The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

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Webcast Recap

The Wilson Center and The Better Angels Society hosted an exclusive preview of The Vietnam War, an 18-part documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that explores the causes, calculations, and resonance of one of the most controversial conflicts in U.S. history. The event, held on September 12, featured a panel discussion on the Vietnam War and the documentary. It was made possible with the support of Bank of America.

Key Quotes:

Jane Harman:

“Vietnam left a scar on this country – not just in our collective psyche or in a philosophical sense, but in real-life terms.”  
“[Homeless veterans of the Vietnam War] are an example of history as present-day reality – in flesh and blood – and an example of how we have yet to come to terms fully with that war and its impacts.”
“History is not only about the past and what really happened on the ground; it is also in large part about how much people know, or admit, or accept today as having happened.”
“The scars of history don’t just heal on their own.”
Ken Burns:
“As LBJ says in an anguished tape as the marines are landing at Danang in March of ’65, ‘I see no daylight’… And nobody could see any daylight in Vietnam.” 
“I think for so many reasons, [the Vietnam War was] a seminal event in American history. A good deal of how we are today – the disunion, the hyper-partisanship – I think you can trace back to the lack of trust in government [then]... The way in which the country was fractured, which always gives oxygen to the fires of the extreme, and then those extremes, because they are louder, become more mainstream, and that feeds its own self-fulfilling polarization – all of those things issue from Vietnam.” 
“There is… this intense and unbelievable bond that exists within the soldiers in combat about saving the guy to the left and to the right, and that is a huge part of our film… But there’s some other mediating force, which is the miscalculation [about the war] that is trickling down.”

“We didn’t know [our enemy]. We didn’t bother. We had a kind of hubris or arrogance that we inherited from our two recent conventional warfare triumphs, or at least stalemates, and that just did not apply to our curiosity about the Vietnamese. And we still have that.” 

“It seems to me that one of the great things that we’re able to see when we study a war are all those factions, wherever they may appear, where that abstraction takes place; if you think you can quantify it into 70, 20, 10, then you’re in big trouble. If you think you can make a kind of political calculus... All of them – Truman, everybody all the way through – are making decisions that are plowing us deeper and deeper into Vietnam based on domestic politic decisions.  And that means, ‘Will I get elected?’ – not 'What’s best for the United States?'” 

Lynn Novick:

“It’s been a revelation to go back into the Pentagon Papers and the telephone conversations that we hear with Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, to a lesser degree, about the doubts. There was the sense that, privately, they could never really figure out a way to see a future that guaranteed we would win the war. There was always tremendous doubt that it was possible, and yet there was also, seemingly, no questioning about whether, therefore, we should not be doing it. It was sort of a given that we’re doing it, but yet, we don’t see a way to make it work. Again and again and again, it’s a devastating series of conversations and revelations that’s hard to make sense of when you’re next to brave Americans who went there and did their duty, not knowing that that’s what our leaders were thinking at the time.” 

Admiral Michael Mullen:

“I think part of what Ken captures in this [documentary]… is the young ones who started to see it going South and were caught in this incredible trap – fighting for the guy on the right and the guy on the left, while at least knowing, and in many cases, stating, that it’s not going well, with an expectation that that would move up the chain and somehow be taken care of.”

“What was so disheartening for me in this, in the Kennedy episode and in the first Johnson episode, is this trap they’re in, which is, ‘I know I shouldn’t do this, but politically, I can’t hack it, so I’ve got to execute.’ We’re going to continue that until the person that knows they shouldn’t do it doesn’t do it and sacrifices the office they’re in to make the right decision. That’s true in Iraq. I’ve watched parts of that same kind of thing in Afghanistan – presidents who are paralyzed by the politics.”

General Barry McCaffrey:

“The military does have a tendency – if you throw us down a well and start pouring doo-doo on our head, ten minutes later we’ll tell you that we’re in the perfect place we always wanted to be. I think to some extent, that’s what happens with senior military guys in a bad situation.”

“I had to tell these soldiers, ‘We’re not fighting for the country. We’re fighting for each other.’”