Ken Burns’ New Documentary and the Old Mistake of Vietnam

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Communists won the war, and its aftermath extracted a big price from America.

The Vietnam War, the ambitious, 10-part documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick recently aired on PBS, is either art as politics or politics as art, I’m not sure. Anyway, its art is a bit tired and its politics is decidedly tepid.

I use “politics” instead of “history” because, four decades after its end, the Vietnam War remains fresh enough in the memory of powerful people that it still infuses American policy — not to mention culture. If The Vietnam War is history, from an historiographic standpoint, it’s somewhat suspect.

A storyteller of estimable talent, Burns has taken on lots of sweeping subjects: the Civil War, Jack Johnson, jazz, the home front of the Second World War, baseball, the Roosevelts, the Kennedys. His many virtues include recognizing the centrality of race in American society. The Vietnam War is a bit less focused on the race question than, say, Baseball, but it does give a nod to the stereotyping of the people that Americans made their enemies, and to the eventual, partial fusion of America’s civil rights and antiwar movements. Novick, a fine interviewer and researcher, has been Burns’ partner in earlier enterprises, but has somehow failed to achieve Burns’ celebrity.

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Together, they have amassed quite an impressive body of work, and, to be honest, I feel a bit awkward, not to say presumptuous, in taking issue with much of it. Still, the two complaints articulated in the first paragraph here won’t quite leave me alone. The art first.

The style of Burns’ and Novick’s work is familiar, and, no doubt, comfortable for a large audience. It is so familiar that filmmakers now commonly use the term “the Ken Burns Effect” to describe their pan-and-zoom technique. It’s a monument to skill and creativity, but, along with the rest of his style, it can become old hat. How to do it better? I don’t know, but someone will find the next effect, the next way to tell a story on film or videotape, and it will be something of a relief.

The series has its sparkling moments, including its magnificent concluding episode, which leaves the viewer with the unsatisfying, vaguely hopeful attitude of a largely reconciled pair of peoples. The whole thing, appropriately, was an unspeakable horror set to the howls of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, and finally the sweet strains of Paul Simon and Paul McCartney,

Still — the politics here. I take issue with the evenhanded treatment of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy — the men who took America into the swamp of Vietnam. Burns and Novick treat their adventurism as understandable in the context of their times. Understandable, however, need not mean forgivable.

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The first American death in the war over Ho Chi Minh’s country occurred in 1945, when A. Peter Dewey, a lieutenant colonel mistaken for a French officer, was killed by Viet Minh forces. Dewey had already decided, and recommended to the Pentagon, that the US “clear out of Southeast Asia.” Over a series of administrations, of course, the US did not clear out. Instead, we propped up a losing war by the French to retain their colony — that’s right, colony — before sending troops in numbers that eventually approached half a million.

The geopolitical question is surely far enough in the past, and there is surely enough evidence, to make a clear and unequivocal judgment: messing around in Vietnam was stupid, hopeless and murderous. Evenhandedness is one thing, but accurately reflecting a clear judgment of history is quite another, and it is the responsibility of those who tell the story to render such a judgment without apology.

The Vietnam War recognizes that Ho admired the US up until the time that we supported the hated French occupation of his country. He tried to enlist America’s support as early as 1919, during the Versailles peace conference ending World War I, but President Woodrow Wilson wouldn’t see him. He became a communist. Even then, he expected support from the US because he was trying to effect a revolution modeled after the American one. He wanted Vietnam to throw off the imperial shackles and exercise its right to self-determination. He had every right and reason to expect American support.

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He was wrong, and he and his country paid the steepest kind of price for his mistake. He was dealing with people who, through many years and many presidents, believed in self-determination for other countries only so long as they agreed with the determination. That awful hypocrisy did not preclude Ho’s revolution. The communists won the war, and its aftermath extracted a big price — not from Vietnam, ultimately, but from America.

You have to be as old as I am, 65, to recall the anguished choices young American men were forced to make because of the Vietnam War. The divisions caused by that anguish, traceable to the lies of Johnson and Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and many others, have never been resolved. This is not a matter of my own judgment of history or politics. This is a tragic fact.