An interesting article appeared in the New York Times a few weeks back about the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick Vietnam War documentary. Its authors, Andrew Wiest and Susannah Ural, wonder if the eighteen hour documentary will be a historiographical turning point in our understanding of the war in Southeast Asia. Or, they continue, will it be the culmination of the narrative we have been telling ourselves for the past four–five decades? The answer to that doesn’t lie with Burns and Novick, who with their colleagues have already done their part by giving us the film. As they themselves have said, the documentary’s ultimate purpose is to ask more question than provide answers.
Wiest and Ural draw an interesting comparison, arguing that the documentary might do for Vietnam what historians did for World War One historiography in the early 1990s. Others are better positioned than I am to make the call, but personally I don’t see the needle as having having moved that much over the past 20-25 years. Yes, some archives have opened up and that sort of thing, but our understanding of the Great War remains much as it has since at least the 1960s. The current narrative is still very much the “lions led by donkeys” story line that has been with us for at least half a century. Perhaps a better comparison for The Vietnam War might be The Sorrow and the Pity, the 1969 documentary that nearly thirty years after the fact led the French to more closely examine their role in the Second World War.
Wars often lead citizens to question their societies, often vehemently. Americans examined their country during and immediately after the Great War, which led Prohibition, Women’s Suffrage, and the New Negro Movement in the 1920s. The same thing happened in different ways in the 1960s and early 1970s. Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, and much more all came out of the social upheaval. In addition it led to rifts that have yet to heal. So many of our current political and cultural divisions have their roots in the Vietnam War Era. Even militarily there is much that remains to explore regarding the Vietnam War. Time will tell over the next few years if we reach any new consensus on that turbulent period. Wiest and Ural make a strong case that this is the opportune time.
(image by Clara E. Laughlin from Foch: The Man)