Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: Vietnam's Unhealed Wounds

This article was originally published in The New York Times


On April 23, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford delivered an address at Tulane University in New Orleans. As the president spoke, more than 100,000 North Vietnamese troops were approaching Saigon, having overrun almost all of South Vietnam in just three months. Thirty years after the United States first became involved in Southeast Asia and 10 years after the Marines landed at Danang, the ill-fated country for which more than 58,000 Americans had died was on the verge of defeat.

“We, of course, are saddened indeed by the events in Indochina,” the president told the crowd. The United States could soon “regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam,” he said, but only if we “stop refighting the battles and the recriminations of the past.” The time had come, the president concluded, “to unify, to bind up the nation’s wounds” and “begin a great national reconciliation.” Just seven days later, North Vietnamese tanks smashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon. The Vietnam War was over.

It’s been more than 40 years now, and despite Ford’s optimism, we have been unable to put that war behind us. As one Army veteran, Phil Gioia, told us, “The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America.”

For more than a generation, instead of forging a path to reconciliation, we have allowed the wounds the war inflicted on our nation, our politics and our families to fester. The troubles that trouble us today — alienation, resentment and cynicism; mistrust of our government and one another; breakdown of civil discourse and civic institutions; conflicts over ethnicity and class; lack of accountability in powerful institutions — so many of these seeds were sown during the Vietnam War.

In our own treacherously divisive moment, Americans would do well to take a long, hard look at the bitter and painful tragedy of Vietnam, as searing and difficult as that will be for our country. If we can unpack this enormously complicated event, immerse ourselves in it and see it with fresh eyes, we might come to terms with one of the most consequential, and most misunderstood, events in our history and perhaps inoculate ourselves against the further spread of the virulent disunion that afflicts us.

Nothing will ever make the tragedy of the Vietnam War all right. But if we are to begin the process of healing, we must first honor the courage, heroism and sacrifice of those who served and those who died, not just as we do today, on Memorial Day, but every day.

As filmmakers, we have tried to do so by listening to their stories. “It’s almost going to make me cry,” another Army veteran, Vincent Okamoto, told us, remembering the infantry company he led in Vietnam in 1968. “Nineteen-year-old high school dropouts from the lowest socioeconomic rung of American society,” he remembered. “They weren’t going be rewarded for their service in Vietnam. And yet, their infinite patience, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire, was just phenomenal. And you would ask yourself: How does America produce young men like this?”

While Mr. Okamoto and hundreds of thousands of other soldiers were fighting and dying overseas, hundreds of thousands of other Americans were taking to the streets to protest a war they believed was not only not in our country’s best interest, but immoral and unjust. As the antiwar activist Bill Zimmerman told us, “People who supported the war were fond of saying ‘My country, right or wrong,’ ” but the war’s critics didn’t “want to live in a country that we’re going to support whether it’s right or wrong. So we began an era where two groups of Americans, both thinking that they were acting patriotically, went to war with each other.”

Far too often when Americans talk about the Vietnam War, as the writer Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote, we are talking only about ourselves. But we will never understand what happened if we do not ask our allies and our enemies — the Vietnamese on both sides of the conflict — what the war was really like. For many of them, it remains as painful, unsettled and difficult to talk about as it is for us.

For the South Vietnamese who came to America as refugees after the war, and who suffered not only the loss of loved ones but of their country itself, questions linger. Did their leaders deserve the loyalty of their people? Without it, how long could their government have endured?

For the Vietnamese on the winning side, the war’s cost in blood and bone was immeasurable. “The war was so horribly brutal,” the North Vietnamese Army Gen. Lo Khac Tam told us, “I don’t have words to describe it. How can we ever explain to the younger generation the price paid?” Having failed to reconcile with one another despite their enormous sacrifice, many Vietnamese have begun to ask themselves whether the war was necessary, whether some other way might have been found to reunite their country.

There is no simple or single truth to be extracted from the Vietnam War. Many questions remain unanswerable. But if, with open minds and open hearts, we can consider this complex event from many perspectives and recognize more than one truth, perhaps we can stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and focus instead on what it can teach us about courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are the directors of the forthcoming documentary “The Vietnam War.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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