Opinion writer

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 8, “The History of the World (April 1969-May 1970).” The transcript has been edited for readability.

“I just looked at this thing and I came unglued. I don’t know how long — I sat down on the curb, and I don’t know if I was there for 15 minutes or an hour and a half. Just had a breakdown, crying, sobbing uncontrollably. All I could think was: it’s not enough to send us halfway around the world to die. Now they’re killing us in the streets of our own country. I have to do something. And whenever I finally cried myself out, I got up and I joined the antiwar movement.” — Former Marine Bill Ehrhart

The photo that turned Bill Ehrhart into an antiwar activist was taken at Kent State University.

You probably know it.

John Filo, a photojournalism student at Kent State, was on campus on May 4, 1970.

That day, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students protesting the war. They killed four people: Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder.

Nine other students were also wounded.

Filo captured Mary Ann Vecchio’s agony as she kneeled over Miller’s body. She was just 14 years old.

Kent State wasn’t the only American campus where students were killed during the Vietnam War. Students were shot at the University of California at Santa Barbara, as well as at Jackson State.

The number of college students who died or were injured pales next to those who were killed and wounded in Vietnam.

But the shootings at Kent State made it seem like America was fighting a war against its own citizens so it could continue fighting another war overseas.

I talked to Ken Burns about the impact of those shootings and how he dealt with the topic in his film.

Q: So Ken, the first time I watched this episode, which ends with a long section on the Kent State Massacre, I was just so shocked by hearing the audio of Glenn Frank, who was a faculty marshal at Kent State begging the students to disperse after the National Guard had shot and killed four people. I know when you were growing up your dad was a professor at the University of Michigan. He was involved with the antiwar movement there — we’ve talked about that. What was it like to see the antiwar movement at colleges go from the first teach-in at Michigan to the massacres at Kent State and Jackson State?

That must have felt incredibly strange just to see things change that much in that short a span of time.

KEN BURNS: I think just as we’ve discussed the impact of the photograph on the streets of Saigon in Tet, or the burning body of that little girl Kim Phuc running down the street from the mistake her own air forces committed on her and her fellow villagers, so too is the Kent State moment and the iconic photograph that issues from it. And one of the important moments for me. It was just devastating. I think the colloquy of voices at the end of the film, people we’ve gotten to know and trust, were particularly dramatic, and I think expressed what a lot of us felt. I certainly felt that too. “They’re killing us now.”

Q: Do you remember when you saw the picture?

BURNS: Oh, yeah. I do.

I remember it in the Ann Arbor News and the top of the fold and just — oh, my God.

It just seemed to have changed it, in much the same way we sort of feel disassociated from what we would think would be normal courses of events today, and everything sort of laughs in the face of that. It was very disturbing. It was earth-changing.

And in fact, to tell you the evolution, the mention of the death of those students was one line in the original draft of the script and then went on a little bit to reactions to it and the shutting down of the campuses. And I had just coincidentally ended up invited by friends that I knew to give a talk at Kent State, and I went and in my downtime they asked if I’d like to see a little permanent exhibit that they had erected in one of the college buildings.

And I went in, and it was so stunning and so beautifully done in a relatively small amount of space. And the imagery and the movies and the interpretation were so loving that I remember calling up Sarah Botstein and saying, “Look, we have to just expand this. We have to expand this. We’ve got to get somebody out here. You’ve got to hear this audiotape of the gunfire. You’ve got to hear this other thing.”

And so what was a mention and then a dismount became that very long set piece that is agonizing, because you realize so much of what happened really changed the color of the war.

Now, having said that, I think part of what makes this scene so effective is the acknowledgment that a majority — a vast majority — of Americans approved of the guardsmen. That there was incredibly cruel hate mail and vilification of the people who died.

And so there’s an agony to this. There’s this sense of almost just the tightening noose of this episode, and you begin to see in the form of the people that we’ve gotten to know: Bill Ehrhart, John Musgrave, others, just this incredible — this is it. This is what we’re going to do. We have to change our lives.

Q: Do you remember that sense that people blamed the students at the time, or was that something new to you?

BURNS: No, it was new to me. I mean, maybe it wasn’t new to me at the time, but I had conveniently put Kent State and My Lai in these little neat little things, which I pretended to know about. But I had forgotten, or never knew about, the 20-month lag between when the news of My Lai broke and when it actually had taken place, just a few months after Tet.

So I think there’s so many things that maybe perhaps I’d been exposed to, but in a way that we then quickly form a narrative, or a description, or some reductive way for us to neatly file it away. It becomes merely a headline instead of an article, or it becomes a word instead of a sentence.

I mean, the ’68 convention, which a presidential commission would later determine was a police riot, was in fact overwhelmingly approved by the American people. So much so that Nixon opened his campaign in the Chicago Loop, which was traditionally the home of Democratic labor. And that was an astute political decision on his part to sort of scoop up those votes that would have normally and almost reflexively gone Democratic.

And I had forgotten that. All I remember was being appalled at what had taken place night after night for those few nights of the Democratic convention. All of these things you begin to realize when you have the opportunity to pursue the facts and not just the theories or the arguments.

Q: One thing that I have talked to everyone I’m working on this project with about, and I just — I really struggle with this, because I did a lot of protesting in college. I was the world’s sort of politest, meekest protester. And it never occurred to me in a million years when I was doing any of those things that I would be physically unsafe. And that speaks a lot to who I am, where I was going to school.

But when we were occupying the admissions office — this was a fight over financial-aid reform — the dean of the college came in and had herself filmed reading from the student handbook that we could be in disciplinary trouble if we didn’t leave. I mean, it was so polite. And so it never occurred to me that I could get hurt.

BURNS: Well, it is hard to contemplate and I think that this scene very effectively — I’m as proud of that scene as anything, and I’m sure Lynn feels the same position. And the editor, again Tricia Reidy, was so extraordinary and delicate in the way we did it, that you have a sense of reinhabiting what that must have meant.

I mean it’s now in our minds now with Charlottesville, which is — if you were a student at the University of Virginia or someone committed to, you know, anti-hate groups, you might find yourself on a side street with a bunch of other people when all of a sudden a car comes racing down and kills you or severely wounds you in the course of that. And up to that second you would have realized that this was a very tense and charged confrontation, but wasn’t going to become what it became.

Q: I hate saying this, but I feel like the one thing that I have held onto is that it was an individual, it was someone with an ideology. At least it wasn’t the National Guard, at least it wasn’t a police officer. But I do brace for that point again.

BURNS: There’s communities in our country that just the mere sight of a police officer is threatening. We’re isolating something that took place 47 years ago. African Americans are killed by police officers, it seems like, weekly in the United States.

Q: And they get blamed all of the time: “They’re no angels. They’re not innocent.”

BURNS: And in Jackson State, which follows hard on the heels of Kent State, students aren’t even out protesting. These are shots fired into the building.

Q: And I had never heard of Jackson State. Obviously more people died at Kent State. But I just had never heard of that. And I felt like having that incident restored to the national consciousness is, I think, going to spark some difficult conversations for a lot of people.

BURNS: Well, I hope so.

I mean, I remembered it really very vividly. Since it was so soon after, it just felt like everything is coming undone. The whole second half of the film, particularly episodes 6, 7, 8 and 9, are just — the tapestry seems so worn and frayed at any moment you think the whole thing will unravel.

Kent State exists mostly as a photo for me. For Lynn Novick, it was one of her first encounters with the uproar Vietnam caused here at home. She says she remembers not really understanding what happened at the time.

“It didn’t really make sense, but the intensity of that photograph probably represented for me, as a young person coming of age, all the agony of the Vietnam War in one image.”

I asked Novick what it was like to go back and report Kent State all over again, and why she and Ken told the story of the massacre the same way they recounted major battles in Vietnam.

LYNN NOVICK: Like everything else about this project, working on the scene about Kent State was completely revelatory. I really didn’t know much beyond the photograph and the most basic information of the story. And the parts of it that were most stunning to me were understanding the backstory that led up to it — the position of the Ohio governor, why he brought in the National Guard, why they were given live ammunition, how poorly they were trained, where they had come from, that the ROTC building had been burned down and that created such tumult on campus. All those things I did not know.

And most shocking was the public reaction to the killings at Kent State. That the preponderance of public opinion was supporting the National Guard and against the students who had been killed and their families and the protesters. I found that very, very surprising. I had no idea that was how that particular event unfolded when it happened.

Q: I was wondering why you thought Jackson State has retained a less prominent place in American historical memory. Even though college students died there too, is it that there wasn’t that kind of photographic image that made it stick in people’s minds?

NOVICK: I suspect it’s the fact that you don’t have the iconic photograph, and that these are African Americans who were killed, and their lives in our society generally do not seem to carry the same weight. And that’s tragic upon tragic. And also, I think the narrative of what happened there was slightly more confusing and less clear-cut than what happened at Kent State, in terms of just the events and the facts of what happened. But I suspect it’s primarily the lack of a photograph and the racial identity of the students.

Q: One of the things you did in this section of the episode is you walked viewers through Kent State sort of in the same way you take them through a battle in Vietnam. You have the descriptions of the terrain, the explanations for the National Guard’s maneuvers. That seemed like a really clear, intentional choice. Do you think the audience learned something important about Kent State by seeing it as a military maneuver rather than just as some sort of tragic accident?

NOVICK: It seemed important to represent the war coming home in that way, in that you had violence, you had munitions, you had opposing sides, you had misunderstandings and you had chaos on the campus of Kent State. And all of those things were also happening in Vietnam. And it feels as though you have these sort of two parallel threads on a collision course and that’s where they meet — in 1970, in Ohio.

That’s such a fulcrum, such a turning point of the war that to not understand that it was a battle as much as the battles that were happening in Vietnam seems to misrepresent what actually happened.

Mike Welt, our co-producer, tracked down a student who had been on the campus and had a camera that day, or had been filming the protest over the last few days, and kept the camera rolling while this carnage was happening and was actually quite disturbed by what he had seen and put the footage in the garage and didn’t want to look at it again. It was a very circuitous process. It took about a year. But Mike was able to track down the family, and they were willing to share with us all the reels of film that were shot. And we had it all remastered and then used some shots that really have — I don’t know if they’ve never been seen, but they’ve hardly ever been seen.

Q: And what was the process of talking to the family about that?

NOVICK: You know, I would rather have Mike do it. Mike is right here; I can ask him.

MIKE WELT: Hi, how are you?

Q: Hey, I’m great, how are you?

WELT: I’m very well.

Q: Thank you for being pulled into this momentarily. We’re grateful.

WELT: Of course.

Q: So I would love to know sort of the story behind that home video footage if you don’t mind sharing it. It’s really interesting.

WELT: Sure. So we were doing a lot of research at all of the networks, including CBS, and CBS had traces of this footage from Kent State but they didn’t know where it came from. They had broadcast it, I think, immediately following the event, but the records of where it had originated were lost. So we kind of just started asking questions. They couldn’t license it to us, obviously. They didn’t know where it came from.

And we had been in touch with some people who had been at Kent State at the time and were still active in discussion groups online. And one of them very helpfully — by pure serendipity he happened to be contacted by someone recently who, long story short, said, “I think I may know who shot that footage.” And there was a student, David Kline, who was at Kent State, he was a journalism student, and he was doing some camera work on the side for the networks. And the Kent State thing was a big deal, and they were covering it for a few days before the shooting. So he had been shooting this for the local CBS affiliate. My understanding is then he was going to make his own film and for whatever reason he didn’t. But his brother, who is caring for David Kline now, Ray Kline is the brother, we were able to get in touch with him. And Ray sent us a box. He said, “This might have what you’re looking for.”

And this box arrived via FedEx and we opened it and there were, like, you know, 10 cans of 16 millimeter footage that hadn’t been touched in 40 years or whatever it was. So that was really exciting. We then went and had it transferred. And the footage was incredible, because it’s this footage — David Kline was right there on the field with these kids as this event is happening. And it’s stunning to unpack a box that literally you can just tell it hasn’t been looked at for these decades. And then this magic happens when the film gets processed and digitized and you see it, and it’s this incredible and horrible event.

Q: Well, thank you so much. That’s really useful. Can I have Lynn back?

WELT: Yeah, of course. I’ll give you back to Lynn.

Q: Thanks a lot, Mike.

NOVICK: Okay. Much better.

Q: No, that’s so helpful.

NOVICK: It takes a village here.

Q: It’s a good village.

So we talked about that footage, but you also have something I hadn’t seen before, which, again, correct me if I’m wrong here. It looks like you have the photos John Filo took of Mary Ann Vecchio and Jeffrey Miller leading up to the shot that is the iconic shot.

NOVICK: The whole series of photographs, right. Exactly.

Q: Were those in archives?

NOVICK: Well, I should go get Salimah [El-Amin]. She could tell you.

I think it’s Associated Press — not 100 percent sure. We often do a deep dive and ask for the pictures that come before and after the iconic image.

That’s pretty standard for us, is that we don’t want to see just the picture that everybody knows. We want to see what came before and after. And I’m pretty sure that whole series, it’s a sequence, was all taken by the same photographer.

Q: With this picture in particular, was there something you felt like you understood or could contextualize about that famous image from seeing all those pictures in sequence?

NOVICK: Well, one of the things for me about that image is that it’s so often reproduced. I had never really seen fully the expression on her face and the details of what’s on her shirt and the pool of blood and just all of that. It was much more vivid. So I felt that I was seeing it for the first time.

But something happens when you have the opportunity to see what’s before and after an iconic moment like that, where it’s almost like the equivalent today of virtual reality. Where you look around and you can see what’s outside the frame. And you understand that there’s a much broader world and different reality than the one that’s just encapsulated within the lines of that photograph that you’re so familiar with. So it becomes real in a different way.

Q: I wanted to circle back to what you said earlier about bringing the war home, or the war coming home. Because I think something I’m still struggling with is just how we got to a place where National Guard officers and cops were shooting and killing students on college campuses. You know, what does that mean?

NOVICK: We would have to rewind that back to the early ’60s and the civil rights movement and the protests and the ways that those mass demonstrations sometimes were suppressed. There was violence perpetrated on marchers and demonstrators who were peacefully protesting, with hoses and dogs, and people were shot at, and there were assassinations and there was a kind of violent impulse to control. And there was a reaction to it. In the antiwar movement as well, there was a violent streak of bombings and vandalism and destruction that was perpetrated by a tiny fringe minority but got a lot of attention in the press and was exploited very successfully by the political establishment to sow the seeds of fear and rancor and mistrust, and to accuse the people who were against the war of being unpatriotic and violent and destructive.

What was most disturbing to us in putting that scene together, understanding the context, was, I think we would hope that the people who were in charge would know something about de-escalating and calming people down and helping to defuse tension and let people speak and be heard without letting things get out of control. And that did not happen at Kent State.

The antiwar movement was part of a larger wave of social change happening in the United States. And though soldiers fighting in Vietnam were far from home, they too felt the impact of those movements. Some American veterans joined the antiwar movement when they got home. Others embraced the civil rights movement and black power, women’s liberation and the environmental movement.

Gen. Merrill McPeak, who later served as chief of staff for the Air Force, was one of them. I talked to him about how he ended up supporting some of these causes, and his perspective, as a career military man, on the role of protests in our society.

GEN. MERRILL McPEAK: You know, the military — the uniformed military — is not a monolithic, right-wing, ultraconservative outfit. They are, by and large, politically conservative. As am I, by the way. But my point is, it’s not automatic that you sign up with the conservative right wing of the Republican Party just because you’re a general officer. Although a lot of them are. But a lot of them are not. And I guess I wasn’t signed up with anybody. I just looked at a cause like the protection of the environment and said, “Yeah, why should we poison the air we’re breathing?” I mean, who wants to do that? Hold up your hand. And why are we against rights for everybody, including black people, in this country? And why are we for putting some sort of glass ceiling on women? We can use all the talent we have in this country.

Q: You’ve talked about feeling sympathetic with these movements and also feeling like you were in Vietnam in part to protect protesters’ freedoms. How did you feel about the way protesters were being treated at home while you were in Vietnam?

McPEAK: Look, I believe in a vigorous debate. I don’t believe in killing students at Kent State or the police riot that happened in Chicago during the Democratic political convention. So there need to be limits.

I think that the opposition to protest was quite ugly in some cases. And what I would say is that these people were not unpatriotic, which was what they were accused of by the so-called silent majority. They were just expressing their patriotism in another way in a different way. In a way different than I expressed mine. And I’m all for it. And I’m all for you opposing the way they expressed their patriotism. But I don’t think you should get out a billy club and go beat up on them.

At Kent State, the Vietnam War came home to the United States in a way that was impossible to ignore.

Members of the National Guard, which is supposed to protect Americans, killed Americans. And not by accident, but because they were acting like an occupying army on a college campus.

It was an extreme incident. But one that still has implications today, especially with mass protests happening all over the United States.

One of the things that’s frightening about this moment is the sense that we still haven’t resolved questions Vietnam raised about what acceptable protest looks like, and who we should blame when the government responds to protests with violence.

For more on “The Vietnam War”: