Released in September 2017, The Vietnam War, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part, 18-hour documentary series, has been widely acclaimed by film critics. In an interview with the Harvard Gazette, Burns addressed the timing of the film, explaining, “You need the passage of time, the triangulation of scholarly information.” And yet, while historians—makers of such scholarly information—were consulted in the making of the series, their voices—and their interpretive disputes—are notably missing on screen.
In a late-breaking AHA roundtable moderated by Michael Kazin (Georgetown Univ.), Christian G. Appy (Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst), Mark Philip Bradley (Univ. of Chicago), Carolyn Eisenberg (Hofstra Univ.), and Heather Marie Stur (Univ. of Southern Mississippi) offered their assessments of the series. Highlighting interpretive choices, the emphasis on combat, the privileging of certain voices, and the lack of a broader frame, the panelists discussed why The Vietnam War falls short both in terms of the history it narrates and the lessons it offers for the present.
Some of the film’s problems arise, Appy argued, because of its “therapeutic approach to history” as opposed to a critical one. In his interview with the Harvard Gazette, Burns drew on notions of disease and healing to describe what he thought of as the film’s purpose: “We still suffer today from the divisions that took seed in Vietnam. So maybe the virus we caught then will be serviceable for a vaccine now.” Burns wanted the film, Appy explained, to offer an antidote to the polarizations that divide Americans when it comes to the war. And yet, despite the directors’ hope that the film would prompt national conversation, debate is not modeled in the film itself.
The Vietnam War is at its best, the panelists agreed, when it tells powerful and moving individual stories. Yet, the voices it features obscure the larger structural processes of history. For Appy, The Vietnam War is ultimately an American film—one about US combat veterans told through a Cold War lens. While Burns and Novick include several South and North Vietnamese individuals’ stories, Stur noted that those voices reinforce the dominant combat narrative. In failing to include the stories of Vietnamese activists, priests, and Catholics, among others, she argued that the film missed an opportunity to capture the political diversity and vibrancy of South Vietnam. The film is also overwhelmingly focused on men; with the exception of one female nurse, American women, Stur observed, appear as handwringing wives and mothers on the home front. The individual stories, panelists argued, did not sufficiently capture the complexity of the war and people’s experiences.
How might historians tell this story differently? How might the film have captured such complexity? Attention to context and inclusion of a more diverse range of voices would “put the Vietnam War more squarely into the broader flows of modern history,” said Bradley. While the film offers insight into presidencies, it fails to address the broader historical contexts in which the war played out on several fronts, including politics, policymaking decisions, and the antiwar movement, to name a few. As Bradley argued, while the film’s stories are compelling, the narrative does not push “beyond individual agency.” Interviews with Vietnamese individuals, he observed, “feel at a remove” because the historical context emerges in such a diffuse way.
Critical viewpoints and historians’ interpretive disagreements, the panelists noted, are also largely absent from the film. And yet there were numerous opportunities to tackle such debates. Eisenberg suggested that the filmmakers could have taken a stab at why the war was still going on at particular junctures—a question on which historians disagree. The film, Appy argued, presents the war as a well-intentioned tragedy—the viewer does not hear from those who thought of the war as a “concerted and deliberate act of imperial counterrevolution” or “a noble crusade against communism.” While antiwar activists are addressed, their role in bringing the war to an end is minimized, argued Eisenberg. Students in South Vietnam, Stur reminded the audience, were key activists and yet the viewer does not hear from them.
These omissions, Appy and Eisenberg both suggested, have consequences for how the Vietnam War is understood to bear upon the present. Appy noted that there was no debate or dialogue about Vietnam’s relevance to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Eisenberg felt there was a more worrying consequence: by obscuring the antiwar movement’s role in bringing the war to an end, she argued, the film “disempower[s] our youth and viewers” because credit is not given to the power of grassroots movements in American society.
A question posed by Michael Kazin bears considering: Can a popular documentary about war do what a critical history book does? Burns’s documentary is an imperfect one. Yet it has reached more than 34 million viewers—far more, as the panelists jested, than an academic monograph will ever reach. But those viewers, Bradley pointed out, are predominantly over the age of 40. Historians and Burns, then, share a problem—one of reaching younger generations of Americans—of engaging them in compelling, yet critical histories.
People are engaged by stories—they relate to history, in part, through their own story. Indeed this was evidenced in the question-and-answer period of the roundtable, as audience members rose to relate their own stories, ranging from their involvement in antiwar activism, Foreign Service, and combat, to their experiences teaching the Vietnam War in classrooms. But as this panel made clear, individual stories do not a history make—those stories require a compelling context in which to understand their significance.