Why The Vietnam War Is Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Most Ambitious Project Yet

Will there ever be a “right” time for Americans to talk about Vietnam? The nation’s involvement there began as an ill-considered but contextually understandable effort by Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower to come to the aid of an ally, France, as it battled the restive, independence-hungry population of a land it had colonized, and to prevent the spread of Communism, which was then considered the most pernicious threat to the American way of life. But by the time John F. Kennedy was president, the French were well out of the picture, having been routed at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, in 1954, and Vietnam was America’s headache. Cut to 1975 and the ignominious sight of evacuees being lifted by chopper from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon: a lasting image of American humiliation.

In the years since, the Vietnam War has periodically been the subject of waves of cinematic reckoning—in the late 70s, with such films as Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now, and again in the late 80s, with such films as Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War, and Born on the Fourth of July. A reckoning of a different sort came in 2004, when John Kerry’s presidential campaign was targeted in a series of TV ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group ostensibly organized to call into question Kerry’s wartime record as a decorated navy officer but in truth motivated by lingering anger over Kerry’s post-service years as an outspoken anti-war activist.

Each of these reckonings prompted agonized debate and begat a kind of reckoning fatigue, a feeling of O.K., O.K., we get it: The Vietnam War messed people up and divided our nation and is a stain on our history—let’s drop the subject. But by 2006, when the filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick were finishing up their World War II documentary series, The War, they felt that the timing was right for them to take a crack at Vietnam. For one thing, they had found themselves racing against the clock with their World War II subjects, talking to veterans in their 80s and 90s, and realized that it would behoove them to reach out to Vietnam vets sooner rather than later. For another, they believed that enough time may have elapsed for tempers to have cooled and for perspective to have been gained. Burns and Novick also surmised, correctly, that their Vietnam project would carry them well into the following decade, by which time the crucial years of the war would be a half-century in the past.

Now, at long last, comes The Vietnam War, more than 10 years in the making. The series premieres on PBS on September 17, its 10 episodes totaling a whopping 18 hours. Burns first rose to national prominence in 1990, with his documentary The Civil War, an exhaustive examination of what remains—at press time, at least—our nation’s darkest hour. But The Vietnam War, in scope and sensitivity, is the most ambitious and fraught project Burns has ever taken on. “Nothing compares to this film in terms of that daily sense of obligation, of responsibility, coupled with the possibility for art and expression,” he told me when I sat down with him and Novick recently in the Midtown Manhattan offices of WNET, New York City’s flagship public-TV station.

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