The Vietnam War Documentary: How Burns and Novick Fail to Portray Ho Chi Minh Accurately

Former U.S. President Barack Obama turns to listen to a question from the audience as he speaks to Vietnamese young people during the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) town hall meeting at the GEM Center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Wednesday, May 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary on Vietnam, which covers 18 hours of air time, has received major media attention and generally high praise. In scores of interviews before its premiere on PBS last week, Burns predicted that both anti-Vietnam war and pro-Vietnam war sides would be surprised, and that both would find things to like and dislike about the episodes.

From his own standpoint, Burns said he and Novick wanted to try to bring the country together and end our old divisions over Vietnam, and to give everyone new angles to consider which both sides ignored at the time. In a piece in The Atlantic, Burns and Novick end with this:

The war may have robbed America of its innocence, but it also reminded us that the duty of citizens in a democracy is to be skeptical -- not to worship our leaders … but to question their decisions, challenge their policies, and hold them accountable for their failures.

The film has been hailed by the mainstream media. Time, for example, gave it a rave review in which Karl Vick writes the following:

To its immense credit,  The Vietnam War occupies itself entirely with striving to capture what happened in Vietnam. The principals, including diplomats, spies, prisoners of war, draftees and Viet Cong, speak with often aching candor, since for many the definition of patriotism shifted from supporting the government to challenging it. No single view dominates, but a kind of consensus appears to take shape, formed out of shared experience and mutual respect.

So far, the only critical review I have seen in a major publication is from revisionist historian of the war Mark Moyer. He writes in The Wall Street Journal that rather than making a film that would be definitive and bring the country together, Burns and Novick “chose instead to make it another partisan harangue that is certain to keep Americans divided.” In a forthcoming issue of The Weekly Standard, Stephen Morris, a historian of Vietnam, will publish a substantial review that will offer an in-depth critique of the series.

Burns and Novick’s claim that no single view dominates their series has not won it plaudits from most left-wing commentators. They largely argue that the film projects an American innocence, and portrays those who fought as idealists who tried to serve their country, while neglecting to show “American imperialism” as the war’s cause -- and failing to conclude that those who opposed the war had the correct arguments at the time.

However, there is something in the documentary the Left does like: its depiction of Ho Chi Minh, the Stalinist leader of North Vietnam who presided over the country during the war, as almost a saint.