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Opinion ‘The American War’: Why you need to understand American racism to understand what happened in Vietnam

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.

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Here’s our conversation about Episode 5, “This Is What We Do (July 1967-December 1967).” The transcript has been edited for readability. Note: This episode contains adult language.

When Americans went to Vietnam, we thought we were the good guys. We were fighting for freedom! We were going to stop communism in its tracks!

There were a lot of problems with that idea. One of the big ones? American racism.

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American policymakers thought that, in general, Asian people didn’t value individual human lives as much as Westerners did.

They told each other and themselves that the South Vietnamese were too weak and lazy to be good soldiers.

And to help get themselves through the horrors of war, American soldiers taught themselves to think about North Vietnamese soldiers as if they were less than human.

In the very first episode of “The Vietnam War,” Ken Burns and Lynn Novick let some of their Vietnamese sources explain what it was like to live under a racist French colonial system.

And in this episode, some Americans explained how racism helped them fight without falling apart in Vietnam.

I talked to Ken Burns about the fifth episode of the documentary.

Q: Ken, as I watched the documentary over and over — and I’ve watched it a lot — one moment I keep coming back to is former Marine John Musgrave’s explanation of how racism helped him deal with the brutality of the war in Vietnam by obscuring the humanity of the people he was killing. It’s so uncompromising and clear in a way that I think explanations of that kind of sentiment rarely are. What was it like to hear that part of his interview for the first time?

KEN BURNS: It’s staggering. Lynn did the interview and brought it back. And what happens is that while a physical printed transcript is being created, we then select the best stuff.

So you end up with a very wide selection of John Musgrave and you get to that. And he said, “I killed only one human being in Vietnam and that was the first person I killed and I was just sick about it.” So you got your attention spiked and then he goes on, as he does, to describe the pact with the devil that he had to make in order to continue doing his job, which was, for the next 13 months, killing other people, which he did, and was nearly killed himself in the process.

And you begin to realize the war business, but also the very, very essential ingredient, as he says, is Racism 101, which is what you need in order to keep your young people sane going about their business, right? Fighting your wars. It is one of the most profound statements in the film, among 78 other people with profound statements and many other profound statements by John Musgrave.

It really punched me in the gut to see the honesty and the directness, and how clean it is. Even the subsequent comment that he’s going to make a little while later about not taking any prisoners, which is almost as startling, as chilling as the other one.

It’s just — it is so clean and so clear about what the calculus of war is about.

Q: I wanted to flash back a little bit, because you and I have had a lot of conversations about race in your work. But I was wondering, from your own memories of the Vietnam War, did you have a sense that race was playing a role either in why the U.S. was there or in the conduct of the war at the time? Or is that something that became part of your awareness of the war later?

BURNS: Mostly much, much later. I mean, certainly I was painfully aware of the dynamic of race in the United States and I was certainly aware of the way it manifested in popular culture at the time, particularly with Muhammad Ali’s refusal to accept induction. And that became part of the rallying cry of the counterculture.

But it was first initially through popular culture and things like “Apocalypse Now.” He sails up the river to that point where he finds — completely made up, never happened, nobody took drugs out in combat — the drugged out, mostly African American crew. Later, some of the dynamics within “Platoon” that were a little ham-handed and heavy-handed, but nonetheless brought that home.

My future, sort of finding out, as I began to know who I was and what I wanted to do with my life, and that it would entail not just film at age 12, but documentary at age 19 and history by 22, that race was going to be a big dynamic and this was going to be a huge part of the story of the United States that I was going to tell. And so there was zero surprise that we would have that as an important component in our film.

Q: Well, and again you and I’ve talked about this a lot, we’ve been in Charleston while you and Henry Louis Gates have been talking about this, but I realize I never asked you: What is the origin story for your realization that race is the big part of the American story that you want to tell? Is there a project or a moment?

BURNS: Well, for me it goes back to — in the years leading up to my mom’s death in April ’65 I was quite anxious and couldn’t sleep and had lots of stomachaches and things like that. And I remember once watching with my parents in ’62 or ’63 the dogs and the fire hoses in Selma. And I found it super interesting and I was very curious about it and the little boy in me was — you know, it was war. But when I got to bed that night I couldn’t sleep and I was worried that I was going to throw up.

And I realized later that a lot of that had to do with — the cancer that was killing my country and the cancer that was killing my family had been sort of merged.

And there were other instances. I spoke about it in my Jefferson lecture last year about our — a few years before that about leaving Newark, Delaware, and leaving our cleaning lady Mrs. Jennings, who had been much more than that, a kind of surrogate mother when my mother was in the hospital a lot. And then she was the last goodbye we did after we loaded up the car. We went to see her and we were sitting in the back of a rented station wagon and she came in to lean in to give me a kiss, and I wouldn’t let her do it. She understood. And my dad drove off and got about a mile or half a mile and just pulled over and he said, “Young man, I am so disappointed in you.”

So it had been in my bloodstream. It continues to this day where I keep, as you know, next to my desk a set of ankle chains of a slave — a piece of iron that has only one purpose: in the United States of America, founded on the idea that all men are created equal, to keep other people owned. And so, I don’t know where it coalesced, but it’s manifested itself.

Q: To come back to John Musgrave, do you think racism was critical to the conduct and misconduct of the war? Or was it sort of a factor in a larger miscalculation?

BURNS: It’s always an important thing, the demonization of the enemy, as he would describe it. It permits things to happen. But this is as old as war itself. And we really struggled, particularly when My Lai came, with just the right calibration of language to understand that the deaths of civilians in war is not new.

And yet, in Vietnam, while it wasn’t policy, it wasn’t an aberration either.

And I would like to just also put a big gigantic asterisk — because the intimacy of the killings, say at My Lai, not to just belittle that, because there are lots of them and some committed by the enemy and some by us — but also the way in which human beings somehow comfortably abstract killing people from an airplane with a bomb from that. Because more people died — you know there are a lot of millions of Germans and Japanese that are no longer with us, civilians killed by us, that we don’t even have a second thought about. And we’re actually, with Vietnam, slightly more painfully aware of the human cost from bombing.

But not so much. We’re going to focus on these individual acts of the Calleys and the Medinas, rather than the systemic act of governments — and I’m not doing this to condemn the United States government, I’m just saying this is a feature of all wars. It is a priori a nature of war to be disinterested in civilian loss of life.

It’s interesting that we’re in a military dynamic now in which that is one of the things up with which the military will not put, which is the loss of civilian life, and they’re struggling mightily hard to hit their targets. And still we read about drones blowing up a wedding party and not an al-Qaeda party.

Racism helped make combat more abstract and thus more manageable for some American soldiers. But did bigotry play a role in larger policy miscalculations?

Did it make Americans underestimate the severity of the Buddhist crisis, for example? Or did racism prevent Lyndon Johnson from understanding his enemy? After all, he once said, “Foreigners are not like the folks I’m used to.”

It’s one thing to miss the complicated internal dynamics of another country. It’s another to misunderstand because your ideas about race prevent you from seeing any complexity at all. When it came to Vietnam, American policymakers were definitely ignorant. But whether they made important decisions out of racism is a more complicated question.

We spoke with Fredrik Logevall in the first episode of this podcast. He’s a professor at Harvard and he wrote one of my favorite books about Vietnam, “Embers of War.” He was also an adviser on the documentary. I brought him back for this episode because he studied the way American policymakers approached the Vietnam War. He differs from Burns on this a little bit — he thinks Americans had at least some sense of Vietnamese culture. But clearly, they didn’t know enough to be aware of what they were getting into when they went to war in Vietnam.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: I don’t mean to say that somehow Robert McNamara or Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger were experts on Vietnamese culture and history. They certainly weren’t. In fact they were largely ignorant of the country. I just don’t think that it mattered that much.

Because one of the things that I have determined in my research is that they knew very well the obstacles. They understood very well that they faced formidable obstacles to victory. They understood that they had a very weak South Vietnamese government that was riven by infighting. They understood that the South Vietnamese military, the so-called ARVN, Army of the Republic of Vietnam, was pretty much a weak reed on which to try to fight. They understood that this was an alien environment that was difficult to fight in, to say the least. And they understood that the North Vietnamese had important backing from the Chinese, who were right across the frontier, and that they had backing also to a lesser extent from the Soviet Union.

And so I think that they lacked knowledge of this place, but they understood more than that line of argument suggests, I guess I would say.

Q: To put it a different way, do you think that the American preferences and decision calculuses were weighted by cultural and racial questions? Were they just more comfortable dealing with Vietnamese Catholics and did they underestimate Northern troops because of ideas about Asian-ness?

LOGEVALL: To a degree, I guess. I’ll go part of the way to suggesting that those issues mattered. They were more comfortable with Vietnamese Catholics. I think that was one reason they stuck with Ngo Dinh Diem for as long as they did. And I think in terms of the conduct of the war, race and racism factored in. Which is a separate issue we could pursue if you want. But I will come back to saying that they respected, from an early point, most of them, the fighting ability of the Vietnamese.

And so there was I think, both on the part of most officials and on the part of American soldiers and Marines, a respect for the adversary that you see from a pretty early point. And that would, for me at least, lessen the importance that I would attach to racism in that sense.

Q: You did mention the conduct of the war and I would be interested in going down that path.

LOGEVALL: My sense is that there was a dehumanizing element to how American commanders proceeded.

There was, I think, a sense that somehow you were dealing with Vietnamese people, often referred to as “gooks,” who didn’t put the same value on life as Americans would, for example, and therefore we can fight the war differently. And there was probably less of a concern about what is euphemistically called “collateral damage” in more recent language than there would have been perhaps otherwise.

That’s a pretty poor answer to your question. I guess even there, I come back to a sense that so many came to have, including veterans who have spoken in my classes. To a person, I think, Alyssa, they have said: I came to have such respect for Charlie, or I came to have such respect for the enemy and for their willingness to go to this extent to defeat us. That’s the sort of takeaway that I have more than maybe anything else.

Q: It does seem to a certain extent like individual soldiers feel that racism became a tool that allowed them to be more effective as soldiers. And one of the things that to me comes across a lot in the movie is individual soldiers grappling with that. How do you think American audiences will react to that? Because obviously the orthodox history and public opinion suggests that this was a war that was not winnable, that we should not have fought and that degraded us nationally, but is it harder to talk about how the war might have degraded us on a personal and individual level?

LOGEVALL: Well this is so interesting because you’ve seen the film, so you’ve seen this in an iteration that I haven’t seen.

I do think that the war, and maybe this is what the film shows, is that there is on the one hand this broad consensus — with some exceptions — but a broad consensus I think, among scholars, among journalists, among ordinary interested Americans, that this thing was a mistake. That this was not a war that should have been fought. You have a so-called revisionist point of view which says that it was the right war, it should have been fought and it could have been won. But I think that’s still a minority position.

But alongside this is the sense, I think you’re suggesting or that the film suggests, that for at least some Americans who fought, it had this dehumanizing dimension to it. And that it made it easier for them, for Americans in the field, to fight this thing day after day, even if they were beginning to question the purpose of the thing — why am I here? What am I doing here getting shot at day after day? If they could view the Vietnamese, both the Viet Cong and also the North Vietnamese, the so-called NVA, the North Vietnamese army, as something other than fully human.

When we think about the 1960s and race, we usually think about the civil rights movement, and for good reason.

But it’s important to remember that race was a part of the story in Vietnam, too. It made Americans overestimate our importance. And it gave soldiers the tools they needed to kill in an increasingly brutal and draining war.

Ugly ideas about how to conduct the war in Vietnam weren’t always made public. But as photos of what Americans were doing in Vietnam began to appear in newspapers and on TV, the United States had to ask, “What kind of war had we gotten into?”

For more on “The Vietnam War”: