A sweeping, richly illustrated narrative of a conflict fast retreating in memory, one that noted documentarian Burns calls a “lamentable chapter in history.”
As they have done in numerous collaborations (The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, 2014, etc.), Ward and Burns take a vast topic and personalize it. Regarding the Vietnam War, this involved tracking down veterans of the war and recounting their experiences to gain insight into how great events play out on the individual level—thus the “intimate” element of the subtitle. Of particular value is the inclusion of Vietnamese voices on both sides of the conflict, most of whom agree more than four decades later that the question of who won or lost is less important than the fact that no one really prevailed. Ward and Burns use several of these figures as returning characters in the narrative. One, for instance, is Vincent Okamoto, a Japanese-American soldier born in a relocation camp during World War II, who recalls a Southern soldier’s advice for not being confused for one of the enemy: “Hey, no offense, partner; but if I was you I’d dye my hair blond and whistle ‘Dixie’ when it gets dark.” Other figures are relegated to revealing walk-on roles, such as a Vietnamese operative who, with the “pride of a revolutionary,” coordinated the assassinations of hundreds of South Vietnamese and American soldiers and officials. The text is accompanied by more than 500 photographs, some of them immediately recognizable—the execution of a Viet Cong on the streets of Saigon, children running to greet a returning American prisoner of war—many others fresh. As ever, Ward and Burns aim for a middle-of-the-road, descriptive path, but the very nature of this enterprise courts controversy, as when they remind readers of Richard Nixon’s secret negotiations with North Vietnam while he was a candidate for president, an act that Lyndon Johnson privately deemed treasonous.
Accompanying the PBS series to be aired in September 2017, this is an outstanding, indispensable survey of the Vietnam War.