- Begun in Good Faith by Decent PeopleBurns and Novick's Vietnam War
For those who have been waiting decades to understand what the Vietnam War was about: it was all a horrible misunderstanding. According to the documentary series The Vietnam War, broadcast on Public Broadcasting Service stations last fall, the war was "begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American over-confidence, and Cold War miscalculation; and it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than to admit that it had been caused by tragic decisions made by five American presidents belonging to both political parties." "Misunderstandings"; "over-confidence"; "miscalculation"; "muddle through": the origins and persistence of the American war effort are reduced to an intellectual error, effacing the political calculus and policy interests that America's leaders pursued.
The series does have its virtues—which only make its editorial misjudgments more insidious and damaging. It benefits from White House tape recordings unavailable to the makers of Vietnam: A Television History, the last major documentary series broadcast on the Public Broadcasting Service's affiliates.1 It is based on prodigious research in the photographic and film archives. Popular music of the era provides an evocative soundtrack. Some of the on-screen narrators have powerful stories, and the filmmakers enhance them through telling juxtapositions—concerning, for example, the motivations of several recruits for signing up, and the moral turmoil and crises they experienced. The stories of the witnesses have fascinating twists: the POW wife whose political affiliation takes an unexpected turn, the gung-ho troops who turn against the war. The emphasis on the human experience of the witnesses, including Vietnamese people from both sides of the conflict, is the sort of quality one has learned to expect from a documentary directed by Burns and Novick.
The series' weaknesses are also what one has learned to expect from Burns. He did not go "in the weeds" of scholarship but nevertheless insisted on soft-pedaling significant word choices in the voice-over, for example preferring "killing" to [End Page 129] "murder" for the My Lai massacre, a word choice that perpetuates decades of official obfuscation.2 The filmmakers are deliberately woolly in their judgments, positively embracing equivocation. "Today, we suffer from too much certainty," Burns says. "I like the middle, the uncertainty of things. I think that's where all the progress, all the healing, takes place."3
Burns's wish to pursue compromise for the sake of "healing" may explain the reference to governmental "good faith," a judgment Burns stands by although he admits it is "too generous."4 Much of the content of the documentary's ten episodes contradicts it. The contrast between the White House tape recordings and the presidents' public pronouncements reveals that Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon were aware from the start that the war effort was likely to fall short of its aims. They nevertheless deceived the American public about these prospects and about their plans; and they sent American forces into combat and kept them there, at the cost of millions of lives, because neither wanted to suffer the domestic political consequences of being the first president to lose a war.
The voice-over tells us that those who lived through the war "have never stopped arguing about what really happened, why everything went so badly wrong, who was to blame, and whether it was all worth it." Although the documentary is unlikely to resolve the arguments, the filmmakers at least sidestepped an organized counter-effort, like the one a right-wing group produced in answer to Vietnam: A Television History.5 The new series neither provoked a congressional backlash against funding for public broadcasting, nor did it jeopardize the corporate sponsorship the film-makers rely on.6 It also avoided the sort of denunciation by historians that greeted the Defense Department's fiftieth anniversary Vietnam War timeline.7
The filmmakers' "ground rules": "no historians or other talking heads."8 The advantage of relying...