Ken Burns “The Vietnam War” PBS documentary tries to unite America under Trump

Ken Burns’s American War

The filmmaker wants his new documentary, “The Vietnam War,” to bring the country together. Can anyone do that in the age of Trump?

Published on September 14, 2017

Last December, after Donald Trump had won the presidential election, documentarian Ken Burns told me that he was feeling like “the optimistic Frodo in Mordor.” Burns has a tendency to describe himself and his work in sweeping, sometimes self-congratulatory, language, and this would not be the only time he likened himself to J.R.R. Tolkien’s small, unlikely hero, entrusted with shepherding something valuable through dangerous territory. Yet if Burns presents his career as a popular historian in lofty, even epic, terms, he’s not alone in thinking of himself that way.

When Thomas Vallely, who served as a Marine in Vietnam, was trying to decide whether to work with Burns on his ambitious new history of the Vietnam War, Vallely’s son Charlie came up with a convincing argument in favor: “Ken Burns decides what America thinks of itself.”

In fact, audiences don’t always agree on what Burns’s idea of America is. Critics have charged him both with peddling feel-good stories about the past and with an “obsessive” focus on racism, with shying away from partisan politics and with venerating progressivism. Still, to debate precisely what Burns thinks about America is to concede the larger point: that Burns occupies an unusual role in an exceptionally polarizing time.

Since 1990, when 40 million Americans watched “The Civil War” during its initial run on PBS, Burns has convened national conversations about varied but quintessentially American subjects, from baseball to jazz, Prohibition to the national parks. If his films can’t achieve the impossible task of resolving America’s divisions, Burns provides a space in American public life where disparate voices come together.

Burns’s latest project, a 10-part series with co-director Lynn Novick premiering on PBS on Sept. 17, tackles an especially vexed subject for their brand of discussion. Unlike the events of “The Civil War” or “The West,” the Vietnam War took place within living memory of many Americans, including Burns, Novick and writer Geoffrey Ward. Debates about the conduct of those who fought the war and those who opposed it aren’t just fresh. They are raw — both intensely personal and nationally disputed. And “The Vietnam War” doesn’t merely ask Americans to confront our own divisions. The film, which includes extensive interviews with Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, asks us to see our former allies and enemies in a new light, and to consider how they saw us.

We think we understand the Vietnam War. We've only scratched the surface.

“The Vietnam War” arrives in Americans’ living rooms at an especially precarious national moment. As Burns and Novick edited and refined the film in 2015 and 2016, American politics began to resemble those of the Vietnam era in their rancor. Burns has generally stayed away from the campaign trail, preserving nonpartisan enthusiasm for his work at a time when other cultural figures often explicitly cater to liberals or conservatives. But speaking at Stanford University’s commencement in 2016, Burns chose to spend some of the political capital he has accrued over the past three decades in a dramatic fashion. He explicitly and vehemently broke with his long-standing reticence and condemned Trump as a liar, demagogue and friend to white supremacists.

When I asked Burns about the address more than a year later, curious about whether he was surprised by the extent to which the speech made political headlines, he said he hadn’t been thinking about whether the audience would have preferred a soothing, Burnsian tale of national progress and unity.

“I just felt that there was an urgency to the message I had about this,” he said. “What I felt was a huge anomaly in the arc of our experiment.”

“The Vietnam War” argues that this experiment survived another anomalous moment, when a disastrous conflict abroad, social upheaval at home and a wave of political assassinations made it seem, as Robert F. Kennedy said, quoting William Butler Yeats, that “the center cannot hold.” The United States emerged from the Vietnam era in a diminished and drastically altered fashion, but it survived. “The Vietnam War” reaches audiences at another point when the public confronts a profound debate about the future of the American idea.

“I just felt that there was an urgency to the message I had about this. What I felt was a huge anomaly in the arc of our experiment.”

Ken Burns, on Donald Trump’s candidacy

Over the past year and a half, as I reported out this series, it felt as though there was something eerie about the convergence of movie and moment. The contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton seemed like a referendum on a proposition Burns has been advancing for years: that America’s greatness lies not in our past, but in our ability to learn the lessons of history and, as Burns likes to say, to forge an unum out of a rowdy and divided pluribus. To me, Trump’s election felt like a defeat for this idea at the ballot box. That accident of timing means that “The Vietnam War” has acquired a new urgency: Just as America almost came apart during the Vietnam War, what we do in the succeeding years will determine whether Burns is right about our ability to hold together now.

What makes “The Vietnam War” so compelling is the way it confronts the audience, refusing to resolve an agonizing period in history into a convenient story that places this era safely in the past. And what makes this moment important for Burns is the opportunity it presents for him to employ his credibility with the public not just to put together a searching documentary about America’s history but also to make a forceful argument about its future.

This sudden relevance wasn’t something the filmmakers planned.

Burns and Novick decided that the Vietnam War would be their next subject in 2006, as they were finishing up their World War II series, “The War.” They were only two years removed from the 2004 presidential election, when a number of Vietnam veterans had accused Democratic nominee John Kerry of exaggerating his accounts of wartime atrocities committed by American soldiers and questioned whether Kerry had truly earned his medals.

Above: John Kerry, then 27, testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971, drawing on his experience as a Navy lieutenant and organizer of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. (Associated Press)

“They just tapped into something very deep that had never really been sorted out,” Novick says of Kerry’s critics. “It was the sort of festering wound, or the trauma that’s stuffed in the closet as the closet is slammed shut. And you just don’t open the door.”

By 2006, the United States had also been at war in Iraq for three grinding years. If the United States was supposed to have “kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all” with the end of the Cold War, as former president George H.W. Bush said in 1991, Iraq suggested that the disease had only gone into a temporary remission.

“The Civil War,” “The War” and “The Vietnam War” trace a discouraging trajectory through American history. In the first film, the United States faces a mortal threat from within and holds itself together as a country. In the second, the country activates its full potential and claims a leading place on the world stage. And in the third, the United States squanders that promise abroad and rends open grievous new divisions at home.

After “The Civil War,” Burns had been reluctant to make another war series. It had been draining to immerse himself in the wrenching stories of that conflict, and Burns was pained by those he hadn’t been able to tell. The idea that many World War II veterans were dying before their stories had been recorded — and the fact that “too many graduating high school seniors thought we fought with the Germans against the Russians in the Second World War,” Burns says — propelled Burns and Novick into “The War.”

For Burns, that series was an exercise in shedding preconceptions, a useful prelude to what he calls the “daily humiliation and the humbleness” of relearning the history of the Vietnam War.

“I had grown up in a family that presumed that the atom bomb didn’t need to be used,” Burns says. “And I got convinced otherwise by a lot of people who might be dead, and I would not have been able to interview them, if they were involved in the multi-year invasion of mainland Japan.”

For Burns, that movie was an exercise in shedding preconceptions, a useful prelude to what he calls the “daily humiliation and the humbleness” of relearning the history of the Vietnam War.

At the same time, Novick explains, exploring World War II was critically important to understanding how the United States became mired in Vietnam in the first place. Making “The War” meant “internalizing America’s sense of itself in the world and what we thought our role was and what we thought our power could achieve. ... It took a long time to unwind that.”

The result of unraveling one American idea and constructing a new and more complicated one is a series that feels like the culmination of Burns’s career. It’s difficult to think of another filmmaker and filmmaking team with the credibility to persuade families from very different backgrounds and political affiliations to share difficult stories. And in the world of filmmaking, there are few documentarians who can raise the roughly $30 million that made possible a 10-year process, including multiple trips to Vietnam to bring back the stories that can pierce the veil of American self-absorption Burns himself is sometimes accused of perpetuating.

Whether or not Burns and Novick made these decisions with their critics in mind, “The Vietnam War” is also a film that feels informed by criticism of Burns’s earlier works.

Given Burns’s work on defining the American idea, potential audiences take particular exception when they feel his work doesn’t grant them their place in the national narrative. Both “The War,” which despite its sweeping title focused on a small number of American towns, and “Jazz” were criticized for excluding Latino music and experiences. The former prompted such an uproar that shortly before the series was set to debut in 2007, then-Sen. Ken Salazar and Sen. Robert Menendez wrote to PBS President Paula Kerger to urge her and Burns to reconsider the documentary.

By contrast, Burns has also fielded complaints that some of his work, especially “Baseball,” was overly focused on the inequalities that African Americans faced. Racism, whether directed at Asian Americans or manifest in American military units, is a significant thread among many in the tapestry that is “The Vietnam War,” and Burns sounds more than a little vindicated when he talks about the consistent focus on race in his work. He refused, he says, to “shut up” about racism when Barack Obama was elected president, predicting that a backlash would follow. And Burns says that friends have apologized for suggesting he was becoming tiresome in his insistence that race remains a central issue in all facets of American life.

Above: Co-directors Lynn Novick and Ken Burns at work on “The Vietnam War.” (Florentine Films)

“The Vietnam War” features Everett Alvarez, a Mexican American pilot who was the first aviator shot down and captured in Vietnam, where he spent more than eight years in captivity. And the series examines the emergent Chicano movement as part of its broader tableau of social change. More broadly, the film’s huge scope provides space to explore different manifestations of racism in both the United States and Vietnam. Soldiers from North and South Vietnam recount the racism of the French colonial system. Black American troops reflect on the bigotry they experienced at home and in Vietnam. And John Musgrave, a white American Marine, elaborates on the dehumanizing ideas about Asian people that allowed him to endure the fighting.

This isn’t the only subject where the film’s scale serves Burns and Novick’s ideas well. Since “The Civil War,” critics have been quick to identify a figure who dominates each of Burns’s series the way the writer Shelby Foote did in 1990. “The Vietnam War” does not rely so heavily on a single charismatic figure. American service members such as Musgrave, Roger Harris and Bill Ehrhart, Vietnamese soldiers such as Bao Ninh, Le Minh Khue and Tran Ngoc Toan, and civilians including Joseph Galloway, Duong Van Mai Elliott, Huy Duc and Jean-Marie Crocker and her daughter Carol all leave lasting impressions. The result is a series in which it’s impossible to lose yourself in a partisan rooting interest on any issue, whether it’s the political motivations of the North Vietnamese or the moral implications of America’s departure from Vietnam.

Most broadly, Burns’s critics, many of them writing from inside the academy, have taken aim at what they perceive as Burns’s unwarranted optimism about the country, its role in the world and the character of its people. Civil War historians suggested that Burns’s treatment celebrated the survival of the nation without reckoning with the ways in which white Americans had traded away black Americans’ rights in order to preserve it. When “Baseball” debuted in 1994, a Newsweek writer diagnosed Burns and the film with “a case of Heavy Meaningitis.” Another academic argued that “the underlying ideological intent of a Ken Burns documentary is to encourage its audience to feel good about America and Americans, a valid enterprise, to be sure, but one that can too easily lead to smarmy self-congratulation.”

That critique will be hard to apply to “The Vietnam War.”

The portrait of America that emerges from the series at times made me feel ashamed, sometimes from directions I hadn’t anticipated. Before watching “The Vietnam War,” I probably would have dismissed as bluster the idea that the United States dishonored itself by leaving Vietnam. Hearing Duong Van Mai Elliott, who grew up first in Hanoi and then in Saigon and worked for the Rand Corp. in Saigon, explain that her father was moved by America’s intervention because “we’re such a small and poor country and the Americans have decided to come in to save us, not just with their money, their resources, but with their own lives,” made it harder for me to dismiss that broken promise.

Even if you’re convinced of the evils of communism, hearing Le Minh Khue talk about going south on the Ho Chi Minh trail inspired by the resourcefulness of Ernest Hemingway’s heroes is a reminder that there are many motivations in a revolution. And even if your impressions of the Vietnam War are rooted in horror at what the United States did there, Musgrave’s searching account of his time in the military and in Vietnam Veterans Against the War presents a sharp counter to any stereotypes of the soldiers who fought in that conflict.

American involvement in Vietnam “actually makes less sense now than it did when I started studying the war,” Harvard’s Fredrik Logevall, who served as an adviser to the film, told me. And after 18 hours, “The Vietnam War” refuses to distill the conflict down to any one simple conclusion.

Above: Navy fighter pilot John McCain lies on a bed in a Hanoi hospital in 1967 as he is given medical care for his injuries. McCain, now a U.S. senator from Arizona, was captured at a lake in Hanoi after his plane was downed by the North Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War. (AFP/Getty Images)

That’s wise, not least because it sometimes feels as though Americans aren’t done fighting the Vietnam War amongst ourselves.

Burns and Novick are releasing “The Vietnam War” at a moment when a new U.S. president, one who received five draft deferments and referred to the risks of his sex life as “my personal Vietnam,” has taken to litigating the war in raw and personal terms. During the 2016 campaign, Trump declared that “I like people who weren’t captured” in an effort to discredit Sen. John McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war.

For a filmmaker who is sometimes accused of being too sanguine about American greatness, Burns is frank about the aftermath of the Vietnam War, a conflict that he says has “no outward redeeming feature,” unlike the end of slavery that followed the Civil War or the defeat of Nazism in World War II. The United States didn’t even capitalize on the opportunity to build a healthy new self-conception after the turmoil of the Vietnam War.

Burns is audacious enough to claim part of that task for himself.

He isn’t blind to the fact that the atomization of the Internet, the loss of trust in any unifying source of truth, and a cynicism that verges on paranoia make it harder for any one person to gather a mass audience, much less to sell them on a single idea about America. But Burns believes fiercely that his audience hasn’t given up on the desire for community and reconciliation. His mission with “The Vietnam War” is to create a different kind of public space, where people with very different views and perspectives can have a shared experience.

Above: An American flag flies at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Below: A cemetery in Vietnam where unknown soldiers are buried. (Above: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post; below: Florentine Films)

Above left: An American flag flies at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Above right: A cemetery in Vietnam where unknown soldiers are buried. (Left: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post; right: Florentine Films)

That’s a noble aspiration, but one that doesn’t necessarily seem to match the national mood as “The Vietnam War” arrives on air. At a time when the president doesn't forthrightly condemn neo-Nazis, some Americans crave sharp moral distinctions rather than attempts to understand white nationalists. Despite all the commentary about how both liberals and conservatives need to pry themselves out of their comfortable bubbles, people across the political spectrum still feel wounded and suspicious. For a public space to be a viable stage for conversation, there need to be some rules and shared facts that govern it, some sense of which perspectives and viewpoints can’t actually coexist.

Burns and I had our last conversations for this piece just days after protests in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly. Over three hours of discussion, we kept circling back to the difference between my gloomy mood and his determination to be optimistic. The clashes in Virginia were on my mind as we talked about the difference between moving on from the past to the point of forgetting and carrying history with you into the future while fully recognizing that you can’t right old wrongs. Burns told me he didn’t want to be glib or flip, but that he thought the best answer was simply “let it be.”

“I’m trying to ask you if you think Americans are capable of doing that,” I pushed him. He insisted that he did. The 2016 election is over. The next referendum on Ken Burns’s vision of America is just beginning.

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