Ken Burns’ Vietnam: The Book

Sep. 1, 2017
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The first American death in the conflict that grew into the Vietnam War was, in the words of Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, “the result of a tragic misunderstanding.” Lieut. Col. A Peter Dewey was in Saigon in 1945 trying to broker talks between the French colonialists and the Vietnamese Communists. He foresaw an independent Vietnam and warned that the U.S. “ought to clear out of Southeast Asia.”

Mistaken for French, Dewey was ambushed by Communists. His superiors didn’t accept his advice and America was drawn into the conflict, first by supplying the French, then by bolstering shaky pro-Western regimes in South Vietnam opposed by the Communist North. U.S. advisors were targeted and returned fire. By 1965 the U.S. military was fully engaged in combat against an enemy that seldom showed itself but advanced under the formidable cover of jungle. When it ended 10 years later, the war had claimed 59,000 American lives. The death toll among Vietnamese is estimated at three million.

In their 10-part documentary, “The Vietnam War,” Burns and co-director Lynn Novick examine the conflict from its origins through the fall of Saigon and the exodus of refugees that followed. Preceding the series, which will air on PBS starting Sept. 17, is a magnificent book, The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, co-written by Ward and Burns.

If the series follows the book, it will present a multitude of perspectives while maintaining an authorial voice grounded as much as possible in events and their plausible interpretation. Communist leader Ho Chi Minh emerges as an intriguing figure, resourceful and philosophical, yet capable of savagery in throwing off an exploitative and brutal French regime and combating all opponents in his goal of uniting Vietnam. Fair-minded assessments of his rivals in South Vietnam are presented, most of them no less willing to kill, imprison or torture.

Comments from American officers and enlisted men are well represented, as are the Vietnamese who fought alongside them and against them, and the reporters who covered the conflict. Several pages are devoted to North Vietnam’s extraordinary survival under withering American air raids and the fate of captured U.S. pilots.

America had little idea of the enemy it fought. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara loved statistics and quantification, but his number games bore little relation to reality. In 1960 most Americans assumed their country could never be defeated, but disillusion grew as the war dragged on. Onetime SDS leader Todd Gitlin contributes an essay on the anti-war movement that, along with the ingenious determination of the Vietnamese Communists, sapped the will of politicians and the public. “The war was an incitement to conscience, and a dismantling of authority,” Gitlin writes. It fractured American society.

Perhaps as important as even the largest anti-war demonstration was the decision by an exasperated Walter Cronkite, the beloved CBS news anchor, to declare that an American victory was unlikely. His comments shocked the political class; even the hawks began to look for a way out.

The Vietnam War is a coffee table book in format with a compelling text accompanying photographs. The book bodes well for Burns’ coming series and is worth having in its own right.

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