I must admit that when Ken Burns's and Lynn Novick's Vietnam series started, I was not eager to watch it. Two or three years ago--I am not sure which--I had heard about the series by accident, and I had called Burns's office in hopes of taking part in it. I was summarily informed that the series was already in post production, and that was that. I was frustrated by the first two episodes, which covered things I had researched and written about myself, with some significant gaps. But after the major American involvement began in 1965, I changed my mind. To begin with, Burns had used almost no historians at all on camera and very few, apparently, in preparing the script. I had no reason to take my own exclusion personally. But more importantly, Burns had decided to present the war almost entirely from the perspective of combatants and their families on all sides--American, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese. That he had done superbly, and I was very grateful for it. I think it is probably the best film that he has produced.
The single best thing about the series, for me, was its portrayal of combat. Burns combined interviews with participants in battle--again, on all sides--with extraordinary footage. At times I wondered, and I still don't know, if the footage really was footage of the exact day and place the veterans were talking about, but it certainly looked as if it might have been. And in his battlefield episodes Burns demolished one of the enduring myths of the war: that the United States never lost a battle Several of the battles that veterans described in excruciating detail fit the classic pattern of Vietnam combat. An American unit--generally anything from a company to a battalion--patrolling in the jungle or the highlands, walked into a VC or North Vietnamese ambush. The Communist forces tried not to open fire until the Americans were just a few yards away. This tactic, to "grab them by the belts," meant that the US forces would not be able to call in their devastating artillery or air support during the battle for fear of hitting their own men. For hours, North Vietnamese and US forces would exchange rifle and machine gun fire and grenades, inflicting heavy casualties. Many American companies suffered losses large enough to put them out of action as effective fighting forces in these firefights. The North Vietnamese, of course, wanted to continue these encounters until US casualties had become so high that the American people would insist on de-escalating, and, eventually, quitting the war. In the end, the turning point came at Hamburger Hill, in May 1969--one of so many battles that fit that pattern, and which forced the US to try to avoid many more of them. That battle, coincidentally, took place nearly at the very moment when American forces in South Vietnam had reached their highest point.
Burns not only decided not to use historians, but he also decided not to use anyone, really, who had become famous during the Vietnam era. The highest-level civilians he interviews are Leslie Gelb, one of the authors of the Pentagon papers, and John Negroponte, who was then a junior diplomat at the Paris peace talks. He did not interview Henry Kissinger, or Daniel Ellsberg, or John McCain (who is seen in an interview in a hospital bed shortly after his capture.) Nor did he interview James Webb or Ron Kovic, two activist veterans with opposing views of the war and its lessons. But I thought the ordinary veterans he selected gave a fine portrait of my own Boom generation as it was then. Many joined out of idealism, and we forget how many of us (like me) fully supported the rationale behind the war when it began in earnest in 1965. The treatment of changes on campus during those years was also excellent.
Burns did what he can do, very well. I have done something very different throughout my career--reading, researching and studying to understand the decisions US leaders took to intervene, fight, and withdraw, and why they were not successful. I would like to make a few points that Burns did not address, or where he contributed to longstanding misconceptions.
The first concerns the role of the Eisenhower Administration, on the one hand, and the Kennedy Administration, on the other, in involving, or not involving, the United States in wr in Southeast Asia. Eisenhower in 1954 refused the entreaties of his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, to intervene actively on the side of the French. But in subsequent years, I found researching American Tragedy, his administration laid down policies calling for American intervention to stop Communist aggression in Laos, Cambodia, or South Vietnam--using nuclear weapons as necessary, and accepting the risk of all-out war with China. And indeed, in late 1960, a civil war in Laos, which the American-backed forces were losing, brought the Eisenhower Administration to the brink of carrying out those policies before Ike left office and dumped the situation in JFK's lap. Burns said almost nothing about any of this.
That, in turn, leads to the aspect of JFK's policies that I and other historians have highlighted, but which Burns did not really explore. From the moment that Kennedy took office through early November 1961, he was besieged with a series of proposals for full-scale American intervention, including large ground forces, in Laos, in South Vietnam, or in both countries. Virtually all his senior advisers--Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Bundy's deputy Walt Rostow, and most of the Joint Chiefs--pushed for intervention. Kennedy repeatedly rejected it. In the last meeting in which he did so he laid out a series of excellent reasons why war in South Vietnam would be a dreadful mistake: that the war would be hard to explain to the American people, that the Saigon government had not managed to handle the insurgency, and that we would not be supported by major allies. He also abandoned the civil war in Laos in favor of a negotiated settlement, which he eventually achieved. He did all this, in part, because he had a wide-ranging diplomatic agenda aimed at easing tensions in the Cold War, which war in Southeast Asia would not help. His successor had no such agenda.
I also found fault with Burns's treatment of Lyndon Johnson in 1964-5. He made extensive use of Johnson's phone conversations, which often show the President agonizing over what to do in Southeast Asia. I too was fooled, initially, when I heard some of those. But gradually I realized that while Johnson loved to agonize, he had never seriously considered any alternative to fighting a war to try to save South Vietnam from the Communists. His plan to do so was clear as early as March 1964, although he was determined to wait until after the election. More seriously, Burns, like so many historians, gave the misleading impression that Johnson first decided on sustained bombing of North Vietnam in early March 1965, and then was gradually pushed into a ground commitment. In fact, Johnson in December 1964 approved a planning paper that linked the anticipated bombing of the North to "appropriate deployments to handle any contingency." In the late 1990s I got the appendices to that document declassified, and they showed a specific plan to deploy hundreds of aircraft and hundreds of thousands of troops to Southeast Asia, beginning with the Marines who landed in Da Nang the week the bombing of the North began. Subsequent events followed that timetable quite closely, although plans to send forces ot Thailand were dropped, and those troops wound up in South Vietnam instead. There was only one decision to fight a huge war in Southeast Asia, and it was taken in December 1964.
Burns also failed ever to identify the real issue in the peace talks that began in 1968: the issue of who would rule South Vietnam, and what would happen to it in the long run. The Geneva Agreements of 1954 that ended the French war had recognized the "unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Vietnam, and for the next 18 years the US had struggled to establish, and define, South Vietnam as a separate and independent nation. Beginning in 1965, North Vietnam had demanded not immediate reunification, but the establishment of a coalition government in the South and the withdrawal of American troops, leaving that new government to negotiate eventual reunification. Not until the fall of 1972 did the Nixon Administration abandon its position. It did not agree to a coalition government, but the agreement it signed put the Viet Cong on a footing of equality with the South Vietnamese government and directed the two parties to work out new political arrangements. It also, of course--as Burns did show--allowed North Vietnamese troops to remain in South Vietnam. To his credit, Burns gave almost no support to the idea that the South might have remained independent if the US had simply given it more aid.
Over the course of the 18-hour broadcast, viewers got to know Burns's select group of US veterans (and similar groups of North and South Vietnamese) very well. The last hour or so on the aftermath, featured the controversy over the Vietnam Memorial--and their own visits to it. Many of them cried as they described them, and I found myself crying as well. I return again to the theme I struck at the end of American Tragedy. The war marked the end of an heroic era in American history, and set off a process of political disintegration that is still continuing. We live with it to this day.