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Ken Burns on why the Vietnam War can give us hope for America today

“History doesn’t repeat itself. Human nature remains the same, and it’s going to superimpose itself over stuff.”

Ken Burns PBS/Courtesy of Justin Altman
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick began work on their new miniseries The Vietnam War back in 2006, they probably didn’t expect that it would end up perfectly reflecting the world into which it’d be released.

The 18-hour, 10-episode series — which debuted Sunday, September 17, on PBS and will continue airing through Thursday, September 28 — is perhaps the finest work that Burns (who’s best known for miniseries like The Civil War and Baseball) has ever been associated with. On the whole, The Vietnam War blends a staggering number of perspectives (including soldiers from every side in the war) and more than 80 talking head interviews to thoroughly examine the conflict that created much of the America we know today.

It’s been reviewed incredibly well (including by me), but many of those reviews have also emphasized how the miniseries’ portrait of an America torn apart by deep divisions reflects the deep divisions in America right now.

It’s something that’s occurred to Burns and Novick as well.

As Burns said on the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting:

What if I told you that Lynn and I had been working on a film about mass demonstrations across the country protesting the administration? That it was about a White House in disarray, obsessed with leaks? That it was about a president angry with the news media for making stories up?

That it was about a huge document drop of classified material, hacked material, put into the public sphere that destabilizes our conventional wisdom? That it’s about asymmetrical warfare, that the mighty might of the US military doesn’t seem to know what to do [with]? That it’s about accusations that a political campaign reached out to a foreign power at the time of a national election to help influence that election?

You’d say, “Whoa, you guys are no longer historians. You’re journalists. What’s going on?” We started this film in 2006. That’s what this film is about. And that’s only five or six things that resonate with today. And I don’t mean that in a general sense of America in the teens. I mean today. The moment.

And yet if you think about Burns’s statement for a minute, there’s something oddly comforting about the notion that America has been through hard times before — and will inevitably go through them again, perhaps with a slightly better understanding of itself. Burns feels this too:

History doesn’t repeat itself, but we know that human nature remains the same, and it’s going to superimpose itself over stuff. But let’s remember, we have not yet killed 750,000 of our own kind over these divisions as we did in the Civil War. We have not had the kind of violence, the hundreds of bombings, yet, or the removal of a president, yet, that the Vietnam War era was characterized by.

History is kind of optimistic. I remember in the ’08 meltdown, friends and even economists, people who were in business, were saying, “We’re in a depression,” because they were wiped out. I’d say, “No we’re not.” They’d go, “Oh, yes we are,” and I’d say, “In the Depression, the animals in the zoo in many US cities were shot, and the meat was distributed to the poor. When that happens, I’ll be willing to say this is a depression.”

All of a sudden, history’s an ally for an optimistic take. These be tough times and very divided times, and we personally believe that most of those divisions had their seeds planted in Vietnam and they continued to produce this ugly fruit. And maybe learning about Vietnam gives you an opportunity to have a better position to understand what’s going on.

For more with Burns and Novick, listen to the full episode.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.