October 2nd, 2017

Ken Burns’ Vietnam

I’ve already said that I wasn’t going to watch Ken Burns’ documentary on Vietnam, and why.

But of course lots of other people have watched it. Here’s a report from Powerline’s Scott Johnson:

Watching the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary history of the war, I was disappointed to hear the conflict described as a civil war as late as episode 10, covering the war’s denouement in 1975. Under the prestigious auspices of Burns and PBS, the documentary recirculates a goodly share of the tripe that I credulously consumed back in the day. Looking around online this morning, I find I wasn’t the only one to notice.

The series concluded its original broadcast on Thursday evening. PBS has posted each of the 10 episodes as broadcast here and other versions here. The filmmakers dug up some remarkable footage. They conducted interesting interviews with Vietnamese participants. They have reopened discussion of history that continues to haunt.

Unsurprisingly, the series tilted to the left. The languid pace of the series’ narration by Peter Coyote was stupefying. Given the languid pace, I found various aspects of the documenatary’s superficiality especially irritating. The documentary’s superficiality facilitated the leftward tilt.

Johnson recommends watching a panel discussion on the program, held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

The panel included three members of the documentary’s historical advisory group. Representing a wide range of perspectives, the participants on the CSIS panel included Mark Moyar himself, of course, but also Thomas Vallely (Harvard University), Lewis Sorley (independent scholar), Marc Selverstone (University of Virginia), Gregory Daddis (Chapman University), Nu Anh Tran (University of Connecticut) and Jay Veith (independent scholar). Erik Villard (US Army Center of Military History) moderated the discussion.

Here’s the video. I haven’t watched it yet (the discussion doesn’t begin till minute 35, and the entire video is long), but Johnson highly recommends the portion in which Lewis Sorley speaks, beginning at minute 48.

I’ve read Sorley’s book A Better War and found it impressive and persuasive. I discussed Sorley’s two Vietnam books here, here, and here.

8 Responses to “Ken Burns’ Vietnam”

  1. Ymar Sakar Says:


    Book apparently has been captured and is now being forced to keep watching.

  2. parker Says:

    I will watch it when it becomes available on netflix. I think I have the ability to filter the leftist bias and still enjoy the presentation.

  3. Cornflour Says:


    PBS has made “Vietnam” available on their web site. (http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-vietnam-war/watch/)

    I’ve watched bits and pieces of a few episodes, but probably won’t go back for more.

    My thoughts on the war are still complicated, but Burns’s version is too left-biased for me. I’m just not in the mood to get angry over distortion, selective memory, and too-clever editing.

  4. Oblio Says:

    As someone just a little too young to understand what was going on at the time, and having been discouraged from reading much about the war since that time by the mountain of recriminations associated with it, I found the series helpful. The bias is not ubiquitous, though some important questions are begged.

    When you realize that Burns is trying to salvage a workable liberal history of the war as a basis for reconciliation, the editorial choices make sense. It is probably a very faithful rendering of the way liberal Democrats (of the Establishment) perceived and remembered the war. Hence the exaggerated emphasis on the political impact of whatever Nixon told the Saigon government in the fall of 68 that wickedly undermined Johnson’s transparently political peace feelers, as if the talks stood any chance of ending the war and as if Saigon needed to be told that a) the talks were not in their interest, and 2) the Republicans would make reliable allies. It comes close to being the only thing that the filmmaker is willing to call treason: it may have affected the election.

    The problem with the liberal narrative is that the liberals lost the struggle at the time to the radicals. The war was very effective in destroying the viability of liberal anticommunism. In retrospect, Johnson could not have anticipated how much his landslide 64 victory would pull his party to the Left. Democrats probably looked at a leftward moving government under their control not as a political innovation, but as a restoration of their place as rightful owners of the government since the New Deal.

    Johnson could not afford to be the President who “lost” Indochina only 15 years after Truman lost China and stalemated in Korea, leading to Republican control of the Presidency. Allowing Hanoi to overrun a US ally would cement the charges that the Democrats were soft on Communism, which was potentially deadly because so much of the Party was soft on Communism. The war might be said to have torn the country apart, but first it tore the Democratic Party apart.

    I was struck with the perception that the violence and viciousness of the antiwar rhetoric and behavior really stepped up in 1969. One might wonder whether having the Republicans in office both added to the Left’s rage while it removed any prudential inhibitions about not going so far as to damage your political allies. Of course, part of the movement had gone that far in 68, and now they were stuck with the consequences.

    The similarity to today is striking.

  5. J.J. Says:

    I listened to Lewis Sorley and his opinion of the “brilliant” opus by Ken Burns destined to define Vietnam for the ages. Certainly reinforced my decision not to watch it.

    Other speakers seemed to have collaborated with Burns in some way and were quite happy with the video series. Kinda like society itself. We agree on little. We are now the Divided States of America.

  6. parker Says:


    Of course it will be over the top. Pardon me, but I know what is wheat and what is chafe.

  7. Ymar Sakar Says:

    Watching the Left’s Art of Propaganda is only useful to create counter measures. But good thing I found another way where I could utilize my training time better than to watch Leftist mind control programs like Burns whatever X/Y.

  8. Ymar Sakar Says:

    J.J. Says:
    October 2nd, 2017 at 10:42 pm

    As I told you, Civil War 2 is inevitable. What President or election you have, merely changes the timeline a little bit, not the ultimate end result.

    Humans were never designed to predict or see the future. It’s not like they could make use of the knowledge even if they could.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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