Voices from all sides trace deep roots and wounds in 'Vietnam War'

HARI SREENIVASAN: Let's turn our attention again to "The Vietnam War," Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's latest landmark documentary.

The 18-hour film begins on Sunday night.

Judy Woodruff sat down with the co-directors to discuss how history shows the war was actually a long time in the making.

READ MORE: The first American Vietnam War POW on why we need to understand the war

KEN BURNS, Co-director, "The Vietnam War": We have reconciled with Vietnam, but we haven't reconciled with ourselves. The news flash is also, they haven't reconciled with themselves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: By talking firsthand to North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, Vietcong guerrillas and South Vietnamese civilians, soldiers, diplomats, the filmmakers hope to fill out the picture of what was happening in Vietnam and the U.S.

I have been to Hanoi, so I have seen some of the remembrances of the war. But they don't have anything like this.

KEN BURNS: It would stretch to the Capitol Building if they did this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Burns-Novick team spent a decade talking to hundreds of veterans from both sides of the bloody conflict, in which more than 3.5 million people may have died, estimates are about 58,000 American military deaths and the rest, Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians.

KEN BURNS: We Americans always assume we're at the center of this story of Vietnam, that the Vietnam War is about Americans.

LYNN NOVICK, Co-director, "The Vietnam War": Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The first episode looks at how, after one long and brutal war with the French, Vietnamese revolutionaries led by Ho Chi Minh ended nearly a century of French colonial occupation.

With the Cold War intensifying, Vietnam is divided into two at Geneva. Communists in the North aim to reunify the country, while America supports Ngo Dinh Diem's untested regime in the South.

There is clearly an unknowable aspect to all this.

LYNN NOVICK: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Lynn, do you come away, do you think, understanding how the United States got pulled into this, despite the French being kicked out, essentially, Dien Bien Phu?

Senator John F. Kennedy saying the Americans don't belong in a land war in Asia. Decisions made by Eisenhower not to get involved. And yet the United States was pulled in.

LYNN NOVICK: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Did you understand why, at the end, do you think?

LYNN NOVICK: Well, it is sometimes stunning to think, with all those road maps and signposts saying don't do it, we still did.

It seems clear that there's definitely a Cold War context that's very important, and certain kind of received wisdom, conventional wisdom about that, and that we have to stop communism and containment and that whole idea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even so, the film shows that, in May of 1964, President Johnson himself expressed misgivings about why the U.S. was at war and Vietnam's value in a phone call with national security adviser McGeorge Bundy.

FORMER PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: I just laid awake last night thinking about this thing. The more I think of it, I don't know what in the hell — it looks like to me we are 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. I don't think it's worth fighting for, and I don't think we can get out, and it's just the biggest damn mess.

MCGEORGE BUNDY, Former National Security Advisor: It is an awful mess.

FORMER PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: And I just thought about ordering those kids in there. And what the hell am I ordering them out there for? What in the hell is Vietnam worth to me? What is it worth to this country?

MCGEORGE BUNDY: Yes. Yes.

FORMER PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Now, of course, if you start running into communists, they may just chase you right in your own kitchen.

MCGEORGE BUNDY: Yes, that's the trouble. And that's what the rest of the — that half of the world is going to think if this thing comes apart on us.

LYNN NOVICK: Now, when we talk about when did the war start, this year, people are talking about the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. We're not really sure why. Fiftieth anniversary of what?

The Vietnam War didn't start in 1967. That was a moment of great kinetic energy in the war, but it started long before that. And you could argue that it really started in 1945.

KEN BURNS: Which we do in the film, when the OSS parachutes into Northern Vietnam to sort of help this ragtag insurgency that they hope will help us against the Japanese.

LYNN NOVICK: Right.

KEN BURNS: And it happens to be led by a guy named Ho Chi Minh.

So, all of a sudden, all of the normal, stabilized sense of Ho Chi Minh as the leader and the bad guy get challenged, and it's further challenged as you walk down just that path in Vietnam.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ho Chi Minh, did you come away from this experience understanding better who he was and what he represented?

I mean, it's striking. He was, what, quoting Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson, at one point.

KEN BURNS: During his declaration of Vietnamese independence…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Independence.

KEN BURNS: … quoting Thomas Jefferson. And there's an OSS officer standing next to them.

So, you begin to say, as Lynn is talking about, if you understand the overlay of the Cold War and how we're going to not have World War III, no one wants World War III, so what we're going to do is, we're going to pick our little battles, and fight it through places like South Vietnam/North Vietnam struggle, that you can misread what a local leader is all about.

NARRATOR: The war began to seem like an open pit, one North Vietnamese remembered. The more young people were lost there, the more they sent.

MAN (through interpreter): I witnessed Americans dying. They carried away the body, and they wept. I witnessed such scenes, and thought Americans, like us Vietnamese, also have a profound sense of humanity. They cared about each other.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the things you do so powerfully, which you're talking about here, is bringing to an American audience the Vietnamese view of this, experience of this, the depth to which Vietnam and the Vietnamese people suffered in this war.

You make them come alive, become human, the way I don't believe any other vehicle I can think of has done.

LYNN NOVICK: We were able, with the really incredible talents of a Vietnamese producer, to communicate to people that we wanted to know, which was the human story of the war, not the big propaganda narrative and the sort of conventional wisdom, but just, what was it really like for you and your family? What did you go through?

MAN (through interpreter): Even the Vietnamese veterans, we avoided talking about the war. People sing about victory, about liberation. They're wrong. Who won and who lost is not a question. In war, no one wins or loses. There is only destruction. Only those who have never fought like to argue about who won and who lost.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In a big tent way, the film invites voices from every corner, and lets viewers judge history, try to resolve some of the nation's unfinished business for themselves.

KEN BURNS: We made sure there was room for everybody in our film. If you still think the — we should be fighting the commies there still, there's the representation of that in our film.

If you believe that it was wrong from the very beginning, there are people that will represent that point of view. But, more importantly, all those shades of gray are able to coexist.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The documentary's 10 episodes will air over the next two weeks.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The premiere is this Sunday at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 p.m. Central, on your PBS station.

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