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Ken Burns on how the Trump era echoes the Vietnam War

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
Vietnam War Ken Burns
President Richard Nixon and South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu in Ho Chi Minh City, 1969. Photo by AP via PBS

Directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick knew their "Vietnam War" documentary would be a massive undertaking when they started the project over a decade ago. But they didn't know it would resonate so well with today's divisive, political climate.

The series, which airs its 10th and final episode on Thursday night, is an 18-hour dissection of the complexities, decisions and horrors that led up to and prolonged America's involvement in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Although it wasn't their intent to make a film that echoes what's going on with President Donald Trump's White House, the similarities are definitely striking.

Ahead, we chatted with Burns about his latest project, how today's politics mirrors the Vietnam War era and what's next for the famed filmmaker.

Are you happy with how this project turned out?

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It’s been stunning. We’ve gotten the best reviews of our professional lives on this. The PBS streaming service broke down because of the demand for it, not just here, but in Vietnam as well. We’ve made a Vietnamese language translation and we’re finding just a huge interest there. We set out, when we made this film, to not have a political agenda, to not put our thumb on the scales. We sought funders from across the political spectrum. We sought opinions and scholarship from across the wide variety of scholarly perspectives there are. But we also have now visited media from all stripes, and we’re really, super excited by the response.

How does the history of the Vietnam War serve as a prologue for what’s going on in the world today?

Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” You can hear lots of rhymes of Vietnam in the contemporary moment. Our film is about mass demonstrations taking place all across the country against the current administration. It’s about a White House in disarray, obsessed with leaks. It’s about asymmetrical warfare. It’s a president that is certain the press is lying, making up stories about him. It’s about huge document drops of stolen, classified material that destabilize the contemporary equation. But, it’s also about a political campaign accused of reaching out to a foreign power during the time of an election, and to get that foreign power to influence that election. All of this stuff happened in Vietnam.

There’s lots of stuff going on now that echoes, but, remember too, all those things that I listed are contemporary to the Trump administration in the last six, seven months, but we finished this film editorially in 2015, before the Iowa caucuses. We began it in 2006, and if we had finished in 2006, I’d be giving you a list of things about Vietnam that resonate with 2006. That’s the gift of history.

What are some of the questions you hope to raise with this film?

We raise a lot of questions about what the nature of patriotism is. I think we knew in World War II what it was, but it turns out in this film, patriotism, bravery and courage might not always be taking place on the battlefield. That is an interesting new dynamic, and we don’t completely parse that. We are just showing you people who are undergoing enormous internal battles in wars in addition to the external battles of war. I think also, whether it was worth it is a question. Was there anything redeeming about it? Is the domino theory still operative? It’s so eagerly dismissed by everybody, but you just don’t know what the presence of half a million American soldiers, plus hundreds of thousands of support troops and all the money piled into the CIA, and covert counter insurgencies in Thailand, Burma [Myanmar] and Indonesia, might have had in stabilizing that circumstance.

Do you plan on tackling any other wars with future projects?

We’re beginning to plan a big series on the history of the American Revolution, which is, once again, something cloaked in sentimentality and bloodless mythology. It’s important to remind people that it was incredibly bloody, asymmetrical of times, a very difficult war.

Would you ever want to do a series on America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Absolutely! But I’d want to get 25, 30 years out in order to be able to have the perspectives on it that you’d absolutely need.

 
 
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