Todd Gitlin is the author of 16 books, as well as an essay on the anti-war movement for the companion volume to the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary, The Vietnam War: An Intimate History. He’s a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the PhD program in communications at Columbia University. In 1965, he helped organize the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War in Washington, DC. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: What is Burns and Novick’s argument about why we were in Vietnam?
Todd Gitlin: I want to say something first about the film as a whole. The film is several things. It is an immersion experience: an environment, a soundscape, video, pictures, clips. And it’s also an argument. As a total experience, this film says, “What an abomination. The Americans should not have been there. They had no business being there.” Insofar as there’s an argument threading through, it’s that the American leaders were overall delusional, ignorant, cynical, deceptive, and destructive. From the half I’ve seen, this film is a tremendous achievement.
JW: Some of our friends who are critics of the documentary agree that it presents a thorough indictment of the war, but they also complain that it dismisses most of the people who were committed to ending it. It’s been said that the film is both anti-war and anti the anti-war movement.
TG: I’ve only seen the first five episodes—half of the series. That characterization is false about the first five episodes. It’s true that there isn’t very much about the anti-war movement. I think that it’s fair to say that this is a film about the war, not the anti-war; but the arguments of the anti-war movement are given more than their due. Not in every detail, to be sure, but overall and intensely. They are essentially the arguments of the film. If there’s a hero in the early history they present, it’s Ho Chi Minh—who, however flawed, is depicted as resolute, honorable, and devoted to his people and their independence. And in the fifth episode there’s an extended interview with Bill Zimmerman, who is sort of the representative of the anti-war movement, and he gives a very good account of the movement. There’s an extended sequence about the Pentagon March of October 1967, which is quite decent, quite respectful. Most important: A number of the soldiers, who are the prime testimony givers, turn against the war. If we think of the anti-war movement as including them, the film is saying that the anti-war movement is the place to be.
JW: Of course, the story of the Vietnam War isn’t just the story of American leaders, American soldiers, and American opponents of the war. It’s also the story of the Vietnamese. We killed 3 million of them. How are the Vietnamese portrayed by Ken Burns?
TG: This is the most we’ve ever seen of former National Liberation Front fighters and North Vietnamese soldiers and officials giving an account of themselves. That’s one of the really startling things of the film. They get a lot of space to tell their stories. For the most part, they stand squarely behind what they did. They think the war was a just war. We also learn, along the way, that there were conflicts in Hanoi about how to proceed, and that’s quite illuminating. One of the features of the film that is most gripping is that we see the same battle from both sides. We not only get testimony from former soldiers on both sides, we also see footage they shot from both sides.
JW: The series is likely to be shown in colleges and schools for decades to come to young people who know nothing about this. What do you think they will conclude about the war in Vietnam from the Ken Burns documentary?
TG: My surmise is that what they’ll get out of it is a sense of horror and a gigantic, flashing question mark: What the hell was America doing there? How could we have done such a reckless, indefensible thing? How could we have been so warped in our understanding? I think that the question that then follows, to quote Bob Dylan, is how do we avoid going through all these things twice? How do we avoid lumbering into occupations of Iraq, into the longest war in American history in Afghanistan, to no honorable purpose?