Ken Burns’ Vietnam Documentary on PBS

Since I am writing a series of historical novels on the Vietnam Conflict, I was drawn to watch the Vietnam War Documentary produced by Ken Burns for PBS. The ten-episode series was well researched, and Burns presented all sides of the Conflict, including the North Vietnamese prospective. The stories of individuals involved gave the narrative a personal insight often missing from such broadcasts. I was concerned about how the producer would portray US troops—but I shouldn’t have been. The depiction was excellent—except, perhaps, too much focus on the negatives created by US troops rather than those created by military and political leaders’ flawed military strategy.

The documentary started in the mid-1800s, which provided excellent insight into the mental make-up of the Indochinese people. This essential understanding of the Vietnamese was something US decision-makers did not bother to acquire.

Indecisiveness characterized President Kennedy’s administration, which focused on South Vietnamese President Diem—who was already in trouble with the majority Buddhist population in his country. All the while, the North Vietnamese, under the lead of their second-in-command, Le Duan, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, focused on moving supplies into South Vietnam. He was instrumental in the continuous growth of the conflict, no matter the action of the United States. While he was pushing the war buttons, Ho Chi Minh became a figurehead assuming the role of “Uncle Ho,” dressing like the people and walking amongst them. His personality was widely embraced by the population, while Diem’s actions isolated him from his people.  

Shortly after President Johnson was elected in 1964, he committed troops to South Vietnam—and, every time Westmoreland asked for more, Johnson granted his requests. Camps set up throughout South Vietnam became easy targets for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong’s mortars. The documentary clearly showed that Westmoreland defined battle victories by body count. Worse still, US troops were sacrificed to capture ground; soon thereafter, the ground fought and died for fell right back to the enemy. US soldiers were not allowed to pursue the enemy into Cambodia or Laos.

Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese leadership committed every citizen to their effort, body count be damned. They correctly believed their goal of staying engaged at all costs would eventually wear down the will of the United States, which had little to fight for other than stopping the spread of communism. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong worked diligently to keep the Ho Chi Minh trail available to move supplies or men into the South. They forced women and children to work at night to repair the bomb damage to keep the road open.

There were two comments that made me proud of our men who served.  Colonel Moore stated the US troops fought gallantly at the battle of Ia Drang, and Neil Sheehan commented that soldiers in Vietnam fought as hard as the men who served in World War II. This was especially pertinent since the US military had been trained to fight the Soviets in conventional war, not the guerrilla warfare of the Vietnamese and Viet Cong.

Burn’s coverage of the Tet Offensive was spot on. Clearly, this was the moment of the Vietnam Conflict. US troops inflicted enough casualties on the Viet Cong that, as Westmoreland predicted, casualties out-numbered replacements. While the attack was anticipated, Westmoreland guessed wrong about where it would take place. Instead of only attacking the northern portion of South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong also attacked every major population center in South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh trail. The battles were intense, but in the end, the US defeated the North Vietnamese and virtually wiped out the Viet Cong. However, these were the first battles televised live, and watching the realities of war play out in their living rooms turned a public opinion against the war effort.

By the time President Johnson was up for re-election in 1968, he realized the country had turned against him. The anti-war movement would not allow him the Democratic votes to be re-elected. Instead, the people voted for Richard Nixon, who had promised to end the war with a winning strategy. Nixon increased bombing so sorties were flown day and night. He negotiated with the North Vietnamese to basically allow US troops to leave, which was easy. The North knew as soon as the US left, they could crush the South, whose political leadership had been such a game of musical chairs it was embarrassing. The corruption of the leaders of the South was even more embarrassing.

There were two important items left out of the documentary—the role of the CIA, and the role of illegal drugs. However, these are covered extensively in my historical novels. I don’t know why Burns and PBS left them out. They did interview one CIA agent, who represented one of the two factions of the CIA.

All in all, PBS’s Vietnam War was well done. What did you think of Burn’s documentary? Do you think he got it right? Why or why not?

4 thoughts on “Ken Burns’ Vietnam Documentary on PBS

  1. Maybe it is because I was a soldier, but I thought there was a left leaning slant to the documentary. Then again, when you use the press reports from that time period, they had a decided left slant. There were agendas that had to be met. A glaring example to me was the coverage of Tet. One of the most infamous photos of the war was the assassination of the VC Captain by General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. What was not even mentioned was the VC was in charge of revenge squads who had been caught executing many police officers and their families. It was incidents like these, throughout the war, that flowed into American homes nightly that showed the horrific brutality of war. Tactically, Tet destroyed the capabilities of the Viet Cong, and set back the NVA several years. Strategically, we became doomed because we lost the press, and subsequently the American people. This is far from a total indictment of the press. Political leadership, and high ranking military were just as culpable.

    • Richard, I agree with you completely regarding the TET Offensive. I believe had the press been behind the conflict effort, the views of the American people would have been different toward our soldiers. I don’t know whether or not South Vietnam would have remained separate and free or not. That is too tough to call even looking back now. Also, the live shots in the living rooms at home also killed the American public support. War is Hell and they showed some of the worse sides of the conflict.

  2. Another aspect that was not covered was the sex trade that was rampant. I volunteered in a STD clinic while in southeast Asia. I was horrified to learn that after the 5th case of STD the squadron would give the guy a party. Before being sent back to the states the non-com and com officers had to test negative. This is when I learned about Johnny Gems and Gonorrhea jewelry bought by home coming spouses. Dirty business that was not talked about by Ken Burns or our government……

    • Jeannine, you have a keen insight from your time there and work in the medical field. The illegal drug activity was also omitted, which I deal with in my series. My goal was to critic the program as presented. In th beginning, my blog was twice as long because I attempted to cover several omissions, I decided to shorten it down to the level of what Burns actually presented. However, I did not even think about the things you mentioned.

Comments are closed.