Ken Burns' ‘Vietnam War’: Best single-volume history

Mark Bowden, For The Inquirer

Updated: Sunday, September 24, 2017, 3:01 AM

Geoffrey C. Ward (left) and Ken Burns, coauthors of "The Vietnam War."

The Vietnam War

For his TV series "The Vietnam War," filmmaker Ken Burns has coauthored, with Geoffrey C. Ward, a comprehensive history of the conflict. JUSTIN ALTMAN
Photo Gallery: Ken Burns' ‘Vietnam War’: Best single-volume history

An Intimate History

By Geoffrey C. Ward

and Ken Burns

Based on the film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Knopf. 640 pp. $60

Reviewed by Mark Bowden

Most of the major Ken Burns documentaries have come with big, handsome, illustrated companion books, and this one accompanying the PBS series The Vietnam War is a particularly stunning example.

More than a keepsake, this book, written by Geoffrey Ward and based on a mountain of research done by Burns, Lynn Novick, and their team, is the best single-volume history of the war. At 640 pages, it contains more information than the 10-part, 18-hour series, and with hundreds of vivid photos, maps, and illustrations, it is almost as visually compelling.

Even more than a half-century after the war began, any work on the subject is sure to stir up old arguments, open old wounds, and spark the familiar accusations. I have seen only one of the parts (I briefly consulted with the film's producers about the Battle of Hué), and judging by that and by this book, there is plenty to love and to hate for those with strong feelings about the war. For those too young to have lived through it, it would be hard to imagine a more comprehensive picture.

Like all Burns productions, it is assembled from a multitude of overlapping voices, American and Vietnamese, and tells the long story from every conceivable angle, from veterans and protesters to draft-dodgers and prisoners of war to politicians and grunts. The Pentagon Papers, which disclosed the war's vast and damning paper trail, and the remarkable library of recordings from the desks of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, flesh out the story from the White House, and veterans on both sides, men and women, provide a wrenching ground-level view.

While laboring to be evenhanded, the book clearly presents the war as most Americans have come to regard it: a tragedy, if not an international crime. This is not a strikingly new perspective. It will not please those who still believe that the United States was right to enter the war and that it could have been won if not for news coverage, draft-resisters, and pusillanimous politicians. But even those voices are part of the narrative.

Overall, it presents the effort as misguided from the beginning, based on false assumptions about Vietnam itself and on domestic political priorities that had little to do with the realities of Southeast Asia.

Vietnam was never a good match for the simplistic thesis of the Cold War - the need to defend democracy from the spread of monolithic communism. The idea of democracy in South Vietnam was aspirational from the start. Neither South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem nor any of the generals who followed him, including the last, Nguyen Van Thieu, were popular or democratic.

Both ran deeply corrupt regimes that trampled opponents and terrorized their own citizenry. Diem's regime was so disappointing that the United States acquiesced in his assassination. By the time Thieu engineered his 94 percent electoral victory in 1971 (he was the only candidate), "democracy" was a full-blown charade.

Nor was Hanoi the creature of either Beijing or Moscow, although it enjoyed support from both. North Vietnam's leaders - Ho Chi Minh had largely become a figurehead by the 1960s - were hardened communists, but in South Vietnam, many allied themselves with the revolution and fought more out of opposition to the Saigon government and a desire for independence than for ideological reasons.

The American military story is especially painful. Filled with noble intentions, high schoolers such as Mogie Crocker and Bill Ehrhardt were eager to enlist, and principled collegians such as Karl Marlantes, who traded his Rhodes scholarship for a Marine commission, felt compelled to do their part.

But as the months and years of struggle wore on, most grew disillusioned with both the American mission and its methods. From the beginning, the effort was dragged down by cultural ignorance, racism, arrogance, the brutalizing effects of combat, and, in the most notorious cases, by murderous insensitivity.

Given the deep misgivings at the highest levels during most of the war years, the terrible sacrifices demanded of those who fought and died is particularly heartbreaking. Most American vets left the war feeling betrayed, if not by their leaders, then by their country.

The antiwar protests play a big role in this account, growing from a fringe of passionate pacifists to a mass movement that floods Washington with waves of protesters. By the end of Nixon's first term, the increasingly defiant president felt besieged. Protests rose up ever larger each time he unleashed new torrents of violence on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in a series of failed efforts to force concessions from Hanoi and end the war on terms he considered acceptable.

Especially disturbing is the steady drumbeat of failure as Nixon continued withdrawing American forces, even as it became clear that would ensure a North Vietnamese victory. After Nixon resigned, neither President Gerald R. Ford nor Congress would honor Nixon's open-ended pledge to continue defending Thieu's regime. The final chapter of the book records its chaotic collapse day by day, as all but the most willfully blind American supporters, such as U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin, continued to deny the obvious.

Little of this is completely new, but I have neither read nor seen a more convincing presentation. The book gives anyone who watches the TV series a convenient way to review and explore more deeply the flood of information it contains. Ward's prose is clear and compelling. He is a skilled storyteller who had an amazing amount of material to work with.

Mark Bowden is a former Inquirer reporter. His most recent book is "Hué 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam."

Mark Bowden, For The Inquirer

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