The Vietnam War documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on PBS offers 18 hours about one of the most traumatic periods in my lifetime. The program begins in 1945, as World War II was ending and the cold war was about to begin. Vietnam had been under colonial rule under the French, but hopes were emerging that the country could become independent. Most Americans knew very little about Vietnam until the early Sixties, but the battle between France and the local Vietminh armies ended with Vietnam being divided between North and South portions, split by a de-militarized zone. Some viewed this development as a last gasp of colonialism, others as a skirmish in the proxy war between the West and Communism. Even under Eisenhower, Americans were drawn in as advisers to help the South Vietnamese government fend off a military challenge from an insurgency group called the Vietcong, who were supported by the North Vietnamese and to some degree, the Soviets and Chinese.
The television series pulls the viewer into this history with a mix of television footage, stories from American and Vietnamese participants and a wide variety of audiotapes, journals and other information that give an inside perspective on how Vietnam was being viewed and acted upon by American presidents from Eisenhower to Nixon. As a baby boomer, I lived through this period, but most of the series focused on the period up until 1970 before I went to college. I remember first hand the marches, the anti-war movement, the horrible clash in the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic political convention and so much more. We were seeing scenes about the war on the evening news on TV and young men from our neighborhood were being drafted and sent to Vietnam.
The powerful thing about this series for me was to learn so much about what was not obvious at the time. I didn't really hear the stories about the experiences of the veterans until many years later when compelling books like Michael Herr's Dispatches and Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie brought back stories of the life vets had been living while fighting the war. Sheehan, who was a journalist covering the war, is one of many people who recount their experiences and those of hundreds of people he talked to while over in 'Nam for the documentary. At the time, politicians like Johnson and Nixon seemed to be lying about what was really happening over there, but the tapes of their conversations during this period were staggering in highlighting the differences between what they said publicly and what they were saying behind closed doors.
We also learn a bit about the leadership of North Vietnam and the dynamics of how the Chinese and Soviet communists influenced the leaders of this country. We heard a lot about Ho Chi Minh in news coverage at the time. Ho was the spiritual father of the North and a brilliant politician, but the series hones in on Le Duan, who wrested power from Ho in the mid-Sixties and who pushed for a very militant strategy in executing the war. In a huge irony, Le Duan pushed for what became known as the Tet Offensive in early 1968 and it turned to be a military disaster for the North and the Vietcong. Lyndon Johnson touted this win after the battles, but he'd lost so much credibility with his previous claims of progress that one of the few clear-cut military victories for the Americans became a turning point as the opposition to the war continued to rise.
One can draw many lessons from this series and the events it depicts. One obvious one is that the US can't win a war if the leadership we support is corrupt and not supported by the people of the nation. Over 58,000 US participants died in the war, but the various US presidents couldn't really explain why we needed to be there other than to fight the communists. But if the leaders in a country aren't supported by the people, even the best military forces can't change that political reality. It's a sad truth we've seen in other wars since Vietnam. On the other hand, the leaders in the North were brutal and even refused to treat captured American's as POWs. At the time, Vietnam just didn't seem like our fight and this documentary reinforced this. Nonetheless, the commentary from South Vietnamese people in the series made it clear that there was strong opposition to the North and communism in South Vietnam, and the clash had strong elements of a civil war as the US involvement lessened.
The war in Vietnam divided our country and set in motion political and cultural divisions which still exist. But the truth about what happened was complex and not easily boiled down into simple slogans. Burns and Novick have done a great service to the US and likely to the Vietnamese as well in diving deep into this war and the times which surrounded it and letting viewers choose what to make of this mosaic. The ending is poignant, as veterans from both sides of the war, Americans and North Vietnamese, meet many years after the war ended and found understanding at a human level with the surviving warriors of the opposition.