The Vietnam War, a new documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, is one of the filmmakers’ most ambitious projects. The ten-episode series aired on PBS last fall and seeks to be a definitive and comprehensive narrative history of the war. Burns and Novick focus on the period from 1965 to 1973, when American ground troops fought alongside the South Vietnamese. In an effort to explain how the war has profoundly affected American society and culture, they also cover the anti-war movement and political developments in the United States. The filmmakers interviewed dozens of American and Vietnamese participants, whose voices and stories personalize this complicated history. The series requires a significant time commitment from viewers—together the episodes are eighteen hours long—but offers a stunning visual account of one of the most controversial and complex events in the twentieth century. The documentary is accessible to general audiences and poses many questions about the causes of the war in Vietnam, how and why the United States became involved, and the legacies of the conflict. Ultimately, however, the documentary raises more questions than it answers. Perhaps this was Burns’s and Novick’s goal. But some viewers may come away from the The Vietnam War feeling unsatisfied or with a sense that the series obscures as much as it reveals. Those interested in learning more about the war are in luck, as long as they are willing to use the documentary as a starting point for further inquiry rather than an exhaustive chronicle. Since the late 1970s, historians from around the world have produced a massive body of scholarship on all aspects of the conflict. During the last ten to fifteen years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Vietnamese history, U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, and the Cold War. As researchers have gained access to recently-opened archives in Vietnam, Russia, China, and elsewhere, their accounts have deepened and broadened our understanding of the war. There are now a host of excellent studies that consider the international dimensions of the wars in Vietnam; the effects of the conflict on neighboring countries such as Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand; the political dynamics within both Vietnamese states; and the non-military aspects of American and other foreign intervention. Burns and Novick consulted with a number of prominent scholars who helped to produce this body of work. And they have incorporated Vietnamese perspectives throughout the series, which is a vitally important contribution to Americans’ understanding of the war. Otherwise, however, the documentary fails to reflect many of the major and exciting trends in the scholarship, and it does not really challenge our basic assumptions about why the United States became so heavily involved and invested in Vietnam. Despite these shortcomings, The Vietnam War may be useful for undergraduate or high-school classes. Among Burns’s and Novick’s major contributions are the huge amount of visual records they include in the documentary. The Vietnam War contains an impressive amount of video footage and photographs from the late colonial period through the war years, much of which has not been previously accessible to the public. Along with the more familiar images of American soldiers humping through the Vietnamese jungle, engaged in firefights, or dropping bombs on villages, students of U.S. involvement in Vietnam can now see clips of National Liberation Front (NLF) cadre attacking South Vietnamese positions and northerners transporting supplies along the Ho Chi Minh trail. While such images might not be entirely novel, the sheer volume of historical footage included is unprecedented. The Vietnam War also makes good use of audio recordings from the Johnson and Nixon administrations. While students may be aware of the White House tapes, these recordings have generally been under-utilized by researchers. Burns and Novick effectively scatter excerpts from the tapes throughout the series, especially during the middle episodes. The inclusion of Johnson and Nixon’s recorded conversations shed light on the leaders’ views and opinions about the war and offer a glimpse into the highest levels of policy deliberations. They paint an incriminating portrait of these presidents. Some of Nixon’s conversations, in particular, reveal his obsession with discrediting his political rivals and his willingness to deceive the American public about the situation in Vietnam to ensure his own political survival. Again, none of this is new. However, it is an entirely different experience to read about a president’s duplicity than to hear a recording in which he endorses lying or encourages his cronies to break into a think tank or the Democratic National Committee’s offices. Burns and Novick interviewed many Vietnamese participants in the war, from both northern and southern parts of the country. These men and women shed light on the many sides and the complexity of this conflict. Including Vietnamese voices reflects a recent trend among scholars to incorporate multiple perspectives and attribute agency to Vietnamese actors. However, The Vietnam War ultimately remains an American-centric study and promotes the idea of American exceptionalism. And in this regard, there are serious limits to the documentary’s usefulness in a classroom setting. Like most other films on the topic, The Vietnam War primarily focuses on the military aspects of U.S. involvement. There is an impressive amount of footage that depicts troops on all sides engaged in fighting, and many veterans interviewed for the series speak eloquently about their combat experiences. But the documentary contains precious little on troops who did not regularly see combat. And when the documentary does acknowledge Americans in non-combat positions, it inevitably focuses on those like female nurses. However, as historians such as Meredith Lair and Christian Appy have shown, a significant number of American military personnel in Vietnam were engaged in support and other non-combat roles.1 In fact, during certain years and in some parts of the country, the vast majority of Americans were confined to bases or other military installations and rarely, if ever, took part in the fighting. Like combat troops, these men and women suffered from poor morale and experienced widespread disillusionment about what they were doing in Vietnam. But by focusing almost exclusively on the experiences of combat veterans, Burns and Novick contribute to the conventional—and not fully accurate—image of American troops who were in constant danger and under perpetual fire while serving in Vietnam. Paying more attention to non-combat soldiers and their experiences would have offered a more complete and detailed depiction of the conflict. The documentary also glosses over the activities and attitudes of aid workers and other Americans participating in non-military efforts. My own research, as well as that of James Carter and other scholars, suggests that these men and women played a vital role in the overall American failure.2 More significantly, The Vietnam War devotes scant attention to how Vietnamese history, culture, and political dynamics influenced the nature and outcome of the conflict. Most episodes in the series deal with the period between 1963 and 1973, when American advisors and then ground troops fought alongside the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). The first episode provides brief but welcome historical context and background. The episode covers more than one hundred years of history and considers a staggering amount of material that is critical for understanding why the war was being fought in the first place. This episode addresses French colonialism, the Vietnamese revolution, and the First Indochina War, the partition of Vietnam, and early development in the two states. However, by the second episode, Burns and Novick all but abandon this approach, and subsequent episodes contain almost no discussion of how Vietnamese history and the legacy of colonialism shaped events in later years. In particular, the film rarely addresses directly the striking similarities between French and American efforts or attitudes towards the Vietnamese. By framing U.S. intervention as the result of “misunderstandings,” as narrator Peter Coyote intones during the opening sequence, the filmmakers largely absolve Americans from engaging in the same type of self-interested, imperial expansion as their European counterparts. It is striking that, of all the many individuals interviewed on camera, The Vietnam War does not include a single historian. A number of prominent scholars consulted on the material, and the historian Geoffrey Ward wrote the narrative text. Burns and Novick have explained that they decided not to feature any “talking heads” or other experts in order to make the documentary more accessible to general audiences. However, there are many scholars whose deep understanding of Vietnamese, American, Chinese, French, or Russian history would have contributed greatly to the film. For example, I thought about how Peter Zinoman or David Marr would explain the links between French policies and development of revolutionary nationalism in Vietnam during the early twentieth century. Or how Philip Catton or Edward Miller might talk about the South Vietnamese government and American nation-building efforts. Or the valuable perspective a scholar such as Lien-Hang Nguyen or Pierre Asselin could provide on the inner-workings of the Vietnam Workers Party and decision-making in Hanoi.3 Despite the inclusion of Vietnamese perspectives and the occasional reference to Chinese or Russian support for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) or the NLF, the documentary actually contains very little discussion of the international dimensions of the conflict. This omission is surprising, considering that the “internationalization” of the war is one of the most important and compelling developments in recent historiography. Mark Lawrence, Kathryn Statler, Chen Jian, Zhai Qiang, Ilya Gaiduk and many others have published excellent studies that highlight how the wars in Vietnam fit into global trends and developments in the post-World War II period.4 Burns and Novick are correct to situate American involvement in Vietnam within the Cold War context. However, they do not adequately explain the basic motivations and interests, especially economic ones, that drove the United States and its rivals into the Cold War in the first place or that caused American policy makers to commit so much blood, treasure, or prestige to a small country in Southeast Asia. In addition, it is impossible to understand why so many Vietnamese were willing to sacrifice everything without considering the process of decolonization or the neo-imperial aspirations of the superpowers throughout the world. While Burns and Novick hint at the intertwined nature of decolonization and the Cold War in the first episode or two, they fail to carry these themes through into later episodes. Another problem is that the documentary provides an overly simplified view of politics in Hanoi and of dynamics within South Vietnam. Burns and Novick emphasize the role of Le Duan, the first secretary of the Worker’s Party and most powerful figure within the DRV government. This is an important departure from the popular notion, at least in the United States, that Ho Chi Minh always controlled the revolution or called the shots. It also corresponds with recent work by scholars whose studies have relied upon Vietnamese archival sources. However, the filmmakers perhaps err on the side of over-exaggerating Le Duan’s influence. More significantly, they hardly address the bitter feuds among North Vietnamese policy makers over how to implement socialist reforms, the implications of accepting Chinese and Soviet aid, or Hanoi’s relationship with southern revolutionaries. Similarly, Burns and Novick gloss over the complicated political dynamics in southern Vietnam. They effectively demonstrate the lack of popular support for leaders such as Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Van Thieu. However, they do not devote nearly enough attention to other individuals or organizations that offered competing visions for modernization and governance in SVN. Nor do they fully address the basic reasons that many Vietnamese mistrusted or rejected any leaders who accepted the American presence or appeared to be dependent on the United States. Such omissions stem from the filmmakers’ unwillingness to confront the legacy of colonialism or address fully Americans’ anti-revolutionary impulses and imperial ambitions. Burns and Novick have produced a documentary that is compelling and riveting, even as it is frustrating and difficult to watch. I can imagine showing my classes brief clips from The Vietnam War, primarily as a way to depict the nature of the fighting and to show the perspectives of some people involved. However, I would encourage my students to think beyond the over-arching, sometimes simplified narrative that the documentary offers and to seek out other sources. Ultimately, The Vietnam War serves as one window into the war and American memory but not as a definitive account of the many facets of the conflict. Footnotes 1 See especially Meredith Lair, Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War (Chapel Hill, NC, 2011). 2 Jessica Elkind, Aid Under Fire: Nation Building and the Vietnam War (Lexington, KY, 2016); James Carter, Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building, 1954–1968 (Cambridge, UK, 2008); David Biggs, Quagmire: Nation Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta (Seattle, WA, 2011). 3 Peter Zinoman, The Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam, 1862–1940 (Berkeley, CA, 2001); David Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920–1945 (Berkeley, CA, 1984); Philip Catton, Diem’s Final Failure: Prelude to America’s War in Vietnam (Lawrence, KS, 2002); Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, MA, 2013); Lien-Hang Nguyen, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Chapel Hill, NC, 2016); and Pierre Asselin, Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (Berkeley, CA, 2015). 4 See in particular Mark Lawrence, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (Oxford, UK, 2010); Kathryn Statler, Replacing France: The Origins of American Intervention in Vietnam (Lexington, KY, 2009); Qiang Zhai, China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950–1975(Chapel Hill, NC, 2000); and Ilya Gaiduk, Confronting Vietnam: Soviet Policy toward the Indochina Conflict, 1954–1963 (Palo Alto, CA, 2003). © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Diplomatic History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 12, 2018
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