By Pam Windsor

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns describes his upcoming 10-part, 18-hour PBS series The Vietnam War as one of the most challenging — and perhaps most meaningful — projects he’s ever undertaken. He says the Vietnam War, much like the Civil War, tore the country apart in ways that still affect us today, and he asserts it’s now time to try to understand it.

“We believe it’s the most important event in American history in the second half of the 20th century,” Burns explains. “It’s also a war whose wounds still linger, and a good deal of the division we experience in our country — particularly with our political discourse — sort of [stems] from the wounds of the Vietnam War.”  

Kaleidoscope of perspectives

The documentary comes during the 50th anniversary of the war and offers an in-depth, visceral view of what happened in Southeast Asia as well as in the emotionally divided U.S. Burns, whose previous works include The Civil War (1990), The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011), and The Roosevelts: An Intimate Portrait (2014), spent 10 years working on the project with codirector Lynn Novick and a dedicated team of creative professionals. 

The team endeavored to look at the war from every conceivable angle and talk to as many living witnesses as possible. All told, Burns, Novick, and others on the team traveled to 20 countries to conduct research and interviewed 100 people — Americans from every walk of life with every kind of military experience, North Vietnamese soldiers, Viet Cong guerrillas, South Vietnamese soldiers, and civilians from both countries. They also collected some 25,000 photos and an extensive amount of archival footage, much of it never before seen by the public. 

“No one has ever told this story this way before, certainly not in a documentary,” Novick says. “We’ve dug deep into the archives in the U.S., in Vietnam, and around the world. [We have] photographs, footage, music, audio recordings from the White House, and personal recordings that the soldiers sent home and their families sent back to them.”

Audio recordings from the White House offer insights into the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. One audio clip of President Lyndon B. Johnson from May 27, 1964, captures him saying, “I just stayed awake last night thinking about this thing. The more I think of it, I don’t know what in the hell, uh, it looks like to me we’re getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of there with, once we’re committed.”

Music from the Vietnam era punctuates the series. More than 100 recordings from artists such as Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and many more are featured throughout the 10 episodes. Contemporary artists created original music for the series, including Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who together won an Academy Award for best original score for The Social Network in 2010, and the Silk Road Ensemble featuring Yo-Yo Ma.    

Feedback from veterans

As Burns and Novick worked on the series, they held multiple screenings, sharing the work in progress with some of the people they interviewed to ensure they were on the right track. They also made sure to include Vietnam veterans every step of the way. 

“We’ve never had a screening [of this documentary] where we didn’t have veterans there, as well as our historical advisors, and as you know, veterans have a pretty high BS meter,” Burns says. “They could really help us understand the story, and at the same time, you could see they were ... reliving their experiences and finding comradeship, even if the veteran they were sitting next to and hugging after an episode didn’t share the same exact views of the war they did.”

Both Burns and Novick hope the documentary will offer comfort to those who might be conflicted about their experiences in Vietnam.

“We’ve talked to a number of former officers who went through this war — especially junior officers, because that’s who is still around to talk about it,” says Novick. “There’s a lot of inner conflict [that arose from] leading men in a war that [was] controversial, knowing they [had] to get their men home safely, and explaining to them the purpose of the war. That’s a huge burden for an officer to carry. Many we talked with are still carrying it to this day.”

Novick says she is pleased to see positive responses from some who already have viewed the documentary. 

“We’ve seen that people are extremely grateful for the opportunity to see the experience they went through with a little bit of distance [and] through many different perspectives,” Novick says. “It’s seemed to take some of the weight off that they’ve been carrying all this time.”

While the series covers many aspects of the war, Burns says it’s less an attempt to answer some of the issues debated over the years and more an effort to present a set of questions. He says the goal has been to collect as much information as possible from newly released and declassified material, as well as to speak to the widest variety of people possible to understand their experiences and spark conversation.

“I think each episode, every moment, will be kind of a revelation … shedding light on some unanswered questions,” Burns says. “But I think it’s less … saying, ‘This is definitively what happened’ than showing you the fact that, particularly in war, it’s possible for there to be more than one truth operating at the same time.”  

The Vietnam War will premiere on PBS at 8 p.m. EST beginning Sunday, Sept. 17. The 10 segments will air Sept. 17-21 and Sept. 24-28.