Directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s new 10-part, 18-hour documentary “The Vietnam War,” is filled with interviews of both Americans and Vietnamese who were affected. BYU-Hawaii students from Vietnam and a veteran from the war said the Vietnam War was bad for both countries.
Hau Bui and his wife Hang Ngo, both senior business majors from Vietnam, explained the Vietnamese perspective of the Vietnam War. Ngo said, “The Americans lost thousands but we lost millions of people. Generations were affected by the war and chemical weapons.”
According to TheVietnamWar.info, the Vietnamese estimated the number of civilian deaths during the Vietnam War as 2 million with an additional 1.1 million military deaths.
“We learn about [the war] not as a great victory but as a dark time,” said Ngo. “When we are taught, we don’t consider ourselves the winners. We are the survivors.”
Elder Scott Edgar is a service missionary in the Honor Code Office and a U.S. Air Force Veteran who was deployed to Vietnam in 1968 as an intelligence officer. He explained how the lack of a clear understanding of why the United States was in Vietnam fighting made it difficult for the American public to support the war.
Edgar recounted coming home through international airports and being spit on and yelled at. He said he was even laughed at by students at BYU, when he attended classes in Provo for wearing his military uniform.
“The people [in the military] I met were proud to serve and were doing what their nation and country asked of them. It was a little shocking when we didn’t get support back home.”
In an interview with Reason.com, Burns said, “It’s time to talk about [the Vietnam War]. It’s some repressed memory for many of us and deliberately avoided subject for perhaps the rest.
“We think it’s the most important event in American history in the second half of the 20th century. If we want to know a little bit about the political divisions and the lack of civil discourse that beset and bedevil us today, we think that a lot of the seeds of that were planted in Vietnam.”
Edgar, who was drafted a few months after completing his LDS mission, said he is proud of the time he spent in the military.
“There’s a lot of embarrassment I think about, what we did and what we had to do. I am not ashamed of what we did. I thought we were there for a reason.” Edgar said the reason was to defend the people of South Vietnam from Communism.
Edgar said he had reservations about the reasons for producing the documentary.
He said, “I don’t know why they’re resurrecting that thing now because it’s ancient history. Most of us are done with it and moved on. I don’t know what the value is frankly.
“Maybe it has something to do with Afghanistan and Iraq. If you as a civilization have a question, ‘What did we do back there?’ then maybe it’s worth researching.”
“It’s clear that the U.S. forces won that war, but politically we were forced to pull out, and there was a vacuum. We won the war in 1972. We won the war and we were there. Then there was a lack of political support and we said, ‘We’re out of here. We’re bringing our people home.’ We had won a victory, but then we wasted it. We wasted a lot of lives by pulling our forces out of there and not rebuilding South Vietnam.”
Edgar explained the lack of political support was because, “58,000 Americans died in a relatively small period of time. There were a lot of body bags coming home and nobody likes that.”
Edgar said because of the power of some of the weapons, there was nothing left to send home.
Referring to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Edgar said, “ They’re just a name on a wall now.”
He spoke solemnly of the sacrifice made by U.S. men and women who gave their lives but said he regretted the effects of the U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam.
“We lost interest as a country and we thought it was over and we stopped supporting it, and the North Vietnamese they didn’t quit. They kept fighting.
“People died [evacuating South Vietnam]. People who were loyal to America. That’s the ugly part of the whole thing. We didn’t end it. We just walked away and gave up. That was the disgrace of the whole thing. “
Despite these failures Edgar said, “I am proud to have served, and I think most career [military] people did it for a love of [their] country.”
Burns continued, “The average military member doesn’t get involved in the politics of these things. We raise our hand to the square and we commit to serve and we strive to remain loyal to the country and our brothers.”
Although, according to Ngo and Bui, both are far removed from the war itself, they have been taught in their schools about the war and have heard stories from their grandparents and parents.
Ngo added, “To be honest the U.S. did some terrible things, but I heard stories from my mom and dad, and grandparents. They said the Americans were the good guys because they fought for us. Not every Vietnamese was a socialist.”
Bui said when they are taught about the war in their history classes growing up it’s not called the Vietnam War, but it is identified as, “the American invasion of Vietnam.”
Ngo continued, “In the past Vietnam has been invaded by so many enemies: China, France, Japan, England and then there was America. The Americans did a lot of bad things in our country. That’s why we call it an invasion.”
The documentary begins by looking at the pre and post-World II history of Vietnam, then the French colony of Indochina in the first episode.
Edgar said if students want to learn about the Vietnam War today, “don’t look at the ‘60s because the ‘60s was an aberration. Go back to World War II. The Vietnam War actually started during World War II and the events that occurred immediately after with the French being defeated badly.”
The documentary explores how the United States initially misread the Vietnamese fight for independence against the French.
Ngo said, “The mistake happened at the very beginning when Americans didn’t accept the offer from Vietnam to work together after World War II. Before Russia and China, we asked the U.S. for help and they didn’t. That is the big mistake.”
The documentary talks about Ho Chi Minh, a political leader who organized and inspired the Vietnamese people in their revolution. According to the documentary, the Vietnamese refer to him with adoration as Uncle Ho.
“We love Uncle Ho. We love the heroes and the persons who went to battle,” said Ngo.
In the first episode of the documentary, Burns and Novick document the efforts of Minh to ally himself with the United States.
Bui said, “Even though Uncle Ho wanted to follow the French and U.S. economies, they got help from China and the Soviet Union to provide weapons, food and strategic help to unify the country. So who are you going to follow? The one who will help you win.”
Ngo described how Vietnam did need help after World War II, but said, “The U.S. helped in the wrong way. Instead of helping the French and seeing Uncle Ho as an enemy, they should’ve not become enemies.”
Bui and Ngo discussed America’s foreign policy today and its current conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen.
Bui asked, “Should the U.S. be responsible for the rest of the world?” Ngo quickly replied, “ No of course not. They are not responsible.”
Ngo added, “ When I put my perspective behind America, why they [came to Vietnam], what I think is America did it because they were the leader of the world at the time.”
Ngo compared how today’s conflicts are similar to the war in Vietnam because of the insurgent forces.
“We need to understand in Vietnam, not everyone in Vietnam was an enemy. The Americans would come to fight your enemy but sometimes they would kill the wrong people too.”
Bui compared the civilian casualties inflicted in South Vietnam to civilians who are being harmed in Syria and Iraq by U.S. bombings.
Bui and Ngo both said it is difficult though to judge the United States off of its mistake in Vietnam because of the similar intervention of American troops in the Korean War in 1950-54.
“The U.S. lost in Vietnam, but they won in Korea and look at how South Korea has become super developed today,” said Ngo. “If you say Vietnam is a mistake, then Korea is a success.
“We can’t tell if the actions of the U.S. were bad or wrong because on the one hand Korea is growing - so I don’t know if that is the right thing to do.”
Bui said, “It’s hard when two parties are arguing at each other and now they feel they have to fight to resolve it.” He added, “ But the U.S. was the international policeman. They still are.”
Edgar said, “We cannot just win a war and walk away from it. There are insurgents that are out there and they are going to come right back in.”
NOTE: This aritlce's online publication was delayed because it was featured in the Oct. 2017 print issue.