Sunday, October 15, 2017

Ken Burns' Vietnam: A Quagmire within a Quagmire

Put me down as a Ken Burns fan.  I loved his documentary The Civil War (  I admired his film The War which dealt with World War II (

History is far too important to be left to academic historians.  I was delighted to see that Burns would be taking his documentary film-making technique to the thorny topic of the Vietnam War.  His treatment was bound to ruffle some academic feathers.

But what a disappointment The Vietnam War has proven to be!  The film seems to be a quagmire within a quagmire.

Just consider the problems in the first episode which purports to cover the conflict in Vietnam from 1858 to 1962.

First, Burns / Novick claim to have tried to attempted to shed light on Vietnam by interviewing those on all sides of the conflict -- South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, Americans, etc..  This would be highly commendable if it were true.  The first episode of his Vietnam deals largely with the French Imperial Project in Vietnam.  But something is missing.  There was not a single interview with any French man or woman.  This is a glaring oversight.  The French Imperial Project is summarily dismissed without any attempt to make any real assessment of the effects of European Imperialism.  Throw us a baguette, Ken!

Second, the editing in this documentary is chronologically jerky and highly annoying.  In an episode which is ostensibly treating the period from 1858 to 1962 Burns inserts a number of flash forwards to the 1960s American experience of the war.  This seems to be a highly patronizing move on Burns part.  He seems to assume that an American audience cannot handle a historic chronology without being a helping of the 1960s Vietnam experience that is more familiar to American viewers.

Grosvenor Square, London
Third, the Burns / Novick documentary fundamentally gets Eisenhower wrong.  His film suggests that Ike was elected President in 1952 because he would be more tough on Communism.  This is misleading at best.  Ike was elected in 1952 to deal with the trauma of the Korean War from which he swiftly extracted the US and winning an uneasy peace on the peninsula.  Of all Americans Presidents who dealt with Vietnam from 1952 to 1974 Eisenhower had BY FAR the most military and strategic experience.  Nor is it a coincidence that among all US Presidents from 1952 to 1974 Eisenhower did the least to deepen our involvement in Vietnam.  Nor does Burns even bother to mention that Ike flatly turned down the suggestion by his Joint Chiefs to drop atomic bombs on the Viet Minh in 1954 in support of the beleaguered French at Dien Bien Phu.  Dismissing the desperate pleas of the French who had been close wartime allies of the US in World War II could not have been easy for Ike but it was the right call to make.

Fourth, Burns / Novick give short shrift to the appalling devastation caused in Vietnam by the Japanese occupation of the country in World War II.  Vietnam sustained 1 to 2 million deaths  (mainly due to starvation) during the 1940 to 1945 occupation of their country by the Japanese quite possibly more than ALL of the casualties of the Vietnam on ALL sides (about 1.3 million from 1965 to 1974). The horrendous trauma of the wartime famine explains much about how the ground for Ho Chi Minh's Revolution was laid.

The Vietnam War was a worthy subject poorly handled by the Burns / Novick collaboration.

No comments: