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Q&A With Ken Burns And Lynn Novick On 'The Vietnam War' Part 1


“The Vietnam War” — a new 10-part, 18-hour documentary film series — directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, will premiere Sept. 17, 2017, on OPB.

The documentary is 10 years in the making. It seeks to tell the story of the war as it has never been told before and includes testimonies from all sides of the war.

OPB’s Kaylee Domzalski, in association with the University of Oregon’s Northwest Stories, interviewed Burns and Novick about their upcoming documentary on the Vietnam War. Below is Part 1 of the interview. Read Part 2 here.


Q&A with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Part 1

Kaylee Domzalski: I’m going to just jump right in. My first question is on generations. The group that I’m a part of grew up a generation and a half removed from the war. So how do you get my generation to care about and to be curious about a war that we didn’t grow up with?

Ken Burns: I think a good story is a good story. And no matter how old you are or where you come from, what your background is and what your distractions are, a good story will capture you. And I think the story of Vietnam, which has been for so long — even for those of us who lived through it — buried and forgotten, and kind of neglected, and misunderstood and misrepresented, offers an opportunity for everybody to sort of come to it new.

A lot of young people that we speak to in their history classes never get up there. They sometimes don’t even get up to the second world war, let alone Vietnam. And so it becomes something that’s sort of in some lost and forgotten valley.

And I think what Lynn and I have tried to do over the last 10 years is to kind of go into that valley and report back. And if you tell a story well, as I hope we’ve done, then everybody at any age is going to be drawn to it.

The question in our media culture is: How do you alert people of that age to its existence, and how, in this case, how cool all we think it is? We worked with a lot of interns in making the film and they were helpful to us because we understood they were getting it if they were suspending the normal attention span, or suspending the distractions that they have in their life because they really wanted to see it, that told us we were on the right track.

Lynn Novick: You know, I’d like to know about the world my grandparents lived in when I was growing up. And so I think for a lot of people in their 20s, this is their war and the experiences of their parents and grandparents. And so if you want to know what your parents or grandparents went through, what their life was like, what they believed in, what they cared about, what they worried about; this is their story.

So we have found that interns or younger people come to see pieces of the film, everybody kind of leans in. And I think partly because it’s this thing that happened that we don’t know much about. And also it gives them a chance to talk to their parents or their grandparents. And it opens up all kinds of great conversations that really need to happen.

Domzalski: You mention how you want this film to spark a conversation. What are those conversations? And what do they look like and who’s having them?

Burns: We suffer today from an inability to talk to each other about a lot of different things. We’re divided in our politics, we’re divided in our lifestyles, we’re divided geographically. And all of the work that we’ve done for the last 40 years has been in support of unum, you know the Latin motto of the United States is “e pluribus unum,” out of many one.

And we suffer today, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said, from too much pluribus and not enough unum. And we’ve been in the business of many years of unum, how you bring people together. There could be no more contentious conversation in recent American history than about Vietnam, which we believe is the most important event in the second half of the 20th century for Americans. And yet, one that’s little known. Most of the information people have is superficial, or conventional or just flat out wrong.

And new scholarship has taught us new things that are incredibly interesting. And the willingness of veterans to come forward and tell their stories, which they’ve done so generously to us, but not only veterans, but journalists, and Gold Star families and people who are against the war. And we then added trips to Vietnam to record the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese soldiers. And that helps triangulate the kind of story we want to tell, I think, in a very fascinating way.

But what we hope, is that we will be able to have some courageous conversations about why we got into it, what’s the nature of sacrifice? We live in a country now in which our military suffers its losses apart and alone from most of us. And that wasn’t the case in Vietnam, as it wasn’t the case in World War II.

So there are many, many conversations about foreign policy, the United States’ role in the world, the nature of war itself, the most revealing, unfortunately, of human activities, in good and bad ways, and just an opportunity for us to share these stories and hope they sponsor those conversations.

And Lynn is exactly right. This is not anything that has to happen formally at some national level. It is a national broadcast on public broadcasting, but it then hopefully sponsors these intimate conversations between a grandchild and a grandfather, a grandmother who lived through that period and come to terms with it.

It would be super great because many of the things we’re wrestling with today are themes that popped up during Vietnam, a foreign power and a political campaign having contact at the time of a national election, asymmetrical warfare, documents stolen, classified documents stolen and dumped into the public sphere for conversation, a White House obsessed with leaks, all sorts of things, demonstrations across the country that resonate with today, that might be helpful for us learning about Vietnam to help us understand where we are right now.

And we really believe that we didn’t set about, Vietnam is not a lesson plan. The Vietnam war film that we’ve made is a story. A very, very complex story. But one we think that will be helpful in that regard.

Novick: You know, I think that one of the things that has struck us and our whole team while working on the film is that when we’ve had screenings, we’ve had people come in of different ages, like we were saying, but also of different political persuasions and different backgrounds, military, anti-war, gold star families, Vietnamese, you know, a wide range of people come to watch the film.

And the conversations we’ve had after the screenings, after each episode, you know, where people really talk to each other in a way that I think is unusual in our society right now where there’s so much reach in our own camps. We kind of either yell into the void, or we yell at each other with our frustration about the other people.

That this film, I think, because like Ken is saying, is complicated and you can’t easily pigeonhole people. And it’s hard to make snap judgments. It’s a very nuanced and tragic story. It opens up people who’ve seen it to talk to each other in a different kind of way and it’s been really gratifying to see that happen in our editing room and in slightly larger screenings that we’ve been having.

So I think the kind of conversations we hope will happen, or we actually are quite sure will happen, is that people watch the film and then want to talk about what they saw. And one of the central questions of the film that it is so resonant for today is, you know, what does it mean to be a citizen? What does patriotism mean? 

These are buzzwords that get tossed around so sort of cheaply and they’re profoundly important. There is nothing like a war and people’s lives at stake to really focus our attention on, you know, what is the obligation of individuals towards our government and our society?

And what is the obligation of our leaders toward us to make good decisions and to be accountable for those decisions? And these are the central questions that the film engages, and there are no easy answers.

Burns: I think we wanted that to happen for the film. To create a space where there could be a variety of truths and a variety of perspectives. And it’s often very easy to see and describe conflicts between people. Wars are obviously the sort of the ultimate expression of that, but also in many, many other ways.

What we aren’t so good about that we’ve noticed in almost all the films we’ve made, and no more so than here, is all about the inner conflicts. We have a Marine that turned out to be a decorated Marine, who was sort of being saved by the war, by his intelligence and sent as a Rhodes Scholar off to study in England.

And he resigned that in order to go with his men. He knew and disagreed with the war. He said, ‘I’ll be taking part in one of the great crimes of the 20th century but I’ll go and get my guys home safely.’

So you had people who felt that it was a lack of courage to just go into the army, accept the drafting. Others had courage to resist the draft. So suddenly you have these big ideas that we throw around about heroism and courage undermined by the complexity that Lynn is talking about. And that’s a good thing.

You know, Judge Learned Hand, is there a better name for a judge than Learned Hand? He said that liberty was never being too sure you’re right. And so, as Lynn is suggesting, there are lots of complicated questions and not so easy answers.


The first five episodes of “The Vietnam War” will air nightly from Sunday, Sept. 17, through Thursday, Sept. 21, and the final five episodes will air nightly from Sunday, Sept. 24, through Thursday, Sept. 28.

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