tv Conversation with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick CSPAN May 29, 2016 1:20pm-2:01pm EDT
audience members watched clips of the documentary. we were unable to show them due to licensing restrictions. this is about 40 minutes. >> please welcome to the stage mr. mark updegrove, documentary filmmakers and producers of "the vietnam war," mr. ken burns and miss lynn novick. [applause] mark: welcome. ken: thank you. mark: ken, we have been trying to get you here for six years. [laughter] ken: not only is this such an important and tragic part of the story, but this has been
-- domestic agenda, so now we are in the process of developing a series on the johnson presidency. [applause] mark: we are delighted with that and look forward to seeing you again. as david mentioned in his introduction, you two are america's most preeminent storytellers. you have taken on the civil war, you have taken on the roosevelts, you have taken on baseball and jazz, why vietnam? ken: we were focused on the second world war and we realized that vietnam had to be put there, that it would form a trilogy of films that we would complete, first with the civil war and then with the second world war and then with vietnam, arguably the three most important wars after the american revolution. but also to do it in a different
kind of way. world war ii came from an entirely american point of view, and this was going to be like the civil war from the top down and bottom up. you're going to meet a lot of people, vietnamese, south vietnamese, north vietnamese, americans who can answer questions, but also in some way resounding them. we have, as we do in all wars, wars are important as a subject to study because they obviously show human beings at their worst but they obviously also show them at their best. what we felt particularly with vietnam and indeed any war is that within a few years, it becomes encrusted with the barnacles of sentimentality and nostalgia. it happened with the civil war, 40 years after the civil war, we couldn't tell you what happened except for the mythological stuff, certainly after the second world war, it became the good war.
when it killed 60 million people, i don't how it could be described as a good war. we talk about ourselves, meeting -- meaning where we are now in our own political, social, economic makeup that determines in a large measure what our responses to vietnam and yet persistent questions remain. how did it happen? what was our involvement really like? what were the answers to the mechanical, nitty-gritty tick-tock? and mark, let me just also acknowledges that in the audience tonight is a journalist, joe galloway. he heroically did not have to do that, he was not drafted to be there at the battles that he covered, but he did that, and we also have the photographer who took the iconic photograph of the young vietnamese girl who was napalmed. we also have the cia operative who witnessed the fall of saigon
and a very decorated marine corporal. they are all in the audience and we want to thank them. [applause] and jan, who started the vietnam memorial is also here and i can tell you after 18 hours of this, it is really nice to get to the wall. mark: you have seen a preview of "the vietnam war," tonight i have had a good fortune of seeing a great deal more and i can tell you it is just as impressive and breathtaking as the clips you have seen. not only is the narrative breathtaking, but so is the scope and ambition of what you have achieved. 10 parts, 18 plus hours, how did you do something like this? lynn: we gulped really hard.
i think for myself and for ken, we tend to pick subjects about which we are not experts, so we did not go into this knowing what this story would be like and every project this is true but on this one, even more so exponentially and it is a great discovery for us, so we start out why reading a lot, watching other films, listening to the experts who spent their lives learning about this. and in this case, we dedicated quite a lot of time to figure out the vietnamese perspectives and make sure they were included. one thing leads to another and we could not have envisioned the final film when we started the project. it was a blank slate, literally. as we learned more, one thing led to another, and that was the same with the presidential audiotapes, we knew they existed, and i had frankly heard
-- personally heard very little, so we had to rely on those materials to find the perfect recording to help us advance the story of what was happening in the white house as the war was unfolding. each project is its own voyage of discovery and for me, personally, this has exceeded more than we ever hoped to accomplish with our writers, our editors, our producers, and all of the people who have helped us, it has just been an incredible journey. mark: vietnam is part of the american consciousness, we see it in movies, we hear about it in songs, although some of those were written contemporarily. withl come to us impressions. what most surprised you about the vietnam war? lynn: well, it is hard to say
because i didn't know about it as much as i do now, so i would say for me what was the most surprising was meeting so many vietnamese witnesses that did not tow the party line that they were expected to tow. there is a multiplicity of points an of you we had no idea were there. that was really, really startling. i think the other thing for me was just having the privilege of speaking with so many people who lived through it, how real and present it was for them so many years later. they hear a piece of music, they look at a picture, they start to think about something that happened to them and they are, you know, back there in a moment, and that was more visceral and more profound than any other project i have ever worked on, so it was really surprising. mark: right. ken, you were a teenager during the height of the vietnam war. what did you think then and what do you think now?
ken: well, i was living in ann arbor, michigan, and that was where there was the first of the .each in spiri my mother was dying of cancer and would die in the next month of april of 1965, so a lot of our attention in our family was necessarily divided, what is consumed our country and my memory of it was in the same way that we all accumulate a memory from the nightly news, to the protests, the documentaries that happened at the time the , succession of news events, to the election, all of that stuff. we got four or five decades away where the historical triangulation can actually take place, when you can kind of have the distance and perspective not just to make a reactive or simply journalistic response, but something that is hopefully
greater than the sum of its parts, it shows you that everything you thought was true is not true, and i agree completely with lynn, just with the testimony, we couldn't interview anyone for the civil war, of course, but all of our veterans in the world war ii film were in their late 80's and early 90's, and they were at the end of their lives, but the people we talked to are my age and a little bit older. i was eligible for the draft and i had a high draft number, and so i think it's the combination of the sense of being placed back in a moment that we think we know, that our own assumption superimposes knowledge, but then determines that a great deal of that is just superficial conventional wisdom and everything we know about the war is completely turned upside down.
while we are not answering the question, we are deepening the question, "what happened?" this will be our most controversial work, more so for the people who don't watch it than the people who do. [laughter] it will be our most controversial work even in so far as we are not portraying any particular side. we have deserters and draftdodgers and people who believe we should still be there fighting the communists, all equally represented in the film and more importantly, all of the shades in between, but we are presenting a story in which most americans who have a confident sense of what went on will be staggered in every single episode by not only the immediacy, which i hope you felt today, even with the, sort of, parachuted in, literally, moments, but also in the accumulation of facts, the things that we thought happened but didn't actually happen but
-- the way that we thought they did. and as lynn suggested in her opening her remarks, repackaging the war in a different ways. getting to know the leaders and get to know the soldiers and get to know the civilians and all three sectors of the united states, north vietnam and south vietnam. this is where civil discourse is eroded and it has metastasized back then and perhaps by unpacking it as difficult as it will be, we can at least have, and i believe history is a table in which we can have a civil discourse, engage in the thing that we are having, which is such a difficult thing it we have today doing, which is breaking it down into arguments -- which is talking without raking down into arguments or factions. mark: why -- when we were putting together this
conference, we knew we were going to court controversy. you cannot tackle vietnam without controversy. why is it so raw after so many years? lynn: i am probably not going to be able to explain all of it here, but one of the reasons, i think, for the generations who really lived through it and were a part of it, i think, one of the people that we spoke with, she was a young woman in college, and she said our passions are so high about the subjects because we were 18 and just thick about how heightened your feelings are and it is a black and white way of looking at the world and we and we aged but are chelated wisdom, when we talk about this moment, it is like we are 18 again. so it is visceral and emotional and you are back in that moment, but i think on a deeper level, and i thought about this a lot and i am not sure i can really come up with a definitive
answer, i think it is tough because, and the reason why it is unsettled and the reason we don't have consensus is because it potentially reveals things about human nature, about american society, that show that we don't always live up to our ideals. and we know that about ourselves intellectually, emotionally, it is very painful to contemplate the really hardest parts of this story. we retreat into our separate camps and we stay there because it is just too hard to really come up against that, i think. i think, as ken was saying, that this film gives us a chance to recognize this toxic thing that has been festering, to think about our own humanity and the humanity of the others, the people that we fought, and our own inhumanity and their inhumanity and if we can somehow
recognize all of those things, then we can perhaps have the possibility to not be stuck in this really negative dynamic that has been here for so long. we are hoping. mark: right. ken, when you did the civil war, you were not talking to living veterans, when you did world war ii, you were. talking to world war ii veterans differ from talking to those who fought in the war in vietnam? ken: most of it, mark, it is very much the same. what happens in war is not what is happening now. we were able to have a conversation, we do not expect our violent death could happen at any moment, which is the experience of war, and your awareness of that reality is heightened in a way unlike anything else in human experience. which is why war rewards study, if it is done without
sentimentality. in many ways, the descriptions of war are always the same. you can go to greek tragedy find ptsd and people go off to war and come back with a look in their eyes. all wars produce ptsd, we just had a name for it in vietnam. but i also think because of what lynn was talking about, this sort of divide that is today, coupled with the fact that the veterans aren't at the end of their lives, they are approaching the last chapters but not in the end of the last chapters. the memories are raw and there are more of them around. lynn is absolutely right, you will meet 100 people in this them in you get to know
a way you could of somebody you would invite to thanksgiving. i said that about the world war ii film that we made and i feel that very strongly here, and that is the place where we might possibly let down our guard. you mentioned the civil war, and that is where america really fell apart. we killed 750,000, we now believe, of our own, over our inability to compromise. we like to think of ourselves, as you said, as uncompromising people, but our genius is our compromise. vietnam is that next-closest moment where you particularly fell in '68 and '69 the country might fall apart, that it might stop working. as he have escaped the specific gravity of that terror and for the veterans and for the rest of the country, we have found it more convenient to file away all of that stuff, and our current political politics or
our sense of, kind of, larger, patriotic obligation, tend to dampen our clear eyed look at what takes place, so we always say, "thank you for your service" and we honor the military, but we also say we don't want to know what is going on. we are so grateful that there is not a draft because a draft i might have to consider the cost of war. but we now have a separate military class that fights and suffers its losses apart and alone from us. with world war ii, speak with people and ask them how many new anyone in iraq or afghanistan, and it was 2%. and if you asked all men and boys to stand up, you were in the world war. we don't have that connection. we think we do, because we all share regardless of political affiliation, we all share the sense of gratitude to that professional service.
that is not enough. we are obligated to ask some tough questions. we won't answer them. the controversy will not be from any politics we have, but only because we would prefer to return to a very simple, binary, good-bad thing, so this is good and that is bad. so that's why i said, this will be hugely controversial. but only mostly among the people who do not watch it. mark: you mentioned that you get to know these people and actually, you just saw the clip and you meet mogi, and mogi is a narrative thread, and you invite these people to your dinner table but the startling thing that you are prepared to invite is your enemy. talk about that. how did you find these folks and how did you get their stories? lynn: well, i do have to say
that we would not be here on this stage talking about this film or the questions you asked we would not be able to answer without the help of tommy valle who helped us beyond anything i can explain in understanding how to begin to navigate that question. he helped us open doors in vietnam and he gave us the highest-level access to the government. that surprised us. that the vietnamese government would be willing to let us come in and talk to people and they didn't make us stick to the list of normal people that they trot out when you go there with cameras. we just started slowly talking to the american war generation there and, you know, the first meeting i remember having was, i want to speak to veterans, and the government arranged a room full of, i don't know, 25 retired officers with uniforms and metals all over their chests, and each one stood up and gave a speech, and the
speech was basically the same speech, every single one. and i thought, this is not going to work and this is going to be a very long project. i was giving the party line for the communist party narrative of the war. we have our sort of radar out for people who we think might be able, even across a pretty tough language and cultural barrier, would be able to communicate something on the human level what the war was like. we had an incredible team in vietnam that helped us, a producer there who was a veteran himself, and helped us connect with people and explain what we are doing, have them comfortable to speak to foreigners with a movie camera. the government said it was ok. little by little, we learned how to work our way through a lot of
different possibilities of people. it was a slow process. as i said earlier, it exceeded our expectations. there were many times people would say to us, we never tell the truth about the war, but you know what i am going to tell you. wow. i'm leaning in now, that's interesting. or, i have nightmares, my children don't know what it's like and no one ever talks about it here, and we need to have this conversation. they were having the same sort of soul-searching we are having here. i think part of it was spending time with people, sitting down in their living room, eating their food, drinking their homemade rice wine, and trying to connect. it was an incredible privilege. our producer and i made several trips to vietnam, and i will never forget it. mark: the insurgency was not monolithic.
it was fractured. talk about that. ken: this is an oppressive communist regime, and it was limited in some of the versions we sponsor here. we are free to express different points of view, so the overwhelming majority you will meet are a variety of americans, but once you are able to punch through that party line, you are exposed to people revealing their war experiences. it is extraordinarily helpful. just as in the civil war, we can appreciate our own near-natural suicide, because in the presence of the enemy who happens to be our brothers, we have to sort of drop some of the basic assumptions we make about war. in the world war ii film, we were doing it from a monolithic a a monolithic
perspective. it is important in war to make the enemy just that. we had all sorts of names, the gooks, the zips, all these ways of reducing people to nothing. -- open yourp eyes, you see them saying the same kinds of things are veterans are saying. they will freely admit things. it is revelatory. that's what you have to do to understand something, it is too easy to put it into that binary thing, us, who have dimension, complexity, and different points --them, who then
are one thing, just at the party line. you will meet a couple of people in the film who are one thing and talk about that party line, and they talk about the imperialist and the puppet government. it was good to have that representation, as i am sure people will figure out from our scene, from their own perspective. what we tried to do is not make the other wrong, just say, this is what happened. what happens is it will make people uncomfortable, because you will have to give up, no matter if you are on the extreme left or extreme right. we have people in this film who think we should still be there fighting the communists. we have people in our film who sincerely knew from the very beginning that this was a mistake, and they are both wrong. they are going to have to let go of some stuff in order to understand what their antiwar movement was about, what their military decisions were, how civilian policy affected those decisions, all sorts of things that don't fit into that tiny,
superficial, conventional wisdom that we like to tie up in a bow. i get vietnam, here's what happened, we betrayed the south vietnamese government. we just let them die. it is more complicated than that. mark: you to have spent lots of time with commanders in chief abraham lincoln, theodore , roosevelt, a lesser degree harry truman. talk about the commanders of in chief of vietnam and your impressions after having done this film. ken: you have to understand that this is a story that begins with harry truman and proceeds through eisenhower and kennedy and johnson and richard nixon and to gerald ford as well. we are meeting a lot of people, and maybe we can focus the attention on just a couple of the two most important, lyndon b. johnson and richard milhouse nixon. but it is very clear in
retrospect that nearly all the decisions that were made were informed in some way by domestic political considerations, from harry truman to dwight eisenhower to john f. kennedy to nixon to ford. that is an interesting thing to understand, in a situation in which you feel that on the other side of the world you've got certain military exigencies, a good deal of what is happening is being determined by domestic political considerations, which is not always the best way to run a war. mark: lynn, did you come away with impressions of these commanders in chief different from the one you had painted? lynn: no doubt, yeah. as ken was saying, it is having a multidimensional sense of them, too, because it is very easy to demonize or lionize
these figures as larger than life, not real people, and listening to their audio, especially for johnson index and, you begin to feel a little bit more of a sense of them as a human being. i have read a lot and seen documentaries on that kind of thing. somehow the intimacy of those recordings -- and we listened to more than what was in the film. we listened to hours of tape. you begin to see johnson really wrestling with these terrible, terrible problems. but we also hear him a ringing haranguing reporters and telling general eisenhower that antiwar protesters are mentally diseased, and you see many facets of his personality and how he could sort of project different ways of being, depending on who he was talking to. it was stunning to see. and nixon, i think he is very smart. i had not appreciated quite how
gifted a politician he was, to be honest. how brilliantly he communicated with the public on many levels, and i may or may not agree with the things he was doing, but you cannot take away he was extremely talented at both the decision-making process and communication. you see thousands on the streets protesting, but you have to recognize that the public is usually behind him for a lot of his presidency. his 1972 victory is a landslide. he was really talented and very practically minded about what needed to be done in vietnam. you see a lot of, not disconnect, but a disconnect distance between what he is saying publicly and privately, but in the end he seems to understand the true dynamics of
what needs to be done there. it's complicated, but we like complicated. ken: also, we can escape the sense of, if kennedy had lived, we had never gotten into vietnam. there is all this stuff assumed , or it is in the drinking water, where i think we just can't say that. a lot of it has to do with a presidency cut short. is hyperlogizing increased at that point when someone runs their course. when you have them for eight years or something, it is different. means that wehift invested, which was after the fact appreciation. you heard it in the clip there. johnson took on all of kennedy's dies, and they let him all the
-- took on all of kennedy's guys and led him all the way there. maybe john kennedy would have said, stop, but on many occasions, lyndon johnson said, i'm not going to do that, i'm not going to put boots on the ground, i'm not going to give 150,000. you he is doing what you thought john f. kennedy might have done, yet somehow the quicksand was rising. it started under harry truman. all it took -- john kennedy at one point talked about agonizing over it as well. there were a couple of tapes, but also comments over it. it was like taking a drink another drink, and another , drink, and you would want more. that addiction happened with harry truman. that is a hugely important american question that lynn brought up earlier with our exceptionalism, and when we are not exceptional, and how we deal with it or don't deal with it. it is much easier to say, oh
yeah we are the greatest, and we , don't understand the ways in which we are not the greatest. and in the second world war, when we filled our oath, it was a rough half century or more of foreign policy. mark: what ultimately do you want the viewer to take from this? lynn: we are trying to ask a lot of questions, and we are hoping people will give it their attention. we know we are asking a lot at 18 hours, but this is an epic story that happened over many years of history and we have condensed down to only 18 hours. [laughter] but i think we hope that people will come away with a deeper understanding of what it was like to live through that time, and how hard it was, because it was a traumatic experience for everyone who had to go through
it. i think if we can extend to the past, as ken was saying, not being so quick to judge and actually tried to understand the choices people had to make then, we can maybe move towards deeper conversation about what it means to be a patriot, or the obligations of citizenship. what is a good leader? these are essential questions where the limits of american power who are we as human , beings, who are we as a nation , these are our big, epic questions and they are tied into , the story of vietnam. we are hoping that you are watching the film and hopefully having conversations about it. we have had incredible conversations after our screenings. people all across the spectrum politically coming together to share their stories and each hear each other out of respect. those have been some of our favorite moments out of this entire project, and we are
hoping the film can spark out that across the country. we are working with pbs to come up with an unbelievably ambitious outreach program. we are hoping to come back here to other presidential libraries and schools, and communities to get people to talk about this difficult subject. we are calling it "courageous conversations." it's time to talk about vietnam. we have high hopes that something good can come of that, especially in this polarized time we live in. mark: one of the things i came away from in new hampshire looking at these rough cuts was the collaborate of nature of the film. i appreciate your open-mindedness. you don't come to a subject with an agenda. as you said, you often come from a place with ignorance. lynn: absolutely. ken: curiosity. too often, documentary films are the expression of an already arrived at end.
let me tell you what i know, therefore what you should know. the last time i checked, that's called homework. we would rather share with you a process of discovery. we are not scholars. we hire the best scholars to advise us, and we listen to them, and they represented the whole spectrum of different beliefs and areas of scholarship and different presidential administrations, and lots of people from the military, and what we are doing is telling a good story. this is a phenomenally complicated story, and that's what we do for a living. the rest of the stuff we are talking about is the background filler. there are 72 hours on the cutting room floor that we wish could be in that is seemingly good stuff, but this is what we feel we can present to get that courageous conversation going. that is hugely important to us.
when you finish editing a film in the editing room, you lock it, meaning that you promise to the sound editors that you want to change the relationship of a shot. we unlocked almost every episode. since we locked it. [laughter] because we learned something new. too often in scholarship, there is the research, the writing, and boom, done. same thing in filmmaking. you research for a finite period of time, you write the script. it comes down from mount sinai, and it is written in stone, and that's what you shoot and edit. we never stop researching more and we never stop writing. we were talking two days ago in new york city about rewriting a couple of the episodes, because we learned we can say that one phrase. over ones that would pass most of our audience without notice, but we want to get it
right. or we found a new picture, piece of footage, something. we have a year and a half before it is broadcast. it is supposed to be done. it is supposed to be done. we are not supposed to be messing with it, but we are trying to get it right. we are not going to get the answer, as we have been saying, but we want to raise all those fundamental questions and the larger, bigger, almost spiritual questions about vietnam raises about what happens when human beings make war on each other and kill each other in great numbers. that is what we hope. we just want people to be drawn into a good story and permit themselves possibly the bandwidth to relax or let go of the preconceptions that are part of their own operating system, because they don't serve as well as they think they do.
this is what jeff and sarah and lynn and i have felt. it was not enough to carry our own baggage into it. we had to say goodbye to a lot of stuff and not make it homework. this is, fasten your seatbelts, it's a bumpy ride. mark: throughout the course of this week, we have been expressing our gratitude to our veterans who fought in vietnam and we continue to do so. but i want to thank you in advance for this film that will change the paradigms with which we look at vietnam, and for telling the stories of so many people who went there for our government. thank you both for being here. lynn: thank you. ken: thank you. [applause]
[captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] >> to watch more from the lyndon summit, visit our .ebsite, c-span.org/history this is american history tv, only on c-span3. tonight, on u.n. day, u.s. senate historian betty talks about the work her office does. said to me, its is going to be nice and quiet, we have an election, you have time to settle in and read and get comfortable. in a few weeks, the house impeach bill clinton
and we got busy quickly and had to do a great deal of history. research. we had not done an impeachment since 1863. they want to follow historical precedent as much as they could. next, santa clara professor nancy unger nancy unger is the author of "belle la follette," which tells the story of this journalist, suffragist, and pacifist. she campaigned alongside her husband and son in their own bids for office. the humanist association of the greater sacramento area hosted this event. it is about an hour.