnamese until the 1972 election and then cut them loose soon thereafter. Historian Luke Nichter, a leading authority on the Nixon tapes, has faulted Burns and Novick for excerpting “carefully chosen segments of the tapes to fit a preconceived notion, or a larger point sometimes taken out of context, while not giving evidence to the contrary a similar degree of attention.” As Nichter notes, Nixon often expressed multiple positions as he pondered an issue, and many of his words and deeds on the issue of South Vietnam suggested a commitment to the long-term survival of the Saigon government.
The documentary devotes five minutes to the story of the Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc, photographed moments after an errant South Vietnamese napalm strike burned her skin during the 1972 Easter Offensive—one of the war’s iconic images. At the end of the segment, Coyote says that Kim Phuc “eventually left Vietnam and settled outside Toronto.” He does not mention that she fled Vietnam, seeking and obtaining asylum from its repressive Communist regime. A larger historical transgression is the film’s omission of the deliberate killing of civilians by the North Vietnamese during the same offensive. As South Vietnamese civilians fled south from Quang Tri for fear of a massacre like that inflicted by the Communists at Hue in 1968, North Vietnamese troops opened artillery fire on their slow-moving columns. Thousands of civilians were killed or wounded in these attacks. Likewise absent is any mention of the South Vietnamese civilians killed during the 1975 offensive, the estimated 65,000 South Vietnamese killed shortly after the war ended, and the tens of thousands who died in reeducation camps.
Burns and Novick repeatedly depict the South Vietnamese military and government as less committed to their cause than their North Vietnamese counterparts. Several interviewees invoke this alleged inferiority to argue that “we supported the wrong side,” evidently without concern that the other side was fighting for the pernicious ideology of Communism. As history has demonstrated repeatedly, commitment to a cause alone does not confer virtue. The Germans were more dedicated than the Poles in 1939 and the French in 1940, but no American would say that the United States should have sided with Nazi Germany.
At one point, Coyote notes that 250,000 South Vietnamese troops were killed in the war, but we’re never told why so many South Vietnamese were willing to die for a government as corrupt and unpopular as the documentary suggests. Whereas Burns and Novick explore the ideology of Ho Chi Minh at length, they ignore the nationalism and anti-Communism that motivated so many of South Vietnam’s leaders to fight to the death for their government. This disinterest in the South Vietnamese cause has galled South Vietnamese veterans as well as the Americans who fought alongside them.
“We, Vietnamese, have a crystal clear understanding of the reasons why we fought,” Nguyen van Thai and Nguyen Phuc Lien wrote in a blistering critique of the PBS series. “We fought because we understood the cruelty and dictatorship of the communists. We fought because we did not wish the communists to impose a barbarous and inhuman regime upon us. More than 1,000,000 people from North Vietnam fled their native land and emigrated to the South in 1954 in order to escape totalitarianism, which is ample evidence for this point. The second exodus of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s also corroborated this fact.”
The series disregards the Viet Cong’s massive loss of support in the war’s later years. In 1967, Communist recruitment of South Vietnamese youth began plummeting, and it never recovered. As the war turned increasingly against Hanoi, an estimated 200,000 of those supposedly zealous Communist troops defected to South Vietnam.
While no history of the Vietnam War can fully satisfy everyone, Burns and Novick could have achieved something close to the impartial account they promise, presenting facts and stories within their proper context and including contrasting examples that support the competing schools of thought on the war. They could have refrained from taking sides on controversies like the validity of the domino theory, the moral rectitude of the South Vietnamese government, and the merits of American exceptionalism. They could have sought advice from more than a handful of people who did not share their contempt for the war.
For evidence of what might have been, one need look no further than the Vietnam War exhibit that opened earlier this month at the New York Historical Society. As someone who served on the exhibit’s advisory panel, alongside many people with diametrically opposed viewpoints, I can attest that great effort went into ensuring the exhibit’s evenhandedness. Those dissatisfied with the polemical nature of the PBS series will find this treatment a refreshing and fair-minded alternative.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images