Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Vietnam War

Last night I watched the first installment of the new documentary on the Vietnam war. I was flooded with memories.

I’m enormously impressed that, so far at least, Burns and Novick got it right. They laid out the historical settings that led the U.S. to become involved in the war despite our commitment to national self-determination and our opposition to colonialism. I was so struck that the documentary described what I saw happening at the time, that the U.S. misread history. When Vietnam freed herself from French control, it was the step in the universal movement that ended colonialism throughout the world. I saw that Ho Chi Minh was more a nationalist than a communist, determined to free his nation from foreign domination. We Americans had become so anti-communist that we sided first with the French, then with the undemocratic Diem regime.

I was fascinated that the various Vietnamese who appeared in the film spoke a variety of Vietnamese dialects—northern, central, and southern. I had somehow expected those who supported North Vietnam to speak the northern dialect, those on the south side to speak as southerners. Wrong.

I was annoyed that the narrator consistently mispronounced Vietnamese names and words. Are we Americans still so parochial that we can’t pronounce other languages correctly?

5 thoughts on “Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Vietnam War”

  1. Good to hear from you, Nicole. I’ve only seen two installments of the ten-part series, so it’s a little early for me to make judgments. That said, the review left me me scratching my head. I simply don’t see what’s wrong with taking a value-neutral approach and letting the viewers level the blame where they choose. Moreover, it’s fascinating to me to hear North Vietnamese dignitaries, for example, offering their view of what happened, side by side with southerners who saw things very differently. I certainly judge some actions, particularly by the North Vietnamese, as deserving censure, but I’m content with Burns simply laying out the facts and quoting the participants without comment.

    Your thoughts?


  2. It lost me in the first few minutes at “it was begun in good faith..” If you know anything about our activities in Vietnam prior to 1965, and then the details of the Tonkin incident, that’s an outrageous claim.


  3. Mike, I don’t remember the context of the remark, “it was begun in good faith.” I believe it means that in the beginning, the Americans sought to fight against communism, misunderstanding that the defeat of the French in Vietnam was a signal development toward the end of colonialism worldwide, not a communist victory. Meanwhile, I just started watching the series again (I have all episodes on DVD). I’ll post my reaction when I’ve finished.


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