Ken Burns' The Vietnam War on PBS


Many of the interviews were outstanding. I believe his was the quote about winning and losing and him saying that only people who did not fight think in those terms. For him the death and destruction was what remained.

The marine interviewed who said he hated the Viet Cong, and how afraid he was, and the more afraid of them he became the more he hated them.

And the veteran talking about his correspondence with his mother, and how she told him he would not die because he was special, and his response that all mothers think their children are special and how he was putting pieces of special people in bags.

Powerful stuff. And timely.


Having seen only the first episode, I wonder if the series will hit John Paul Vann at all.


He’s in there, unless I’m mixing him up with somebody else.


I’ve read dozens of books on Vietnam and was I surprised to see how much I learned from watching the first episode. Ho Chi Minh had lived in America, that Viet Minh buried President Diem’s brother and nephew alive, and Ike thinking this was a war we couldn’t win.

Overall I think they did a fantastic job in putting the reason for American’s involvement in context. People always mock the “Domino theory” of course nowadays most people have never even heard of it. But as they showed, in the context of the USSR becoming a nuclear power, China becoming communist, the invasion of North Korea, and the other communist insurgency in SE Asia it was a rational fear.

I’m also glad they describe Ho Chi Minh as both a communist and a nationalist.


Trent Reznor and Yo Yo Ma did a great job on tonight’s episode.

I still can’t believe all these developments. Killing young men in the villages in hopes that they kill the Viet Cong, without really knowing if the young men were actually Viet Cong? And then later, oppressing the Buddhist majority? Arresting student protestors, arresting Buddhist leaders, being flippant about that Monk lighting himself on fire. Also, holy shit, that took my breath away. I know it was only still pictures, not a video, but I still couldn’t believe that was happening. How can you possibly win hearts and minds of the people if a small Catholic minority is oppressing the majority religion like that?

Interesting way to end the episode though, with President Kennedy’s memo, expressing regret about supporting the Coup against Diem. Some foreshadowing there that whatever comes after Diem will somehow be even worse for Vietnam. Honestly though, after watching this episode, and how Diem’s regime was behaving, I don’t see how it could possibly be worse. At least for the people of South Vietnam, at least.


Not a lot new to me in the film, but still a very coherent look. Here’s IMHO the best place to start getting a literary feel for the Vietnam War:


I saw an interview w/Ken Burns and one of the other main guys and they kept saying how this is a fresh perspective and that the vietnamese side was never shown in holywood.

I wonder if they are so far removed or if they truly never saw the excellent (also documentary from Errol Morris) The Fog of War nor We were soldiers. The commentary tracks / behind the scenes on We were soldiers is awesome.


I think this is kind of fake marketing on their part: Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A Television History, the previous multipart PBS documentary about the war (which is worth watching in its own right since it was 35 years ago and has interviews with many senior people who have since died) has extensive interviews with Vietnamese on both sides.


They are airing the show here in Germany on a cultural network (arte). But they made heavy cuts, so that the duration is halved. I checked the upcoming DVD set on the german Amazon site, and it contains 3 DVDs around 450min. 9 episodes. I checked the upcoming DVD set on and it will be over 1000 min. So I will never, ever understand who makes these kind of decissions for the german speaking market… This is more or less a niche history documentary, history is a niche market anyways, so whoever buys the DVDs is totally interested in the whole documentary…

I guess I have to activate my VPN hosting service for US and watch it on PBS then…


Maybe the DVD contains extra scenes and footage outside of the main documentary.

On PBS, so far, the first episode was 90 minutes. 2nd Episode was 90 minutes. 3rd Episode from last night was 2 hours. That link @Quaro posted above saying the website had the whole series only had 5 episodes listed.

EDIT: Update: Looking at the link now, it lists more than 5 episodes now, Apparently there are going to be 10 episodes. That’s reassuring. Considering we just got to the beginning of the actual War last night in Episode 3 where America started their bombing campaign and then reluctantly sent in the first ground troops, I thought 5 episodes was going to feel a little rushed, you know? 3 Episodes to setup the war, and then only 2 episodes on the war itself would have been weird.

Last night’s episode also covered the only part of the Vietnam War I knew about thanks to the movie with Mel Gibson (We were soldiers). What I didn’t know about is that right after the battle at LZ Xray (which the movie was about), there was a battle at LZ Albany where the North Vietnamese had a decisive victory.

Boy that reporter, Joe Galloway, he’s such an awesome story-teller isn’t he? And everywhere he went he also has great footage in film and photographs, so his stories are always accompanied with visual punch too.


I thought the first episode was fantastic. Gripping really. Incredibly relevant to the last 16 years of American history as well.

“In war, no one wins or loses, there’s only destruction. Only those who have never fought like to argue about who won or lost.”

He wrote a very well received novel about Vietnam as well.


I have read the first two. The Sheehan book is excellent and for me at least also provides a great argument as to why we will never “win” in the middle east.

I was out of town and only saw about half of the first two episodes, but it seemed like the part of episode two that I saw came right out of A Bright and Shining Lie. The story of John Paul Vann, and the eventual release of the Pentagon Papers.


Episode 2 disappointed me. I guess I the wrong expectations about what kind of documentary it would be. When the whole episode is about Diem’s regime, I’d like to at least hear from one person who supported it. I can get on social media and find 30 million people who think Ferdinand Marcos was a great hero, so it shouldn’t be too hard for Ken Burns to find a Diem supporter.

If they’re just going to regurgitate whatever was the conventional wisdom in the Saigon press corps at the time, I don’t see any point watching. We’ve all heard that story a million times. Back in the early '60s we might have had to depend on a few foreign journalists to explain to us what was going on there, but in 2017 I expect that I can hear it from the Vietnamese themselves.


Excellent recommendations. Read the Halberstam book a while back and probably need to re-read it. As I recall he sometimes meanders on tangents but he’s always detailed and was pretty bold in putting some blame on JFK’s hubris among an industry of JFK apologists…that had to take some courage.


That’s a good point. As someone coming in with no knowledge of this at all, it did seem jarring that all the story-tellers even on the South Vietnamese side had nothing but negative things to say about Diem’s crackdown on protesters, students, buddists, monks, etc.

But I do wonder if there was another side. I’m all for hearing all sides, but I don’t want someone dragged out to present a minority viewpoint just for the sake of getting that viewpoint out there. I mean, if he really was doing all those things, then I don’t want some talking head inserted in there contradicting the actual truth of the matter, if you know what I mean. But you’re implying (I think) that Diem was possibly unfairly covered and there was more to what went on during the Buddhist protests, etc, then I’m all for covering those extenuating circumstances.


Even in the books I have read on Vietnam you don’t find Diem supporters. I would imagine the reason is because at the time he was a member of a minority in the country (catholic) and represented a wealthy and powerful part of that minority. I think you could find those who would say his removal solved nothing and that he was replaced by others who were as corrupt as he was. This was also 54 years ago so trying to find someone old enough at the time to feel strongly about Diem might be pretty difficult, considering what happened afterwards.


Yeah, I can see how it could be considered a waste when you’ve got a limited amount of time to cover so much ground. But I prefer it when people who are wrong are at least given enough rope to hang themselves. That clip of Madame Nhu talking about the monks barbecuing each other was a lot more effective at showing what kind of regime it was than the American journalist talking about it.


One of the limitations of the documentary certainly is the time that has passed. Many people who would have had eyewitness insight into events are long dead. If you assume Stanley Karnow took the same amount of time to make his doc that Ken Burns said he did (10 years) then he started making it in 1972. That’s only 18 years (!!) after Dien Bien Phu. Heck, the war wasn’t even over. Karnow probably didn’t start then, but he does have tons of great interviews with high level officials from the time on both sides, including Pham Van Dong. It makes for a very, very different feel. Unfortunately, in 1982, no one was really able to discuss the war this straightforwardly, so the proximity in time was both a help and a hindrance. Just like the lack of proximity in time is now both a help and a hindrance.

I feel that in some way, this doc is for the 18-20-year-old kids of the time to finally talk in a way that lets them be heard. McNamara is dead. Westy is dead. All the top-level guys who would have hogged the spotlight had they still been alive are gone, so the privates and lance corporals get the spotlight instead. And the distance from the war means the public reception for their stories will be different, and hopefully more accepting.

This is why I don’t mind people like Neil Sheehan giving me the “conventional wisdom” about the Diem regime. This is his chance to speak on camera about something he had a big part in. It’s ok that it’s something I have already heard: much of the footage, include Madame Nhieu footage, is stuff I’ve already seen in multiple places. (The surviving Dien Bien Phu footage must be sparse because I keep seeing the same stuff over and over.) But many, many people have not, and putting all this stuff in one place, with the voices of those who maybe couldn’t speak in this way until now, seems important.

I don’t think the series doesn’t have flaws, and I agree with a lot of the stuff being posted here - great discussion really. My contribution for today would be I’m starting to wonder if Burns was too selective in his interviewees. I am seeing the same ones over and over. There is a balance to be struck between getting a diversity of views, and building sympathy for or rapport between an interviewee and the audience, which takes repeated exposure. I’m wondering if Ken Burns didn’t learn the wrong lesson from The Civil War and Shelby Foote, in which you could never get enough of Shelby Foote on camera because OMG Shelby Foote! But that doesn’t necessarily translate here because, sadly, there was only one Shelby Foote. We’ll see what happens here. There will be a Merrill McPeak episode and when I saw him talk, he seemed like kind of a character.


Another harrowing episode. When they were describing the perverse incentive of success being measured purely by body count, and showing the visuals of severely mangled dead bodies being thrown into little pyramids of corpses? That was very effective imagery.

Later on in the episode, when they were describing the battle on June 22, 1967, I couldn’t believe they had the actual fucking audio recordings of the commander radioing HQ for help! Holy shit! So they recorded all communication like that? And they have it archived somewhere? That’s crazy! And it sure helped bring that battle to life and made for an harrowing end to the episode.


The Lyndon Johnson recordings are pretty nuts too. It’s crazy hearing the real unfiltered conversations of the President.