The Future and The Past: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

Tuesday Night, September 12, 2017, the Kennedy Center Opera House was filled to the brim. A room of over two thousand people, of all ages, dressed in their finest, awaited the moment: an exclusive preview of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary–The Vietnam War.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are world-renowned documentarians and producers. Their previous PBS works have included Brooklyn Bridge, The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The War, and Jackie Robinson.

For more than a decade, these two scholars of American history have diligently studied the Vietnam War: conducting interviews, listening sessions, background research, and examining a time many Americans wish they could avoid and not revisit.

During his speech on Tuesday night, Ken Burns recognized the pain that the Vietnam War caused for so many in the United States. Additionally, he recognized the divide the war created, and the rifts that still exist today. In a profound moment, Burns asked all veterans of the Vietnam War to please stand. No sooner had one veteran stood than the entire room exploded into applause. Despite the differences in ages among attendees, everyone was clapping and honoring these veterans.   Next, Burns surprisingly asked for those who had protested the Vietnam War to also stand. Yet again, the room began to applaud; however, there was a sentiment of unsettledness. Not everyone was comfortable with the dichotomy that Ken Burns created in the room.

Poignantly, Burns proclaimed, “this is the moment when reconciliation begins. This is when forgiveness and understanding begin. It is time to move forward.”

Sitting in the audience with someone who was standing, a 67-year-old protester who had lost several friends during the war, my perspective changed. The 67-year-old protester had tears streaming down her face before she sat down.

After viewing a preview of the 10-part, 18-hour exclusive PBS series, Burns was joined on stage by moderator Martha Raddatz and panelists Lynn Novick, co-creator; Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; Former Secretary of State John Kerry; and Senator John McCain. All three of these men not only fought in the Vietnam War but also devoted their lives to public service to the United States after returning.  Although not featured in the documentary series, the three men worked with Novick and Burns to help ensure the series was meaningful and fully encompassed their experiences during the Vietnam War.

Most notably, both Kerry and McCain continued to share their disappointment with the United States leadership, both military and civilian. The Swift Boat Captain and former protestor John Kerry shared, “Vietnam has always stood out to me as a stunning failure of leadership. We were operating without facts back then. In today’s world, it’s [also] really hard to figure out what the facts are. And people won’t honor facts. You know what they are, but you have your ‘alternative facts.’”

The Senate Chairman of the Armed Services Committee John McCain echoed, “their leaders didn’t lead, whether they were military or civilian. The 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids had no idea what they were getting into.” McCain continued, “we can learn lessons today because the world is in such turmoil: Tell the American people the Truth!”

“We need to be able to have leaders who will lead and who will be able to give (the troops) a path to victory so that we will not sacrifice them ever again in a lost cause,” Senator John McCain asserted. His call to action resonated with the audience

Hagel, Kerry, and McCain all reflected on the importance that the Vietnam War Memorial, featured in the final episode, holds for them. McCain often visits the memorial in the mornings before heading to the Senate. Kerry admitted that for him the anger is not gone.  The memorial and this series help him honor his lost friends and not forget the lessons he and the United States learned during the tumultuous time of the Vietnam War. Hagel, the only enlisted man on the stage, explained the difficulty he felt coming back to a fractured society but the solace and camaraderie he now feels going to the memorial.  In his poem “Facing It,” Yusef Komunyakaa, yet another Vietnam vet, faces the black granite of the memorial and writes:  “I go down the 58,022 names/ half expecting to find/ my own in letters like smoke.”


The entire series airs on your PBS station,, and PBS apps for smartphones, tablets, Apple TV, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV. Additionally they have four different versions, including in Spanish and Vietnamese.

Discussions by Category