The Ken Burns version

Having lived through the period of maximum American participation in the Vietnam War as an interested observer and antiwar protester, I have come to doubt much of what I believed to be true at the time. For example, I took at face value the pseudo scholarly 1967 account of The United States in Vietnam by George M. Kahin and John W. Lewis. Kahin and Lewis asserted that the conflict was a civil war among South Vietnamese factions.

I have since learned that this was too much even for David Halberstam. Unfortunately, I missed Halberstam’s review of the book upon publication. In its 2000 obituary of Kahin, the New York Times quoted Halberstam’s review. Halberstam praised the book, the Times noted, but was made uneasy by its “blanket declaration that the second Indochina war is simply an indigenous rebellion against the repressions of Ngo Dinh Diem.” By the time the North Vietnamese Army sent its tanks rolling toward Saigon in 1975, I had begun to get a clue.

Watching the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary history of the war, I was disappointed to hear the conflict described as a civil war as late as episode 10, covering the war’s denouement in 1975. Under the prestigious auspices of Burns and PBS, the documentary recirculates a goodly share of the tripe that I credulously consumed back in the day. Looking around online this morning, I find I wasn’t the only one to notice.

The series concluded its original broadcast on Thursday evening. PBS has posted each of the 10 episodes as broadcast here and other versions here. The filmmakers dug up some remarkable footage. They conducted interesting interviews with Vietnamese participants. They have reopened discussion of history that continues to haunt.

Unsurprisingly, the series tilted to the left. The languid pace of the series’ narration by Peter Coyote was stupefying. Given the languid pace, I found various aspects of the documenatary’s superficiality especially irritating. The documentary’s superficiality facilitated the leftward tilt.

Historian Mark Moyar convened a panel of prominent historians to comment on the series on Friday afternoon at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The panel included three members of the documentary’s historical advisory group. Representing a wide range of perspectives, the participants on the CSIS panel included Mark Moyar himself, of course, but also Thomas Vallely (Harvard University), Lewis Sorley (independent scholar), Marc Selverstone (University of Virginia), Gregory Daddis (Chapman University), Nu Anh Tran (University of Connecticut) and Jay Veith (independent scholar). Erik Villard (US Army Center of Military History) moderated the discussion.

CSIS has posted the video here. I have embedded it below. Please note that the discussion begins at 35:00 of the video.

Lewis Sorley is the Army veteran and author of A Better War. His prepared remarks begin at 48:00. If you want to cut to the chase, Sorley is the man to seek out. However, I found the entire discussion worthwhile. It persuaded me that I need to learn more about the war, as did the series itself.

I submitted a question to the panel via Twitter. I am grateful to Erik Villard for making sense of it as formulated in 140 characters and for improving on it. My remarks above provide the missing context I had in mind for the question.

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