Center for Strategic and International Studies Panel. A Discussion on the Landmark Documentary “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

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Center for Strategic and International Studies Panel. A Discussion on the Landmark Documentary “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Annotated Transcript Of CSIS Panel

Erik Villiard

Thomas Vallely

Lewis Sorley

Marc Selverstone

Gregory Daddis

Comments on Daddis

Nu-Anh Tran

Jay Veith

Mark Moyar

Historical perspective is also lacking. The narrator and several subjects suggest that the lies of successive U.S. presidents invalidated the American cause. There is no denying that John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon lied repeatedly about the war. The same could be said about Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, but no one argues that their dishonesty discredited their wars.
Numerous interviewees contend that the ineffectiveness and corruption of the South Vietnamese government showed that the U.S. supported the wrong side. But America’s allies in South Korea and Taiwan, who were less effective and more corrupt than their communist rivals, survived because the U.S. did not abandon them. South Korea and Taiwan eventually became two of the most prosperous and vibrant nations in Asia, while their foes remain dour police states that still pose serious threats to international peace.
Mr. Burns has said he intended to produce a definitive account that would bring Americans together. He could have pulled it off, but he chose instead to make it another partisan harangue that is certain to keep Americans divided.

Mark Moyar 2

Though Burns and Novick resisted putting historians on screen, they did make use of an historical advisory panel. Consisting almost entirely of scholars on the left, the advisory panel makes its influence felt throughout the production, particularly in those parts read by narrator Peter Coyote (himself an antiwar activist). Reviewers for NPR, NBC, and the Washington Post who lavished praise on Burns and Novick for their evenhandedness ignored the panel’s lack of balance; one suspects that they would have taken a different view of a supposedly neutral 18-hour documentary on abortion that relied almost entirely on historians who considered abortion morally repugnant.

Phil Jennings

It is the raison d’être of Mr. Burns’ film to justify the cowardly and morally bankrupt left that supported the communist invasion of South Vietnam and turned its back on the murder, imprisonment, and misery of our former allies in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. One cannot be against the South Vietnamese without being for the communists who conquered and enslaved 17 million people. Only by painting the war as immoral, illegal, and un-winnable, and the South Vietnamese government as evil and inept, can the American left hope to rest in peace. It shouldn’t bet the farm on that.

A Letter from Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower

With the the airing of Ken Burns’ 10-part series, “The Vietnam War” drawing to a close, we want to share with you some of our thoughts about our father’s Vietnam policies and strategies that the episodes covering his presidency misrepresented. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who served in the Nixon White House, once memorably observed, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” And that applies even to Ken Burns. So here are some facts.

The following are more generalized overviews of the series from various authors/veterans:

Scott Johnson

Watching the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary history of the war, I was disappointed to hear the conflict described as a civil war as late as episode 10, covering the war’s denouement in 1975. Under the prestigious auspices of Burns and PBS, the documentary recirculates a goodly share of the tripe that I credulously consumed back in the day.

Paul Mirengoff

Ironically, Burns, who says he hopes his documentary will help end divisions over the war and facilitate national healing, has come under fire from the left. The contemporary left is so virulently anti-American that it objects to the few crumbs Burns has offered those who think the war was justified or was a mostly honorable mistake.
Ordinarily, I would find this sad. But in this context, anything that might prevent Burns’ version of the Vietnam War from becoming the received wisdom is okay with me.

Scott Johnson 2

The documentary has time to look back at Woodstock (intercut with footage from the battlefield in Vietnam), but no time to give any thought to media misfeasance. Instead the documentary recycles the received version of the media as heroes. Witness, for example, the documentary’s account of the Pentagon Papers case.
The documentary pretends to Olympian if sorrowful detachment, but the tone of detachment is a pretense. The documentary adopts old leftist critiques of the war as a “civil war” in which we had no business and were, moreover, on the wrong side. In Vietnam we were always “chasing ghosts.” The war could not be won. The documentary orchestrates these assertions into motifs that run from the first episode through the tenth.

Scott Johnson 3

I think the documentary seeks to fix the record in falsity. To take only one example, . . . Burns and his colleagues were apparently unable to find a soldier to recall his service in anything other than shades of disillusion, disgust and shame. Much more remains to be done on this deeply dishonest work to prevent it from becoming the received history of the war.

Charles Hill

Here is the underlying meaning of the declaration featured at the series’ outset that “Vietnam called everything into question.” The established narrative of the war, and the gloss on it provided by Burns-Novick’s inner theme, is that the Vietnam War represented not only Hanoi’s victory over the United States, but, more consequentially, the victory of all of the layers of social-political-cultural-personal revolution of the Sixties. To reaffirm the anti-war movement doctrinally is to lock in all the vast changes in the American character brought about by what the documentary sees as the truly greatest generation, the radicals of the 1960s. Thus the Burns-Novick film is as much, or more, about America in the twenty-first century as it is about the years between 1954 and 1975 in Southeast Asia. That was about a political-military conflict; it became and is now about a new phase of moral superiority.

Reflections on the Burns-Novick Vietnam Documentary Film by Frank Scotton

This is the most important film description of the subject that we will have. It will be available for audiences around the world and intensely viewed in America and Viet Nam. Researchers, students, policy analysts, will plumb this series and associated archived material (collected by the Burns – Novick team) for decades, long after those of us with intimate experience have fallen to the actuarial axe. It will never be matched in scope because no future directorial team will have equivalent resources, time, and access to living participants of the multiple sides engaged.

John M. Del Vecchio

This post is a follow-up to the essays previously written on the Burns/Novick program. Since the Burns/Novick series ended I have received scores of emails, essays, notes and columns which illuminate various and specific aspects of the history of the Second Indochina War, or of this highly-flawed series itself. Four Southeast Asian voices are included below.

Stephen J Morris

The great history of the Vietnam war is still waiting to be written. The considerable research efforts and brilliant visual presentation of Burns and Novick (and Ward in the companion book) have captured most of the story of the Kennedy and Johnson years. But they have failed to do justice to the years 1968-73, and thus to the war as a whole.
Even more importantly, they have failed to grasp the nature of the enemy we were fighting. Ho Chi Minh’s calculated plan to market himself and his Communist movement as primarily nationalist was effective both for naïve Vietnamese intellectuals and peasants and for naïve foreigners—even through to today. But Ho and his Communist comrades always considered themselves part of a world revolutionary movement, something much bigger than merely a revolution in Vietnam. They frequently referred to themselves as the outpost of socialism in Southeast Asia. (That is why after their victory in 1975, they provided captured American weapons to the Soviet Union for use in Communist insurrections in other nations, most notably in El Salvador in the 1980s.)
The problem is that it is difficult for most people who have never experienced one to grasp the nature of totalitarian movements based on an internationalist revolutionary ideology—and much easier psychologically to reduce it to the familiar, which is nationalism.

Bill Federer

American Minute with Bill Federer “Vietnam War…a confrontation between two ideological worlds: socialism v. capitalism … Through dissent & protest (by antiwar movement) America lost”-Col. Bui Tin, former Communist

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