Vietnam Redux, Again: Ken Burns & Lynn Novick’s Epic PBS Series


"You will kill 10 of us, we will kill one of you. But in the end you will tire first." -- Ho Chi Minh

Whether he knew it or not, Army Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, was philosophically and tactically in sync with "Uncle Ho," except for the tiring part. He told Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings,"We're killing these people at a ratio of 10 to 1."

Hollings, a Democrat and a decorated World War II veteran from Westmoreland's home state of South Carolina, responded: "Westy, the American people don't care about the 10, they care about the one."

So there it is, the whole shebang that was the Vietnam War summed up in two quick takes from both sides of the aisle, but fabled documentarian Ken Burns does not do short and unsweet.

He and co-director Lynn Novick tend to the exhaustive, a style they have employed previously to explain the Civil War, World War II and even baseball.

For Vietnam, they have come up with a whopper that was 10 years in the making. Beginning in September, PBS will roll out a 10-part, 18-hour documentary The Vietnam War that the blurbs say will be a "gripping cinematic journey that promises to be a major cultural event."

The "Ones" and American veterans take center stage in Burns and Novick’s retelling of the last war fought by a U.S. draft military, but the "Tens" and North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong survivors also share the spotlight. Their takes on the pluses and minuses of the Americans they fought along the jungle trails and paddy dikes will be jarring to a U.S. audience.

According to the promo material, the series "will open up conversations -- sometimes painful and long overdue -- about the legacy of the war and what we can learn from it today."

Well, now. Another conversation on Vietnam would hardly seem necessary after all the books, movies, songs, posturings, laments, "stab in the back" excuses, and barstool rants that have endlessly poured forth on the subject.

But based on a screening last week at the Motion Picture Academy of America of a two-hour episode, Burns and Novick appear to have pulled it off. There is new material here in just the one segment -- on power struggles in North Vietnam, on China's involvement, on the divisions on the homefront in the U.S. and also in Vietnam.

In Burns and Novick’s telling, Ho Chi Minh was a figurehead who lost out in a power struggle with Le Duan, general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam (VCP), at a Hanoi party meeting on Nov. 22, 1963 -- the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

It was Le Duan (pronounced lay-zwan), a former clerk with the Vietnam Railway Co., who ordered regulars of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) into South Vietnam to bolster the Viet Cong against the U.S. troop buildup that he saw as inevitable.

The outmaneuvered Ho would remain the national icon; Le Duan was the power. Burns and Novick have their narrator, actor Peter Coyote, intone: "Le Duan gave the order to escalate."

The first phase of the new strategy was to destroy the Army of the Republic of (South) Vietnam, the much-maligned ARVN. Then would come attacks on the cities, aimed at setting off revolts that would force the Americans out.

Oct. 26, 1966: President Johnson visits soldiers at the Cam Ranh Bay base, South Vietnam.

President Lyndon B. Johnson agonized over how to respond. Burns presents him as the foul-mouthed, west Texas caricature of a tragic Shakespearean figure. There he is on the White House tapes with his cronies and advisers -- raging, cursing, puzzling, plotting, blustering, bullying, whining and, ultimately, lying to the American people about what he intended and what he would eventually do.

Vietnam confounded and tormented Johnson. "I feel like a jackass in a Texas hailstorm," he said.

Johnson was slowly coming to the conclusion that he would have to send more troops to Vietnam, and give up the fiction that they were there in an advisory role. They would have to take over the war.

But first, he had to run the table against Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election to have the political heft to do it. His generals were no help. "They say get in and get out, and I say we haven't got any Congress that will go with us and we haven't got any mothers that will go with us in a war. And we gotta win an election, and then you can make a decision," Johnson said.

The PBS series forces the viewer to draw parallels to today's equally murky and intractable wars. On Afghanistan, retired Gen. Jim Jones, former commandant of the Marine Corps and national security adviser to President Barack Obama, once reportedly said that the U.S. had three choices: "Go long, go short, go home."

LBJ faced the same dilemma. Following his overwhelming victory over Goldwater, he decided to commit, while second-guessing himself all the way.

"I don't see what we can ever hope to get out of there with once we're committed," he said. "I don't think it's worth fighting for and I don't think we can get out. And it's just the biggest damned mess. It's damn easy to get into a war, but it's gonna be awful hard to extricate yourself."

And he was weary of the revolving-door governments in Saigon. "No more of this coup bleep," he told his advisers.

In ways, Johnson actually was the "pitiful helpless giant" Richard Nixon would later say the U.S. risked becoming in Vietnam. "I can't run, I can't hide and I can't make it stop," Johnson said.

"It's going to be hell in a handbag," LBJ said. "I want the South Vietnamese to get off their butts and get out in the jungles and whup the hell out of some communists. And then I want 'em to leave me alone because I've got some bigger things to do right here at home."

The war never left him alone. He declined to run again, and his "Great Society" dreams went with him, but not before he found time to rail against the press, a common trait among presidents.

Johnson went off the handle over a now-famous piece Morley Safer did for CBS-TV that showed Marines using cigarette lighters to set fire to a Vietnamese village. Johnson phoned CBS President Frank Stanton: "Hello Frank, this is your president. Are you trying to bleep me?"

There's an old joke about how many Vietnam veterans it takes to change a light bulb. The Vietnam vet replies: "You don't bleeping know. You weren't there."

In a question-and-answer session after the screening, Burns said he made the decision from the start to stick with "there" people to tell the Vietnam story rather than the historians and authors who worked so well for him in "The Civil War" series.

"We made the decision early on. There'd be no experts, no Monday morning quarterbacking" -- just the people involved on both sides, or maybe it was three sides.

Long Khanh Province, Republic of Vietnam....SP4 R. Richter, 4th Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade, lifts his battle weary eyes to the heavens, as if to ask why? Sergeant Daniel E. Spencer stares down at their fallen comrade. The day's battle ended, the silently await the helicopter which will evacuate their comrade from the jungle covered hills.

According to the promos, more than 100 interviews were conducted -- U.S. vets; NVA and Viet Cong; ARVN vets; the families -- U.S. and Vietnamese; the anti-war protesters; those who went to Canada to escape the draft; and the "best and brightest" types who tried and failed to win hearts and minds.

(For the Jane Fonda anti-fans out there -- we don't know if "Hanoi Jane" gets a cameo in the series. We forgot to ask.)

One of the tropes about Vietnam is that the U.S. "won every fight but lost the war." U.S. vets testify that they didn't win every fight.

Another trope is that the NVA and Viet Cong were no match for the American troops. Then-Maj. Charles Beckwith, a Green Beret legend, is there to say that they were.

Burns and Novick have found footage of "Chargin' Charlie" -- Beckwith's nickname -- after the enemy launched attack after attack and nearly overran his outpost at Plei Me. "I would give anything to have 200 of them in my command," said Beckwith, who would later create the Delta Force and lead the failed raid to rescue the hostages in Iran (Operation Eagle Claw).

"They're the finest soldiers I've ever seen," Beckwith said. "They're dedicated and they're good soldiers. They're the best I've ever seen."

The ARVN, routinely disparaged as a fighting force by many U.S. vets, gets a reprieve from Burns and Novick. In the episode shown last week, Marine 1st Lt. Philip Brady, one of the early advisers, shows up to contest the cut-and-run reputation of the ARVN. In the process, he sounds much like the Americans now in the train, advise and assist role with the Iraqi Security Forces trying to take Mosul.

The ARVN troops were exceptional infantry, Brady said. They were dismissed by higher-ups as "essentially these little fellas" but "in fact they knew exactly how to fight the war. You were just an appendage. You were there to guide assets they didn't have -- American artillery, American airstrikes."

The airstrikes and artillery were the only things that gave the Americans the edge, according to the NVA and Viet Cong fighters interviewed for the documentary. They quickly learned that once contact was made, they had to maintain it or they would be destroyed. "We had to grab them by the belt," an NVA regular said of the Americans, to limit their ability to call in airstrikes.

The two-hour selection from the 10-part series focused on the years 1961-65 and did not deal in depth with the issue of the American prisoners of war, but included an appearance by Everett Alvarez, the first U.S. pilot to be shot down and captured. The A-4 Skyhawk flown by then-Navy Lt. j.g. Alvarez off the carrier Constellation was downed over North Vietnam on Aug. 5, 1964.

Alvarez recalled his anxiety on the mission, but "the fear went away. Everything became smooth, deathly quiet in the cockpit. I was just performing, then I got hit."

After being picked up, "there was this fellow yelling something in Vietnamese."

Alvarez, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, said. "I started to talk Spanish." He didn't know why -- "seemed like a good idea at the time."

His captors later told him that he was not considered a POW  since the U.S. had not declared war. Therefore, the Geneva accords meant nothing to them, and the Tonkin Gulf resolution meant even less. "I recall thinking about it -- you know what? They're right," Alvarez said.

The whole thing about Vietnam, over there and over here -- "it was surreal," as Brady put it. And the strangeness persists.

During PBS’ THE VIETNAM WAR session at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, CA on Sunday, January 15, 2017, filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick join Oscar-winning composer and founder of Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor and Oscar-winning composer and member of Nine Inch Nails Atticus Ross to discuss the new 10-part documentary.

To lend to the surrealism, Burns for the first time has an original soundtrack by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Oscar winners for The Social Network.

Burns and Novick also work in the songs of the period. The segment shown last week opened with Bob Dylan's "With God On Our Side," and included tracks from The Animals and The Rolling Stones -- "Don't play with me, 'cause you're playing with fire."

Five years after the fall of Saigon, Boston Publishing put out a three-volume work called "The Vietnam Experience." It had a foreword from Henry Cabot Lodge, who was ambassador to Vietnam before he was dumped by LBJ.

He posed a series of questions:

  1. Was the United States mistaken in its determination to intervene? Or have subsequent events in Southeast Asia confirmed the necessity of what we set out to do?

  2. Did the limitations on our use of military force keep us from a swift and decisive victory? Or were we engaged in a war that could not be won even with the most sophisticated and lethal weapons?

  3. Were the Viet Cong freedom fighters seeking to liberate their country from centuries of foreign domination? Or were they simply terrorists, willing to use any means to gain power?

  4. Did the ultimate collapse of South Vietnam signify a loss of will on the part of the American people? Or were we fighting the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time?

Lodge had no answers to his own questions and, decades later, neither do Burns and Novick. "This film is not an answer but a set of questions about what happened," Burns said.

"I was not engaged in some proto-Freudian exercise" to plumb the psychic netherworlds that trigger wars, he said.

Vietnam was "the most important historical event in the last half of the 20th century," Burns said. In the series, he was trying to "unpack what has taken place in order to repack the American experience." Others have tried before him, but "it hasn't been aggregated in one place."

In a trailer for the project, Novick said, "There's been a lot done about this subject. It's not like no one's ever tried. But it remains this kind of unfinished business in American history."

The main question, for Burns, is simply, "What happens when Americans go to war?" The hardest part in addressing that question was doing the interviews, he said. "There are many sides to this. Everything was raw for people; it was not fun."

To tell it, Burns has relied on a device he has used previously to heartbreaking effect in "The Civil War" and his World War II series -- the revealing juxtaposition. In "The Civil War," a letter would be read from a soldier from the South, and another from the North. The result was to see how much alike they were, before they were sent off to kill each other.

For Vietnam, the directors focus on a teenage girl in Hanoi. She is horrified and angered by the U.S. bombings. She wants to fight, but she is 16 -- and a girl. They won't let her go. She lies about her age and joins the "Shock Brigades For National Salvation," ferrying supplies into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

In Saratoga Springs, New York, 17-year-old Denton "Mogie" Crocker wants to join up and go to Vietnam. His mother, Jean Marie Crocker, said he was always reading books about American heroes. She remembers reading him to sleep with the "Band of Brothers" call to battle from Henry V.

His parents won't consent to sign for him. He runs away from home until they do. He ends up with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam.

The documentary shows a Christmas tape the family made to send to Mogie, who was called that because somebody thought he looked like a "mogul" with his horn-rimmed glasses. The family is wearing their Christmas best. They are good, they are decent, they are awkward in their fear for Mogie, which they cannot conceal.

The father mumbles a few things and quickly hands the microphone to the youngest brother and sister. They say bashful kid stuff. The mother is more composed, but struggling. The microphone is passed to the teen-age kid sister. She wishes Mogie a Merry Christmas that she knows it won't be. The scene is all but unbearable.

July 30, 1969: President Richard M. Nixon visited U.S. troops of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division at Di An, 12 miles south of Saigon.

Richard Nixon won the 1968 election for president and came to office with what he called a "secret plan" to end the war. The secret plan wasn't going so well when Nixon addressed the nation from the Oval Office on April 30, 1970.

He announced that U.S. and South Vietnamese troops would now have to go into Cambodia to rout the North Vietnamese from a place he called the "Parrot's Beak."

Nixon said, "This is not an invasion of Cambodia," but it was. He said that North Vietnam was violating the neutrality of Cambodia, but so was the U.S. Everybody already knew that.

In terms that could be used by former President Barack Obama or President Donald Trump about Iraq and Syria, Nixon tried to explain why the U.S. had to intensify the war to end it:

"My fellow Americans, we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home. We see mindless attacks on all the great institutions which have been created by free civilizations in the last 500 years. Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed. Small nations all over the world find themselves under attack from within and from without," he said.

The U.S. had no choice, Nixon said: "If, when the chips are down, the world's most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world."

Five years to the day after Nixon made the speech -- April 30, 1975 -- the last American helicopter lifted off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

Burns has taken a shot at weaving all of this into documentary form. When it begins to air in September, it will be controversial, he said, "but only for those who don't watch it."

(Editor's Note: Richard Sisk served in Vietnam with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, in 1967-68.)

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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