PBS propaganda series about Vietnam

“Making history safe again: What Ken Burns gets wrong about Vietnam” (Salon) is an interview with a professional historian, Christian Appy, who says that the government-funded TV station promotes, as far as possible, the idea that the government-funded Vietnam War was a just and good idea. The government-funded TV station particularly pushes the idea of “American exceptionalism” in this $30 million series, which is useful when you’re asking people to pay taxes at 2X the rates of the most efficient countries. The U.S. government is an exceptional force for good on Planet Earth and therefore taxpayers should be happy to fund it with up to 100 percent of their earnings.

Readers: Who has watched this series? How does it compare to what you’ve learned from other historical sources? What else are you thinking about on this Veterans Day?



  1. John Baker

    November 11, 2017 @ 2:15 pm


    imho yes, the series was less critical of the intentions of the US compared to say Zinn’s Peoples’ History or Stone’s treatment. Neither of these sources had the depth of context offered by Burns’ numerous interviews with people on the ground, offering a more humanistic view of the times. I recognize this isn’t germane to your question/observation about the worldview promoted, but will say that like the study of any historical event, more than two or even three sources is useful.

    I think the government’s position illustrated was consistent with Burns’ other efforts, meaning I think he largely sticks to the the worldview as it is known by the people he focuses on. We didn’t hear very much about England’s efforts to assist the Confederacy in the Civil War, for example, because the people whose thoughts were curated there had little or no knowledge of them.

    In all I thought it was a good addition to the collection of information on the topic. Would have been good to re-use other sources too, though, particularly “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” but there would have then been little time left to focus on the first-hand telling of the war as it was done. Perhaps we’ll get something in future from Dan Carlin, whose “Hardcore History” podcasts of human conflict (http://www.dancarlin.com/) which is broader in these terms. Who can say, the future is unwritten.

    For today, though, hope you have time to check out “The Moth Radio Hour” show for the holiday at https://themoth.org/radio-hour/the-vietnam-war which I heard last night. Nothing to do with the question at hand, but it was good hearing folks sharing their experience. Peace be with you.

  2. Tom C

    November 11, 2017 @ 3:34 pm


    The Salon article criticizes the series from a leftist point of view. For a critique from the right, see https://pjmedia.com/trending/vietnam-veterans-set-record-straight-after-pbs-tv-series-whitewashes-communism/

  3. bobbybobbob

    November 11, 2017 @ 7:50 pm


    I am thinking about WWIII. I think it will probably happen in the next 25 years. I think some American cities will be leveled and we will take casualties in the many millions. Americans are too used to hegemony to realize we’re losing it.

  4. bobbybobbob

    November 11, 2017 @ 8:28 pm


    I don’t know anything about this PBS stuff, but “Kill Anything That Moves” goes into the reality of the Vietnam war. There’s this weird idea that My Lai was some exceptional horror. The entire Mekong Delta was getting lit up with artillery fire for months on end, producing mass indiscriminate slaughter.

  5. Neal

    November 12, 2017 @ 12:32 am


    I’m just up to Nixon’s election and can’t comment authoritatively about historical accuracy. However, “the government-funded Vietnam War was a just and good idea” is roughly opposite of what I’ve gotten out of the PBS special so far.

  6. Peter Reed

    November 12, 2017 @ 7:36 am


    I had a friend that watched it and he was appalled at how many people knew it was a losing war and said so in the early LBJ days, and how LBJ escalated anyway. Does not sound like a glowing review of the USA and ots government.

  7. deabea

    November 12, 2017 @ 12:56 pm


    My impression of the Vietnam War, after a visit to the country this past year as a tourist, was that it was a colossal misunderstanding. The Vietnamese version of communism, as told to me by a guide from Hanoi, is remarkably similar to US Capitalism. Ho Chi Minh was apparently a man of the people, looking out for the Vietnamese’s greater prosperity. The Chinese had long regarded Vietnam as a southern and subservient province of China and Ho Chi Minh had no trust or faith in the Chinese Communists. The Russians had demoted Ho Chi Minh and put him under someone’s thumb, therefore, he had no great use for the Russians, either.
    All the Americans had needed to do was to sit down with him and ask him what he really wanted (American style capitalism and prosperity and self-determination for the Vietnamese) and the entire war could have been avoided.
    At any rate, the guide then proceeded to show us cities full of young well-dressed riders, male and female roaring away on their motorcycles and meticulously decorated houses that put the painted ladies of San Francisco to shame.

  8. Dave

    November 12, 2017 @ 3:32 pm


    I watched the whole series. Take-aways for me were:
    1) Presidents during the war would have liked a way out without admitting defeat
    2) There were protests FOR the war in addition to protests against the war. My impression prior to watching the series was that protests were mostly against the war. Watching the polarized encounters made me feel better about the current concerns over polarization. It is easy to think that things are worse now than in the past but after watching the series I feel it is no worse.
    3) Since watching the series I have also read server critical reviews and have concluded that there is likely no way anyone can provide a historical account of that war without someone else being critical of it.

    I recently loaded an app on my phone to track how much time I use my phone and on which apps. Watching the series seems like a better use of my time compared to time I have wasted on my phone. I think most people would get value from the series.

  9. John V

    November 14, 2017 @ 11:14 am


    I watched the entire series, almost as it aired. I will have to go read the Appy article. My sentiments were 99% the opposite. Certainly for the first several episodes, my ideals put me in direct opposition to the US position.

    The movie definitely reduced my opinion of JFK and Johnson (lying to the citizens), and especially Nixon, who should have been executed as a traitor after interfering with the truce talks. Assuming Burns is accurate … I did go research the Nixon bit after seeing the series. At least the Nixon museum people put up a counterclaim to it.

    I have never really studied the Vietnam war. Born in Michigan in ’57, I grew up during it. But was insulated, not personally affected for the most part. My older brother was worried about the draft (about ’69), but drew a high number.

    Possibly I was influenced going into this series by watching a show earlier this summer. It was the Australian version of “Who do you think you are” genealogy. That episode covered someone from Vietnam and described how their family (and the country) was ripped apart by the French. Apparently “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” doesn’t apply to non-whites.

  10. Paomi

    November 15, 2017 @ 3:26 pm


    I was an enlisted soldier in Vietnam’s central highlands near Pleiku from mid-1968 through much of 1969. I entered Nam thinking we were in a justified war (due to believing the propaganda put out by our government). During my time in Nam, I saw and experienced a lot — a few positive things and a lot of negative things — and learned a lot about human nature and how war can bring out the best and the worst in human nature, and returned to the USA very much critical of our involvement in Nam.
    I did not see anything in the Ken Burns documentary (all of which I watched as it was broadcast on PBS) that contradicted what I saw and experienced in Nam, but I learned a lot of what I did not previously know, such as much more pervasive deception and poor judgement by our government (and our military) ranging from presidents JFK through Nixon, including their cabinet members and generals like Westmoreland.

  11. philg

    November 15, 2017 @ 5:48 pm


    Paomi: Thanks for your informed-by-actual-experience perspective. I am fortunate to be nearly one generation younger than you, and therefore mostly spared from any real challenges.

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