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The Burns-Novick Vietnam Narrative: Early Strengths and Weaknesses

September 18, 2017

While my day job involves tasks outside of history proper, I’m always thinking historically about matters before me. This is a welcome hazard of possessing a master’s and doctorate in history. Years spent studying U.S. history means that I see the world through the lens of history.  This inclination to see and think historically is accompanied by a great deal of history consumption. Of the 30-40 books I read annually, about 15-20 are history-related. So while my day job as a higher ed staffer means I can’t produce as much history as I like, I stay sharp professionally as a consumer.

About a month ago I decided to dedicate some of my consumption energy to The Vietnam War on PBS. Created by Ken Burns and his partner Lynn Novick, the series began last night with Episode One. The entire thing is 18 hours long, and last night’s entry consisted of 1.5 hours total. Apparently there will be 10 episodes total. Installment one was titled “Déjà Vu,” and covered the years 1858 to 1961. Due to chores at home, I missed the first twenty minutes of the first entry (i.e. broadcast 9/17, 7 pm central in Chicago), but watched the balance through the credits (and reviewed the missed opening after). I mention this missed opening because I am aware of how powerful beginnings color one’s view of what follows.

The episode left a positive first impression. I feared that the series would begin in the Kennedy administration and move forward. At best I expected some exploration of the Eisenhower administration’s early moves to send advisors and supplies to prop up South Vietnam’s leaders, Bảo Đại and president Ngô Đình Diệm. But Burns and Novick dived deeply into French colonialism, the pressures of World War II, and the Truman administration’s support for Ho Chi Minh and his Viet-Minh. I was most impressed with creators’ nuance on the pressures of colonialism, though France was portrayed more as a villain than seemed appropriate.

If episode one is any indication of what’s to follow, there is no question the series has benefited from a slick production process. The familiar voice of Peter Coyote brings a narrative unity to the series. Coyote has narrated several Burns documentaries, including The National Parks, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, and The Roosevelts. Original music contributions to Vietnam come from Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and an instrumental ensemble that includes Yo-Yo Ma.

A narrative decision to alternate between backstory and the late 1960s means that the viewer moves between color and black-and-white film footage. This change of screen color occurs in all Burns films due to balancing of historical footage and present-day talking historians. But in The Vietnam War the latter was replaced by oral histories of first-hand participants, and the alternating footage provides action shots. When rice paddies and Vietnamese landscapes from the 1940s and 1950s are shown, often via grainy black-and-white newsreels, the Burns-Novick team can cut to vivid greens of the same in a few minutes.

Despite the episode’s promise to provide 103 years of history, the opening scenes cover the 1970s and memories—real and suppressed—of the conflict. Of course that grabs the viewer, along with the Reznor-covered rewind sequence, which lasts for several minutes. Present-day interests will dictate how the story is re-spun. Of course that’s the case in every historical narrative. And it’s not unusual to lead a deep historical narrative with matters that still touch current readers and viewers. When Reznor’s rewind ends, Dylan begins to take the viewer further back.

“America’s involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy,” Coyote tells us starting near the 6:20 mark, “It ended thirty years later in failure, witnessed by the entire world.” Then Coyote’s voice delivers the most controversial part of episode one: “It was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation.”

That assertion of “begun in good faith” rings hollow, or even as flat-out false. While miscalculation and misunderstandings certainly figure into the equation of disaster that brought us the Vietnam War, those calculations arose from certain interests, some explicitly given in episode one, and others either ignored or downplayed. While I appreciate the creators’ focus on colonialism, French imperialism, Vietnamese desires for independence, and civil war, other interests and themes could’ve been emphasized.

What of racism? The first entry gives the impression that all movements by actors were animated by political antagonisms surrounding colonialism, independence, and the Cold War. Short shrift is given to the Orientalism that tinged America’s interest in the Pacific theater of World War II. That kind of racism has been on the books since John Dower covered them in his 1986 book, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon). Dower asserted that the fight against the Japanese was a “race war.” Given the 1940s roots of the Vietnam conflict, and the substantial lack of political enlightenment on race in the intervening years, there can be little question that the Vietnam War was also a race war. Emotions of race give an edge to the violence of Vietnam that should have begun in episode one.

White supremacy also helped drive American imperialism in Asia. American colonial interests in the Pacific date, at least, to the Spanish-American War. In many ways the spread of the Japanese empire, which led to American involvement in Vietnam, was just another clash of imperial ambition with the United States. In that clash the U.S. owned the rhetorical advantage of defending democracy and self-determination, and its “city on a hill” ideals that added the pretension of forwarding Christian virtues. This covered brutal repressions of a rebellion in the Philippines. Instead of colonies we pretended to help our “protectorates,” fostering dependency and avoiding the disjunct between those governing entities and our founding ideals. It’s hard to avoid thinking that this hierarchical attitude of power did not predetermine U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the 1940s.  This kind of attitude provides a thread of continuity between French colonial operations and America’s Pacific empire.

Finally, where you find American-style empire, the interests of capital are always lurking in the background. But business interests are entirely absent from the Burns-Novick narrative. Nowhere in episode one is even a single company or business endeavor named, either from France or the United States. And if one or two were named, you can excuse me for missing them given the lack of any meditation on the interests of investors and capitalists in what happened politically in Indochina, China, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. If you are going to make the French your villains, at least show us a few fat businessmen instead of just viceroys and generals. Instead of the economic interests of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Chinese, we see only nationalism and patriotism driving their sacrifices for self-determination. The Burns-Novick narrative focuses on how France and America took their independence and freedom, not their resources.

Will capitalism arise as a villain in later episodes? Or racism and imperialism? My guess is that we will see racism and bit of imperialism. But capitalism will remain a mere silent partner in the death and destruction that follow—unless perhaps we hear from Tom Hayden and friends regarding the New Left’s critique of American operations in the Pacific and South Asian world. I’ll keep watching, in the hope that correctives are interjected in the Burns-Novick narrative.

Savvy consumers of history should demand a strong sense of complexity with good storytelling. Proper causation and a robust sense of change over time should be immersed in a broad historical context. It’s not enough to provide interesting primary resources via the first-hand historical actors. A substantial argument, or sense of conjecture, must be able to cover many themes. After episode one, The Vietnam War wins points for storytelling, characters, change over time, and some aspects of context. But it’s losing credibility, already, by avoiding the triumvirate of racism, American imperialism, and capitalism. – TL


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  1. You make some good points. I watched the first episode, and there was very little concerning race, American imperialism and capitalism. But I think we’ll see a lot more of this in subsequent episodes. For one, Burns has never been shy about discussing racism. Also, this episode was to provide a backdrop to American involvement. French imperialism and racism history, followed by post-WW2 Red-Menace, domino-theory fears were the major factors leading up to American involvement. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment. I hope you’re right about racism, but I also hope he covers the Western-Eastern angle on it. Should we take bets on whether capitalism and business interests are covered at all? – TL


      • I’d place a bet, but I’m not that knowledgeable about ‘Nam history (I’m reading a book right now in addition to watching the series). Fighting Communism is the popular reason given for U.S. involvement, but undoubtedly, as usual, our government had big business interests supporting that effort. I hope Burns-Novick at least exposes Dow Chemical’s manufacture of napalm and Agent Orange (while simultaneously recruiting on college campuses).


  2. Nice review Tim! Beginning with the sly French title of the episode and told through the form of back-and-forth edits moving between 60s US footage and earlier footage primarily of French colonial wars in Indochina, I took the argument of Episode One to be look at how the US repeated the mistakes of the French almost exactly in Vietnam. Deja vu all over again, with even more tragic results. Your point about the deeper history of US imperialism in the Pacific (not to mention Latin America) of course complicates this neat, but imperfect, argument made by the film in both form and content.

    The film makes a brief nod to the economic interests in Southeast Asia when it mentions the “rubber and tin” that might go to the communists from other countries in Indochina if the French lose. But it doesn’t make clear the US economic interests in the resources of the region. Of course, those were sort of wrapped into the political ideologies of the Cold War: how could we let those resources go to the Soviets (or maybe worse yet, the people of those areas themselves!) when they should be part of Western democracy, I mean capitalism, I mean democracy.

    That all said, I guess I also think that there was something—imperfect, but not to be ignored—to the US interest in post-colonial self-determination after WWII. It wasn’t just predetermined that the US would replicate the French colonial legacy; it was a struggle between various forces, ideas, and ways of handling the complexities of the postwar situation.

    Quick thoughts, but really appreciate your reviews here and will keep reading them!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Michael: Thanks for the substantial comment.

      I had missed the Deja Vu reference at first. But I do think it draws too many similarities without, ironically, underscoring the key similarity of America as empire/colonial power, likely Occident/Orient racial views. Also, as you note, there are substantial dissimilarities: WWII legacy, Cold War pressures, and likely, to me, capitalist pressures by specific international conglomerates (probably with ties to France and the U.S. both).

      These complex pressures explain the push toward war that undermines the “good faith” on all sides blather.

      I don’t know if I’ll post a review after every episode. I don’t think, if I do, they’ll be this long. We’ll see where the muse takes me.

      – TL


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Truth About Documentaries: Burns, Novick, Bacevich, and Vietnam | Society for US Intellectual History
  2. Historical Documentaries – Kaitlynn's Blog

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