In PBS' 'Vietnam War,' Not All Voices Get Equal Play

In PBS' 'Vietnam War,' Not All Voices Get Equal Play
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Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have dazzled audiences once again with an interesting, invigorating, and timely documentary, “The Vietnam War.”

At its best, a useful history illuminates both the present and the future, so it is a fitting time for a fresh national conversation about Vietnam. Americans can learn much about the oft-overlooked humanity amid the carnage of war from the men and women who served more than 40 years ago.

Instead of telling the story through the perspective of the decision makers, Burns and Novick take us on a journey from the bottom up. Studying war from the perspective of those who sacrifice the most is a laudable impulse. To fully understand the American experience in Southeast Asia, however, it is also necessary to examine the mindsets of those in the Oval Office and other positions of authority. Yet “The Vietnam War” does not approach the nation’s top decision makers with a similar level of nuance. Yes, these leaders made mistakes, sometimes terrible ones, but did they not do what they thought was in the best interest of the nation?

Throughout the documentary, we hear from three U.S. presidents in abbreviated public statements and short excerpts from secret White House recordings that Burns and Novick use to draw sweeping conclusions about the U.S. government’s conduct of the war, and how much the personalities and personal ambitions of each president contributed to that effort.

In any useful national conversation, the voices of the key players ought to be represented in a historically balanced manner. For the latter years of the war, no better voice was available to the filmmakers than that of Richard Nixon, forever recorded on thousands of hours of tapes. These recordings are the most complete for any presidency, and are themselves a time capsule of Americana. As a result of the Nixon White House tapes, one of the most secretive administrations has, over time, become one of the most studied.

Unlike Presidents Kennedy and Johnson -- whose manually operated taping systems recorded only when doing so was in their interests -- Nixon’s system was always turned on. It recorded everything he said from February 1971 to July 1973 in locations where he spent a great deal of time. The 3,432 hours of telephone calls and meetings are the best resource to demonstrate the evolution of policymaking at the highest level of government in real time; they clearly show a president at the helm of an ambitious foreign policy agenda.

The Nixon tapes are a great resource for researchers, but with that access comes responsibility. One can only get a good sense of any subject discussed by listening to a sufficient sample size, because of Nixon’s regular habit of discussing and debating policy options throughout multiple conversations, returning to a subject later, and changing his mind.

Also, only certain rooms of the White House and Camp David contained recording equipment, so conversations outside of those rooms – conversations that may have been ongoing and had a bearing on those that were recorded – were lost to history. Historian Stanley Kutler once said the Nixon tapes are like the Bible: They can be selectively quoted to serve almost any purpose.

Nonetheless, too many scholars, writers, and filmmakers excerpt carefully chosen segments of the tapes to fit a preconceived notion, or a larger point sometimes taken out of context, while not giving evidence to the contrary a similar degree of attention. At times, Burns and Novick fall into this trap when they use short sound bites of the Nixon tapes to make – or seemingly confirm – a larger narrative.

For example, the documentary uses the tapes to contend that Nixon set U.S. war policy based almost exclusively on political considerations. While it is clear from the tapes that Nixon genuinely considered his re-election extremely important, especially once he returned from his 1972 summits in China and the Soviet Union, it is equally clear from the tapes that his reasoning was neither immoral nor malicious.

Nixon believed that if he failed in his re-election bid, his successor – likely a liberal Democrat such as Ted Kennedy or George McGovern – would slash defense spending, cut funding to Vietnam, and destabilize the new world order he and Henry Kissinger believed they had built – all to the detriment of American soldiers in the field and the people of South Vietnam, our ally. Lyndon Johnson had a similar fear about the outcome of the 1968 presidential election, which was why he was not overly distraught when Nixon won.

Moreover, just a year before Nixon’s 1972 landslide re-election, he was taped saying he may not run for re-election at all. All leaders can be contemplative and pensive in unguarded moments and these leaders do not make cameos in “The Vietnam War.”

Luke A. Nichter is a professor of history at Texas A&M University, Central Texas. He is working on a biography of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., to be published by Yale University Press.

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