The Vietnam Syndrome

Losing the middle ground in Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War

by Will Weatherly

Illustration by Ivan Ríos-Fetchko

published September 29, 2017

cw: war, police violence, racism


The speaker speaks and the truth still leaks where even Richard Nixon has got soul...

Neil Young, “Campaigner,” 1976. 


The above line is from a track off of Neil Young’s Hitchhiker, released earlier this month as a part of a series of recent archival works from Young’s long career. The album was recorded over the course of one night on August 11, 1976, but because the songs were so spare, mumbled, and incomplete (even Young, in his second memoir Special Deluxe, admits that he was “pretty stony on it”), the recordings remained buried for 41 years.

The circumstances surrounding the album help cement it as an emotional and historical time capsule: one night in 1976, when the question of Richard Nixon’s conscience would have resonated alongside Young’s guitar with deep ambiguity. Young has a knack for writing characters who channel his singular, mournful perspective; on Hitchhiker’s “Captain Kennedy,” he sings as “a young mariner headed to war… thinkin' 'bout my family and what it was for.” The questions evoked by “Campaigner,” however, feel far more charged, even decades after the former President’s disgraced exit from office. To muse about the humanity of that President was just as much a provocation as it was an expression of empathy. It was an imagined relationship between Young and the man who willfully deceived the entire country during the Watergate scandal, and who had overseen the last four years of one of the most divisive and inhumane conflicts in American history, the Vietnam War. 

This month, another major return to the figures and circumstances surrounding that war, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS documentary The Vietnam War, can be characterized by the same provocation. Near the very beginning of the series, narrator Peter Coyote proclaims, “America’s involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It ended 30 years later in failure, witnessed by the entire world. It was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation, and it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than to admit that it had been caused by tragic decisions made by five American presidents belonging to both political parties.” The series’ ad slogan reads: “There is no single truth in war.” 

Over the 18 hours of footage that follow, Burns and Novick pursue that truism to harrowing ends. The documentary includes around 80 interviews conducted over the last 11 years, ranging from battle narratives from North Vietnamese soldiers, to CIA advisors discussing the lead-up to conflict, to American veterans recounting their return home. Burns and Novick weave these often conflicting perspectives into their own chronological account of the war, aiming to “stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and focus instead on... courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation,” as the two filmmakers wrote in the New York Times

Yet if The Vietnam War asks us to let go of our country’s one-sided memories and focus on forgiveness instead, it is also quietly proposing its own kind of remembering: one in which mass killing can follow from “good faith,” and one in which American officials were simultaneously manipulative and tragic. Burns and Novick offer multiple truths in hopes that they can finally coexist. But the disturbing document they have made often produces something far more akin to “Campaigner”—a question of who deserves forgiveness, faithfully preserved from decades ago, and never answered. 


On May 27, 1964, then-president Lyndon B. Johnson called his national security advisor McGeorge Bundy to discuss his strategy for the conflict Johnson had inherited after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. There is a recording of the call in The Vietnam War. “What the hell is Vietnam worth to me?” Johnson asked, “What is it worth to this country? ...It’s damn easy to get in a war, but it’s going to be awfully hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in.” What he would come to realize, as The Vietnam War makes clear, is that the US was already fully embroiled in the question of Vietnam’s self-governance. Much of the controversy surrounding the war and its depiction can be traced back to the question of when it became too late to retreat, or if it ever was.

The explanation touted by American officials in the late ’50s and early ’60s was that Vietnam’s civil war—between communist North Vietnam, led by the National Liberation Front revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, and the US-backed regime in the South—was a dangerous next step in the Soviet Union’s global expansion. At the height of the Cold War, in the years immediately following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Americans’ concern with the spread of communism was phrased as a matter of national security as much as it was proclaimed as integral to our foreign policy.  

President Truman called upon this mentality, the protection of “our survival,” in his speech on America’s entrance into the Korean War in 1950. 

Yet by that year, the US was also pouring $336 million into France’s war to retain control of its colonial holdings in Vietnam, and the first episode of The Vietnam War is devoted to telling this longer history. France had held the territory it called Indochina since 1859, and Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary efforts started with the Viet Minh liberation movement against French colonial rule in 1945. Vietnam’s revolution provides Burns and Novick an early opportunity to demonstrate American deception: Ho Chi Minh initially hoped for American support of Vietnam’s liberation, due to President Wilson and Roosevelt’s public claims of support for colonies’ self-determination following the two World Wars. But with the increasing power of both China and the USSR looming, President Truman instead decided to back France’s attempt to restore violent colonial control. When the French army was defeated in 1954 and Vietnam was split between the North and South, the US supported the corrupt Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem on the promise that he would establish ‘democracy’ in South Vietnam. 

In telling this history, The Vietnam War’s approach is often to show multiple narratives of the persecution that caused and followed this decision. It features Vietnamese citizens from both the North and the South, displaced from their homes during the split of the country. It shows the Diem regime (a Catholic minority in a country with a Buddhist majority) cutting the phone lines of US ambassadors and rounding up monks under the cover of night. One of the documentary’s most damning portraits is of JFK, who clung fiercely to Vietnam as “a piece of territory” in the Cold War in order to ensure his reelection. Faced with a popular uprising against the South Vietmanese regime in 1963, Kennedy unwittingly supported a coup against Diem, the  US’ strongest ally in the country. When Vietnamese Buddhists wanted to take Diem’s assassination as an opportunity for a more representative government, the US instead encouraged more military coups. 

For all of Burns and Novick’s seemingly frank reportage of American hypocrisy in the lead-up to the war, they are reticent to probe many of these more insidious deceptions of the era. Their account is so deliberate and expansive in its detail that American intervention in Vietnam comes to seem more like the product of a ricocheting series of errors than the US’ fundamentally flawed vision of its position in the world. Adding up the sum of US errors in the documentary, one could deduce that the US’s Cold War interventionism, and its faux-democratic vision for Vietnam, was a continuation of France and Britain’s colonial interests in the region, rather than a path towards the democracy it promised the South Vietnamese, but never helped to build. The documentary never argues this outright, lost instead in the individual dramas of those politicians scrambling to fight communism in “good faith,” mixed with on-the-ground footage of soldiers from both sides fighting for their lives. 

One of these individual dramas was Kennedy’s visit to Saigon in 1951, when the revolution against the French was still raging and Kennedy was still just a congressman. Burns and Novick tell us that, even then, Kennedy saw the US supporting an unpopular and fading regime. “Unless the US can persuade the Vietnamese that it is as opposed to injustice and inequality as it is to communism,” Kennedy told his constituents, “the current effort will result in foredoomed failure.” The next episode of the series begins with Kennedy at his inauguration a decade later, calling communism “a far more iron tyranny” than colonialism. In the documentary, this feels like mere hypocrisy, but the connection is clearer than a description of the events allows. The US couldn’t persuade the Vietnamese that it was opposed to injustice, because the US was not opposed to oppression at all. 


When the documentary finally begins to cover Johnson’s escalation of the war in 1963, Burns and Novick trace a now-familiar narrative about the US military’s momentum becoming too large for any one actor to stop. Because American troops were essentially fighting two wars at once—among revolutionary fighters in the South and invading troops from the North—the US found itself in a conflict where it could never permanently gain or lose territory. General William Westmoreland, commander of US forces, devised a new strategy to gauge his troops’ success: he was fighting for the “crossover point,” when US and South Vietnamese troops could kill more North Vietnamese troops than they could replace. Soldiers were ordered to maximize their body count, encouraging the widespread and indiscriminate killing of civilians to be included in the sum. Officials were left with an ever-mounting count of casualties, and their only desperate hope was that they would add up to victory. 

At the heart of this strategy lies the US officials’ essential devaluation of Vietnamese lives, but without a clear critique of the US' motivations for fighting, Burns and Novick chronicle the war’s sense of desperation without pointing to opportunities for it to end. They describe the careless bombing of North Vietnamese cities during Operation Rolling Thunder, but only as one more ‘unfortunate’ development in the war’s spiralling chaos. Both filmmakers had the opportunity to counter the logic (or lack thereof) behind US escalation. Instead, they use their documentary to repeat it. 

Without this analysis, it’s unclear what the documentary’s main purpose is, and who, exactly, needs Burns and Novick’s version of “reconciliation” in 2017. Unlike Burns’ previous work with The Civil War, much of the footage and photography he includes has already entered our visual vocabulary for the Vietnam War. By 1963, 91.3 percent of American households owned a television, and the Vietnam War was the first widely broadcasted conflict in American history. Journalists faced much less military regulation than during World War II, the Korean War, or the Gulf War that followed. These two factors meant that brutal, violent images from the war, and the media critiques that followed, were widely accessible to a growing antiwar movement enraged at the inhumanity of the US’ war of attrition. 

This opposition movement provides Burns and Novick with the most straightforward opportunity to name US militarism as cruelty. Yet in practice, the two are at their most hesitant when showing footage of the protests. They acknowledge the antiwar movement’s connection to the Civil Rights movement; Black men were drafted, and killed, at highly disproportionate rates to white troops, and Black activists, including Stokely Carmichael and Muhammad Ali, decried the idea of fighting for a country that only imposed more violence at home, and that only promoted more colonial violence abroad.

Alongside these narratives, the documentary gives just as much space to perspectives delegitimizing the movement on opposing terms. In the fourth episode, one interviewee chalks antiwar activists up as “privileged, spoiled kids,” liberal byproducts of white postwar prosperity. In 1966, when the draft expanded beyond its early targets of Black and low-income men to include the middle-class and college-educated, one interviewee claims that the movement “shifted from a moral movement to a self-interested movement, driven by people who didn’t want to go to war.” The comment presents more questions than it answers—especially the odd distinction between morality and valuing one’s life enough to resist being killed. 

Burns and Novick keep these contradictions intact, which results in one of their strangest depictions: the violence of police and National Guardsmen against protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It is one of the documentary’s rare sequences without music; the only sound is a sea of voices shouting over long shots of merciless police beatings. The first interview to break the violence is of a man who was a junior in college at the time, watching the protest unfold on television. “It looked like we were devolving into madness,” he says. “I couldn’t tell—was it the protestors, or the police, or was everybody insane?” 

It feels as if we are being prompted to ask the same question to our TV screens—as if, after all this time, the question should still be rhetorical. 

WILL WEATHERLY B’19 is thinkin’ ’bout his family and what it was for.