On April 23, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford was scheduled to give the keynote address at the Tulane University convocation in New Orleans. As the president took the stage, more than 100,000 North Vietnamese troops were massing on the outskirts of Saigon, having overrun almost all of South Vietnam in just three months. Thirty years after the United States first became involved in Southeast Asia, ten years after the Marines had landed in Danang, the ill-fated country for which more than 58,000 Americans had died was on the verge of defeat. “We, of course, are saddened indeed by the [tragic] events in Indochina,” the president said. He reminded the subdued crowd that 160 years earlier America had recovered from another conflict in which she had suffered “humiliation and a measure of defeat”—the War of 1812—and promised that the nation would once again “regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam.” But, he continued to thunderous applause, “it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.” The time had come, the president said, “to unify, to bind up the nation’s wounds . . . and begin a great national reconciliation.” Just seven days later, North Vietnamese soldiers stormed the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon and raised the communist flag. The Vietnam War was over.
It’s been more than forty years now, and despite President Ford’s optimism, we have been unable to put that war behind us. The deep wounds it inflicted on our nation, our communities, our families, and our politics have festered. As Army veteran Phil Gioia said in an interview for our documentary series, “The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. It polarized the country as it had probably never been polarized since before the Civil War, and we’ve never recovered.”
Nearly ten years ago, as we were completing post-production on a seven-part series about the American experience in the World War II, we resolved to turn our attention to the painful, bitter, confounding, and much misunderstood tragedy that is the war in Vietnam. It has been our privilege throughout this undertaking to collaborate with the writer, Geoffrey C. Ward, and our producer, Sarah Botstein, along with our team of editors, researchers, and coproducers. We were also ably assisted by an invaluable board of advisers, historical consultants and veterans of the war who saved us from innumerable mistakes, but, more importantly, pointed us to the critical moments and astonishing contradictions that haunt any serious study of the Vietnam War.
From the start, we vowed to each other that we would avoid the limits of a binary political perspective and the shortcuts of conventional wisdom and superficial history. This was a war of many perspectives, a Rashomon of equally plausible “stories,” of secrets, lies, and distortions at every turn. We wished to try to contain and faithfully reflect those seemingly irreconcilable outlooks.
We were interested in trying to understand the colonial experience of the French—and the way it eerily prefigured what would befall the United States in subsequent years. We wanted to find out what actually happened in the halls of power in Washington, Saigon, and Hanoi, and to get to know the leaders who made the decisions that determined the fates of millions. Through the availability of recently declassified records, ongoing scholarship, and revelatory, sometimes shocking, audio recordings, the actions and motives of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon are laid bare, as are the complicated power struggles going on in South Vietnam during the autocratic, ruthless regime of Ngo Dinh Diem and the succession of generals who followed him. Of particular focus for us were the fascinating political dynamics in Hanoi, where the familiar figure of Ho Chi Minh fought for supremacy with other less-well-known but more powerful figures.
Most important, we wanted to understand what the war was like on the battlefield and on the home front, and we wanted to find out why, as Marine veteran Karl Marlantes told us, Americans have been unable to have a civil conversation about one of the most consequential events in our history. “For years, we just did not talk about that war,” he said. “You would open your mouth and you’d ask, which side was this person on? Am I going to get into a fight here? It’s like living in a family with an alcoholic father . . . you know, shh, we don’t talk about that.”
Wars, all wars, create a kind of dissonance that obfuscates and deflects clear understanding. Vietnam is no different. To shed new light on such a complicated and unsettled time in our history, to struggle to comprehend the special dissonance that is
the Vietnam War, we needed to look beyond the familiar stories Americans have told about the war and include as many different perspectives as our narrative could accommodate. Nearly one hundred “ordinary” people agreed to share their stories with us on camera: grunts and officers in the Army and Marines, prisoners of war, a fighter pilot and a helicopter crew chief, a Gold Star mother and the sister of a fallen soldier, a nurse, college students, reporters, protesters, military analysts, spies, and many others. To have been present as they bore witness to their experiences remains for us one of the enduring gifts of this project.
Throughout our long production, we were inspired by the architect Maya Lin, whose Vietnam Veterans Memorial was initially as controversial as the war itself, but which has become one of America’s sacred places. When she unveiled her design in 1981, Lin told the press that her memorial to the Americans who died in the war would be a journey “that would make you experience death, and where you’d have to be an observer, where you could never really fully be with the dead. . . . [It isn’t] something that was going to say, It’s all right, it’s all over. Because it’s not.” Nothing, certainly not our film or book, can make the tragedy of the Vietnam War all right. But we can, and we must, honor the courage, heroism, and sacrifice of those who served, those who died, and those who participated in the war against
the war. As filmmakers, we have tried to do that the only way we know how; by listening to their stories. “It’s almost going to make me cry,” Army veteran Vincent Okamoto told us, remembering the infantry company he led in Vietnam in 1968. “Nineteen-, twenty-year-old high school dropouts that come from the lowest socioeconomic rung of American society . . . they didn’t have the escape routes that the elite and the wealthy and the privileged had . . . but to see these kids, who had the least to gain. . . they weren’t going be rewarded for their service in Vietnam. And yet, their infinite patience, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire, was just phenomenal. And you would ask yourself: how does America produce young men like this?”
While Okamoto and hundreds of thousands of other Americans were fighting and dying in a brutal and bloody war overseas, hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens were taking to the streets back home to protest against that war. As the antiwar activist Bill Zimmerman recalled for us, “People who supported the war were fond of saying ‘My country right or wrong . . . or better dead than red.’ Those sentiments seemed insane to us. We don’t want to live in a country that we’re going to support whether it’s right or wrong . . . so we began an era in which two groups of Americans, both thinking that they were acting patriotically, went to war with each other.” A chasm opened in American society, and on both sides of the divide things were said—and things were done—that could never be unsaid, could never be undone. “When I see the war protesters . . . intellectually I certainly understand their right to the freedom of speech,” Army adviser James Willbanks remembered, “but I will tell you that when I see them waving NLF flags, the enemy that I and my friends had to fight and some of my friends had to die fighting, that doesn’t sit very well with me.”
When Americans talk about the Vietnam War, the scholar and novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote, too often we are just talking about ourselves. We were determined not to make that mistake. How could we hope to make sense of this turbulent time in our history, or to explore the humanity and the inhumanity of all sides, without hearing directly from our allies and our enemies—the Vietnamese soldiers and civilians we fought with, and against? Off and on for several years, we traveled to Texas, California, and Virginia to get to know many Vietnamese Americans who came to the United States as refugees, having suffered the unimaginable loss not just of their families, friends, and comrades, but of their country. They spoke honestly about the failings of their own government, and shared their doubts and fears about whether the Republic of South Vietnam under Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky had been worth fighting for. “Thieu [and] Ky, they were corrupt,” Saigon native Phan Quang Tue remembered. “They abused their position. And they received more from Vietnam than Vietnam received from them. We paid a very high price for having leaders like Ky and Thieu. And we continue to pay the price.”
To understand what the war was like for the winners, we traveled to Vietnam, traversing the length of the country, meeting and interviewing veterans and civilians. We were surprised to discover that the war remains as unsettled and painful for them as it is for us. For decades, they too have avoided speaking about what happened. The memory of the nearly incomprehensible price they paid in “blood and bone” has been too grievous. But now, as they near the end of their lives, they want their families, and the world, to know what they went through. “The war we fought,” General Lo Khac Tam told us on camera, “was so horribly brutal I don’t have words to describe it. I worry, how can we ever explain to the younger generation the price their parents and grandparents paid?” For Bao Ninh, a foot soldier in the North Vietnamese Army, who became a celebrated novelist after the war, the official public narrative celebrating their great, noble victory rings hollow: “People sing about victory, about liberation,” he told us. “They’re wrong. Who won and who lost is not a question. In war, no one wins or loses. There is only destruction. Only those who have never fought like to argue about who won and who lost.”
In the winter of 2015, as we were nearing the end of the editing phase of the project, we invited Nguyen Ngoc, an eighty-five- year-old veteran of the North Vietnamese Army (now a revered scholar and teacher of literature), to travel from Danang to Walpole, New Hampshire, where we screened the fine cut of the film and asked him to share his thoughts about the war with us. After reflecting on the stories he saw onscreen, he told us that the time had come for them to be told; the people of Vietnam, he said, “are starting to rethink the war, to ask the questions. Was the war necessary to achieve justice? Was it right? What is most important now is to find some meaning, some lessons in the war for our lives.”
There is no single truth in war, as this difficult story reminded us at every turn. Each of us can only see the world as we are; we are all prisoners of our own experience. We did not set out to answer every question embedded in this lamentable chapter in history. With open minds and open hearts we simply tried to listen to the brave and honest testimony of a remarkable group of men and women. If we have been able to find some meaning in this devastating calamity, it is in no small measure thanks to their generosity, humility, and humanity, for which we are profoundly grateful.
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
Walpole, New Hampshire
Copyright © 2017 by Geoffrey C. Ward. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.