Jerry Lembcke: Why Ken Burns' New Vietnam War Series Teaches a Flawed, Misleading Lesson

A new documentary series is airing on PBS, "The Vietnam War," by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. CNN wrote, "PBS has again provided Burns with a huge canvas, and he has responded by painting a masterpiece, one that distinguishes public television at a moment when it yet again finds itself under siege and facing an existential challenge." Jerry Lembcke disagrees. "The new film distorts what scholars, veterans and antiwar activists alike know about the war and its aftermath," he wrote on Alternet. 

The following is an interview from the Michael Slate Show on KPFK.

Michael Slate, Conversation with Jerry Lembcke 9/22/17

MS: If you’ve been paying attention to what’s going on in the TV world, you may have noticed that Ken Burns has a brand new 10 part series on the Vietnam War. He’s really going all out with this one but it’s all out actually, in a very bad direction overall. It is a statement on the Vietnam War that I think needs to be dug into and summed up. Joining us now to talk about all this is just the person who can do this. His name is Jerry Lembcke. He’s been on the show a number of times before. He’s an Associate Professor Emeritus at the College of the Holy Cross. He is the author of, Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam. And Hanoi Jane: War, Sex and the Fantasies of Betrayal, as well as a number of other books. He’s here to talk with us about this new documentary series from Ken Burns.

Jerry, welcome to the show.

JL: Hey, good to be with you again.

MS: Let’s jump into this. What is your overall assessment of the film series?

JL: First of all, as you said, it is huge. It’s 18 hours of watching and I’ve watched it all once and a good part of it twice and you know, it can actually kind of wear you down after a while. One of my criticisms of it that didn’t get into, I have written about it and posted on line, but one of the criticisms that didn’t get in there, is that it tends to be battle, after battle, after battle, after battle with a lot of the conflicts not put in any kind of historical or political context. So, the first time I watched, going through it about episode three, you which was already five or six hours into the series, I began to have that question on my mind, “What is this all about? I’m getting a bunch of pieces, here? But what’s the whole of which these pieces are pieces of? What does it all add up to?”

In the end, what I come out of it with is it really comes down to a coming home story of what happened to Vietnam veterans when they return from the War and the supposed hostility that they met with. My criticism of that narrative has been for a number of years that it feeds into the fiction that the War was lost at home; that it was lost to weak-kneed liberals in Congress and to radicals in the streets who greeted veterans with hostility. That feeds a very, very dangerous story line that, we could have won that war if the American people had stuck behind the military mission and we could win wars like it again, if the American people just stuck with the military mission. I think that that is a dangerous story line. We’ve seen that playing out today, I think in our politics concerning the wars that we’re involved in now.

MS: One of the things I wanted to talk to you about too, though is that this is one of the biggest TV events in relation to the Vietnam War that there’s been, since the Vietnam war.

JL: That’s right.

MS: And it’s very heavy because it’s putting out a certain pole in the world right now, and there’s the claim by the filmmakers in a May 29th New York Times op-ed, which is that the film really is not about correcting all the bad stuff that came out of Vietnam or anything like that but it talks about healing. You argue that this is really misleading .

JL: Exactly. Well see, that sets up a type of myth that America, the United States, was a unified, happy country before the war in Vietnam and the War ripped that fabric. The war tore the country apart and so it needs to be healed. If you accept that rhetoric of healing, then you kind of unconsciously buy into the story line that the country was a kind of one politically and culturally before the war. The country wasn’t. The country actually by the late 1950’s was quite divided by racial conflict. It was very divided by issues of communism and anti-communism, which of course, you know we have to go into in talking about the War. The United States came out of World War 2 very concerned about the way the Soviet Union had very positively acquitted itself in the war. Many historians say the war was won by the Soviets on the Eastern Front. The Communist parties in Europe played a very positive role in fighting fascism during the war. Then of course, after the war, the Chinese Communist Party, the success of the Chinese revolution raised great anxiety among the American ruling class about where the rest of the world is going after World War 2. Domestically, there are similar story lines that were very troubling for the powers that be in the country. The U.S. political Left, had played a very positive role in the CIO labor movements of the 1930’s. There were communists who went to Europe. As far as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain to fight fascists there, even before the U.S. got into the war itself. And then in the 1950s, civil rights activity began to pick up movements for civil rights. People like Paul Robeson for example, singer, actor, All-American football player, who was a very powerful figure in the civil rights movement, was also closely associated with the communist Left. So, there was a lot going on in the 1950’s already that even prior too, if you go back to the labor movement in the 1930’s, that kind of give the lie to this idea of a unified, happy-go-lucky America of the 1950’s; that the war and anti-war movement were responsible for tearing apart.

MS: One of the things you argue too, and I thought this was really important, that no historians or experts appear in the film. Instead, there’s sort of “we were on the ground” view from 79 mostly ordinary people who lived through it, which kind of jettisons the whole idea of the search for truth in exchange for, “what’s the popular opinion?”

JL: Well, it jettisons the idea of this as a documentary. My goodness! I mean, historians are the people who find the documents and who interpret the documents. The filmmakers seem to pride themselves as having shunned the participation of, as they say, “talking head experts” and I do think they also use historians in one of their interviews. They certainly don’t shun experts. They very selectively use experts and one that I single out is John Negroponte who kind of cut his teeth in the diplomatic corps as a young State Department Foreign Service Officer in Vietnam. Then, since that time, my goodness! This man has been involved in many of the coup d’etats that the U.S. has been involved in all over the world. What we now refer to nicely as, “regime change operations.” John Negroponte has been central to them. In fact, you could almost predict where the next coup is gonna happen when you saw where John Negroponte was assigned. Well, he’s in the film at a couple of places. Leslie Gelb, who was very involved in government circles during the war, is in the film in several places. So, it’s not as though they shunned these voices at all. They very selectively chose who they were, and chose people who don’t make any pretense really, of being independent, as scholars might be or as historians might be.

MS: What about how the film portrays the anti-war movement; G.I resisters, the whole movement. Let’s talk about that a little.

JL: Well, of course a lot of your listeners are undoubtedly keen on that and want to know about that. I saw the entire film before it began to air. Your listeners may have seen now, I think the first five episodes, so we see a little bit of how the anti-war movement is being portrayed. Here I think the key thing is what I call “false balancing.” What we get is one piece that makes the anti-war movement look good, right? Makes it look credible, makes it look sincere. Then this is quickly followed by something else that erases that positive image. Here’s an example of that. One of the people that it uses is a fellow who was a ROTC graduate of the University of Nebraska, who then went into the military but decided he didn’t want to stay in the military. He went to Canada. He deserted and went to Canada. Now, the film treats that pretty nicely, pretty even handedly and then immediately following that, the very next words are, “and 30 thousand Canadians volunteered to go to Vietnam.” And I said, “What?! What does that have to do with the fact that this fellow went to Canada?” I say absolutely nothing other than a kind of balancing, right, a kind of, “yeah, but” or a kind of, “But, we should know that,” right?

In episode 4 we get the 1967 march on the Pentagon and that is dealt with pretty well, pretty ok, but then it’s immediately followed by this vignette about an American Indian, a Kiowa Indian who was highly decorated in WW2 and in Korea and then is killed in Vietnam. So, we have his mother talking about his loyalty and how much it meant to him to go to war for his country. Now, I say a vignette, because it’s just kind of stuck in there. And again I say, for what other purpose but to contrast the people who are protesting the war with this noble American Indian who has gone off to fight. But Michael, that’s not all. After we see the Kiowa Indian piece then, we get another, it goes directly to hippies dancing very wildly, very hedonistically looking, dancing I think, a to a Mamas and Pappas tune, with no explanation. And then it goes to a Vietnam veteran saying that he didn’t know anything about hippies until he got to Vietnam and then heard about hippies, and he hated hippies. So, we’re kind of whipsawed there.

MS: Jerry, we’re running up on time and there’s a really important point I want you to speak to. In your article you talk about this one woman in the film who was an anti-war activist during the Vietnam war and who repents decades letter for calling veterans baby-killers. And you speak to that in a way that not only goes after the lie there, but also, you also point out the very dangerous objective impact of that back then and in the future.

JL: You know when you say, not just to the lie of it, so many people get hung up on the empirical stuff on this. You know, they’ll say, “Didn’t that really happen?” That’s really not the point. The point is I think what you’re trying to suggest is, how that plays out in American political culture today. The myth that anti-war activists spat on Vietnam veterans; the myth that anti-war activists called Vietnam veterans baby-killers, of course, discredit the anti-war movement. They say to young people, “Look you don’t want to be like those people in the 1960’s who did these kind of things, so you don’t want to come out in resistance to the war.” It also feeds this idea that we lost the war because of betrayal at home. It’s the betrayal narrative for the loss of the war and it’s that same kind of narrative that ate at Germany after World War 1, that led Germany to re-arm, and not only to re-arm and have another go at war, but then to turn inward and scapegoat and to go after those people, those organizations, those idea sets that are held responsible for the loss of the war. That’s where I think the story like spitting on veterans or that whole victim-veteran mythology is part of that, and kind of washes out the idea that so many came home and joined the anti-war movement.

MS: On that note Jerry, we’re gonna have to wrap it up. I really wish we had more time. We’ll have you back, soon.

JL: Alright. – 30 –