This post originally appeared at

Some thoughts on how Vietnamese people are represented in the Burns/Novick documentary

             This is a documentary focused on the American Experience, so it has only small slots of time allotted to the Vietnamese.  We have to be grateful that those Vietnamese selected to speak in the film are so articulate and passionate. More on this below. But when it comes to the main issue — was our combat role in Vietnam a well-intentioned mistake? — the audience is forced to draw its own conclusions. We never hear a clear statement from a representative of the Vietnamese government as to why they believed they had to fight.  From the interviews with former marines and US government advisers, we learn that they knew little about the people they had come to protect. Over time they realized that many Vietnamese resented their presence, but we do not hear anyone state the obvious: we were invading a sovereign country that had never attacked the United States. The country we claimed to be defending, the Government of Vietnam with its capital in Saigon, was our offspring, as JFK is quoted as saying in an early episode.

             Watching episode two, and the long segment on the battle of Ap Bac in 1963, I found it odd that the narrator extolled the power of the APCs that the US had furnished to the ARVN, without mentioning that these behemoths were destroying the peasants’ rice crops. Planting rice is arduous work in the flooded paddies; it is usually women who spend hours in the muddy water to plant each seedling by hand. The mud dikes between the fields are built up over the years to keep the water in — did our soldiers and military advisers not realize how unpopular it would make our army when they tore up the rice fields to search for “the enemy”?

             These ten episodes on the Vietnam War do include some excellent interviews with a group of Vietnamese, as I said above.  Overall their views on the war add greatly to the picture being presented.  Some viewers complain that there is no representation of the South Vietnamese government, but the same is true for the official DRV point of view.  We hear the honest views of people who are non-official spokespeople.  However, it would have helped the viewers to put their remarks into context if they had been better identified and introduced from the outset.

             In the case of Nguyen Ngoc, an important literary figure in the history of post-war Vietnam, this is especially true. He was the head of the Writers’ Union during the few years of Vietnamese “glasnost”, when important new authors including Bao Ninh were first published.  He was removed from this post in 1989, as the communist bloc began to crumble and the Vietnamese leadership decided that political reform had gone too far. Bao Ninh himself, the author of The Sorrow of War, should also have had more of an intro, as it is important to know that he is still one of the rare popular writers who has been willing the criticize the DRV’s sacrifice of young men and women to the war machine. Finally, Huy Duc, the younger commentator who appears throughout the documentary, also deserves a special introduction. He first became known as a dissenting blogger, “Osin”. He has held two scholarships to study journalism in the US and during his last one at Harvard, he published in Vietnamese a two-volume history of post-war Vietnam, The Winning Side. 

             As it transpires from this work, he is critical of post-war policies, but a supporter of one of the more powerful figures in the wartime leadership, Truong Chinh. Truong Chinh’s former personal secretary is a key source for his critique of Le Duan, the wartime first secretary of the Workers’ Party. One of the things that Huy Duc contributes to the documentary is a strong endorsement of the idea that from 1960 Le Duan was the all-powerful chief of the DRV Politburo, who designed the aggressive strategy and tactics of the DRV, including the Tet Offensive.  This is a popular view that is also being promoted by young US scholars; it conveniently deflects responsibility for the war from the US.  Originally the vision of LD as the evil leader who countermanded Ho Chi Minh’s policies was promoted by a pro-Chinese leader in Hanoi, Hoang Van Hoan. In 1979 he defected to China. One can see that Le Duan’s original sin was to accept Soviet support for the Vietnamese campaign against the Khmer Rouge, and to refuse to join the Chinese sphere of influence.

             This singling out of one member of the Hanoi leadership as an oppressive promoter of war, leaves the impression that some in Hanoi doubted the legitimacy of their fight to unify their country. This is a clear misrepresentation — the differences that existed among the Hanoi leadership concerned, among other things,  whether and when to negotiate with the Americans, but not the legitimacy of their struggle for unification. There is compelling evidence to show that Le Duan himself was always more favorable towards a negotiated peace than the more Maoist members of the leadership. This seems to have clearly been the case in 1966. Zhou Enlai in June of that year accused “pro-Kremlin revisionists” of infiltrating the DRV leadership, “producing a struggle between those who backed fighting until a military victory… and those who favored talks to end the war quickly.” Zhou Enlai referred to Le Duan as someone who had “changed course”. “Until now he had been a leftist,” Zhou said (The Third Force in the Vietnam War, p. 119).

–Sophie Quinn-Judge

Ho Dang Hoa

For helping show the Vietnam War in a new light



The war came to Ho Dang Hoa when he was a child, as the first American bombs fell on his hometown of Hanoi in 1966. “I was a curious boy,” he recalls. “I used to run to see the fires and the people killed.” Nine years later, he was a student learning Russian and planning to study in the Soviet Union when the North Vietnamese Army drafted him as part of the call-up for its final push against South Vietnam. He served for 13 years, at first in the anti-air artillery, then the air force as an intelligence officer.

But it took two Americans, he says, to give him the chance to see the war in its full light. Ho’s relationship with the United States had been as long and twisted as his country’s. As a child, he thought of the Americans only as invaders; as an adult, the army taught him the enemy’s language in order to study its war plans; once released from the military, he became one of Vietnam’s Fulbright scholars in 1993, studying for an MBA at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, before returning to Vietnam as a lecturer himself. In 2011, Ho began working with Lynn Novick and Ken Burns on the epic documentary series The Vietnam War, released on PBS this September, that traces the stories of Vietnamese fighters. “These people had disappeared when the war ended,” he says. “Tracking them down, I found stories I had never heard.”

Ho was introduced to Novick and Burns by Thomas Vallely, a U.S. Marine veteran who runs Harvard University’s Vietnam program and was an advisor on the series. The filmmakers wanted Ho to be another bridge to Vietnam, emphasizing their desire to tell the war from both sides, giving the series’s American audience a chance to see the conflict through the eyes of the Vietnamese.

Ho is modest about his own role, but his work was critical for the film. He shaped the Vietnamese side of the story, finding individuals who had played roles unknown to Americans and aspects of the war forgotten even in Vietnam. The scope of interviewees he collected ranged from North Vietnamese propaganda artists to veterans of the anti-French war in the 1950s, who had taken the skills they learned fighting one occupier and passed them down to a new generation of soldiers.

In Vietnam, the war gets plenty of attention — but largely as a matter of patriotic monuments and victory celebrations, not individual stories. “I was looking for the Vietnamese soldiers who had fought on Hill 875 [at the Battle of Dak To in 1967],” Ho says. His quest took him from one end to the other of Vietnam, in what was often a winding and complex investigation: “I found the name of the unit, and a veteran gave me the name of one of the survivors of the battle. So I went to a mountain village to talk to him, and it turned out he’d joined afterward, but he gave me the name of another man, in the south. I went down to see him, and he’d been wounded just before the battle and evacuated. But he gave me one more name — in Hanoi. That was the actual veteran of the battle, and he lived a mile away from my house.”

In contrast, America’s vision of the war has too often been an exercise in self-reflection; the needless deaths of young men in muddy rice fields half a world away or the students at Kent State. Vietnamese were mostly in the background, the body count mere numbers. The Vietnam War strives to correct this; the audience hears the cracking voices of soldiers who lost comrades, parents who lost children, and South Vietnamese who lost their country. In September, after the series aired, Vallely told a reporter that a friend had called it “the re-education camp for America.”

Like all of his generation, Ho’s whole life was shaped by the war, from his lost education to his memories of the dead. Being a part of this series was not an end to that story, but perhaps an unexpected addendum that brings a new kind of clarity. “Americans are good people — kind, friendly, interesting,” Ho says. “We should have been friends 50 years ago — there should never have been a war. And I hope the sons and daughters of Americans no longer have to go to die in foreign countries.”

James Palmer is Asia editor at Foreign Policy.