What Can America Learn from the Vietnam War?

Viet Cong, Interrogation,1967
Thuong Duc, Vietnam. A Viet Cong prisoner is interrogated at the A-109 Special Forces Detachment in Thuong Duc, 25 km west of Da Nang. Photo credit: US Army / Wikimedia

Ten years ago, when Ken Burns and Lynn Novick started working on their epic documentary about America’s war in Vietnam, that conflict could still rouse bitter passions — as evidenced by the “swift boating” of Vietnam vet John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.

Now, in 2017, as viewers turn from Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow to the shared experience of this ten-part film series, can an unsparing look at a historical tragedy have the unifying power that Burns originally thought it might?

The Vietnam War, not unlike Burns and Novick’s Civil War documentary, which was watched by over 40 million Americans, is an event that transcends its time.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks to Washington Post opinion writer Alyssa Rosenberg, who covered Burns and Novick and The Vietnam War project for over five years. She had broad access during the making of the documentary and has written extensively about it.

Schechtman and Rosenberg talk about whether the lessons of history have value in a time of “alternative facts.” Can the convergence of movie and moment help America survive its current divisions, as the series shows we survived another time of deep discord? And will it help young Americans, who know little if anything about the Vietnam war, to better understand their country?

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. For those us that were alive and aware in the ’60s and ’70s, there was no greater division than Vietnam. Perhaps other than the Civil War, it was America’s greatest divide. Isn’t it ironic, then, that for the past several nights after folks have been watching Maddow or Hannity, reading Drudge or The New York Times, that we’ve come together in a unity of watching Ken Burns’ “Vietnam“? When Ken Burns set out on this project he might’ve had a sense of, but certainly could not have known, exactly how divided we’d be today, and yet his Vietnam documentary can be a kind of shock therapy as it takes us back to the events that previously tore us apart.
Thousands of words have been written about Burns’ documentary, but some of the most profound and wise have come from Alyssa Rosenberg at The Washington Post. She had access to Burns in the process of his making this film, she has interviewed Burns and co-creator Lynn Novick, and she has written extensively on the project. Before joining The Post, Alyssa was the culture editor at ThinkProgress. She was the television columnist at Women and Hollywood, a columnist at Slate, and a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com. And it is my pleasure to welcome Alyssa Rosenberg here to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Alyssa, thanks so much for joining us.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Well, it’s my pleasure to be here, so I guess we’ll have to compete for who is more grateful to the other.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s great to have you. It’s so interesting with respect to this series in terms of the context and the time through which we’re viewing it. You’ve interviewed Burns, you’ve written about, as others have, the fact that it took him 10, 11 years to do this project, and yet the context of understanding it for the country has changed so dramatically in those 10 or 11 years. Talk a little bit about your thoughts on that first.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Well, this is something that was really interesting to me when I was reporting about the project. I’ve known Burns since 2012, so I wasn’t … I didn’t know him and Lynn Novick when they decided to make the movie in 2006 as they were finishing up “The War“. Lynn said that one of the things that sort of was on her mind when they were making the decision to make the movie was the role that the Vietnam War had played in the 2004 Presidential election, when this group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth kind of challenged John Kerry’s narrative of his service in the Vietnam War.
And that was something that sort of burbled up in 2004 and then dissipated a little bit, but as they were editing the movie last year, which those were the sessions I was sitting in on, you saw Vietnam begin to sort of bubble again, and the person it was coming from was then-candidate Donald Trump, who seemed to litigate the war in the really personal terms. I mean, he had himself gotten five deferments. He referred to his sex life as “my personal Vietnam” because of the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. He attacked John McCain saying that he liked people who “hadn’t been captured” in Vietnam, and so everything seemed to be coming back as the series was nearing completion.
And it wasn’t simply that Trump was talking about Vietnam a lot, but the country’s division started to feel as raw and as irreconcilable as it had during Vietnam. And so the convergence of movie and moment are of course completely accidentally, but I think that it makes the movie feel sort of eerily relevant and, if it achieves Burns’ and Novick’s stated goal of giving people a common experience, I think amazingly useful in a way that they hadn’t anticipated.
Jeff Schechtman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). The other part of it for Burns is how he juxtaposes it with his previous project about the Civil War, which is the other great American divide.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Well, and I think that part of what was important to Burns and Novick in this movie is that many Vietnamese people experienced the Vietnam War as a civil war in which another country had decided to intervene. So it’s not merely that the Vietnam War caused incredibly deep divisions at home in the United States, but in Vietnam you had these two separate countries, which one country, the North, saw as … The North saw Vietnam as a single country that had been partitioned by colonialists and that needed to be reunited. Some people at least in South Vietnam saw themselves as an independent country living on different terms with different values, and so this division matters, I think, as much in Vietnam as they do here.
Jeff Schechtman: The other thing that the film dramatically portrays in so many respects, or at least feeds into, is this loss of trust in public institutions, something that has become kind of on steroids today. Talk a little bit about that, and how Burns and Novick see that.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Well, I mean, I think that the two of them brought very different experiences into the making of this documentary, because they’re born nine years apart. And so Burns is born in 1953. I want to make sure I have that right. I’m pretty sure I have that right. And so he’s growing up in sort of the post-war era when there’s a lot of confidence about what America can accomplish and what it should be accomplishing on the world stage. And he told me that the Vietnam War was an interesting moment for him because his father was very involved in anti-war activism around the University of Michigan, and so he said he sort of instinctively sympathized with his father, but he also had this undercurrent of wanting Americans to be the good guys and wanting to win. And he said he would go out and look at the reported body counts in major battles and say, “Oh, you know, it’s more of them than it was of us.”
Novick, by contrast, sort of grew up with the Vietnam War as a settled fact. I mean, she was born in the early ’60s. It was always there as long as she could remember things. But she told me that she also felt like the cynicism that came out of Vietnam was sort of much more of a normal default, right? This was just how we are and how we approach the government.
And one thing, I think, that came out of Vietnam that has been really damaging in our present environment was there was this sense of old authorities had lost their credibility, but nothing rose up to replace them. We didn’t settle on something to replace the government as a “We trust this person. We trust this institution. We trust this method of determining what’s true.” And because of that, we have inherited this incredibly fractured environment where we don’t agree not just on the facts themselves but on the methods for determining the facts, and I think that’s an incredibly damaging legacy of the war in Vietnam, even if it’s a good thing that we no longer blindly trust what the government is telling us.
Jeff Schechtman: Now, one of the things that people have talked about is that in his Civil War film there’s a sense of also focusing on how the country came out of it, on the idea of parts of the war being about the survival of the country, whereas the divisions that came out of Vietnam have only arguably multiplied and gotten wider since.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Yes, and I think that’s absolutely true. You know, one thing, though, that I think Burns has said over and over again and that he emphasized in The Civil War even if most people didn’t pay that much attention to it is that the Civil War is not necessarily a settled fact, right? We still have people marching in defense of white supremacy in the United States. We have this veneration of Confederate statues. And so the Civil War is not entirely a settled event in American historical memory, and it’s entirely possible to lose some of the gains that theoretically came out of the Civil War.
And so, I mean, I think there is this urge for national unity that maybe isn’t always reflected by the facts. And again, one of the things that Burns and Novick emphasized in The Vietnam War is that there had been these same sort of reunions between veterans on both sides of the conflict that happened after the Civil War. Those happened between Americans and North Vietnamese soldiers in Vietnam. So you have individual people who are sort of setting the standard and showing a model for reconciliation, but that reconciliation isn’t complete either in the case of the Civil War or the Vietnam War.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the other differences is in understanding, particularly from a generational perspective, in understanding the reasons that the war happened, and I can’t help but wonder how younger people that weren’t really aware or alive during that time view the whole issue of communism and the domino theory and really the reasons that drew us in that have less and less relevance today.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Yeah. I mean, I have to say … So, I grew up in a family where both my parents were very engaged in protesting against the war, and I never found the idea that the North Vietnamese were hardcore doctrinaire communists that credible. I mean, I think that personally the way I grew up I never had the sense that this is actually an existential struggle that needed to be won, and I think watching Burns’ documentary certainly reinforced for me the possibility that, if handled differently, Ho Chi Minh could’ve been sort of an Asian Tito, someone who provided a buffer zone between the United States and Communist China. And that’s counter-factual, right? We’re never really going to get the opportunity to figure out if that would’ve been true, but I also think Burns’ and Novick’s documentary makes clear that there were far more doctrinaire people who were in power in Vietnam, someone like [00:09:47-49?] who is certainly more doctrinaire, is the architect of the Tet Offensive, and willing to sacrifice a huge number of North Vietnamese soldiers to try to eke out victories.
And so I think the documentary both … It works in two directions, right? I mean, it kind of casts some doubt on the idea that Ho Chi Minh himself was exceptionally doctrinaire or that the domino theory was credible, but it also points out that this sort of simplistic rejection of any idea that the North Vietnamese was run by hardcore communists is also not entirely factual.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s also the aspect of it of whether or not the film really is strong enough to cause people to really confront those divisions that existed at the time.
Alyssa Rosenberg: I would say that that’s not necessarily my take. That’s, I think, what Burns in particular hopes the documentary can achieve. I think in our fractured media environment the simple fact that a lot of people will turn out for a single shared experience is a useful thing. I’ve gotten dozens of emails from American veterans of the Vietnam War about what it would take for them to feel reconciled with the people who protested the war, and I don’t think the single documentary is going to go out and do that, but I think despite the fact that Burns has stated what I think are probably some pretty lofty goals for a documentary like this, if it can be a model for individual acts of reconciliation that’s not worth nothing.
Jeff Schechtman: Does he have a sense from people that saw this early on of how the audience reacted to it, will react to it, as they see and watch the whole thing unfold?
Alyssa Rosenberg: I think it was tough. I talked to Novick about this a lot, and one thing she said was that they tried to have a range of people with different experiences in the room at any given time. So they always wanted someone from Vietnam in the room. They always wanted someone who had fought in the war, and they had always wanted someone who had protested the war. And I don’t think that they reached agreement all of the time. General Merrill McPeak told me that there were just some really tough arguments in those screening rooms that were not resolved, and I think their goal is not necessarily to get someone like Hal Kushner, who was a prisoner of war, and someone like Bill Zimmerman, who protested the war, on exactly the same page, but at least if they can get them in the same room maybe it’s worth it to have those fights rather than to deny that those deep divisions exist at all.
Jeff Schechtman: And was it Burns’ and Novick idea to really get people to re-debate, to re-discuss, some of these issues?
Alyssa Rosenberg: Yeah, I think that was absolutely the goal. I mean, I also think they wanted to introduce new debates. I mean, Novick was the person who really pushed for them to do extensive interviews in Vietnam, and those voices have largely not been a part of the debates in America at all, and so whatever they provoke I think listening to those voices is just incredibly important.
Jeff Schechtman: How were issues of race and racism a part of the thinking about this particular project from what you know?
Alyssa Rosenberg: Well, Burns sees race as just an essential through line in his work, right? I mean, I think he sees the Civil War and jazz and baseball and Central Park Five sort of all as part of his project. And so one of the things that I think is interesting about the Vietnam War is that race operates on a couple of different levels, right? You have the anti-Asian racism that sort of helped individual soldiers take themselves away from what they’re doing in the Vietnam War. They stopped thinking of the Vietnamese as people, and that’s the way that they can go about killing people, frankly. You have levels of racism in the policy making, the idea that Asian countries view individual human lives more cheaply, and so you have to rack up enormously high body counts and reach some sort of mythical crossover point to get people to feel the pain and start to move towards an American victory.
You also have racism in the United States and in the ranks of the United States military, and there’s an upcoming episode where a lot of American soldiers speak really frankly about both the racism they experienced in their own units and then what it was like to come home from Vietnam and not be able to get a cab at the airport because they were black. So I think that one of the things that’s interesting as a long-term observer of Burns’ work is to see how race operates on so many different levels in this documentary.
Jeff Schechtman: Alyssa, talk a little bit about how you got involved in focusing on this project and reporting this project so deeply.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Sure. I met Burns in, as I said, in 2012 when I interviewed him and Dayton Duncan about their documentary on the Dust Bowl. And I think he and I sort of clicked a little bit, ’cause I wanted to ask about that movie [inaudible 00:14:44] some sort of gender politics and housework and what it meant for women who couldn’t keep their homes clean or their children well during the Dust Bowl, and he really resonated to that. And we have sort of stayed in touch. I’ve interviewed him for a bunch of other stories.
And when I learned that he was working on this, it just really felt right up my alley. I’ve been very interested in the ’60s and the Vietnam War since I was little, despite the fact that I didn’t live through any of this, and at The Post, I take on a big project every year. And I was sort of in the process of finishing the reporting of one project, and so I asked if I could come up and start sitting in as they did some of these late-stage screenings and as they edited the movie. And especially as the movie and the moment sort of started to converge, it just felt like something that was really important to dive into.
And also, frankly, as I got to know Novick better I felt like she was someone who really deserved a profile in serious consideration. She’s co-directed half a dozen movies with Burns, and very few people know who she is. And that’s crazy, especially because they’ve gotten to a point in their partnership where she does most of the interviewing for their movie. She does a lot of the research. In this case, she did all of the interviewing in Vietnam. Burns actually hasn’t been yet.
And so taking a look at where Burns was in his intellectual project at a moment when the country seemed very divided, explaining to people how this documentary had been made, and then shining a light on Novick’s contribution to it just all felt like independently important things to me that we could put together in this kind of cool package.
Jeff Schechtman: What is your sense of what the movie will do in terms of Burns’ and Novick’s kind of fantasy about the reconciliation that they hope it might achieve?
Alyssa Rosenberg: I mean, look, I’m not a betting woman, right? And the media … The state of the media is such that it’s really hard to predict what people will respond to, how they’ll respond to it. All I can say is from my email, I think that … From my email inbox at work, I think the documentary is doing at least some of what they wanted it to do, which is dredging up a lot of stuff and encouraging people to talk about it and reach out. I’m getting emails every single day from people who want to talk about their experiences protesting the war, their experiences fighting the war, their experiences living next door to a Vietnam vet and feeling like they can never bring the subject up. And so I don’t know if people are reaching out to their neighbors and their families and friends as well as to me, but certainly people clearly have this hunger to talk, and I think the documentary has given them permission.
Jeff Schechtman: And of course it will have a life that goes beyond just this original airing the next week or so. People will be looking at it for years to come.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Yeah, absolutely. And one of the things that we did as part of this project is we took my interviews with Burns, Novick, some of the advisors on the film, and turned it into a podcast that takes people through the making of and debates some of the big themes. So hopefully that will be a resource for people as they consume this documentary long-term.
Jeff Schechtman: As you watched it for the first time, talk a little bit about what surprised you as someone that didn’t live directly through that period. What surprised you the most about it?
Alyssa Rosenberg: I think there are a couple of things, and to a certain extent I was … I felt like I was encountering some of my own moral fallacies in that I had never really thought about the South Vietnamese that much. And hearing from people who were excited that the Americans were there, who had these warm relationships with their American advisors, who felt betrayed when the Americans left, that was something I had not thought a lot about and the movie really forced me to reevaluate that part of my own ignorance.
I think hearing from veterans who just felt really hurt by the fact that we left was again something I had not taken particularly seriously, but the idea that the United States had made a pledge and we didn’t live it to up and the communists proved more faithful friends than we were, as one veteran says later in the documentary. It’s not something that I took terribly seriously before this documentary. And I’m not sure that changes my opinion about whether the Vietnam War was a good war to fight or whether we should’ve stayed there endlessly, but emotionally it rearranged my molecules a little bit, and I think that was a valuable experience for me to have. I’m liberal. I have what I think is sort of the orthodox position on the Vietnam War, which is that it was a bad war we never should’ve fought, gone in in the United States and we should’ve left a lot sooner than we did, but the movie helped me consider some of the emotional dimensions of the conflict that just hadn’t really been on my radar before.
Jeff Schechtman: And how has it changed or shifted or reinforced your views as to the divides that we have today versus what divided us and how we were divided back then?
Alyssa Rosenberg: I mean, I think that it’s when you look back deeper for the roots of a lot of what’s going on today. I mean, I just think because we never … America was so eager to move on from Vietnam. You have Henry Kissinger saying that in the first episode. You have Reagan and George H. W. Bush talking about Vietnam syndrome and the need to sort of get passed all of this that I just don’t think we ever really solved a lot of the divisions of Vietnam. I think we sort of stuck them in the closet and hoped that the monster wouldn’t come out. But the monster keeps coming out.
And so I don’t know if we can resolve those tensions now. I don’t know if it’s too late, but it made me feel that what’s happening now is not unique to this moment and not only caused by this moment.
Jeff Schechtman: Alyssa Rosenberg. Her work can be seen regularly on the pages of The Washington Post. Alyssa, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Thank you so much for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from The Vietnam War (Florentine Films and WETA, PBS) and Vietnamese troops (Department of Defence / Wikimedia).

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