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PBS Series Advisor Professor Emeritus David Elliott Reflects on The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War Series poster, PBS

Professor Emeritus David Elliott was quite apolitical during his undergraduate years but his experience in Vietnam and the military, as well as his decades of teaching politics at Pomona, transformed him into one of the leading academic voices of the Vietnam War.

As one of the program advisors for the recently released PBS series “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Elliott reflects on how Vietnam and the war shaped his life as an academic and shares lessons from the war that are applicable to this day.

How did Vietnam and the Vietnam War shape your life and career?

After graduation from Yale in 1960 I wanted to enter the foreign service, but was deflected by a call-up to military service following the Berlin crisis of 1961. Learning Vietnamese language in the Army and subsequent exposure to a different culture, undergoing the shock of wartime transformation gave me a privileged insight into a different world from the postwar America I had grown up in. The seven years I spent in Vietnam gave me an education far beyond what I had learned in the classroom. It taught me the importance of “getting outside your own skin” and understanding how the world looks through the eyes of others.

I went on to graduate school at Cornell University to sort out the intense experience of the Vietnam War by learning more about the deep background of the war, with the intention of going into teaching in order to pass on the painful lessons learned in Vietnam to subsequent generations of students, and to attempt to help them develop analytic tools to cope with the unexpected, and deal with novel challenges by questioning conventional wisdom and flawed assumptions that could lead to disastrous policies. These, in fact, are the aims of a liberal-arts education in a place like Pomona.

What lessons can government leaders learn from President Johnson’s approach to Vietnam?

There are many lessons, but I would single out four.

The first is that a foreign policy driven mainly by domestic politics is usually fatally flawed. It was domestic political considerations that drove Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to escalate a conflict they knew was peripheral to American interests and was probably unwinnable. Paradoxically, related to this pessimism about the prospects in Vietnam was the danger of hubris, and thinking that America has the power to make the world over into its image, the legacy of the triumphalism resulting from the victory of World War II.

Many years after the end of the Vietnam War said a sadder but wiser McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor to Kennedy and Johnson, “…we ought not to ever be in a position where we are deciding, or undertaking to decide, or even trying to influence the internal power structure of another country." George Kennan, a foreign service officer and student of history who had formulated the Cold War strategy of containment, came to the same conclusion long before Bundy. In the Fulbright hearings on Vietnam in February 1966 in the U.S. Senate, Kennan stated “Our country should not be asked, and should not ask of itself, to shoulder the main burden of determining the political realities in any other country…"

A third lesson concerns the perils of inappropriate analogies, and applying doctrines (like containment) and sweeping but unproven theories (like the Domino Theory) to a complex specific situation. The doctrine of containment, as its originator George Kennan pointed out, did not apply to Vietnam. His testimony to the Senate on the Vietnam War has enduring relevance for America’s role in the world. He explained that Ho Chi Minh was not Hitler or Stalin and, if he was victorious, would not be a puppet of Moscow or Beijing. Assessing the costs and benefits of escalating in Vietnam (which were never systematically addressed by Washington policymakers – another fundamental error of policy making) would, Kennan said, lead to the conclusion that it would result in civilian death and suffering on a scale “for which I would not like to see this country responsible.” Again, the Washington policy makers devoted little attention to the issues of proportionality and ends and means, which should be the starting point of decision making about war and peace.

A fourth lesson of Vietnam is the need for constant reexamination of fundamental assumptions. The world is in constant flux, and new situations require a rethinking of inherited conventional wisdom. Vietnam was seen as a peripheral problem, whose importance to the United States always derived from some larger issue; Cold War support for the French as they clung to the last vestiges of empire, a mistaken view that North Vietnam was a proxy acting at the behest of the Soviet Union and China (China was Vietnam’s age-old enemy and both Communist powers did not initially approve or support the rising insurgency in South Vietnam, doing so only after the United States escalated its involvement in 1961). Vietnam should have been seen as a local problem of decolonization, the major international current of the 1950s and early 1960s, and not as a Cold War problem challenging American global credibility.
During my teaching career at Pomona I tried my best to pass on the wisdom of these observations, especially to students in my U.S. Foreign Policy class.

What was your role in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s "The Vietnam War" series?

I am one of 24 program advisors who appear in the screen credits for “The Vietnam War.” Of these, five are academic specialists on the Vietnam War. Others are Vietnam veterans who have written about their experiences, journalists, several military experts, antiwar activists, and Vietnamese who lived through the experience. I was probably approached because I had written a book titled “The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta,” which is one of the few academic studies that examines the war from a Vietnamese perspective.

In the Spring of 2014 Lynn Novick, the co-producer of the series, invited my wife Mai Elliott (who has written several notable books about Vietnam) and me to attend a screening of the first rough cut of the series at Ken Burns’ main production facility in Walpole, New Hampshire, where he lives. Along with five other advisors we saw the first run-through of the documentary-in-progress over five days. We offered comments and engaged in discussion, and I later sent Lynn Novick extensive written comments. I wouldn’t claim to have had any noticeable influence on the finished product. Indeed it is hard to single out any particularly influential individual inputs other than the remarkable filmed testimonies of the people who appear most prominently in the series onscreen, including Mai Elliott. The script was largely a product of Geoffrey Ward, who also wrote the book which was a companion to the video. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick made all the key editorial decisions about what to include and not include. Given Ken Burns’ orientation toward story-telling and his determination not to take sides in the many controversies about the war, it would be hard to trace the influence of any individual in the final product, which integrated a great diversity of inputs into a complex and thought-provoking overview of the Vietnam War.

How is this Vietnam War series different from others?

I think I was the only person involved with the Ken Burns “Vietnam War” series who also was an advisor on the previous major Vietnam documentary, “Vietnam: A Television History” based on Stanley Karnow’s book “Vietnam: A History.” I probably had a greater impact on that earlier series because, as a more conventional documentary, it was aimed more at assessment and analysis than on drama and story-telling, which is the Ken Burns approach. Burns decided not to use talking heads, either “experts” or prominent policy makers or protagonists of the war, like Henry Kissinger, preferring a bottom-up approach of understanding the war as a composite of many lived experiences, exemplified by witness who were directly and intimately involved with the war.

My hope is that viewers will be able to understand the complexities of the conflict by being exposed both to the retrospective reflections of those who lived through and participated in it, as well as the revelations of what we now know that we didn’t know at the time.

The Karnow series was 12 hours as opposed to the 18 hours of the Ken Burns version. It did not employ many of the effects which contribute to the powerful emotional impact of the Burns’ film, such as sound effects and music. Burns spent a year on creating the sound track for the Civil War, and probably a year doing the same for the Vietnam series. It may seem manipulative to some, but I think it is entirely appropriate to help us understand at an emotional level, what the words and images are telling us on an intellectual level. The music, in particular, certainly recaptures the zeitgeist of the period.

The 12 episodes in the Karnow series were divided among three production teams, both as a device to accelerate the completion of series and on the assumption that diversity of directors would contribute to more “objectivity” – an obsession with any major or sensitive Public Television project which cannot be seen as pushing an ideological point of view. Ken Burns’ approach to this was to have a diversity of voices tell the story from multiple perspectives, in order not to give the appearance that he was “putting his thumb on the scale of history.”

An advantage that Burns had was that in the 25-year interval between the Karnow series and the Burns version, a great deal of revelatory scholarship had been done that gave us more certainty about what had happened and why. In addition, many Vietnamese on both sides – especially on the revolutionary side – were, with the passage of time, now more willing to open up about their experiences. Even some Americans who appeared in both the Karnow and Burns films after the passage of time were willing to discuss things that they had earlier suppressed or glossed over.