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The Vietnam War. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Directors; Sarah Botstein, Lynn Novick and Ken Burns, Producers; Geoffrey C. Ward, Writer. Florentine Films/Public Broadcasting Service, 2017. 18 hours.

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 on participant testimony in a documentary on [End Page 130] a controversial subject is that the filmmakers can air every view without having to come down on any side. "You can have more than one truth happen at the same time," Burns says. "What we tried to do is create a safe space for all these different perspectives."9 This is public history adapted to the era of cognitive bubbles. Instead of having to channel-hop to obtain a variety of perspectives, though, viewers can find inconsistent views mashed up in a single series. "Confirmation bias" ensures that they will find sufficient content in the documentary to validate whatever views they arrived with and to find something to be offended by.10

The dependence on the recollections of first-person witnesses is problematic because it gives equal weight and credence to every voice. Three decades ago, Michael Frisch criticized the reliance of Vietnam: A Television History on the recorded remembrances of those who "were there." As he said, they "tend to be at best prisoners of the framework we seek to place in perspective and at worst self-serving apologists for their own past actions." To grant "'experience' sole interpretive authority" neglects the "independent sources of knowledge useful for assessing historical truth."11 This criticism can be lodged more strongly at The Vietnam War.

In the 1983 series, the interviews provide the words of leaders such as Vo Nguyen Giap, the architect of the Communist battle plans at Dien Bien Phu and the final offensive of 1975, and Clark Clifford and Henry Kissinger, who are well placed to give insiders' views of the policy debates in the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Some of the talking heads in the Burns and Novick documentary, such as Leslie Gelb and John Negroponte (both of whom also appeared in Vietnam: A Television History), provide insights about policy processes.12 In [End Page 131] general, though, Burns and Novick tend to use talking head testimony by people far removed from the inner councils of policy making. They lean towards the engaging reflections of veterans who became literary authors, such as Tim O'Brien, Karl Marlantes, Bill Ehrhart, and Bao Ninh.

The reliance on the testimony of people of middle and low rank respects the importance of the ground-level experience of those who were in combat or were civilians caught up, willy-nilly, in the conflict. However, Burns and Novick also rely on the same interviewees to provide analysis and commentary on the course of historical events. Referring to Marlantes, who appears throughout the series, and who comments on Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's doubts about the war, one historian asks in a review of the film, "Is Mr. Marlantes, a former Marine lieutenant, best equipped to speak on the inner workings of the Johnson White House?"13

Merrill McPeak, an Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War who later became Air Force Chief of Staff, bears witness to the courage of the Vietnamese truck drivers he determinedly attacked as they drove along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Regard for the martial qualities of the Communist enemy is quite frequent in the narratives of American veterans.14 McPeak takes this admiration further. One of the things you have to do in war, he explains, is to make sure you pick the right side. The problem in Vietnam is that "we were fighting on the wrong side," McPeak says. The decades-long Cold War strategy of the United States, the containment doctrine, domestic anti-Communist pressures: McPeak ignores all the factors proper to historical understanding of the United States' military actions. An earlier, more astute commentator reached a different conclusion: "we aren't on the wrong side; we are the wrong side."15

Whether they address broad historical issues or personal experience, the narrative accounts of individual witnesses are not pure founts of unmediated recall. Memory is unreliable.16 Witnesses may be not only prisoners of their own mental frameworks but mouthpieces for someone else's, received at third hand and unexamined. Memory can shift in response to others' accounts about the past, even ones that are untrue, and individuals sometimes adopt into their own memories stories [End Page 132] planted in their minds by others.17 The more often they hear a falsehood repeated, the more likely people are to believe it, and factual refutation may reinforce the falsehood rather than warding it off.18

A dominant myth surrounding the post–Vietnam War experience is that antiwar demonstrators abused Vietnam veterans by spitting on them. This falsehood has been debunked by a scholar who has shown that the accounts of such events emerged only in the 1980s. With only one exception, there are no contemporaneous accounts of such assaults during the war years, which would have given rise to police complaints and negative news coverage if they had occurred.19 I have uncovered instances in which veterans who admit that they killed Vietnamese children unashamedly transform themselves into injured parties by complaining afterwards that they were called "baby killers."20 I have documented episodes in which a fake veteran who never served in Vietnam complains about being spat on by demonstrators when he returned; and in which credulous listeners repeat stories about veterans' being called "baby killers" and add their own invented details—the structure of repetition and elaboration that allows such "zombie stories" to proliferate.21 In a society saturated by falsified accusations that protesters abused Vietnam veterans in these ways, the filmmakers' nondiscriminating approach to the truth leaves viewers to wonder what it means that a former antiwar protester apologizes to the camera for calling Vietnam veterans "baby killers." Given that this is something that she says "we" did, it may be she remembers others' literally using those words and feels badly about it; or perhaps the remembered epithet is more a paraphrase. If one listens carefully to her confession, it sounds like a generalization rehearsing the stereotypical parable of social rejection, a shorthand summation she assumes her listeners will understand, rather than an account of a specific event.22 Whatever the apology might refer to, this witness's "I'm sorry" are the last words spoken by anyone identified as an antiwar protestor in the series.23 [End Page 133]

How representative of the historical interactions of veterans and protestors is this self-damning recollection? Burns and Novick would provide a sounder foundation for a renewed encounter between the war's supporters and opponents if they reported whether among the mountains of material their researchers examined there is any contemporaneous evidence that demonstrators actually called Vietnam veterans baby killers—and in which archival locations that evidence reposes. Among the miles of film footage, any demonstrators chanting "baby killer"? Among the thousands of still pictures, any placards with those words? Among numerous news articles and government reports that covered demonstrators' conduct, any references to the insult?

Burns and his collaborators have made a career from creating hymns to American exceptionalism, reminding Americans of their basic decency, and honoring their struggles to realize the republic's unfulfilled promise.24 These filmmakers are constitutionally ill-equipped to tell the story of an American government whose actions during the Vietnam War were not just wrong-headed but wrongful. The voice-over finally suggests that although the war was a tragedy, "meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through it." Can one satisfactorily concentrate the quest for understanding in the individual, human dimension of historical experience, given that its meaning is inextricably tied to politics and strategy?

The camera returns to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial throughout the series, panning across its granite surface and dwelling on certain names. The memorial was dedicated to the same goals of "healing" and "reconciliation" the filmmakers say they want to pursue.25 That decades after the memorial's dedication those goals remain elusive might prompt our recognition that neither woolliness about evidence nor the avoidance of valid moral judgment promote those ends, and that the conditions for moving forward from the war must begin with an honest accounting of American wrongdoing. Absolution for the good-faith intentions of America's leaders and self-abasement for those who felt moral repugnance at the harm the war did to innocent civilians: if swallowing that is what cultural entrepreneurs are touting as the necessary cost of national reconciliation, it is no wonder that half a century after the war's height, and decades since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial's dedication, America stubbornly refuses to heal. [End Page 134]

Patrick Hagopian

Patrick Hagopian is senior lecturer in History and American Studies at Lancaster University, England. He has written extensively about the history and memory of the Vietnam War, including two books: The Vietnam War in American Memory: Veterans, Memorials, and the Politics of Healing (2009), and American Immunity: War Crimes and the Limits of International Law (2013). He is currently writing a monograph on the principle of command criminal responsibility and the My Lai massacre.


1. Vietnam: A Television History, Richard Ellison, producer, WGBH Boston, Associated Television (ATV) Britain, and Antenne Deux France, co-producers, first broadcast on affiliated stations of the US Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in 1983.

2. Ian Parker, "Ken Burns's American Canon," The New Yorker, September 4, 2017, In 1971, the Army's Chief of Information substituted the phrase "tragedy of major proportions" for "massacre" in the announcement of the publication of the Army's investigative report of the atrocity. W. R. Peers, The My Lai Inquiry (New York: Norton, 1979), 217. Decades later, the Pentagon's fiftieth anniversary timeline of the war, part of a commemorative program mandated by President Barack Obama in 2012, referred to the My Lai "incident." After the journalist Nick Turse complained about the use of this euphemism, the Department of Defense revised the page to read, "Americal Division Kills Hundreds of Vietnamese Citizens at My Lai," preferring the word "kill" to "murder" or "massacre." Sheryl Gay Stolberg, "Paying Respects, Pentagon Revives Vietnam, and War Over Truth," New York Times, October 9, 2014; United States of America, Vietnam War Commemoration, Interactive Timeline,

3. Jennifer Schuessler, "Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Tackle the Vietnam War," New York Times, September 1, 2017.

4. Schuessler, "Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Tackle the Vietnam War."

5. Television's Vietnam, Peter C. Rollins, director; Accuracy in Media, producer, 1985.

6. Ted Johnson, "Key House Republican Predicts Congress Will Preserve PBS, NPR Funding," Variety, February 13, 2018,; Parker, "Ken Burns's American Canon."

7. Stolberg, "Paying Respects, Pentagon Revives Vietnam, and War Over Truth."

8. Schuessler, "Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Tackle the Vietnam War."

9. John Wilkens, "Filmmaker Ken Burns Aims for Healing with New Documentary about Vietnam War," San Diego Union-Tribune, May 17, 2017.

10. "Confirmation Bias and Media Literacy," Connect!ons (October 2017): 2–6, For criticisms from the right, see, e.g., Mark Moyar, "Ken Burns's 'Vietnam' Is Fair to the Troops, but Not the Cause," Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2017; Jennifer Harper, "Vietnam Veterans Challenge Ken Burns on the Accuracy of His Epic Documentary," Washington Times, November 21, 2017. For criticisms from the left, see, e.g., Alex Shepard, "The Insidious Ideology of Ken Burns's The Vietnam War," The New Republic, September 19, 2017; Jerry Lembcke, "Burns and Novick, Masters of False Balancing," Public Books, September 15, 2017, Merrill McPeak, a consultant for the series, says, "I guess being attacked from both sides means you're about where you ought to be," which is valid if one believes that difference-splitting is an appropriate means of arriving at the truth. Kristi Turnquist, "Oregon's General Merrill McPeak on PBS' 'The Vietnam War,' Mistakes Made, and Lessons Learned," The Oregonian/OregonLive, updated September 23, 2017; posted September 23, 2017,

11. Michael Frisch, "The Memory of History," in Presenting the Past: Essays on History and the Public, ed. Susan Porter Benson, Stephen Brier and Roy Rosenzweig (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), 13.

12. "Talking heads" who appear in both documentary series also include the writer and Marine veteran Bill Ehrhart, the former POW Everett Alvarez, and the former South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States, Bui Diem. For a powerful substantiation of the enduring effects of the moral wounds that participation in warfare can induce, compare the two documentaries' interviews with Ehrhart, recorded across a span of decades. In The Vietnam War we also see evidence of a political idée fixe: Negroponte recites judgments that he has been making for years. Referring to the Linebacker II bombing campaign and the peace deal negotiated in Paris, Negroponte says in the documentary, "We bombed them into accepting our concessions," a point he had made verbatim years earlier. Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam Wars 1945–1990 (New York: Harper, 1991), 279, citing Nguyen Tien Hung and Jerrold L. Schecter, The Palace File (New York: Harper and Row, 1986).

13. Gregory Daddis, "What Not to Learn From Vietnam," New York Times, September 29, 2017.

14. Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War (London: Pimlico, 1999), 69, 123; Harry Maurer, Strange Ground: An Oral History of Americans in Vietnam 1945–1975 (New York: Avon Books, 1989), 179; Eric Hammel, The Siege of Khe Sanh: An Oral History (New York: Warner Books, 1989), 48; Wallace Terry, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (New York: Ballantine, 1985), 61.

15. Daniel Ellsberg, speaking in the documentary Hearts and Minds, Peter Davis, director, 1974.

16. Christopher F. Chabris and Daniel J. Simons, "Why Our Memory Fails Us," New York Times, December 1, 2014; Daniel Goleman, "Miscoding Is Seen as the Root of False Memories," New York Times, May 31, 1994.

17. Elizabeth F. Loftus and Jacqueline E. Pickrell, "The Formation of False Memories," Psychiatric Annals 25 (1995): 720–725; Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter, "Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime," Psychological Science 26: 3 (2015): 291–301.

18. Sam Wang And Sandra Aamodt, "Your Brain Lies to You," New York Times, June 27, 2008.

19. For a persuasive debunking of the canard of the spat-upon veteran, see Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: New York University Press, 2000).

20. Patrick Hagopian, The Vietnam War in American Memory: Veterans, Memorials and the Politics of Healing (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), 65.

21. Patrick Hagopian, "The Politics of Trauma: Vietnam Veterans and PTSD," Mittelweg 36 24: 5 (October/November 2015): 84–87.

22. Nancy Biberman says, "When I look back at the war and, you know, think of the horrible things, you know, we said to, you know, vets who were returning, you know, calling them baby killers and worse, I've, you know, I feel very sad about that, um, I can only say that, you know, we were kids too, you know, just like they were. It grieves me, it grieves me today, it pains me to think of the things that I said and that we said and I, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." Episode 10, "The Weight of Memory (March 1973–the Present)."

23. Maurice Isserman, "Give Peace a Chance," Dissent, Fall 2017,

24. For assessments of Ken Burns's oeuvre, see David Harlan, "Ken Burns and the Coming Crisis of Academic History," Rethinking History 7: 2 (2001), 169–92; Thomas Cripps, "An Interview with Ken Burns," American Historical Review 100: 3 (June 1995): 741–64; Parker, "Ken Burns's American Canon."

25. Wilkens, "Filmmaker Ken Burns Aims for Healing"; Jan Scruggs and Joel Swerdlow, To Heal a Nation (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), 53; Hagopian, Vietnam War in American Memory, 83–84, 93–94.

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