During the last week in September of 1990, Ken Burns’s nine-episode documentary series The Civil War aired for the first time. This ten-hour miniseries changed the way we look at documentaries, helped our high school history teachers get some grading done, and gave us the most iconic musical opening since Rhapsody in Blue.
Twenty-seven years later, after exploring topics like baseball, jazz, the Roosevelts, America’s National Parks, and World War II, Burns and longtime collaborator Lynn Novick bring us their latest venture. The Vietnam War, a ten-part, eighteen-hour documentary series, premieres on Sunday, September 17 on Rocky Mountain PBS (RMPBS).
As Burns and Novick point out in the half-hour PBS Preview of the series, theirs is only the latest interpretation of an event that has captured filmmakers’ imaginations for decades. Novick acknowledges this in the Preview: “[Vietnam] remains this kind of unfinished business in American history. In order to move on as a country at all, we have to really understand what happened.” Burns and Novick were committed to bringing all perspectives together to tell the story holistically. It's no easy task if you consider Viet Thanh Nguyen's beautiful words: "All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory."
Here at DPL we have a robust collection of books and films about the many facets of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Here is just a sampling of what we have to offer:
The Lead Up
The Vietnam War is an incredibly complex event, but no less complex were the events that came before it. In America, President Lyndon Johnson is known for escalating U.S. involvement in the conflict, but by that time America had been involved in Vietnam for nearly ten years. When Americans arrived back in 1955, Vietnam had just ended a seven-year war for independence against a century-long French colonization. These works reveal the complicated start of the War:
- Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63 by Marcelino Truong. This dense graphic memoir tells the story of a family and a nation through the eyes of the author, known as “Marco.” Marco is one of four children born to a Vietnamese diplomat father and a French mother. The family is assigned to relocate to Saigon and work for the South Vietnamese Prime Minister at the beginning of the Kennedy administration. As the political situation intensifies, so too do things at home as Marco’s mother struggles with mental illness.
- The Quiet American. British novelist Graham Greene was a war correspondent in the 1950s, when Vietnam was fighting France for its independence. In this novel, British journalist Thomas Fowler finds himself acquainted with a young American CIA agent named Alden Pyle. At first, their intersection seems purely social, but over time the bumbling Pyle and his political designs are revealed to be much less benign than they appear. This work has been adapted as both a 1958 miniseries and a 2002 feature film.
- The Fog of War. This 2003 documentary comes from twenty hours of interviews done with Robert S. McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968. McNamara is often called “the Architect” of the Vietnam War, and that role haunted him for the rest of his life. He is a controversial figure but there’s no question of his impact.
- She Weeps Each Time You’re Born by Quan Barry. This novel is the story of Rabbit, a young woman born before the American withdrawal who can hear the voices of the dead. As the novel unfolds in the country’s shattered present, Rabbit hears voices that fill Vietnam's past. Barry is a poet and her language prowess shines in this poignant work.
The War and Its Direct Aftermath
Part of why Burns and Novick wanted to make this series in 2017 is the amount of distance: more than forty years have passed since Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) passed into communist control. The influence of the Vietnam War’s aftermath hung heavy over the literary and cinematic landscape of the 1970s and '80s.
- Born on the Fourth of July. While famously adapted as a film by Oliver Stone in 1989, the story of Ron Kovic originated as a 1976 memoir of his experiences in Vietnam, a disabled veteran, and an antiwar activist. Stone is a Vietnam veteran and made two other movies about the war: Platoon and Heaven and Earth. Movies exploring the brutality of the Vietnam War like The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket are now considered some of America’s best cinematic achievements.
- Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War from North Vietnam by Karen Gottschang Turner with Phan Thanh Hao. The women who joined the war were integral to the communists' victory. Turner and Hao present a collection of oral histories that remained long unheard. You may also want to check out Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, the posthumous diary of a female Vietnamese battle surgeon
- Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. This novel was published in 2010, years behind other well-known Vietnam novels like The Things They Carried and Paco’s Story. Marlantes, both a former Marine and a Rhodes Scholar, spent 30 years working on Matterhorn. Few horrors go unrevealed in this brutal novel: from disease, battle, racial tension, bureaucracy, and a litany of other factors the psychic and physical toll of war are laid completely bare.
- PBS’s American Experience series. Burns’s documentary is not the first time PBS has explored Vietnam. The series American Experience has produced documentaries on a few different aspects of the War. The episode My Lai, about the eponymous massacre and subsequent American military covered up, won a Peabody award in 2010.
- Another Vietnam: Pictures of the War from the Other Side by Tim Page. Editor Doug Niven worked as a press photographer out of Cambodia in the 1990s, where he began collecting photographs from those on the ground during the War. Unlike their Western counterparts, Vietnamese war photographers used older equipment, limited film, and DIY development techniques. This project marked the first time some of these images had been published anywhere and add invaluable perspective to a story mostly told through American lenses.
The Continuing Legacy
Vietnam still has a profound impact on works both published and broadcast. Contemporary TV period pieces like AMC’s Mad Men and the second season of FX’s Fargo are steeped in Vietnam. Many recent works focus on the experiences of people who left Southeast Asia behind to come to the United States.
- The works of Viet Thanh Nguyen. Viet Thanh Nguyen is one of today's most celebrated authors. His Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel, The Sympathizer, is a story of wartime espionage through the eyes of a conflicted double-agent. Nguyen's followup book, the nonfiction work Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, is an intellectual meditation on the role of memory and art in times of warfare. His latest, a collection of short stories titled The Refugees, explores life after the war for people of the Vietnamese diaspora.
- American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity by Christian G. Appy. Published only last year, this book has a similar amount of critical distance that Burns and his team have cited as important to their own project. Appy looks at the impact of Vietnam on the American imagination through a variety of sources and applies it to society today.
- Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey by GB Tran. In this graphic memoir, the author tells the story of his family, and of being raised in America by parents who fled Saigon at the end of the War. As Tran learns about his ancestral lands, he assembles a myriad of perspectives and styles to show the complexity of uncovering a complicated history. For another moving graphic memoir geared more toward a YA audience, check out Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, in which the main character reconciles being a refugee with life as a new parent.
- TET by Paul Allor and Paul Tucker. This graphic novel is split between 1968 and 1984, and between murder mystery, combat story, and romance. Just before the Tet Offensive, Lt. Eugene Smith is trying to solve a murder and solve a way to spend the rest of his life with Quang Ha, the woman he loves. When the city is blown apart, Eugene’s plans and investigation are destroyed and he goes home alone a disabled veteran. Sixteen years later, he goes back to Vietnam to find closure, only to find closure may not be an option.
- Thousand Star Hotel by Bao Phi. Bao Phi was born in Vietnam in 1975 and his family left for Minnesota when he was only a few months old. He recently discussed growing up in a refugee family and not seeing Asian-Americans representation in his environment or history textbooks on NPR. Phi grew up to become an award-winning poet and his powerful works explore identity, race, and visibility. Phi also wrote a children’s book called A Different Pond, about his connection with his father and his family history.
More materials in English and Vietnamese
This blog only covers only a small amount of our collection on the subject of Vietnam and the Vietnam War. Additionally, DPL offers many items in the Vietnamese language. Please contact us if you need help searching our catalog.
If you would like more suggestions about what to read next, please consider our Personalized Reading List service. Fill out this simple online form with your reading preferences and receive a tailor-made list of suggestions from DPL staff.
Rocky Mountain PBS: The Vietnam War. RMPBS' website for the Vietnam War documentary features Voices of Vietnam from Colorado, featuring a wide range of stories from across Colorado, which can be seen on-air and online. Additionally, Coloradans can share their own stories and images through the website.
"Peace is Dignity": How Denver Activist Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales Viewed the Vietnam War. A blog post by Katie Rudolph, a librarian in DPL's Western History and Genealogy department.
Researching the Vietnam War. An in-depth guide to resources on the Vietnam War from Ross Mays, a librarian in DPL's Reference Department.