Why Ken Burns’ “Vietnam” on PBS Matters

VietnamWith monuments falling and history burned, comes renewed foci on America’s faults. Vietnam is exhibit A.

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“A good deal of the disunion … we experience today really metastasized in Vietnam,” says filmmaker Ken Burns. A creative genius, Burns is America’s greatest storyteller since Mark Twain. Unlike Twain, Burns does not admit to fictitious works. He has perfected manipulating human emotions. He selected veterans whose war stories bring one to tears, anger and even hate. Ho Chi Minh said America’s policy was “burn all, kill all and destroy all,” using “napalm bombs, poison gas and toxic chemicals to massacre our compatriots and ravage our villages.”[1] Burns fills the screen with the orange fires, bloody slaughter and destroyed hamlets — that do not fit the narrative’s timeline. No matter. An ugly America is repeatedly depicted waging an illegal, immoral, unjust, racist and unwinnable war. You see, America “misreads” the war as fighting communism. Burns quickly passes over Ho’s 20 years as a paid agent of the international communism and his receipt of massive Soviet and Chicom weaponry.

To Burns, America is the real enemy in Vietnam. Episode 1 begins with the sound of helicopter blades and a montage of scenes symbolically running rapidly backwards out of Vietnam.[2] Veteran Karl Marlantes has an unfriendly homecoming – strangely, not spitting or being called a “baby killer.” No one talks about Vietnam. Burns does that definitively. Almost all of Burns’ facts are true as far as they go. The emotional impact of 60’s music, iconic photos and human pain easily pass by contradictory facts.

Many of Burns’ vets are disillusioned antiwar activists. They fear attacks of resolute enemy troops. They grow increasingly cynical about the war, their presidents, and the South Vietnamese and decreasingly patriotic. They say little positive about their service. In truth, 90% of the combat veterans of Vietnam were proud of their service [killing babies?]. Such vets do not fit into Burns tour de force.

Inspired by their enlightened leaders, Ho and Giap, hundreds of thousands of larger-than-life heroic “volunteers” drafted Vietnamese peasants, march hundreds of miles of jungles. Ho revered Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin, but deceitfully claims Tom Jefferson, George Washington[3] as his own. Of course, liars, incompetents and cowards in Saigon and Washington led the USA.

Burns’ chosen narrator, Peter Coyote, is a former hippy Diggers and player in the Marxist San Francisco Mime Troupe. He whines on about the futility of an unwinnable war. The war puts “Everything in question … the candor of leaders. … What does it mean to be a patriot? Was it worth it?” Rhetorical questions beg Burns’ answers.

A blizzard of facts and a cacophony of sounds obscure key points and advance falsehoods. Here’s some examples. Ho Chi Minh was an international communist, not a patriotic Vietnamese nationalist. “Reuniting” Vietnam is a fraud. There was no Vietnam whole to reunite. There was French colonial Indochina[4] targeted in 1932 by Ho’s Communist Party of Indochina. On March 6, 1946, Ho Chi Minh and French General Sainteny signed a deal returning Vietnam to the French Union, inviting 15,000 French troops to re-enter Indochina. The deal enabled the removal of anticommunists, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists troops and the elimination of  “reactionary” nationalists. In 1954, the U.S. and Saigon Vietnam did not sign the Geneva Accords. They had no obligations to an unsigned “agreement.” The allies did not “promise” unsupervised communist controlled elections.[5] Burns admits “thousands” killed in Ho’s 1954-5 land reform. The actual “thousands” murdered was 50,000.

The main antagonists in Burns’ morality play, other than lying presidents, were corrupt Saigon leaders and their cowardly troops.  In fact, President Ngo Dinh Diem formed a democracy, the Republic of Vietnam; drove communists and gangsters out of Saigon; began land reforms and hamlet security; and appointed Buddhists to his cabinet. Today Vietnamese hold Diem in the highest esteem.[6] In 1959, Hanoi, not the U.S., secretly started the war in South Vietnam when the Poliburo ordered Unit 559 to build the Ho Chi Minh Trail. For refusing to march into a death trap at Ap Bac in 1963, the Saigon press, (Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, and Malcomb Brown) aided by an English speaking Hanoi spy, Pham Xuan An, created the storyline Vietnam’s troops were always cowardly. Yet in 1968 and 1972 the gallant ARVN, and local villagers, taking heavy casualties, thoroughly whipped two massive invasions. The press asserted Diem was persecuting 70-90% of the population, Buddhists. Actually, they were about 30%. Investigative reporter Margarite Higgins and the U.N. proved Diem did not persecute Buddhists.

Hanoi was thrilled when JFK approved a coup that murdered Diem plunging Saigon into years of political chaos. Diem had been winning the war and some hearts and minds.

From 1954-1975, millions fled into the arms of Americans and anticommunists. Today millions of Americans run toward the lights and sounds of peace, social justice, progressivism, socialism and communism. Thank Burns and like propagandists.

Dr. Roger Canfield’s work on Vietnam, China and California can be found at his http:/americong.com $20 for three ebook volumes on Vietnam peace movement’s collaboration with the enemy. Also http:/vvfh.org, Military magazine and in annual volumes of the war at Radix Press in Houston, Texas.


  1. Bill Saracino says

    How refreshing to get actual facts, yet how sad that it is necessary once again to refute left wing propaganda from PBS. Thank you Roger!

  2. Richard Botkin says

    Outstanding commentary by one of the keepers of the truth. Very well done Roger. Semper Fi sir–Rich Botkin

  3. It would be nice to see a conservative director produce their own documentary for history’s sake.
    I’m mid 40’s and only know the liberal lies. What little truth I do know comes from my wife’s family who fled in 1975.

  4. Emanuelle Goldstein says

    Last week the Center for Strategic & International Studies conducted a panel discussion/critique of the Ken Burns documentary. Panel members include prominent historians (some who helped with the production) and veterans. If you are interested in what they think Burns did well versus where he failed, you can listen to the audio recording at:

    A Discussion on the Landmark Documentary “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: A panel discussion with veterans and Vietnam War experts

  5. I didn’t watch Ken Burns’ Vietnam. I didn’t feel I had to having had a one year front row seat in-country. Count me as one of the 90% who are proud of our involvement. I wanted to go back for a second tour but my wife and two sons said one year was enough.

    I spent some “off-time” at a local orphanage and saw missionaries at work in their own environment. There was a lot of “civic action” to improve the lives of the local population – but that isn’t newsworthy to a biased media. I also saw mindboggling stupid Rules of Engagement from White House meddling (read McNamara) that killed a lot of good men. History repeats itself. Thirty-five year later I read reports from Iraq repeating the same thing (read Rumsfelt). What is it about politicians that make them think they are qualified to be arm-chair generals?

    Someday I may watch Ken Burns’ “Vietnam” but I’m not really inclined to do so.

  6. Bogiewheel says

    Nice that you mentioned Marguerite Higgins; What a refreshing personality. I meet her on several occasions in South Korea in 1950 within the Pusan perimeter. The troops fell in love with her. She was, at that time, Representing the New York Herald Tribune and became part of the KMAG.
    This was a woman that was the epitome of what a Foreign War Correspondent should represent. Marguerite traveled the world reporting WW II through the Vietnam War. Marguerite died at the early age of 45; I believe she contracted a disease from her time in Vietnam.
    She was beloved by all, and we may never experience the tenacity of her journalist prowess again.

  7. Kathryn Hartman says

    what bothered me was the small bit he added about Jane Fonda. What she did to those POW’s was treason and it did not touch on her sharing the men’s SS numbers with their captors. This was just as importnat as any of the killings done on both sides.

    • Actually the SS # is a false story. There were 19 broadcasts, that picture at the gun site, F–k the Army, FTA shows, on her knees for communism, calling POWs liars, pawns, Winter Soldier propaganda show etc, etc
      all described in my ebook at americong.com
      Careful of evil stuff. No need to make anything up!

      Roger Canfield

  8. Bogiewheel says

    As a survivor of the Korean “Police Action” or whatever the tag was applied then, I cannot, but, compare the two military “situations” between Korea and Vietnam; I saw very little difference in the genesis of the two attacking forces from the north and the political goals for both. The unfortunate fall-out from the two engagements was the failure of political fortitude on the part of Washington. However, I have to state that the Korean War, was under the auspices of the U.N.; I believe there would never have been a Korean War if the Russians had not taken a leave of absence from the U.N.

    History tells us that the Washington cabal had no interest in Korea. Also, when “Ike” was President he was at odds with the French regarding their involvement in Indochina.

    When you view the period following WWII in Korea and Indochina and what transpired at the Geneva Conference in 1954, the same old treaty deals were exactly the same.
    Unfortunately, what came into our political lexicon, at the time, was the “Domino Theory”, the trigger that inspired our involvement in Indochina. Two historical events that created the political climate that exists today.

    • This is one of the best articles you have ever written–clear, short and precise. Congratulations. As you wife of 50 years, I appreciate your writing, especially when it isn’t 2000 pages long. Love you.

  9. To “hate America” is the new byword. We are in a civil war right now and only the leftists deny it.

  10. It is strange to read that Burns is a creative genius. From up here in Canada he looks like a lying leftist moron who makes boring videos.

    My wife and I have tried to watch all of his efforts but never got more than about half an hour in, put off by the incredibly slooooow pace and the palpable dishonesty.

    PBS delenda est. Likewise our equally dishonest CBC and the Brits astonishingly vile BBC.

  11. Ken Burns is a historical revisionists or as we say here in fly-over country adobe damned liar. We ain’t so pc but you can’t piss down our back and tell us it’s raining.

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