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 10, “The Weight of Memory (March 1973-Onward).” The transcript has been edited for readability.
At the beginning of “The Vietnam War,” the novelist and former Marine Karl Marlantes said the United States treated the war like an alcoholic relative: something better left undiscussed.
I can understand that impulse.
America lost the Vietnam War, and we lost our sense of who we were along the way.
If we could put Vietnam behind us, as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger suggested, maybe we could treat it like a mistake, an aberration, something that hadn’t fundamentally changed who we were as a country.
But by the final episode of the film, we begin to recognize that Vietnam wasn’t just a 10-year blip in the long march of American history.
And talking about the war openly and honestly is the only way we can confront who we were before Vietnam, and what we’ve become in the 42 years since we left.
I talked to Ken Burns about the final episode of the documentary and what we should take away from it.
Q: Ken, we’ve talked about this before, and I want to push you on this, because it’s a really interesting beginning and end to the documentary. The documentary starts with Henry Kissinger saying that America needs to — and I’m quoting him — “heal the wounds and put Vietnam behind us.”
It ends with the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” Hearing “Let It Be” and seeing it over the end credits, which have this beautiful footage of contemporary Vietnam, it’s gorgeous and it’s moving but it nagged at me a little bit. So, what’s the difference between putting something behind us and letting it be?
KEN BURNS: Well, I think Kissinger, who appears in the opening of the film as part of a whole chorus of voices, and then later on that’s repeated as it fits in the 10th episode, is really the politician — saying, okay let’s just pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Let’s move forward.
“Let It Be” is one of the most beautiful pieces of music. That is offering, not the sense of forgetting it, but the ability to reconcile all the conflicting tugs of the information that have just been dumped on you over the last 18 hours.
Facts and emotions and horrors and momentary humor and great emotion. And it’s possible to just say “let it be.” And that’s not about forgetting. It’s about an ultimate reconciliation, which I hope is what we can do. And the fact that one of the images is little kids playing in a helicopter is the ultimate triumph. That the machine of war has become a safe and benign toy.
Q: And it seems like Americans have not particularly let the Vietnam War be. You started making this documentary in 2006, two years after John Kerry’s service in the war came under attack in the 2004 election. As the movie comes out, President Trump has made this habit of sort of relitigating the Vietnam War as a way to attack his enemies. He’s saying that he likes people who didn’t get captured. He’s attacking Richard Blumenthal, who has apologized for the way that he’s talked about the war. So what, if anything, has changed in the way Americans talk about Vietnam while you were making the movie?
BURNS: Not a whole bunch, because as you say it’s framed by the same manipulation of facts that had a significant impact on the 2004 election between John Kerry and President Bush. And we see the same sort of gross manipulation of these facts for political gains without much thought still taking place.
That’s not of our province. We’re not afraid to deal in baser elements, but only those elements that occupy the time in which we’re making our film, which would be — despite a lengthy denouement — between 1858 and 1975 when the last helicopter takes off from the roof of the United States Embassy, ending the American involvement, at least for a while, in Vietnam.
It’s important to free yourself of those baser instincts. It also felt important to us as we did do that epilogue, as we did do the coda, to focus on the larger manifestations of the better angels of our nature, and not the pettiness of war and the knee-jerk oppositionalism that characterized the worst of the conflict back at home and our lack of civil discourse then and now. But to rather favor things that suggested at least the possibility of reconciliation. It might be just the personal moment when Mike Heaney goes back there. We’ve met him, he’s wounded early on in our film. And he goes back and he meets — and they’re all grandpas now, like me, and he has this moment. He says it’s not closure. But you do get a little peace. That’s an amazing part of what it is.
Q: I guess something I struggled with, though, is that Trump is someone who has swept away the idea that there was anything valorous or redemptive or admirable about the way that people behaved in Vietnam. That does push up against a contention in the movie, right? That meaning can be found in these individual stories. And so, do you feel like the ground into which this movie is delivered is harder than it might have been?
BURNS: No. And I don’t want to somehow extol Karl Rove’s brand of politicking by having it contrast it with the lowest form. A glib and flip answer, and I would never mean it to you, would be to say to you “let it be.”
Q: I’m trying to ask if you think Americans are capable of doing that.
BURNS: Yes I do. In fact, I think that one way in which you even look at our present moment, that seems so fraught, so new, so impossibly different, so threatened — the things that we never thought would be threatened are threatened — may in fact end up turning out to be the glorious test of our resilience and the strength and durability of our institutions.
They are clearly all of them fragile. But the point is that it depends on how you see it. And it was super important, I think for us, to leave — at least in a war that has no outward redeeming feature like the Civil War or World War II — to leave you with the realization that sometimes it is the sum total of the heroic contributions of individual people in many different spheres that make it.
And at that point, we don’t need to be reminded after 18 hours of how inhumane we can be to each other. That will always happen and that will always go on. But I would offer, actually, Vietnam as part of the solution and not part of the problem.
Q: You and I have talked about one thing that emerged from Vietnam that I think both of us agree was pretty unambiguously positive. The idea that Americans didn’t trust their government by default and that they were eager for investigation and interrogation and civic engagement around the findings about what the government was really doing.
And I’m all for transparency and civic engagement. I work at The Washington Post. Transparency is our business. But do you think that Americans replaced the government with other institutions that they trusted and with other ways of determining what’s true that we could all agree on? Because it’s not a good thing to trust your government blindly, but it does seem like it’s a good thing to have a shared acknowledgement of how you determine something’s true. And I was wondering if you thought we’d come up with something to replace that.
BURNS: No, I don’t think we have. And I think that we’ve permitted the sort of negative version of what you’re talking about, that is to say the cynicism, to replace the skepticism that Vietnam may have healthily promoted.
Richard Hofstadter wrote an amazing essay about the “paranoid style in American politics and history.” And that’s a really important thing to understand. That our beautifully protected continent with two big oceans on either side and two relatively benign neighbors north and south have inculcated and incubated extraordinary things, but they have also been a kind of laboratory of a certain kind of inward and unassociated toxicity, and that has to be acknowledged as well.
It’s very interesting that the New York Times is thriving as never before, as is your paper, and not since the days of Watergate has it enjoyed a heyday among some quarters. And that’s where I think that the jading of America has not fully taken place. But I see more cynicism than I do skepticism, and that permits a lot of that paranoid style to grow and to fester. And that’s something to be on guard about. And I think we can wring our hands about it. We can complain about it. We can write beautiful essays and articles about it. But you actually have to do something about it.
And we’ve tried in some way, in a little tiny bailiwick, to say, you know, here’s the alternative to that kind of cynicism — a kind of healthy skepticism. We’ve put all of the facts to an extraordinary test, both a scholarly one, an artistic one, a human one, in the course of doing it and we’re very confident that it will hold up. But also mindful that it will also provoke in people on both ends of the spectrum really negative reactions, because they want to see things only one way and will adhere to that binary sense that they are right and everybody else is wrong.
Burns’s argument that Vietnam is part of the solution for America, rather than part of our problem, stuck with me.
He echoed something that Tommy Vallely told me about Vietnam.
If you’ve been watching “The Vietnam War,” you’re probably pretty familiar with Vallely by now.
He served with the Marines in Vietnam. Tommy actually came back to Vietnam in 1985 because he was running for Congress and wanted to make a political ad about his service.
In the 30 years since, he’s worked tirelessly to help improve Vietnam’s universities, and to bring Americans and Vietnamese people into conversation with each other.
Just as Vietnam has become a major and positive part of his life, Vallely argues that the Vietnam War ultimately helped America become what our country is now.
TOMMY VALLELY: I think the Vietnam War helped America. I am with [Gen. Merrill] McPeak on this. So McPeak, I think in the beginning of Episode 8, if you go watch it, McPeak says: Look, the Vietnam War basically defined who we are now. I think the Vietnam War made us stronger, not weaker.
Vietnam basically wakes up America and says: Look, you have to rethink how you operate in the modern world. I don’t know what it was worth, but I think the Vietnam War strengthens the U.S.
I also think it strengthens the idea of patriotism. Yes, it is patriotic to be in the peace movement. Yes, it is patriotic to disagree with your government. I think it partially reinvents America after the second World War creates a delusion about America.
The interesting thing about Vietnam is, if Vietnam is so important, nothing bad happened to America when it lost.
America loses the Vietnam War, what happened to America? Nothing bad, only good. Therefore we shouldn’t have been there in the first place, or it wasn’t that important. The real estate is not important.
The American behavior is important. Too many people die for this experiment. I’m not trying to trivialize the war or the film, because I think the film is an additional work of art. So I’m not trying to trivialize it, but I do think that the war benefited and changed positively the United States in its trajectory. Is it a perfect trajectory? No.
Q: I wanted to go back to what your son said to you that Ken Burns decides what America thinks of itself. So what do you think America should think of itself coming out of this film?
VALLELY: Well, we’re going to see that we’re not perfect, for sure.
But we’re going to see that we also tolerated this experiment of America. One of the great ideas of the last hundred years has been, does American democracy work? And Vietnam is a pretty good example that it’s pretty resilient.
Obviously, we can’t wrap up this podcast without coming back to Lynn Novick. She went into making “The Vietnam War” with fewer preconceptions than Ken did, in part because she’s younger.
I talked to her about whether making this movie had changed the way she felt about the Vietnam War as history — and about the way we remember the war today.
LYNN NOVICK: Well, making this film changed my views about lots of things. It gave me a deeper appreciation for how valuable idealism and cohesion can be and what was lost in the unraveling that happened during Vietnam.
I do find incredibly inspiring the fact that there were and there are people who, of deep patriotism, felt it was their obligation to challenge what was happening and to speak out against it and to take action. And the journalists who tried to cover the war as correctly and factually accurately as they could to make sure that the people at home knew the story of what was really happening, because they weren’t being told by the government. It’s hard not to have that get under your skin and think about what’s possible.
But I was also really inspired to meet the soldiers who fought. Whether they thought the war was right or wrong, whether they thought it was winnable or not, that they wanted to be part of it — or they had no choice, whichever, and just did their duty, did their best. Survived. Endured.
That’s a powerful experience to get to meet those people.
Q: So you have footage from Maya Lin talking about her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. And she says, “It’s not going to be something that says ‘It’s all right, it’s over,’ because it’s not.” The title card for this episode has the dates it covers as March 1973 to onward. So given that, do you think the Vietnam War is over?
NOVICK: I do not think the Vietnam War is over. I really love the comment that I read by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of “The Sympathizer,” this wonderful novel by a South Vietnamese, Vietnamese American writer.
And he has a new book, which is called “Nothing Ever Dies.”
And he says all wars are fought twice: on the battlefield and in our memory. And my postscript to that is that we’re still fighting the Vietnam War. And these ghosts of the war are still haunting us. They’re still there and they’re not going away.
The other day we were with Karl Marlantes doing an event, and he was asked why he wrote his novel “Matterhorn” and what was the impulse to that, what was it like for him. It’s a good question. And he said everyone who’s fought in the war — and I think this is true really not just for combat veterans, but for people who lived through it — he said we all have ghosts, and we carry them around with us every day. And every waking moment they’re there. And you can kind of push them off to the side and you try to live your life, but there’s just there.
And he said, “We have to find a way to turn those ghosts into ancestors.”
Put them up on the shelf and then you can think about them and you can honor them and you can talk to them. But they don’t have to be inside you. And that’s why he wrote his novel. He said, “For me it was through the transmogrification of putting this into a work of art and a story.” And I think as a country we really have to do that. I’m stealing from Karl Marlantes shamelessly, but it was a beautiful way of putting it, I thought.
I like the idea of the Vietnam War as a ghost; it’s always felt that way to me.
I didn’t live through it, so maybe the haunting is a little less visceral for me.
But I knew it was always there, shaping how Americans talked to and thought about each other, and influencing how we saw ourselves on the world stage.
As I worked on this podcast, though, my thinking started to change.
Maybe the Vietnam War isn’t a ghost. After all, it’s hard to say that something’s come back if it never really ended in the first place.
And in the United States, the Vietnam War is not settled.
It still comes up in our presidential elections.
It’s the subtext behind our debates about what it means to support the troops, and what counts as a legitimate way to protest or question the government.
The Vietnam War is present when we talk about the proper role of the press in difficult times.
And it’s an origin story for our present moment in politics, one where it sometimes seems like we don’t just disagree with other people, but find them immoral.
And judging by the emails I’ve received about this podcast, both people who fought in the war and people who protested it still feel like reconciliation is a long way off.
If the Vietnam War is still ongoing, we still all have a lot of work to do to negotiate a lasting peace.
Q: Ken, I want to close by asking you this: Is the Vietnam War over?
BURNS: No, I don’t think it is, as your excellent questions have pointed out. If that war is still being used or misused in the context of a contemporary political decision, and this is occurring simultaneously with Charlottesville, which shows that the Civil War is not over — let us be very clear that the white supremacist and the neo-Nazi stuff is merely a subset of the lost cause of the Confederacy. Nazism is a great, attractive feature if you’re trying to hold to what the Confederacy — to the lost cause. And so the Civil War ain’t over. That’s still with us. And the Vietnam War isn’t over either.
And I’m not sure that we’re going to see its end for a very long time.
For more on “The Vietnam War”: