Why Ken Burns Spent 10 Years Creating A 10-Part Series On Vietnam

The filmmaker who has documented the Civil War, jazz, and baseball turns his attention to a war that drove a stake into the heart of America.

By Laura RiceApril 28, 2017 5:08 pm

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is known for his expansive long-form film style, bringing unparalleled depth in coverage of everything from jazz to the Civil War. Burns visited the LBJ Presidential Library Thursday to promote his next project: a 10-part, 18 hour series on the war in Vietnam. “The Vietnam War,” which he directed with Lynn Novick, is set to air on PBS stations in September.

“I’ve spent my entire professional life – 40 years – listening to the rhymes of American history,” Burns says. “Vietnam is obviously the most important event in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. A good deal of the divisions we experience today were born, metastasized, during the Vietnam War and we’ve never gotten over them.”

The series took more than 10 years to produce, and Burns’ team interviewed nearly 100 people who were witness to the war, including Vietnamese combatants and civilians from both the winning and losing sides, American soldiers, gold star mothers, anti-war protestors, policy-wonks and journalists.

Burns says he wanted to cover the war from all angles and he scoured Vietnamese, Chinese, Soviet and European archives in order to tell the story from multiple perspectives.

“We’re able to avail ourselves of the recent scholarship over the last four decades and so, all of a sudden this is a Vietnam story that you’ve never heard about,” he says. “I thought I knew about the Vietnam War – I lived through it, I had a high draft number. And for the last 10 years it has been a daily humiliation of what I don’t know.”

Burns speaks to Texas Standard about how “The Vietnam War” is a series that will help Americans understand who we are as a country and why we remain so divided, as well as how we can work to heal these divisions.


On how historical films reflect the present:

“A lot of documentaries are about current ‘hot issues’ and they’re very topical and then they disappear. You do a history film and you’re always talking about the present in addition to that period… I had no idea before Barack Obama was elected we were still suffering from these divisions – red state, blue state, black and white, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight – all the divisions that we impose on each other in order to make the other wrong, all of which seem to have resulted from the period of Vietnam.”


On why now is the time to talk about the Vietnam War:

“Part of the reason we haven’t gotten over [it] is that we’ve ignored it, we’ve buried it – the feelings were too raw. The country was so torn on the bias that it was impossible to have the kind of courageous conversations that we needed to have. Now that we’re 45 years out from our main participation in the war, and almost 42 [years] to the date of the Fall of Saigon, I think it’s time to start talking.”


On how the film is for viewers of all generations:

“What’s so heartening is that we would bring kids, teenagers and 20-somethings into our editing room to show them stuff and they were blown away. They had no idea and they live in a violent culture of video games and books and graphic novels and movies and TV shows with violence, but when they see the real violence without any CGI [computer-generated imagery], without any special effects, it’s palpable, it’s real.”


On the role of President Lyndon Johnson:

“I would argue that Franklin Roosevelt is the most interesting politician in the twentieth century, but without a doubt the second most interesting is Lyndon Johnson. What’s so great about doing a film on Vietnam is the next most interesting is Richard Nixon. You’ve got back to back presidencies that are grand slam, inside the park home runs in terms of complexity, Shakespearian tragedy, fascinating genius coupled with crippling personal qualities, everything is there. It’s ripe actually not for me but for Shakespeare.”


Written by Molly Smith.