In a recent interview, Ken Burns went out of his way to contrast the Civil War — the subject of one of his previous documentaries — and the Vietnam War — the subject of his latest documentary, which just finished airing on PBS. “Nobody’s going to sentimentalize Vietnam,” he explained.
Through vivid archival footage, a powerful soundtrack and detailed interviews with American and Vietnamese soldiers, Burns’s film immerses viewers in several horrific events of the war, including the massacre of hundreds of civilians at My Lai.
Yet while Burns makes no pretense to romanticize the Vietnam War, he overlooks the deep racism inextricably intertwined with the U.S. war effort. This allows a romantic narrative of 20th-century race relations to persist in his documentary.
Race is not often mentioned in discussions of the Vietnam War. But as with the Civil War, racism was deeply embedded in the conflict. The atrocities committed against nonwhite civilians in Vietnam both fueled and reflected the racial violence experienced by nonwhite citizens in the United States. And like the Civil War, curators of the war’s memory have ignored contentious issues of race in favor of creating a national narrative of reconciliation.
And that’s a problem, because we cannot begin to address the racial troubles plaguing the nation today without accurately remembering the way that America’s wars have fostered racism in this country.
Although U.S. intervention in Vietnam was not motivated primarily by race, racial ideology permeated justifications of the escalating conflict. The racist attitudes of senior U.S. policymakers and military commanders profoundly influenced the way the war was fought on the ground and from the air.
Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam between 1964 and 1968, claimed, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner.” In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon privately expressed his belief that nobody would care if “these little brown people” were “slaughtered and castrated” by the North Vietnamese forces.
This racial conflict extended into the military experience itself. White soldiers — many of whom were poor Southerners — began to exercise their sense of racial superiority over nonwhite soldiers in Vietnam by donning Ku Klux Klan robes and the Confederate flag.
At home, the violence of the war reinforced and perpetuated deep-seated racial conflicts. By 1969, 56 percent of black Americans opposed the war into which they were disproportionately drafted. Protesting the draft, Muhammad Ali famously proclaimed, “They want me to go to Vietnam to shoot some black folks that never lynched me, never called me n—-r, never assassinated my leaders.”
White politicians responded by warning that such activists would “breed internal wars” and create “a Saigon offensive in our country here.” Think tank experts proposed quelling the unrest with a military-style counterinsurgency effort. And when white Southern soldiers returned home, Nixon was quick to appeal to them by simultaneously denouncing antiwar activists and propping up Southern white pride with the dog-whistle rhetoric of law and order and states’ rights.
The most lasting consequence of these racial cleavages was the blurring of lines between foreign and domestic threats. In short, the Vietnam War and the debate over its memory helped to legitimize a backlash against movements for racial justice.
Films that have memorialized Vietnam — from “The Deer Hunter” to “Rambo” to “Forrest Gump” — have whitewashed this connection. But a 1972 documentary, “Winter Soldier,” forced Americans to confront it, providing an example of how Americans can and must grapple with the roots of white supremacy in the war.
The film portrays a gathering of U.S. veterans who offered testimonials about war crimes committed against Vietnamese civilians. In the film, soldiers describe the war’s systematic dehumanization of the Vietnamese people.
U.S. soldiers perpetuated a racial animus against the entire Vietnamese population, including those who opposed the Communist revolution. G.I.s were conditioned to treat the Vietnamese as beasts of prey. One white veteran in the film describes witnessing the disembowelment of a Vietnamese woman, replicating a demonstration his superior officers had done with a rabbit in basic training.
The film shows how these sentiments had roots in both earlier wars of U.S. imperial conquest and the Jim Crow South.
In an effort to understand how he could kill Vietnamese people with such ease, a Native American veteran in the film recalls watching spaghetti westerns as a child, knowing that he was supposed to root for the cowboys, not the Indians. A black veteran, on the other hand, vividly recalled the connection between the atrocities against nonwhite civilians in Vietnam with violence against nonwhite Americans at home. “They’re after the Vietnamese because they’re racists,” he declares. “My first sergeant was a Ku Klux Klan man.” These testimonies in the film forced viewers to confront the Vietnam War as a continuation of America’s long history of racial violence.
As time passed, however, efforts to promote national reconciliation increasingly erased racial conflict from the national memory of the war. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, completed in 1982, exemplified this shift. Honoring the approximately 58,000 U.S. soldiers who died in the war, it omitted the millions of Vietnamese, including U.S. allies, who perished in the conflict. The memorial also erased the connection between the war abroad and the racial subjugation of America’s nonwhite soldiers at home.
In his poem, “Facing It,” published in 1988, Yusef Komunyakaa attempts to challenge this erasure of racial violence in the national memory of the war by lamenting how the wall has rendered him invisible. The poem refuses to capitulate to a form of national solidarity that covers up the racial violence of the war abroad and perpetuates systemic racism at home.
When Ken Burns talks about the Vietnam War, he once again unwittingly shifts our focus away from the politics of race. In furthering efforts to reunite the nation, he neglects the critical role that race played in fueling the social divides he aims to bridge.
But this is a mistake.
If we really want to grapple with racism past and present, those of us who oppose white supremacy need to face the fact that America’s wars have played a central role in fostering the violent racism that we confront today.