After each episode of “The Vietnam War” airs, our new podcast — “The American War” — will break down the major themes and questions raised. We’ll talk to Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and others involved with the documentary for a new perspective on how the film was made and what it all means.
Here’s our conversation about episode 1, “Déjà Vu (1858-1961).” The transcript has been edited for readability.
“The Vietnam War” is Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s most ambitious project to date, and I’d argue their most important.
It’s 10 episodes that run over 18 hours and more than 150 years of history, and they shot it in both the United States and all over Vietnam.
As Burns and Novick finalized the film, they allowed me to sit in on editing sessions and ask questions about what they were doing and why. Through this process it became clear that this was going to be a really important project — not just for them and their creative partnership, but for all of us.
I talked to Burns about some of the moments that stood out for me in the first episode, and why they decided to tackle the Vietnam War at all.
Q: So Ken, there’s this moment in the episode that I bring up every time I talk to somebody about the movie. And something really eerie happens. You have this incredibly famous footage of the Vietnam War, and it starts to play backwards. So you have a helicopter and it’s rising up out of the water to land back on the deck of an aircraft carrier. You see a man who’s just been shot in the streets of Saigon who, instead of dying, rises up from the pavement as if he’s been resurrected. We see a Buddhist monk on fire but instead of being consumed by the flames they disappear back into his body.
And I love this sequence. It’s visually beautiful but it also makes me really uncomfortable. It suggests that when we talk about putting Vietnam behind us, as Henry Kissinger does in this sequence, what we’re really saying is that we want to turn back the clock and make it so that none of this ever happened. Am I over-reading that scene? Is that what you intended?
KEN BURNS: A little bit over-reading. I realized that we are in some ways kind of possessed by a desire not to know about Vietnam. You know, in Kissinger’s comment that “let’s put it behind us,” that the knowledge that has come down to us is so superficial — and so now deeply flawed due to new scholarship and just a willingness to attend to the facts of what took place — that it seemed important for me, as a filmmaker, to run the familiar images or the shocking images, or both of them, backwards to kind of unpack. You will then see in the coming episode and in the subsequent episodes that follow, all of those pieces of footage going forward — or at least a cousin of that footage going forward — in the film as a way to re-pack a much more complicated but we think satisfying [narrative].
But I would just direct you to the comment just before that. It is no accident that after a kind of disjointed and hallucinatory, almost PTSD-flashback-like first couple of scenes, you come to a parade, and there you hear from a Marine who will you will meet later on, who will turn out to be highly decorated Marine with very complicated feelings about the war. He’s saying that he and his wife are friends with another couple for 12 years before the wives are talking and they both discover that their husbands had been in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. Nobody said a word. It’s like living in a family, he said, with an alcoholic father. Shhh. We don’t talk about it.
Q: I wanted to ask you about that because Vietnam is something — there have been so many books or have been so many movies and yet he’s saying that we don’t talk about it. I mean do you feel like there’s some tension there.
BURNS: Yeah I do. I do believe there have been books and the books have been for the most part extraordinary, like “Dispatches” by Michael Herr, obviously “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, more recently “Matterhorn” by Karl Marlantes. But I think the movies have been classically American. They have succumbed to the great American disease of self-importance and exceptionalism. And so when they deal with Vietnam they deal only with ourselves, and the story we’re going to tell: Please can we unspool what you think it is about, and let’s now put it back together in a way that’s much more complicated.
Q: To back up a little bit, at what point did you decide that you were going to make a movie about the Vietnam War? Since I know you always have a lot of projects going, what was it about this one?
BURNS: I mean, there’s maybe a little preamble to that and that is that after the Civil War series, which had taken me five and a half years to make, I sort of vowed, and we sort of all vowed, that we didn’t want to do a war again. It really hurt. It was painful. And it isn’t just the images that you use and the stories you tell, it’s the images you don’t use and the stories you don’t tell. The negative space of creation. The necessary other stuff.
There was no PTSD, of course, but it was emotionally difficult and gut-wrenching. And for every diary of a soldier that’s dying, we looked at 100 of them.
Q: Are there any of them that you still feel sort of personally attached to that you couldn’t get in “The Civil War”?
BURNS: I think they’ve faded over time, but you know there are few quotes and a few moments, and it is more the sense that war is, as William Tecumseh Sherman said, “all hell.” It’s a big difference. War is all hell.
And at the end of the ’90s I’d heard the statistic that a thousand veterans — American veterans — of the Second World War were dying each day in America and that sort of created an urgency that that whole generation of my dad’s was dying out and we would no longer have those people to talk to. That the Second World War, the greatest cataclysm in human history, would suddenly necessarily be abstracted. Not that there weren’t great historians then and now — as there are — but we wouldn’t be able to have unmediated access to the war from live human beings. And that scared me.
And so we plowed into that and — now I’m catching up to your question — that was broadcast in the fall of 2007.
At the end of 2006 as we were wrapping it all up all the post-production work and that sort of stuff, I remember just turning to Lynn and saying we have to do Vietnam, and she just nodded instantaneously, and it was both exciting and a tremendous burden and responsibility. Because we knew it would take us a decade.
And that was a huge commitment to what has turned out to be not just the most complicated and difficult production. But the most satisfying in a way because of the sort of effort and energy and collaboration and cooperation that it took to marshal the forces to engage new scholarship, to talk to witnesses and bear witness to what they’re saying and honor that testimony, and then to frame a narrative that was like a Russian novel with lots of complicated parts of primary, secondary and tertiary characters, and then add such complicated sound effects and music, and try to do that while always remembering that more than one truth could obtain at any given moment. And, in fact, in this film many, many truths are happening all at the same time.
And in some ways as dizzying as that was to master and try to come to terms with for Lynn and our senior producer Sarah Botstein and our writer Geoff Ward and the whole extraordinary group of people — editors and assistants and the associate producers and co-producers — to master, that we also had to, in some ways, just be liberated by all of that dissonance and figure out a way just to go, “That’s what it is.”
Q: You told me this is the biggest commitment you’d ever made. You talked a little bit about sitting with that dissonance. Going into the project, were there questions that you felt like you had about the war that you personally wanted to have answered, or pieces of dissonance that you wanted to try to resolve?
BURNS: You know, for me it’s always discovery. And I was sort of hampered by an arrogance, as I think Geoff had, and I think to probably a much lesser extent that Lynn had.
But I think both he and I went in with a certain arrogance that we kind of knew this story and we thought we knew what was going on. And it was for 10 years that kind of daily humiliation. And the humbleness you then feel in the face of that is really terrifically liberating as well.
You know, often when you master a story in film, you’re really happy with it. You’re sort of satisfied. You’ve wrestled this complicated thing to the ground. The scene is now working, the moment within the scene is working, the arc of the episode is working, the inter-relationships between the episode. And then inevitably somebody — a consultant, or your own reading, or a colleague — will say, “Ah, it’s a little bit more complicated,” and you go, “Grrr. I don’t want to do this. This thing is already working.”
In Vietnam it was one of those things where you just finally went, “Bring it on,” and we found ourselves welcoming that complication and going, “Okay, let’s open it up and let’s fix that thing. As new scholarship has shown, it’s not four regiments going down the Ho Chi Minh trail that month but only three. Let’s make that right.” And so every day on this production was a kind of glorious, “Oh really? Of course it’s more complicated. How do we make it and then how do we keep the scene still working?”
Professor Fredrik Logevall is one of the people who advised Burns and Novick on the film. And one of the cool things for me about doing this project was that I actually got to ask him my questions about the Vietnam War. Logevall wrote an amazing book — it’s called “Embers of War” — and it’s about the French experience in Vietnam. And one thing reading it made really clear to me was the extent to which America wasn’t just making our own tragic mistakes in Vietnam. We were making the exact same mistakes that the French made a generation earlier.
As it turns out, Logevall was one of the people who convinced Burns and Novick that they had to include more French history in the documentary. I talked to him about why Americans’ historical understanding of Vietnam is so limited to our own experiences.
Q: Why do you think the French war in Indochina, as well as the Japanese invasion in 1940 or the Chinese attack in 1979, play such a limited role in American historical memory of Vietnam? Is it just that we’re self-centered? I mean, it is something that happened to us but now it seems like it’s challenging for us to see our experience as part of a larger continuity.
LOGEVALL: Oh, I think that’s exactly right. In fact, I don’t think I have that much to add to your summation.
I do think Americans at the time had a hard time seeing that the French experience had all that much to teach them, especially early on. Later on, interestingly, when things started to go south, then some U.S. officials tentatively said, “Well, you know what, maybe we could have learned something from the French.”
But I think it was hard for Americans then, and I think probably hard for Americans now, to see how relevant that earlier history was to the American experience.
Q: So there’s this rejection of the idea that the Americans are like the French. But were there ways in which Americans in Vietnam ended up replicating French behavior or French colonial practices without necessarily being aware of what they were communicating by doing so?
LOGEVALL: Oh, no question about that. I guess I would say to the first point that for a long time American officials argued — to what extent they actually believed that deep down is a question, but they argued — that the French are colonialists, they’re a decadent people trying to prop up this colonial empire. Their army is a hidebound, intellectually bankrupt enterprise. Why do we have anything to learn from them?
We on the other hand, the United States, we’re the good guys. We are militarily invincible. We have come to help the Vietnamese in their hour of need to combat rapacious communist expansion, and then we’re going to go home. And we’ve given the Vietnamese something to fight for, whereas the French didn’t give them anything to fight for because it was all about colonialism.
So that’s the argument that’s made. But to go to the heart of your question, what we see is that remarkable set of similarities. As I say, I think in my last book, to study these wars in succession is to experience a feeling of deja vu. Because, for example, the soldierly complaints about the difficulty of telling friend from foe, about the poor fighting spirit among ours as compared to their indigenous troops. The gripes by commanders about the meddling politicians back home. The promises that corners are about to be turned. We have to justify the deaths that we have already suffered.
All of these refrains, which I think were ubiquitous in the United States in the late 1960s, for example, you could have heard also in France in the late 1940s.
So I do think there’s something to this notion that — in many respects, I think Bernard Fall put it quite well. He said the Americans are “dreaming different dreams than the French, but walking in the same footsteps.”
Q: You know, as we’ve been talking about this, and I was re-reading “Choosing War” and “Embers of War” before we talked, do you think there is a contradiction in what you mention as an American fear of revolution, but also a resistance to being seen as a colonizing power?
Because, in the sense that we were a colony, I can understand why Americans would have a hard time understanding themselves as colonizing another country. But we also gained our independence through revolution. So is there a hypocrisy in our supposed fear of revolution elsewhere?
LOGEVALL: You know, I think that there is a kind of hypocrisy. Maybe an understandable one on some level, but I think there is. Ho Chi Minh, by the way, struggled with this. Ho Chi Minh for a long time believed that the Americans would be there for him in the end. That he would be able to count on the United States. And he believed that not only because of what Franklin Roosevelt said during World War II about, you know, colonialism being a thing of the past and how we have to support self-determination. But he also believed that, Ho, because of America’s historical experience. Which is that the United States fought a war against the colonial overlord in the British. Knew, in other words, what he was trying to do in Vietnam and had gone through a revolution successfully. So, ergo, the U.S. should be there for me.
So he struggled with this. Didn’t want to believe in the hypocrisy. Didn’t believe that the United States could say one thing and then do something else. And it took him a long time to shed this idea that ultimately the Americans will come to my assistance. It was only, I think, in 1948-49, so deep into his war with France, that he finally said, “Okay, I guess I should give up on the Americans.” It’s a tragic part of the story as far as I’m concerned.
Q: One thing that struck me in watching the documentary, and actually got me some points with a tour guide in Vietnam, was the focus on political figures other than Ho Chi Minh. When my husband and I explained that we knew who Le Duan was at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum our guide was really excited. But that seemed to me to be a part of this documentary that, as far as popular histories go, this is somewhat new for a mass American audience. Is that correct?
LOGEVALL: No, I think that is true. I think that for a long time Americans just imagined that this was Ho Chi Minh and then it was Vo Nguyen Giap. But basically Ho and Giap, and then some subordinates who of course mattered, but it’s really those two figures. Pham Van Dong, maybe to a certain extent among more knowledgeable people. And that’s what we need to focus on.
And it’s only been I think in the last decade that we’ve truly gotten a true sense that Le Duan comes to matter just enormously to the North Vietnamese strategy, decision-making, he really does become the key day-to-day policymaker in this struggle. And I think that’s been an important change in the historiography.
For more on “The Vietnam War”:
- Subscribe to “The American War” podcast
- Ken Burns wants ‘The Vietnam War’ to unite America. Can anyone do that under Trump?
- It took Ken Burns and Lynn Novick 10 years to unbury the secrets of the Vietnam War
- Meet Lynn Novick, the most important documentarian you’ve never heard of
Correction: An earlier version of this transcript misstated the name of Pham Van Dong.