More than 40 years after the official end of the Vietnam War, the Public Broadcasting Service's (PBS's) master chroniclers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick tell the story in a new American Experience ten-episode program (it premiered on Sunday, 17 September 2017). With signature thoroughness, Burns and Novick start from the beginning to unfold the story of the conflict in Vietnam, initially the result of a 30-year French struggle to retain Vietnam as part of France's 100-year-old empire. US involvement in the region spanned the administrations of five presidents: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford.
The Cold War (1947–91) with Russia fueled fear of communism's spread in Southeast Asia. Fear, in combination with military-solution enthusiasm and overconfidence, philosophical expansionism, shortsighted planning, and reelection-driven politics, escalated US involvement from support of a corrupt Saigon government to the loss of 58,000 US soldiers—a resounding first-time US military loss.
At home, many US citizens were unaware of events taking place on the other side of the world or were unconcerned as government and military leaders suppressed casualty numbers and spread propaganda about winning the war. As the draft conscripted men age 18 and older into military service, antiwar protests on college campuses helped to bring the issue to national attention. When Ohio National Guardsmen shot unarmed Kent State University students (4 May 1970), voters' anger toward government leaders replaced blind acceptance of government-sponsored press releases. The use of mass bombing raids and chemical warfare in Vietnam incited ban-the-bomb protests—in addition to antiwar protests—at the same time that antisegregation protests were becoming more violent.
The Vietnam War was so unpopular that returning servicemen had no heroes' welcome home. Unlike previous generations of servicemen, many Vietnam warriors rarely—some never—talked about their experiences. The first wave of Baby Boomers is the last generation to have trusted US leaders. They recognized betrayal.
Who served? Any living military leaders at the time would have been members of the Pre-Boomer Generation today—they gained experience during WWII and the Korean War. However, the majority of men who served in the Vietnam War are now members of the Early Baby Boomer generation—individuals born between 1946 and 1955. Although Early Boomers are some portion of all VALS groups, Thinkers (29%) and Survivors (30%) represent the majority. In 2016, 28% of Thinkers and 22% of Survivors are veteran household heads (2016–17 MacroMonitor). Although average-audience readership of VFW Magazine is small, Thinkers and Survivors are more likely than other consumer groups to read it (VALS™/GfK MRI fall 2016 study). Whether they served in Vietnam, protested at home, or were in any way affected by events, having attained adulthood in the Vietnam era, both Thinkers and Survivors are more likely than members of most other groups to share a we're-in-this-together attitude.
Who's most likely to watch the program? Innovators are only somewhat more likely than Thinkers to contribute $250 or more annually to support PSB; of the two groups, more Thinkers than Innovators will relate to this particular American Experience. More to the point, Thinkers thirst for greater understanding, seek a historical perspective (context), and desire all the details. They will appreciate Burns and Novick's extensive background research, in-depth coverage of the subject matter, and use of archival footage to make the viewing experience authentic—if sometimes painful. Simultaneously, because Survivors trust authority figures and are fondly reminiscent, and because of the story's complexity, Survivors may find the series to be too real, too confusing, or too negative in its revealed truths.
People who experienced the era firsthand may find The Vietnam War instructive but difficult to watch, reminding them once again of the loss of fathers, sons, siblings, and friends. The Vietnam War is a project of monumental proportions and an historically-accurate chronicle of our past. In light of current Middle East conflicts and the US approach to those conflicts, The Vietnam War is also a reminder that the United States may have failed to learn important lessons from the 1970s.