Wayne O'Leary

Ken Burns’ Vietnam War

I should make clear at the outset that I’m a Ken Burns fan. His epic 1990 documentary on the Civil War remains one of the best things ever shown on TV, with the superlative series on jazz, baseball and national parks not far behind. Having said this, I’m forced to conclude that September’s long-awaited Burns narrative about America’s Vietnam experience ranks as a disappointment.

To some extent, creative failure was built into the production by virtue of its PBS sponsorship. One of the prevailing characteristics of PBS in late years has been a preemptive centrism concerning potentially controversial topics. Fear of congressional budget cuts and conservative witch hunts has made the public network’s programmers cautious in the extreme and eliminated any vestiges of the political daring and nonconformism it occasionally displayed during its formative period. Even well-regarded liberal personalities like Bill Moyers, a network institution, had to struggle to stay on the air.

In the case of the Burns Vietnam documentary, private funders — three-quarters of PBS money now comes from nongovernmental sources — may have had a subtle undue influence. One listed contributor to the series was David Koch, one of the infamously right-wing billionaire Koch brothers. Koch wouldn’t have directly interfered with the creative process, but he could have prompted scriptwriters to pull their punches.

In any event, The Vietnam War interprets its subject straight down the middle. Antiwar viewpoints are invariably offset by pro-war opinions, and American shortcomings or moral failings are balanced by heroic actions undertaken for noble ends. Looking back, we want to believe we went to Southeast Asia for the right reasons and with the best of intentions, a mindset never disabused by the filmmakers.

The Burns production is in essence a tribute to the troops, a cinematic substitute for the proper welcome home, it suggests, they never received. Those who went, the volunteers especially, are portrayed in uplifting, often heroic terms (e.g. John McCain); those who didn’t, the protesters, in a less complimentary fashion.

The ugly events of the war — the My Lai massacre, the grisly crimes of Tiger Force, the napalming of civilians, the burning of villages — are mentioned, to be sure, but they are presented as atypical aberrations. Much more attention is paid to America’s POWs, their ultimate return punctuated on film by a rather maudlin rendition of Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful.”

Civilian opponents of the war get comparatively cursory treatment. “Hanoi Jane” Fonda makes an obligatory un-American appearance, but her eventual activist husband, the late Tom Hayden (an articulate and perceptive antiwar spokesman, who was alive during filming and available for interviews), receives no notice. Sam Brown, the charismatic organizer of the 1970 “moratoriums” against the war, is given short shrift, as are the legions of idealistic, engaged young people who went “clean for Gene” [McCarthy] in 1968.

On the other hand, examples of postwar guilt among war opponents abound. Burns finds an almost tearful female ex-protester who regrets treating homecoming troops unkindly and an Iowa draft resister who’s sorry for going to Canada. He features the former wife of a captured military doctor, who demonstrated against the war, worked for George McGovern, and eventually divorced her returned POW husband, whose sufferings form an unflattering counterpoint.

It’s strongly implied, if not stated in so many words, that most home-front peace activists were middle-class college kids who mainly wanted to avoid the draft. And in a simplistic conflation of the antiwar movement with the emerging counterculture, the mass protests of the late 1960s are introduced by a video of drug-addled hippies swaying to the apolitical West Coast rock sounds of Jefferson Airplane.

Other musical selections are more apropos. The choice of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” to introduce the grim conflict to come is an inspired one. And Procol Harum’s beautifully melancholic “A Whiter Shade of Pale” effectively defines the funereal mood of the war’s middle years, as the US confronts the reality of no light at the end of the tunnel. But despite considerable hype about its period score, the Burns documentary steps on its soundtrack by imposing voiceovers that obscure or truncate the best selections, turning them into background Muzak for narration and interview dialogue.

Of course, this is not a musical history like “Jazz”; its purpose is to explain how we got into Vietnam and why we couldn’t get out. The Burns-Novick answer — Lynn Novick is Burns’ co-producer for the series — is to blame the political class, namely, American administrations from Eisenhower to Nixon. As a group, they’re the villains of the piece.

From the inattentive Ike and the indecisive JFK to the tortured LBJ and the maliciously manipulative Nixon, no president covers himself with glory. Johnson is accurately portrayed as a man made miserable by his fear of defeat and inability to stand up to his generals. Nixon emerges in retrospect as the conniving Tricky Dick we remember, perfectly willing to sacrifice thousands of additional lives after 1968 for political purposes.

Only Kennedy, who understood we were intervening in a colonial war of national liberation he originally sympathized with, grasped the reality of the situation. But in the end, he failed to act in timely fashion to avoid the quagmire, and by Nov. 22, 1963, it was too late.

In reproaching the occupants of the White House, the Burns film is on solid ground. Yet, it fails to present the other side of the coin: politicians acting courageously to oppose the war. Bobby Kennedy, because of his assassination and its impact, receives adequate coverage, but where is mention of Sens. Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, Democrats who stood alone against LBJ’s Tonkin Gulf resolution? Prominent congressional war critic Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, who first challenged conventional rationales for the conflict, is barely referenced. Even Sens. McCarthy and McGovern, who ran antiwar campaigns in 1968 and 1972, respectively, are granted only cameo appearances.

Still, Ken Burns deserves singular credit for resurrecting the seminal story of our adversary Ho Chi Minh and putting it in historical context. More nationalist than Communist, Ho, a visitor to the US, was an unabashed admirer of America’s expressed ideals, including the Declaration of Independence. Had we taken the trouble to understand and deal intelligently with him early on, the nightmare Burns recounts needn’t have happened.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2017


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