Burns and Novick on Vietnam: A Neutral Film, or a Rifle Butt to the Heart?

When it comes to the Vietnam War, we face almost the same situation that we do with physics: there’s really no “grand unified theory” among either scholars or the public. The staggering complexity of that conflict resists any conclusive definition of what, precisely, it was about.

One can command a dizzying array of facts about it, or fervently believe a variety of historical “truths,” yet remain surprisingly uninformed. Perhaps the sheer scope and breadth of the Vietnam War prevents easy explanation, as colonialism, nationalism, ideology, and civil war all intertwined to create a historical facsimile of the Gordian Knot. Worse, possessing intimate knowledge of the war often leads to disdain for other viewpoints, a rejection of even the slightest opening to contrary perspectives. Such divides long ago hardened into competing views, with each side unfortunately seeing its perspective as canon and the others as heretical.

The new documentary on the war by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick hoped to bridge the political divide and elicit healing among the factions. According to Burns, the film sought neutrality, the role of “only call[ing] balls and strikes.” Perhaps seeking middle ground was the best approach. Surely most people watching, especially those without specialized knowledge of the war, or who did not live through those times, will view the series as magisterial. I suspect, however, that, as was the case with the PBS effort from 1983, Vietnam: A Television History, those invested in a particular political viewpoint were not pleased with the current show, whose final episode aired on September 28.

Left and the Right alike seek vindication, instead of being forced to accept “alternative facts.” Taking in several hundred news articles and commentaries about the film, I find my misgivings confirmed. Reading these reviews reminds me of the verse from Revelations: “Because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

As Burns and Novick sought fairness, it behooves us, too, to “call balls and strikes” regarding their work, the fruit of 10 years of effort. In my view, the filmmakers are to be commended for creating an amazing movie, one that covers the war’s span. Most important, they sought out numerous perspectives, from young American men who answered their country’s call, to others who became draft-resisters, to insightful interviews with Vietnamese from both sides of the conflict. Yet even with an exhausting 18 hours, in many ways it is a lengthy redundancy, repeating old stories and unchallenging surface realities. The war was never black and white, but shades of grey reflecting multiple variations of “truth.”

The Vietnam War mainly focuses on the American experience, portraying how the United States entered the war, its effect on both the servicemen and their suffering families, and its influence upon American society and government. The series also represents those who resisted the war, and while it appears to take umbrage at some antiwar protests, one senses an understated yet pervasive antiwar sentiment. In many clips, one sees protesters waving Viet Cong flags, yet the commentator never remarks on this obvious absurdity.

Most U.S. veterans shown, perhaps because their involvement spanned a substantial portion of the war, seem chosen solely to provide authentic voices from those who became opposed to the conflict. Rarely do we see American veterans who were proud of their service and did not believe the war was a mistake. It seems disingenuous to portray one Marine through a major part of the series, only to learn near the end that he eventually joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Moreover, while it is accurate to highlight flawed American battle tactics, such as taking a hill at great cost only to retreat shortly thereafter, the show provides no corresponding view of the many successful battles that drove off enemy units. The negative was accentuated, mainly to provide the unspoken thesis of the war as a costly mistake.

In support of that implicit narrative, White House tapes from the Johnson and Nixon eras are cherry-picked. If in multiple instances both Presidents were taped clearly outlining their policies to help the South Vietnamese, but on occasion lapsed into doubt, and only the doubts are broadcast, what does that say about the motivations of the filmmakers? I had occasion to ask Henry Kissinger specifically about his taped comment heard in the film, that “No one will care about Vietnam in a year.” He observed that U.S. officials and policymakers are also human, subject to the same doubts and fatigues as others, and hence liable to express frustration at an intractable problem. Yet in isolation it is portrayed as a cynical comment revealing Kissinger and Nixon’s true feelings, rather than one remark among many.

Commendably, the series was translated into Vietnamese and is being shown on line in that country. The voices from the communist side were often measured, and occasionally willing (if somewhat grudgingly) to admit past mistakes. However, it required a young journalist named Huy Duc to speak more forthrightly than the others. Duc’s two books criticized the government of Vietnam without raising a backlash, but we shall see if that remains the case after this series. So far, Hanoi’s response has been muted, with only the foreign ministry making a bland statement that they hoped the filmmakers would understand that the war was a “righteous revolution that mobilized the entire nation, and was supported wholeheartedly by friends and people worldwide.”[1]

The film’s most egregious flaw is the unflattering view of the Nationalists, or South Vietnamese, who are portrayed almost continually as corrupt, authoritarian, and cowardly. These have become code words, meant to delegitimize a country and her people, making them not worth fighting or dying for. South Vietnam certainly had those elements, but also many positive accomplishments that were never mentioned. Its government was indeed authoritarian and plagued by corruption but the country was at the same time relatively free and struggling to become a democracy, all the while fighting an implacable enemy that used terrorism to achieve its aims.

It is a clever editorial trick to use South Vietnamese to criticize their own former government. This, however, is no journalistic coup, as the South Vietnamese even today remain riven by factions and incessant back-biting. If the intent were to be neutral, why no corresponding voice discussing Saigon’s many accomplishments, like Land Reform, or that thousands of enemy soldiers left their own ranks to join the South Vietnamese under a program known as Chieu Hoi?

For example, we are told that Communist Party Secretary Le Duan launched the 1968 Tet offensive because he believed the South Vietnamese military would quickly collapse, and the South Vietnamese people would rise up and overthrow their government. We are provided numerous interviews with communist soldiers and cadre who fought during the battle and admitted that this did not occur. Yet only at the end does the commentator acknowledge that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam fought well, and that the civilians did not rise (although he claims they simply hid in their houses). Such begrudging afterthoughts are, as the daughter of a South Vietnamese general remarked, “like a rifle butt to the heart.”

Ultimately, I believe that, despite a valiant effort, this was at best an imperfect effort to tell an extraordinarily complex story. At worst, it has cemented, perhaps forever, the old stereotypes—the Americans as bumbling interlopers layering mistakes upon bad judgment and governmental deceit; the communists as ardent nationalists simply trying to unify their country; the people in the South as corrupt incompetents not worth the lives of our GIs. The film serves as a stark reminder that, “In war truth is the first casualty.”

[1]“‘The Vietnam War’ Draws Muted Official Response in Hanoi,” Asia News Monitor [Bangkok], September 25, 2017.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on October 06, 2017 at 09:13:21 am

Great line: “Perhaps the sheer scope and breadth of the Vietnam War prevents easy explanation, as colonialism, nationalism, ideology, and civil war all intertwined to create a historical facsimile of the Gordian Knot.”

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Mark Pulliam
on October 06, 2017 at 11:55:34 am

Yes Burns created a ham sandwich as you outlined. He is a masterful propagandist. Right from his intro that this was a wrong war you knew that what was to follow was the ham sandwich which you summarized correctly.
The question of if this was a wrong war is a complex issue.
American foreign policy after 1947 was the adoption of the "Truman Doctrine" . It was what we call the cold war, the us policy to contain communism. The vietnam war was the result of this doctrine and the single area where most of the casualties of that doctrine were manifested. Actually the final results of the "Truman Doctrine " was Reagan's policy of recreating ( actually it always was)America as the strongest military power in the world. Stupid Russia then started (or really never finished ) upped their military budget. But that was too high a percentage of their GDP causing neglect of consumerism and civilian unrest in Russia. That produced a complete defeat of communism . So the Truman Doctrine in the long run was successful. Since we were and still are the richest nation ever known to mankind our ability to have the strongest military in the world without it being a burden on our GDP. At the height of the vietnam war the defense budget was less than 10% of our GDP and has historically been ~ 5 % of the GDP.
Burns never addresses in depth the Truman Doctrine but just tries to give backup to his original assumption that it was a wrong war by the ham sandwich you pointed out.
Actually it has been well documented the our military conducted the war quite well and basically not much different that any past wars. Actually we never lost a set-piece battle in the vietnam war!
Because of men and like you we were victorious against communism and still doing quite well.
Mr Vieth : job well done from the bottom of my heart thank you for your service to this country.

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on October 06, 2017 at 15:19:38 pm

In my opinion great public value is to be derived from several of the series key episodes. For example Episodes one and two presented the historical background of French colonization of Indochina, which few Americans are aware of. Then, covering the period from roughly 1950-1965, those episodes discussed other matters of which Americans are mostly ignorant: 1) the foundational influence of Communist ideology in the Vietnamese war of liberation against the French and the significant military in​fluence of the Soviets and Red China in that war and 2) the overriding influence of inflexible Cold War ideology and erroneous anti-Communist "domino theory" on the United States' over-reaction (from Truman in 1950 to LBJ in 1965) to Vietnam's communist-inspired/assisted-but-nevertheless-nationalist "war of liberation," and 3) the enormous/continuous and decisive Russian and Chinese military interference in that war and thereafter against the U.S.

Several episodes are also to be commended for portraying correctly: 1) that JFK had stood by while a coup d' etat  overthrew the corrupt Diem brothers ruling South Vietnam (which led to endless political chaos and even further weakened the South Vietnam in its struggle) 2) that JFK had personally given a green light to that Diem coup (demonstrating, in effect, that by 1963, not 1965 under LBJ, the US under JFK was running both the POLITICS of South Vietnam AND the WAR against North Vietnam, 3) that the US military under JFK were engaged in direct combat operations, 4) that JFK's Administration lied to the American public about #'s 1, 2& 3 supra AND about the large number of US troops involved in 1963 (over 16,000,) and 4) that JFK was a real hard-liner on winning the battle of Vietnam because he really believed it was a serious Cold War test. (It appears that Burns has given a PR blow to the head to the decades-long effort of the Democrat Party to keep "Camelot" mythology alive and pin the Vietnam War on mean old LBJ and tricky old Nixon.) 5) the disastrous political misreading/overestimation by the United States under JFK and LBJ of Vietnam's (trivial) Cold War significance and the gross military over-reaction of both Presidents under SecDef Robert MacNamara resulting from that miscalculation, 6) the gross mismanagement of the war by US political and military leaders (until Creighton Abrams) who bungled their misguided efforts as they steadily expanded and intensified them, 7) the ever-growing domestic turmoil which that awful leadership and those misguided forces generated within the US from 1965-1968; and 8) what smart people have known about LBJ since he first came onto the national political scene: a) LBJ was a lying poltroon skilled in the use of deceit to manipulate Congress and public opinion, that LBJ lied about the facts that led Congress to adopt the Gulf of Tonkin resolution granting him carte blanche war-making authority; b) LBJ lied to the public (and the Congress?) about his continuous, major increases in the number of combat troops and the true combat purpose of those troops; c) LBJ lied to the public (and the Congress?) about the nature and purpose of his ever-expanding air war in 1964-65 against North Vietnam (calling each bombing attack "retaliatory;") and d) LBJ lied to the public (as did SecDef MacNamara) when he knew the war was unwinnable yet continued to expand US military efforts and to increase casualty tolls (on all sides.)
Finally, Burns is to be commended for his outstanding discussions/portrayals of major military clashes between US and Communist forces from 1966 through 1968 (when Creighton Abrams assumed command) with US both inflicting and sustaining heavy losses pursuing the failed "crossover strategy." The "crossover strategy" was primarily to kill and wound the enemy is such great numbers that they would give up because they could not replace their lost manpower. Secondarily, the strategy was to bomb a) limited, specific North Vietnam military targets such as ammunition and fuel storage facilities and b) North Vietnam's troop reinforcement/ supply routes south through Laos and Cambodia ( the eponymous "Ho Chi Minh Trail") so as to "incentivize" North Vietnam into giving up its efforts to support and resupply Communist forces in South Vietnam.

Pursuit of that strategy had catastrophic costs to the US and South Vietnam. Short of using unrestricted bombing to destroy the population and infrastructure of North Vietnam, Westmoreland's "crossover" point was all-but- impossible militarily, given: a) the enormous population of available fighters in BOTH North AND South Vietnam who hated BOTH the corrupt South Vietnamese government AND its defenders, the American "invaders," b) the fact that Red China was also assisting North Vietnam by supplying enormous numbers of "defensive" troops in North Vietnam thereby freeing up North Vietnamese troops to go south and kill Americans and c) North Vietnam's virtually unlimited supply of fuel, truck transport, weapons, ammunition and food from China and the Soviet Union. In other words, Westmoreland's "crossover" point, the point of inflection at which the enemy would no longer be able to fight and would give up, was an unreachable military destination. Yet US political and military leaders in their hubris and with their self-delusion of omnipotence pursued it for 4 years.

Burns' Vietnam War series falsely portrayed Ho Chi Minh as a George Washington. He was more a Lenin than a liberationist. The series also failed to discuss the reasons for the reasons for the US's political and military failures, among which would be the serious moral and political deficiencies of the primary leaders of the disaster from 1963-68: LBJ, Robert McNamara and William Westmoreland (and their myriad underlings and advisers in the White House, DOD, JCS and State Department, many of whom were carry-overs from JFK's "best and brightest.") David Halberstam's classic 1972 book, "The Best and the Brightest," is a must read for its discussion of the crucial role played by JFK and his Ivy League minions in the origin of that catastrophe from 1961 until 1963, when LBJ took the wheel and drove the truck over the cliff toward which Kennedy had already pointed it. 

As to the failed military leadership Burns would have done well to discuss what has been written by a retired Army officer, West Point graduate, CIA officer, Johns Hopkins PhD and military historian named Lewis Sorley (who, sadly, was briefly on-camera only twice in the series.) Dr. Sorley wrote "A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam." Later,  Colonel Sorley wrote a biography of General Creighton Abrams who in 1968 succeeded Westmoreland as Commander of US Military in the Vietnam War, highly praising Abrams as a brilliant commander who turned around the dire military situation he inherited from Westmoreland by junking the "crossover strategy," revising strategy and tactics and improving command to the point that the US was actually winning militarily (but, more importantly, losing the political and cultural war at home.) That book is "Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Time." In 2011 Sorley wrote "Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam" in which he thoroughly condemns Westmoreland's leadership in the Vietnam War, damning his intelligence, integrity and competence.

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timothy l. harker
on October 06, 2017 at 16:33:08 pm

What can I say about this bit of drivel by ex-Captain Veith? That war defined my life from 1961 to 1973. I was there in an Army assault helicopter company between August 1967-August 1968. I was in the VVAW from May 1970 until Nixon's re-election in 1972. I had the opportunity to pick our platoon's houseboy out of our wire after his VC battalion tried and failed to over run our air strip during Tet. I spent a year going into and out of the same damn LZs. I immediately recognized the Marine riflemen and the Army crew chief.

Burns did an excellent and lawyerly job of presenting the facts. You can draw your own conclusions but Burns tracks my memory exactly. The government of the so called Republic of Vietnam (how can you call a nation a republic if foreign puppets are encouraged to substitute coups and non-binding plebiscites for elections?) was as corrupt as the day is long. They and the US deserved to lose and the fact that three consecutive US administrations were quite happy to get an average of 500 US conscripts killed a month to prop-up such a government was simply criminal. May JFK, LBJ and Nixon rot in hell for that.

Of course ex-Captain Veith probably imagines he could have turned the tide, or something, if only he had been there.

Our only real accomplishment was that we managed to put a stake in the heart of US militarism from 1973 until the moron GHW Bush pull the stake out and Clinton, Bush II, Obama and now Trump seem to been intent that the monster remain on the loose forever.

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on October 06, 2017 at 17:25:21 pm

"........and the US deserved to lose ........." Wow , you didn't say "we". Plus your spiel sounds as if it was written by a communist propagandist . BTW 91% of actual Vietnam War veterans and 90% of those who saw heavy combat are proud to have served their country.
66% of Vietnam vets say they would serve again if called upon.
Sounds like you are in the minority.
Were you honorably discharged?

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on October 06, 2017 at 17:39:24 pm

You had to be there; obviously you weren't.

I did love the Army I was in, it was the last army of citizen soldiers the US fielded, and we did the best job we could. But by 1969, most of us had come to sympathize with the conscripts in Red Army and Wehmarcht.

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on October 07, 2017 at 14:41:30 pm

[…] of this weekend, we do have George Veith’s useful Regulation & Liberty assessment (“in some ways [the documentary] is a prolonged redundancy, repeating outdated tales and […]

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Image of Notes on the Ken Burns model | CENSOREDWEB.COM
Notes on the Ken Burns model | CENSOREDWEB.COM
on October 07, 2017 at 22:25:27 pm

[…] of this weekend, we do have George Veith’s useful Legislation & Liberty evaluation (“in some ways [the documentary] is a prolonged redundancy, repeating previous tales and […]

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Image of Notes on the Ken Burns model | WARFAREWEB.COM
Notes on the Ken Burns model | WARFAREWEB.COM
on October 08, 2017 at 02:34:03 am

The South Vietnamese army collapsed within three weeks in March 1975 because corruption, poor leadership and abominable security allowed the North Vistnamese to steal Thieu's ever changing and inept battle plans and anticipate his every move. The DAO, CIA, the embassy political section and Ambassador Martin had no reliable intelligence on what Saigon's supply situation was because they had censored, sugarcoated and manufactured reporting to impress Congress to such an extent that there was no honest bottom line any more. Every estimate was based on self serving handouts from a South Vietnamese command shot through with enemy spies and propagandized by Ambassador Martin himself and his staff. DAO had no ability to double check vietnamese performance claims or reported supply shortages. Vietnamese field commanders often stockpiled available stores far from rapidly changing front lines for fear of losing them to the enemy or black marketeers. The army's final collapse was so sudden and chaotic that resuuplying ARVn in any manner became impossible.The official caterwauling about the need for additional aid enabled analysts from Saigon to Washington to abdicate responsibility to determine whether the South Vietnamese could have used such aid effectively. General Cao Van Vien told the truth belatedly after the war when I he wrote that it would have taken the South Vietnamese ten years to overcome self inflicted wounds. Veterans of CORDS voiced the same bleak conclusion in postwar surveys. Vietnamese fact finders, who had been sent incognito into the field to assess pacification towards the end of the war filed secret reports, only recently declassified, that were excessively bleak. Scholars who rely on reporting and books by DAO Intel and operations chief Col Le Gro will soon learn that he was deeply complicit in Martin's campaign to suppress accurate and honest reporting about our allies. His deputy for intelligence collection has written about this and will soon publish his revelations. My own boss CIA station chief Polgar believed that the corrosive effects of official corruption could be contained through police action and filtered the issue out of our intelligence. The entire US mission stumbled blind and deluded into the last years of the war and military apologists and fans of Kissinger have made a fetish of scapegoating Congress.

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Frank Snepp
on October 08, 2017 at 08:07:23 am

[…] of this weekend, we do have George Veith’s helpful Law & Liberty review (“in many ways [the documentary] is a lengthy redundancy, repeating old stories and […]

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Image of PowerLine ->   How Leftism Can Ruin a Once-Proud School District + Notes on the Ken Burns version – Hoax And Change
PowerLine -> How Leftism Can Ruin a Once-Proud School District + Notes on the Ken Burns version – Hoax And Change
on October 10, 2017 at 16:53:39 pm

Is this the same Frank Snepp who wrote Decent Interval? You have to keep your contractual promises . It helps build Ethos- the first brick of persuasive public rhetoric.

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Bob Scully
on October 11, 2017 at 15:27:28 pm

“....They and the US deserved to lose...”

South Vietnamese refugees and former re-education camp inmates apparently unavailable for comment?

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on October 11, 2017 at 18:10:03 pm

I think it is pretty clear that the US's clients in Vietnam were the Franco-Vietnamese Catholic kleptocracy in the South who amounted to about 20% of the population. Diem, Ky and Thieu had ample opportunity to reach out the anti-communist Buddhists and secularists from 1963-70 but they didn't. They made their own bed. I have no sympathy for them either.

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on December 04, 2017 at 19:45:29 pm

EK sorry you have had to live all these years with such shame...I spent hours in Hueys in VN 69-70 so I am grateful to the fine courageous pilots who served there. I was attached to the 3rd Marines in Dong Ha, 101st in Phu Bai and the 1st of the 5th Mech INF in Quang Tri over 69-70. I studied Vietnamese at the DLI in Monterey before going over. I was not a physician but trained as an Army combat engineer yet I ended up a psyops officer. I taught English in night class in Hue to a roomful of Vietnamese from the ages of 6 to my current age range in the 70s. I spoke with many VN people about communists and their love of freedom and desire for help. You, like so many others focus on "corruption." You, EK, are blinded by your anger, ignorant of America's moral obligation to assist people to throw off tyrants, and will die a sad man, ashamed apparently of your country, your comrades and yourself. Sad, sad indeed.

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Joseph Spooner, MD
on December 05, 2017 at 09:33:17 am

John Adams said something like the US should not looking for foreign dragons to slay. People like you think the US has a moral obligation to everyone but the people who live in the US.

Did you notice that all the officers in Burns's documentary talked like you do now but all the EMs talked like me? Why do you that might be?

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on January 28, 2018 at 04:06:59 am

The author opens with this risible but widely accepted claim: "When it comes to the Vietnam War, we face almost the same situation that we do with physics: there’s really no “grand unified theory” among either scholars or the public. The staggering complexity of that conflict resists any conclusive definition...."

But now consider a few words that appear nowhere above: North Korea and East Germany.

Too many refuse to accept the falsified reality that winning in Vietnam would have meant for the world and the Cold War struggle: not another East Germany, nor another North Korea. Instead, because Democrats love communism (today), Vietnam and Cambodia became like North Korea and East Germany.

IF the war was won like Vietnam revisionists claim, the sea of blood is on the American Left. Only historians and courageous citizens can demand they be held to account for it.

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Image of Orson
on February 08, 2019 at 13:36:57 pm

After viewing Burns' documentary, and like other Vietnam "grand retrospective documentaries" that I have viewed, I am left with the impression that American efforts in Southeast Asia to staunch the rise of Communist military and political control is best described as squalid and wretched. I grew up living in that period and I served in the Marine Corps then also. I am grateful that my military experiences and self education about the Vietnam War balance out the doom and gloom of documentaries like Burns. I am not a hawk for intervention and war nor am I an isolationist; and, I do believe that Burns' documentary does shine light, through the looking glass of Vietnam, about certain lessons from history and politics. Those being:

Never underestimate the treachery of politicians and news media propaganda. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory . Treasonous politicians sending young men to fight a war never intending to win. Seditious reporting complicit with the enemy to betray the United States at all levels.

We can't claim a Victory because Congress turned its back and walked away from our commitment in Southeast Asia, in large measure, in reaction to the at times violent opposition for the war expressed by the American public. An American public whose opinions were molded and served up on a silver platter by complicit Communist loving media dupes.

I agree with Orson's comment that the blood bath in Cambodia and Vietnam following the United States' is on the American Left.

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