Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Filmmakers and historians Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward speak with Chautauqua Institution President Tom Becker during Wednesday’s morning lecture about their process of acquiring interviews for “Vietnam,” a 10-part documentary series currently scheduled for a 2017 release.
Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward have collaborated on documentary films for the last 32 years.
In their 10:45 a.m. Wednesday lecture in the Amphitheater, the two discussed “Vietnam,” the 10-part, 18-and-a-half-hour series that will broadcast in January 2017.
During their conversation with President Tom Becker, Burns and Ward played a 27-minute reel of portions of the film, which in its entirety will include interviews with individuals connected to the war from every direction: war veterans from the United States and Vietnam, war doctors and nurses, deserters and anti-war protesters.
The Vietnam War was a “compound fracture,” impossible to make sense of in any simplistic terms, Burns said.
“It doesn’t fit very neatly into any of the compartments, particularly in an age when we are so dialectically preoccupied and concerned with very simplistic, superficial, political judgments. Vietnam confounds to this day.”
“This is the first time I’ve ever worked on any film which was really about events that I’ve lived through,” he said. “And you arrogantly think that you — at least I do — that you somehow understand current events, and you have it all in your head, and you have your opinions. Then scholars get to work on it, and you discover that a lot of what you thought you knew was wrong. And it makes you realize both, I think, how complicated life is, and how complicated governing is, and trying to deal with a world that we don’t really understand very well. That’s been very moving and very informative for me.”
To this day, some of the most basic assumptions that people have about the war are untrue, Burns said.
“If I were to ask you in a test who was leading North Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s before his death, you would all say Ho Chi Minh. You would not be right,” Burns said. Lê Duẩn effectively ran the North from January 1959, a fact that then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reported to President Lyndon Johnson a year and a half into the ground war.
“Neither of them had ever heard of the man against whom they were fighting the war before,” Ward said, and then added that McNamara had learned Lê Duẩn’s name from a visiting Indo-China expert from England.
“The idea that we didn’t have any [experts] and we were fighting a war is terrifying,” he said.
These gaps in knowledge are attributable to poor intelligence, Ward said, a failure that also meant poor preparation and strategy.
“I think the tragic thing about Vietnam is the intelligence was never very good. We knew very little about them. We got muddled about what we were trying to do,” Ward said. “We got attached to a regime that was not worthy of our being attached to it, and as the introduction says, the best thing, sadly, for political leaders, often, is to muddle through. Nobody likes to admit they made a mistake. And that’s the tragedy of this to me.”
“This is the pathology,” he said. “This is an autopsy on a war … the cause of death [of which] is both obvious and obfuscating at the same time.”
*Correction (Aug. 8, 2014): This article incorrectly referred to Ken Burns’ documentary as “The Vietnam War” and has been corrected to the title “Vietnam.”
Q: I’m curious, Geoffrey, about what it is like to live through this time, this war, from the point of view that you experienced it, what it is to go from that and find the objectivity to study the war and to discover that what you knew you didn’t know or what you thought you knew you didn’t know?
A: WARD: It was the first time I ever worked on any film about events that I lived through. You arrogantly think that you someone understand current events and you have it all in your head and you have your opinions. Then scholars get to work on it and you discover that a lot of what you thought you knew, was wrong. It makes you think how complicated life is and how complicated governing is, and trying to deal with a world that we don’t really understand very well. That’s been very moving and very informative to me.
A: BURNS: You know, the most basic assumptions we have about this war are untrue. If I were to ask you on a test, ‘Who is leading North Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s before his death, you would all say Ho Chi Minh.’ You would not be right. From January of 1959 — this is not a typographical error — another person had effective dominant control of the bureau in Hanoi and directed the war. The New York Times published an obituary for General [Vo Nguyen] Giáp who died at 103 or 104 last year. It had him as the architect of the Tet Offensive. He was not architect of the Tet Offensive. In fact, he was opposed to it and had his entire staff arrested, and he was sent to Hungary for medical care. Ho Chi Minh was opposed to Tet and was sent to China for vacation. The basic assumptions we had are completely wrong. They say that all battle plans go out the window when the first shot is fired. You can imagine what it’s like for Roger Harris and John Musgrave and all the others that populate our film. And, by the way, our film is filled with…every direct connection possible to this war. It’s an oral history.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about France’s role and specifically about the United States’ interaction with France?
A: B: The French came [to Vietnam] in 1858. They had an impressive colony there that was extracting the natural resources, imparting the wisdom of Catholicism on a mostly Buddhist population. They lost control temporarily in the Second World War. The Vichy Government recognized invaders — they just took over Vietnam really, there was not really a shot fired. When the war ended, British and Nationalist Chinese forces controlled it. The French just said, ‘We want our colony back.’ [Charles] De Gaul told the United States that he was thinking of going into the Soviet Bloc if we didn’t help them retain control over their former colony. By the time of Dien Bien Phu, when the French general there, Henri Nevarre, proclaimed for that, unmitigated disaster to the French that he could ‘see the light at the end of the tunnel,’ prefiguring what would happen to America in the next decades. We were at the moment paying 85 percent of the French military bill.
Q: What was the progress of intelligence in the war, or is there any progress of intelligence in your story, and do you have access to that information at this point that is detailed enough to be revealing about all of that?
A: W: I think the tragic thing about Vietnam is that the intelligence was never very good. We knew very little about them. We got muddled about what we were trying to do. We got attached to a regime that was not worthy of us being attached to it. And as the introduction says, the best thing sadly for political leaders often is to muddle through. Nobody likes to admit that they made a mistake. And that’s the tragedy of to me.
Q: Did we have people on the ground, and do you have records of them as intelligence officers?
A: B: Yes. We have covered the waterfront as well as we can in this. We did not prosecute this war well, but no amount of money and weaponry was going to change that. We did abandon shamelessly our allies. It was corrupt. It was, and still is, hard to distinguish between the impulses of a brutal communist regime and the impulses of a legitimate nationalist movement. All of these things remain befuddling at the end, but all throughout the film there are moments that are stunning for the fact that it’s almost ‘Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz’ — ‘Don’t go there, don’t do this.’ And we said ‘The French have not won a war since Napoleon. What do they know?’ And we boldly made every mistake times ten that the French made. And Ho Chi Minh was coming to Woodrow Wilson during the First World War to ask the United States that the rights of the colonized people had to be held in the same regard as the colonizers. And when he declared independence in Bodin Square, on the same day that the Japanese were signing surrender, there was an OSS officer standing right next to him, and you know what Ho Chi Minh said. He said, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’ The OSS guy said that if you told me I would be fighting this guy in twenty years I would have told that you were crazy. He already threatened to name his liberation army the Viet Minh, the American-Vietnamese Liberation Army. What we refer to as the Pentagon Papers, was McNamara’s attempt to collate all the decisions that had been made in the Vietnam Wars. It is that damning indictment that said that ‘we shouldn’t be here, but what if…’ This is the pathology this is the autopsy, this is most obvious and the most obfuscating at the same time.
Q: Talk a little about finding primary material for the film. From North Vietnam to South Vietnam, what was that process like?
A: B: Vietnam is at an unusual part in their history. Their normalization, their perestroika, their economic changes have altered their country for the better , but they have stagnated in the recent years. There’s a completely different country there and completely different pressures on the still very tightly controlled communist regime in Hanoi. But they’ve opened up this country to us, and we were able to find, in terms of that original research, extraordinary photographs that are in Vietnamese archives that have not been made available to Americans. Obviously the fall of the Soviet Union opened up some, and there are bits of stuff filtering in from Chinese archives. And we had complete access to the countryside which has normally been cordoned off. We have been permitted to go to the often-neglected South Vietnamese cemeteries, where the North Vietnamese soldiers and the Vietcong soldiers are kept in meticulously kept cemeteries. Others have been left in incredible disrepair. And there were people that began to tell us stories which seemed to be acknowledging what happened on the other side of the trail where are marines and soldiers have just walked down, and in many cases, we have exactly that.
A: W: We have new material from this side, too. In this [war], we have Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and their aids, and you can see how the story being told in the White House is a completely different story that’s being told by the people. It’s both appalling and absolutely riveting.
Q: Understanding this project is not complete, have you considered the families left home during the engagement?
A: B: Yes. I think we’ve covered the waterfront. [Ward] alluded to the fact that we have unusual access to the minds of three presidents who were the most responsible for prosecuting this war, and the soldiers themselves would send home tapes, we have newspaper reporters that we’ve covered. I think that there’s a sort of triangulation in this film that we’ve never had before because of its relative proximity to this moment.
Q: What was the most important implication of the Vietnam War becoming the ‘TV War’?
A: W: I think seeing war is very educational. I think had there been in World War II, there would be much less enthusiasm for it, if enthusiasm is the right word. I think that we ought to be seeing what we’re doing and I think there’s something in what’s been done to us.
A: B: When the Roosevelt Administration consciously released footage to newsreels, it would play at the theater once a week, and only once, about the dead marines at Tarawa. In the sort of very Rooseveltian way, that ‘the people ought to know what they’re fighting for’, and they thought that it would help draft call, but it plummeted. If you saw marines bobbing in the surf at Tararaw, you were not anxious to sign up you son who was turning eighteen next Tuesday. And they were completely surprised. And all the footage after that of World War II either was accidentally leaked out, or was a consequence of the war being well over. Vietnam was another thing entirely. And we like to think that we got to see a lot of this stuff in our living rooms the first time, but a lot of it is our own flawed, retrospective memory. We think we saw the most goriest stuff, but most often it was something found in the weekly magazines, that brought in still photography. When the Tet Offensive happened that’s really the whole breakdown of the foundation. Obviously it’s going to jeopardize Lyndon Johnson’s political future, it’s going to cause him to reconsider running for reelection, it’s going to change Walter Cronkite’s mind, which was a huge, big thing. And the footage is going to exacerbate telling their own people that things are fine. Tet was an unmitigated disaster for the North Vietnamese. They lost everything that they were after. They lost in all 155 places that they attacked that day. They lost badly and were badly wounded. But the sight of 19 sappers within the US Embassy compound was too much for the American People. The population grew tired of the war, and we began to elect representatives who were committed to ending it.
Q: How are you treating Agent Orange and its ongoing human cost in your program?
A: W: That’s a very hard one.
A: B: It’s an incredibly difficult one. We can’t do justice to our explanation here. It’s mentioned. It’s significant. We talk about the protests about it. And yet the findings of the unbiased, as far as we can tell, governmental investigations are inconclusive at best and what we know is that putting young men and women in the face of danger, provokes a whole of range of reactions that can be exacerbated by chemicals that are just part of a human body, a human soul, being sane in response to this insane situation. And the line between knowing that there’s a Gulf War syndrome, that it had to do specifically with the effect of several agents, we cannot draw as direct correlations as those who believe that they’ve suffered from it believe. And we can’t, as responsible people, collating that data, go as far as those that, I’m sure, genuinely believe that that’s so.
A: W: Those things are very tough. And if you really go into them, we would be at 28 and a half [hours] if we went into all of the extra impact problems of the war, all of which are legitimate and important.
Q: Film and video footage? How does [adding sound] impact your choices about adding sounds and overdubbing and adding background sound? Does the footage of the battle scenes match the battle being described?
A: B: In this case we are getting stuff with sound effects and there’s very little work that we have to do. We do do something that we call ‘sweetening’ and if some footage that we receive is without sound then we will have to add it. We have tried to use the footage from that moment or moments that are very similar both geographically and physically. It’s hugely important that if those are marines then we are using marines and not armymen. We work really hard, we work with veterans, and we work with West Point, and we want to make sure that if they’re talking about a certain kind of ordinance then that what it is. If the plane flying overhead is not the sort of plane that came to the rescue, but to drop bombs then we will change the shot. Having said that we have to bring to life most of this war which takes place in ambush, where there are no cameramen around. It is so critical to us that we not so much have a larger truth, by using footage that could have been reasonably at the moment. We do it without any footage, and its just jump cuts in his interview, and it’s very effective. And we can’t do that everytime. And this film is told as best we can, with footage as close to that moment as possible. But with the few exceptions: the assassination of the Vietcong on the street of Saigon in the middle of the Tet Offensive. The little girl that is running down the street after the Napalm. In many cases, we are trying as best as we can to recreate with the footage and not create with footage of our own.
Q: What do you think the two or three primary influences are from the conflict in Vietnam to the conflict in Afghanistan?
A: B: They are hugely connected tissues, and they seem to be in the realm of lessons not learned.
A: W: We emerged from the Second World War the most powerful country in the history of the world with almost no knowledge of the rest of the world. And we continue in that vein, I think it’s that simple.
—Transcribed by Mark Oprea