On Sept. 17 PBS begins airing Ken Burns’s new 10-part Vietnam War documentary, co-directed by Lynn Novick and written by Geoffrey C. Ward, Burns’s longtime collaborator. Although Burns’s team has produced many epic histories — on jazz, baseball, the American West — his 1990 Civil War series made him into the nation’s most laureled documentarian. Clocking in at 18 hours, “The Vietnam War” is Burns’s most anticipated work since that magisterial feat.
As before, Ward has written a weighty companion book to the series. “The Vietnam War: An Intimate History” tells once again the painful tale of America’s protracted, divisive and (most would now agree) futile involvement in the fight to keep South Vietnam unconquered by the Communist North. After filling in the historical background, the book ranges over two decades, from Dien Bien Phu in 1954, when the French left their former colony in defeat, to the 1975 fall of Saigon, when the United States left. It’s all here: the Gulf of Tonkin and the Tet offensive, the Perfume River and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, napalm and draft notices and teach-ins and My Lai, P.O.W.s and fragging and Kent State and the Christmas bombing, and much more.
Numerous historians, of course, have already written exemplary histories of the war. To distinguish this book, Burns and Novick, in their introduction, proclaim their intention to do what few have done: recount the war from not just the American viewpoint but from that of the North and South Vietnamese too.