Will Ken Burns Tell the Truth About Vietnam in His New Documentary?

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Next week, PBS will air "The Vietnam War," an 18-hour documentary in ten episodes, produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

People could be forgiven for wanting to avoid the series. Burns is a hugely gifted filmmaker whose documentary, "The Civil War," is a masterpiece. But he’s also a virtue-signaling liberal who loves to scratch the scabs of America’s past, especially regarding questions of race. Will "The Vietnam War" be his latest effort to soak in the waters of anti-American pseudo-virtue? 

That would be a missed opportunity to document the brutal reality of communism in the twentieth century, which was the real cause of the war. "So much of what we think about Vietnam is wrong," Burns told the Today Show August 14.

At the National Press Club in Washington earlier this month, Burns said, “We have said: ‘We don’t want to talk about it. We’re not gonna teach it, we think it’s about this, or my own personal politics at this moment has actually determined what I should say about Vietnam regardless of what I felt when it was taking place.’ We have this dissonance going on.” Burns added, “We hope that the film will contribute in some way, shape or form to more courageous conversations about what took place, because let us also be very clear that the divisions that we face today, the lack of civil discourse, the inability to talk with each other but only at each other, had their seeds planted in the Vietnam war, so if we understand it then we also understand our present moment.”

If "The Vietnam War" is to foster genuine dialogue, however, it has to tell the full truth about the war. The media have already told part of the truth—that Vietnam was mostly not winnable, due to difficult terrain and the fact that we waged the war in a country, Vietnam, whose people did not want us there. And of course, there was rampant skepticism about the war back home. Those parts of the story of Vietnam are well known.

Yet there are other truths about the war that haven’t been given an honest treatment. One that is rarely discussed: In the first three years of the communist “peace,” more people were killed in Indochina than had been killed in the thirteen years of the war. This fact is rarely mentioned when the media discusses Vietnam.

As well, many antiwar protesters were not fighting for peace so much as they were for communism, and their voices were part of the strategy North Vietnam used to win the war. In a 1995 interview published in the Wall Street Journal, North Vietnam General Bui Tin, who received the unconditional surrender of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975, revealed that the left and its “anti-war” movement caused America to lose by sapping its will to fight. 

Talking to Stephen Young, a Minnesota attorney and human rights activist who interviewed him in Hanoi, Bui Tin, who after the war became the editor of the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of communist Vietnam, quoted Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh: “We don’t need to win military victories; we only need to hit them until they give up and get out.” Young asked if the anti-war movement was important to Hanoi’s victory. General Bui responded, “It was essential to our strategy. Support for the war from our rear was completely secure while the American rear was vulnerable. Every day our leadership would listen to world news over the radio at 9 a.m. to follow the growth of the American anti-war movement. Visits to Hanoi by people like Jane Fonda and former Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark and ministers gave us confidence that we should hold on in the face of battlefield reverses.”

Whether or not this crucial interview will appear in Burns’ "The Vietnam War" series will say much about Burns’ honesty. But there is some cause for optimism: Burns clearly gives veterans of Vietnam the respect they deserve. Two of the interviews in "The Vietnam War" are with veterans John Musgrave and Roger Harris. “When we came home, we were ostracized, called baby-killers,” Harris recently told Vanity Fair “We were never called heroes. And so Ken and Lynn are telling the story, and maybe some folks will be a little more sensitive in understanding what we experienced.” As Vanity Fair notes, “The ‘baby-killer’ slur—the way anti-war protesters lumped in all U.S. servicemen with the small number who perpetrated such atrocities as the My Lai massacre of 1968—is an ongoing source of hurt for veterans.” 

As one veteran featured in the film observed, “With knowledge comes healing.” If Ken Burns has chosen to tell the full story of Vietnam in his new documentary, not merely the politically expedient one, it just might.

(Note: a version of this piece also appeared in Acculturated)

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