War on Film – The Vietnam War

James H Willbanks gives an insider's view on the making of The Vietnam War.

After producing films on the Civil War (‘the most important event of the 19th century’) and World War II (‘the most important world event of the 20th century’), acclaimed documentary film-maker Ken Burns thought he was done with wars.

At the back of his mind, however, lay the Vietnam War – which Burns calls ‘the most important American event of the second half of the 20th century’. Coming to the conclusion that contemporary divisions in America could be traced back to Vietnam, Burns believed that the time was ripe for the war’s significance to be unpicked.


In a press release announcing the new documentary series, he stated,

The Vietnam War was a decade of agony that took the lives of more than 58,000 Americans. Not since the Civil War have we as a country been so torn apart. There wasn’t an American alive then who wasn’t affected in some way. More than 40 years after it ended, we can’t forget Vietnam, and we are still arguing about why it went wrong, who was to blame, and whether it was all worth it.

This is no less true for the Vietnamese on both sides, as Lynn Novick, Burns’ production partner and co-director of the series, noted:

We interviewed many Vietnamese on both the winning and losing sides, and were surprised to learn that the war remains as painful and unresolved for them as it is for us.

The Vietnam War, which Burns calls his ‘most ambitious project yet’, features about 80 interview subjects, including Americans who fought, their families, other Americans who protested against the war, and journalists who reported on it. Interviews with Vietnamese combatants – both South Vietnamese and Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese Army regulars, as well as Vietnamese civilians – also feature.

Burns wanted to avoid the ‘old tropes and invented tropes’ from Hollywood’s Vietnam movies and what he called the ‘avuncular Monday-morning quarterbacking’ of pundits, historians, and other scholars who had never set foot in Vietnam. As he explains, ‘You can have more than one truth happen at the same time. What we tried to do is create a safe space for all these different perspectives.’


Putting the series together took nearly ten years. The task included an exhaustive study of the scholarship on the war and more than a hundred interviews in both the United States and Vietnam.

Geoffrey Ward, who has written companion books for earlier documentaries, put together the initial ten-part script. This was reviewed by advisors including noted scholars, veterans, and those who opposed the war.

In several sessions, the advisors made recommendations on content, narration, and images. Then Ward revised the script and the process began again. The review sessions were lengthy and very detailed.

After another rewrite, the words were applied to the images, which included rarely seen archival footage, photos, TV broadcasts, home movies, and audio recordings from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.

When the footage was ready, Burns and his team met the advisory groups again to examine all ten episodes, discussing every scene, considering the images and the narration. The focus of the process was to place the war in context, while presenting the facts in a fair and impartial manner.

Burns and Novick held multiple screenings, sharing the work in progress with some of the people they interviewed to ensure that they were on the right track. They always included Vietnam veterans in the screenings. Burns told a reporter,

We’ve never had a screening [of this documentary] where we didn’t have veterans there, as well as our historical advisors, and as you know, veterans have a pretty high BS meter. They could really help us understand the story, and at the same time, you could see they were… reliving their experiences…

Meanwhile, the development of the score and soundtrack was under way. Early in the production process, Lynn Novick happened to watch The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She was captivated by the soundtrack, which had been composed by Trent Reznor, the Nine Inch Nails singer and Academy-Award winning film-score composer, and his partner Atticus Ross.

Novick set up a meeting, where Reznor and Ross were shown footage from the film and asked if they would be interested in writing the scores for the series. The composing team jumped at the opportunity and delivered the finished score 18 months later.

The resulting soundtrack also features performances by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, as well as popular music from the Vietnam era by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Simon and Garfunkel, and many others.


The series begins with the French conquest of Vietnam in the mid-1800s, the First Indochina War, and early US involvement, motivated by post-World War II geopolitics and domestic political considerations.

Subsequent episodes consider the Ngo Dinh Diem years, the initial commitment of US combat troops, the steep ramping-up of that commitment, the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Nixon years, and the ‘Vietnamisation’ of the war.

The series also addresses the protests at home as the war became increasingly unpopular with the American public. Later episodes deal with the US withdrawal and the subsequent two years, which ultimately resulted in the fall of South Vietnam.

The documentary culminates with a discussion of the creation of and response to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, a particularly moving way to wrap up the series.

A South Vietnamese soldier threatens a Viet Cong suspect.

Burns believes that the Vietnam War played a major role in the evolution of the divisions in American society today. In a series of press interviews, he said,

The seeds of many of the troubles that beset us today – alienation, resentment, and cynicism; mistrust of our government and each other; breakdown of civil discourse and civic institutions – were sown during the Vietnam War. Until we find a way to come to terms with this unsettled and enormously consequential event, its ghosts will continue to haunt us…We hope this film will contribute in some way, shape, or form to more courageous conversations about what took place.

Ken Burns

Ken Burns is one of the most respected American documentary-makers. He and his team have won multiple Emmy awards, received two Oscar nominations, and been honoured with a lifetime achievement award by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for making some of the most-influential, most-watched historical documentaries ever. These include The Civil War (1990), The War (2007), The National Parks (2009), Prohibition (2011), and The Roosevelts: an intimate portrait (2014).

Burns has worked extensively with Lynn Novick, co-director of The Vietnam War (2017). Novick was also co-producer with Burns on The War (2007) and Prohibition (2011), among others.

James H Willbanks is a Vietnam veteran and a military historian. He was both advisor and an on-screen interviewee for the Ken Burns documentary.

All stills: PBS