Rush to Judgment: Preliminary Thoughts on PBS’ “The Vietnam War”
Like many Americans with an interest in history, One Thing after Another sat down to watch the premiere of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s much-anticipated documentary The Vietnam War. While only a fool would judge an eighteen-hour series on the first episode, we at One Thing after Another have never shied away from a challenge. So what follows are some very preliminary observations about a program that is bound to shape the way Americans—and others—understand the Vietnam War.
First it is worth noting the many strengths that jump out in the first episode. The filmmakers have employed a diverse set of contributors to share their thoughts on the Vietnam War. Careful viewers might notice some familiar names: Bao Ninh (NVA veteran and author of The Sorrow of War), Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried), Leslie Gelb (former official in the State Department), Rufus Phillips (CIA officer), Bui Diem (South Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S), and Duong Van Mai Elliott (scholar and author of the memoir Sacred Willow). But many of the interviewees are not necessarily prominent figures who played an exceptional role in Vietnam. Rather, the filmmakers rely on people whose experiences were “ordinary,” in the sense that they experienced Vietnam in ways that were familiar to many participants.
The filmmakers have also done a nice job in capturing some of the key historical developments in the years leading up to the “Americanization” of the war. Many viewers will be surprised to learn of the brutality of French colonialism and Ho Chi Minh’s efforts to appeal to the United States as early as World War I. The episode effectively (and accurately) depicts the French War to be both a colonial struggle but also a civil conflict between Vietnamese, with Duong Van Mai noting that the fighting split many Vietnamese families. The section on Dien Bien Phu is illuminating, as it captures the against-all-odds victory of General Vo Nguyen Giap over a garrison of French troops. And viewers will likely watch with a sense of foreboding as the French war unravels, knowing that the United States is about to jump in and suffer a similar fate.
But the nagging feeling that the events of the 1940s and 1950s serve as a prelude or backdrop to the “real” war of the 1960s is also one of the limitations of the documentary—or at least of the first episode. One of the first things that viewers may notice about the series is the war does not unfold chronologically. The first episode covers the period from French colonization in the 1860s up to the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. At various points throughout the episode, though, it jumps forward to recollections of later moments in the war—soldiers talking about going on patrol in 1966 or the domestic upheaval that erupted in Chicago in 1968. The purpose of these interruptions seems to be to shrink the distance between the events that preceded American involvement and the American war itself. The message, it seems, is that events and experiences in the 1940s or 1950s bear a certain resemblance to–or even connection to–events in the mid- to late-1960s.
The importance of understanding the historical roots of America’s conflict in Vietnam is reinforced by the opening segment. The first episode begins with footage of the fighting in Vietnam that appears to be taken from the 1960s. Eventually, though, the images begin moving backwards, as the viewer is transported from the late 1960s back to the beginning of the decade, and then further still to the 1950s and eventually to World War II. Meanwhile, viewers hear the words of American presidents, but moving from later presidents like Johnson and Kennedy backwards to Eisenhower and then Truman. With these techniques, the first episode lays out a sort of “roadmap” to America’s involvement in Vietnam—first the French came, but they found that they could not defeat the forces of Vietnamese nationalism. The United States, blinded by its Cold War assumptions, was inexorably drawn into the conflict when the French left.
There is obviously some truth to this narrative. Frankly, if The Vietnam War is able to teach Americans this simple account of the Vietnam War it will probably be a real accomplishment. But this narrative also has some flaws or holes, and it is only one way that historians might approach the topic. For example, by characterizing America’s intervention as a long, slow slide into Vietnam the documentary may reinforce the idea that the U.S. had limited opportunities to avoid involvement in the conflict. More and more, historians are emphasizing that American officials had numerous opportunities to choose de-escalation rather than escalation. This theme will likely become more apparent in later episodes, as Fredrik Logevall, one of the leading proponents of the theory that the U.S. “chose” war, is one of the historical advisors for the documentary.
If the first episode shades toward a bit of determinism in describing America’s role in Vietnam, it may do the same in its account of the rise of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. Viewers of the first part of the documentary may be left thinking that Ho Chi Minh and his followers represented the sole—or at least the primary—movement challenging French colonialism (and, by extension, Japanese control). But such a portrayal ignores the fact that many different groups jockeyed for position in Vietnam, often offering wildly divergent visions for Vietnamese independence and development. In the 1940s, for example, non-communist nationalists allied with the Guomindang attracted a small following. After 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem tried to establish an independent government below the 17th parallel. And throughout this period various religious groups, including different Buddhist sects and the indigenous Hoa Hao, offered their own visions for an independent Vietnam.
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick had to make hard choices when deciding what to include in their documentary. While the length of the series may seem excessive to some viewers, it is impossible to provide a comprehensive account of the Vietnam conflict(s) in eighteen hours. You can be certain that historians would quibble with omissions in a series that was twice as long. It’s also fair to expect a documentary written, produced, and broadcast in the United States to emphasize the stories that interest an American audience. At the same time, a documentary that is bound to shape Americans’ understanding of Vietnam will face a fair amount of scrutiny and second-guessing. Fortunately, the dialogue spurred by the series will provide ample opportunity to think about how best to understand the Vietnam War.