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 2, “Riding the Tiger (1961-1963).” The transcript has been edited for readability.
It’s easy to look back on the American war in Vietnam and be cynical.
We know now that President Lyndon Johnson escalated the war for political reasons. We know that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara embraced statistics that had nothing to do with North Vietnam’s will to fight. We know that generals like William Westmoreland blinded themselves to what was really going on in the war, even in their own armies.
So of course we look back on the Vietnam War and say the men who led us into it were thinking only of themselves. But what if that’s not true? Or at least, what if it’s not the whole story?
What if the people who got us involved in Vietnam really believed that they were fighting for freedom? What if they saw Vietnam as the place where we would pay any price and bear any burden, support any friend and oppose any foe? How does our understanding of the war change if it began as an expression of hope about what America had to offer the world? And if it was idealism that led us into Vietnam, how clearly did Americans see themselves and their values?
I talked to Ken Burns about how these themes play out in the second episode of his documentary, “The Vietnam War.”
Q: So, Ken, I think the thing that surprised me most watching the second episode was hearing people like John Musgrave, who was a Marine, and Jack Todd, who was in the Army, talk about the Vietnam War as if it was an expression of idealism inspired by President Kennedy.
I think so many people my age, I’m 32, think of Vietnam primarily as something they were fighting to get out of. Not as a conflict where they had the opportunity to do the right thing or prove that they were men. And from our conversations I know you had this experience of rooting for the United States to win and be the good guys when you were younger. But for viewers who didn’t live through that moment, or who didn’t personally feel that way, is there something we learned about the war by going back and remembering that before all the cynicism that followed there was a real idealism and optimism about America’s involvement in Vietnam?
BURNS: Absolutely, I think that’s a key theme of this. We needed to go back and unpack a lot of stuff. But when Kennedy gets inaugurated there’s a really important moment in American history that happens. It has to do with youth and it has to do with hope. It seems to be a sense that the ’60s are going to be super different than anything else. But it’s all, at least in the beginning, represented by trust and hope. And that was invested with the youngest of all elected presidents.
Now, the people who talk about him, like Jack Todd and John Musgrave in our second episode, are just enough older than me that, while I felt the energy and excitement of the Kennedy election and the beginning years of it, I didn’t feel it in the same way that these guys had. I was too young to understand that I might be motivated in the Manichean dynamic that Hal Kushner refers to in Episode 1 between the Soviet Union and us, meaning between us good and them bad. That what Kennedy would do would put energy on it. He would start the engine, he’d put the car in gear, and that people would go off with that trust.
And I think what Vietnam — among the many, many things that it did, is that it began to end and erode that trust that we have in the people who occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Q: Did it to erode our trust in ourselves too, though? I mean, if this is where our idealism left us …
BURNS: This is this is the point I want to make. There is something abstract about the arguments of history, and they have little bearing on the actual experience of events. And part of what gets kind of fuzzed up in the course of it is that we just focus on the easier dialectics between people, or groups, or tribes, or nations, or whatever and forget that the most critical stuff are the inner transformations.
And so if you were to consider the two people that you’ve presented as sort of state’s evidence A and B of this faith in the system, John Musgrave and Jack Todd, they are going to undergo unbelievable experiences in their lives. Nothing can compare to John Musgrave’s, but they are also going to undergo wrenching psychological and emotional changes within their own lives that are going to redirect their energies in unbelievably surprising ways.
And so I think for us, rather than having an avuncular historian abstractly tell us from the safety of his or her comforting chair in their den what it all means, it’s really nice to hear the genuineness of that sincerity and trust and hope in these two individuals who, over the course of the subsequent episodes, are going to really have that not only dashed, but are going to have their own mental well-being and psychological stuff rearranged in the process of it.
That’s what I think is the most interesting part of telling stories.
Q: I think this episode made me feel just sort of unsettled because, I don’t know I’ve ever told you this story, but I was obsessed with the Vietnam War as a kid. I got in trouble with my parents because I was a hippie for Halloween one year and was not allowed to carry a “Make Love Not War” sign to go trick-or-treating, which in retrospect was probably a good parenting decision. But I think I had the sense that I knew about the Vietnam War. That, unusual among people of my generation, I had studied a lot, I was interested in it. And I think this episode of the movie just made me feel like that was maybe arrogant or … I was wrong.
BURNS: Well, I don’t think that’s true. I just think that the assumptions that it’s based on are superficial enough that they don’t permit the depth of complication to come through. When that comes through, you can begin to understand what it might mean to love and trust and do anything, include sacrifice your life for your president, and only to find …
Q: Yeah, I guess it made me think about how the story that I accepted is sort of the give and got codified and I was wondering how you thought it had been established. I mean, was it nonfiction books? Was it pop culture? What was it that forged the consensus that I grew up with?
BURNS: I think the consensus got forged less by pop culture than by how little we were willing to push back against these things. We just were very willing, regardless of your point of view, to accept some pretty basic superficial traps. And we just realized that you kind of had to disarm all of that. There’s fraudulence on all of those things. You know, presumptions about the domino theory and this automatic, knee-jerk “this is wrong.” I would just like to offer, as someone who grew up thinking this was the most absurd thing ever: How do we know that the presence of over 600,000 American troops in Vietnam, as well as all the hundreds of thousands of support troops in the oceans and in the bases around there and covert CIA activities in all the other countries that were supposed to fall and supporting anti-communist insurgencies and carrying out assassinations and doing all this stuff — how do we know that that didn’t happen? You know?
And I don’t have an answer for that. I like having my own worldview rocked. Just like in the World War II — I had grown up in a family that presumed that the atom bomb didn’t need to be used. 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 for the multiyear event called the invasion of mainland Japan and the probable deaths of seven or eight million more human beings, mostly Japanese.
Was the 250,000 killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki a trade-off for all those lives that were spared? I don’t know how to answer that, it’s higher than my pay grade. But that stuff — Vietnam rocked a lot of that for me: the simplicity of the narrative.
Q: I mean, I agree with you about the cultural presumption. But do you think that the way that you and Geoff Ward learned about the war was different from the way that your co-director Lynn Novick and your executive producer Sarah Botstein, who are younger than you, and had culture as some of their formative experiences, got their ideas about the war?
BURNS: Yeah, most definitely. I mean, Geoff was fully an adult — didn’t have to worry about the draft because he had contracted polio as a child and would not have been a useful soldier in that regard, thank goodness. And I was younger but felt that I knew everything in the arrogance that kids and teenagers feel. And Lynn was much younger but felt the vibe of Vietnam, and Sarah was born, you know, essentially when it was all over. So it was something she only acquired retrospectively. So each of us brought a different sensibility into it that I think both probably helped and hindered each of us, each in his or her own way.
It’s probably better for me not to presume any more than I already have or what we’ve commonly shared in conversations together. But all of us had to check some baggage. All of us had to have some sense that we knew what was going on. More so for me than for Lynn, and certainly Sarah was absolved of any of that. Whatever she learned she was taught in school secondarily. The rest of us did have real-time meaning of the war. But Lynn can also be excused, because she was so young, from any real formation. But I can’t and Geoff can’t. And I think that our education has been terrifically important not just to who we are as filmmakers and how the film turned out, but to who we are as human beings.
Like Botstein, I was born after the Vietnam War was over, so my entry into the war was through pop culture. That may seem obvious, but I think it raises an important point. The war itself got obscured by artist responses to it. Even if you were born during the conflict, you might know more about how artists felt about the war than about the war itself. To get to the truth, you have to rewind the tape.
Burns’s co-director, Lynn Novick, is nine years younger than Ken, so even though she was born in 1962 and lived through the most intense years of the war, she learned about Vietnam in a very different way. Novick says she grew up on films like “Apocalypse Now” and “The Deer Hunter.” It wasn’t until later that she realized the story was more complex than what she was seeing in Hollywood movies.
I talked to Novick about how her very different perspective on the war played a role in the making of the film.
LYNN NOVICK: The war ended in ’75 and I was very interested in it. But I wasn’t aware of anything to do with historiography of the war. I just was trying to soak up whatever was readily available. I wasn’t really going into a deep dive at all.
And the first time I really began to relate to the war on the printed page in years later was reading “Dispatches” by Michael Herr and then “A Bright Shining Lie” by Neil Sheehan. And those two just sort of opened up that there was much more complexity to the story than what I had seen in a Hollywood movie or even in the documentaries that had been done. And that started me on a path of doing a lot more reading.
Q: So it’s interesting that “Dispatches,” which is so experiential, and “A Bright Shining Lie,” which is just so meticulously constructed, were the books that stuck out to you. I mean they’re kind of interesting companion pieces.
NOVICK: You know, when you read “Dispatches” you’re just really tossed into the deep end of the pool of an experience of Vietnam. There’s no explanation of anything. You’re just in it, and it’s so subjective, and it makes so many assumptions about what you already know and what you bring to it. And I was interested to find out, when I started working on this film, that “Dispatches,” Michael Herr, did a brilliant job of distilling down what the Vietnam experience meant for many people. Not everybody by any means. But as it turns out, he wasn’t really doing what we would now consider journalism. It was a lot of compositing and imagining. And he had a great ear for dialogue but he wasn’t necessarily taking careful notes of everything everybody said. So it doesn’t give you what we would say are facts. It’s a feeling of the war that’s so powerful.
Q: You made “The War,” which is about the American experience in World War II. Did working on that film change or ground your sense of how American foreign policy worked in the years before Vietnam? I think in my own research for this I’ve been surprised how far back the roots of Vietnam went, and I wondered if making “The War” ended up laying the groundwork for you?
NOVICK: I don’t think I could have made this film — certainly I don’t think I could have and I wouldn’t speak for Ken, but I think for both of us that film was getting our training wheels to go off to be able to make this film. And it had to do partly with understanding and sort of internalizing America’s sense of itself in the world, and what we thought our role was and what we thought our power could achieve.
And it took a long time to unwind that.
And so understanding the Zeitgeist of American idealism and desire to project ourselves around the world, that was very much an outgrowth of what our experience was in the Second World War.
But it was also for us, I think, getting to know veterans of that war and understanding — what we felt at the beginning of that film was that the Second World War had kind of become encrusted in myth and bloodless gallantry, and the realities of the war were so horrendous and so terrible that the best way to honor the sacrifice and the service of the people who went into it, and especially those who died but really all the soldiers and the country as a whole, was to really embrace and understand and not shy away from looking at what the war was really like.
And so having gone through that experience and talked to people and really found ways to ask the right questions to get the answers that were real and honest and authentic about what war is like, that was helpful to begin to tackle Vietnam.
Q: You mentioned American idealism, and I think one of the things that surprised me about this episode was the extent to which Vietnam came out of idealistic propositions. Was that something that you felt like you knew or believed going into the movie, or was that something that sort of emerged out of your research?
NOVICK: That is an extraordinarily important point, because I think it’s very easy to assume and impart cynicism and feel politics and self-interest in hindsight, and it was really important for us as filmmakers to really go back and understand — what did our leaders think and what were they trying to accomplish?
And we have a line in the introduction, we say that the Vietnam War was begun in good faith by decent people.
And however it turned out, I think we think it is important to recognize that the impulse to do something about the spread of communism and to make the world a better place is a big part of what drove us into this problem. How we stayed there and what kept us there is a different set of questions. But there was a very legitimate and serious concern about what was happening to the world, and especially with the nuclear threat and the dangers that communism posed and that nuclear annihilation posed. And what were we as a country. What was our purpose in the world? Is it to try to help people?
And all of that really does play into the decisions made by Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy about why we should bother with whatever’s going on in Vietnam. So there’s a lot of idealism. Also idealism about what we could accomplish as a country. If we really were a force for good, then we would eventually triumph. That was not logical, but that is, I think, part of the mindset that drove us to get involved and to stay involved.
Q: So one thing I think I’ve been wrestling with since seeing this episode is: If Vietnam began as an idealistic endeavor, what does that say about John F. Kennedy’s vision of public service in America and America’s role in the world? I mean, obviously if Vietnam begins as a good-faith endeavor that says something about the war itself, but doesn’t it also say something about the nature of that idealism and whether it shaded over into overconfidence?
NOVICK: Indeed. Absolutely yes.
It’s also very easy to idealize and oversimplify and lionize what John Kennedy represented and how he articulated a vision of America.
And then you roll up your sleeves in the messy business of politics and insurgency and the ugliness of the real world and it kind of doesn’t really hold up quite so well. And it’s possible to say that oversimplifying and idealizing aren’t necessarily so helpful when you’re trying to live in the real world. But it also was a time when he gave people something to believe in about ourselves that we lost as a result of the war and what went wrong. Certainly lost for a time.
So letting go of those ideals or illusions — invincibility, the sense that we could do anything, that we could do no wrong and that we can accomplish anything we set our mind to. That’s sort of ingrained in our DNA. And the Vietnam War challenged all of that.
For most of my life, I felt like it was clear that the best way to be honest about the Vietnam War was to say it was bad, and that it was clearly wrong for the United States to try to fight it.
But watching this documentary made me consider: Part of facing what happened to America in Vietnam is acknowledging that we went there because a lot of Americans genuinely thought it was a good and important thing to do.
Now the way I think about Vietnam is this: The war wasn’t an end-run around our ideals. It was a reminder that our ideals can go badly wrong.
For more on “The Vietnam War”: