By Pam Windsor
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.”
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
(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
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
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
“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.
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.”
premiere on PBS at 8 p.m. EST beginning Sunday, Sept. 17. The 10 segments will
air Sept. 17-21 and Sept. 24-28.