Ken Burns documentary 'The Vietnam War' examines the conflict from all sides

ABC News' political director, Rick Klein, catches up with the co-directors of the film near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
20:33 | 09/12/17

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Transcript for Ken Burns documentary 'The Vietnam War' examines the conflict from all sides
You don't want. It that the real heroes are the mood in the dark. 1920. Year old high school drop its. They didn't have escape routes the Thea Lee but Wilson a privilege her. And that was unfair. And so they looked or para military service of act like to whether. They had to go wanted to do. But to see these kids who have the least again. There was they're gonna look forward to they're going to be won't ordered further services via com. And yet there infinite patience their loyalty to each other who. Their courage under far. We'll just phenomenal. And you would ask yourself. How does America produce your network that's. That was the clip from the do PBS documentary Vietnam War. Starts airing just this week on yes it is ten episodes eighteen hours basically joined the Dakota records of that very important project. Mr. Ken burns and Winona accurately and you. We're here at and I might be one of the most secret spots and animal life. Hallowed ground special place. Behind us but or after hour make that personal connection. All is that it would. The story did it true that schools alone. The Vietnam War as an resolve business for the United States and this is one of the few places where you can. Kind of open up a worm hole and get into the events see behind each one of those names. It's not significant that there are 58000 plus what's significant is that each single name represents an extraordinary story. The loss for a particular family for a mother. Maybe children involved and we're interested in the intimacies of those stories were emotional archaeologists that are trying to build. The history of the Vietnam War finding else. Simply what happened by doing it from the bottom up we're not disinterested in what takes place in the White House or in Hanoi and Saigon but were intimately involved in what it's like. For particularly soldiers to be in battle but also what people who've out of this mall in protest of the work felt what gold star. Mothers felt was so policy wonks and journalists found and. And and to me this place is symbolic of something about Vietnam that we've done right was huge and controversial when it was close. But it is in in some ways been so accepted that I would argue that it's not just. One of the most important places in Washington it's one of the most important places in the United States ended a history of the national parks. And to me being here is like being on the rim of the Grand Canyon are looking at Yosemite valley are or feeling the all that you feel. At the battlefield now quiet battlefield of Gettysburg guarantee him. Talk to me that you. Brought those stories together because you tell them back Russell wept and held it to talk about Washington signed on it but you also tell so many work personals. The victims of the content never decided it. Lawrence's mind these. Things such understand not just what happened why. Like I ever make decisions and that. Americans should be enough to play. What happens. When they went there what happens came home and what was going on Vietnam city gave you a hundred people. 79 of them and I found from both American Vietnamese perspective. People who fought in the war fought against the war. Vietnamese who were on the winning side on the losing side. Civilians and soldiers men and women. And between collecting all these little pieces all these individual testimonies. You've been able to intertwine this incredibly complicated merit. Q what we hope it's a coherent whole eighteen hours. Restart the beginning 1850. Difference in colonizing Indochina. And you end today and you are taking that journey home customers experience the visceral. Be living the Vietnam War and we hope is in the saying it. I take me on that journey the ourselves have been an injury to try to figure out what happened sense of it. And by the end of keeping sensitive light on this importance. And I've seen you refer to it is the most complicated yes yes and I'll and that it's let's tell me why did you used will be things. Well I think a lot of it is that all of us are burdened by a lot of conventional wisdom about the Vietnam War that just turns out not to be true so. We benefited me. Us as individuals as well as filmmakers from shedding our baggage we have no preconceptions. You know we don't have an ax to grind or political agenda so. It was important for us to unpack what had happened and then try to repackage with the new scholarship we. Interviews with the veterans and and never before seen archives I think also that unlike the civil war in World War II subjects of films that we've. Struggle to tell. They have the they have redemptive qualities you know the civil war ended slavery and. But the country together in the Second World War did all the good things addicted to this. Is a moment where we struggle to find those redeeming. It features and and what happens is is that makes it. All the more important to tell these stories. Factually right to intertwine the narrative in a way that permits you to see the macro but also the month and the micro and figure out. When and where you do that shift in how you moved in north phenomenon you moved to south Vietnam as well as to the streets in America or in this. Front parlors of America and I think all of that inspires. To make it kind of complicated to tell but then in the end. So satisfying when you can do it because we need to find. He's at the redemption comes in the accumulation of these individual stories and moments of bravery of courage and caring of love. Fellowship all the things that we presume are. Apps and. In in a horrible story about war. In fact are present here. It says they are in almost every. Event that we we've covered until it's been a great thing they process. What are some. The big gifts or that the preconceived notions we found ourselves exploding or at least explaining and in a different way. Them as taxes or is there at that we really went through. Beasley everything we thought we knew we had to leave the door and start over. You know there are many many people's preconceptions and miss about the war. One of the things that we tried very hard to rectify is certain miss about American soldiers most soldiers almost all of them went over to Vietnam. And did their duty honorably and came home and live their lives productively. And so the nets of Vietnam veterans of drug crazed hopeless. Living on the streets the mean there are many veterans who suffered but most have an enormously productive citizens and their product or service. And we need to thank them and that's certainly wasn't happy moment from the Vietnam War that we need to never forget that the soldier not responsible for the decisions. The villagers making this never confuse the warriors. But the war. And more than forty years later he's do you still see the nation's wrestling with us this city has seen issues the same concerns in the same. The same way of thinking that that let. You know another way to talk about is to think about that echoes in the present moment even though we began this film in 2006 and finished it before. The current national election just past this is about mass demonstrations. Taking place all across the country against the current administration. About a White House in just a way subsist with leaks the president accusing the media. Of lying about the huge document drops of stolen classified material about a country polarized and disagreeing with itself about. These symmetrical warfare and accusations that a political campaign reached out to a foreign government during time of a national election to affect that election so he hoped. These roles true in 2006 when he started and along with dozens of other things but I think it reminds us that a good deal of the divisions. That we experienced today that hyper partisanship. Had their season via but that history can be just in general regardless of the topic. An extraordinarily. Help. Good help in helping us understand this moment and that's the great thing about the Vietnam War that if you can. Put your arm around and permit yourself to tolerate opposing points of view and understand. Then in all wars but it particularly in Vietnam more than one truth. Is true. At the same time it might help us as a country begin to have conversations that we haven't had intimate conversations between fathers and sons what did you do in the war dad. Or conversations between grandmothers and vendors why did you go to that. Demonstration here at though Washington monument and. November of 1969 why were you opposed to the war. I people of these things permit us a chance to two from navy came back to what we do best which is Manama not whereabouts. One of the more profound point that I felt watching this was one of the voices you have. Pretty early autumn and early episodes saying that it was a mistake in thinking of this is that in the Cold War context and in fact it is the end of colonialism. It may be thinking of you were always tombs. Misunderstand the point of living in and during the sniper Tom offer misunderstanding. The macro forces because we're so wrapped up the day to day. Possible that is the human condition if you various disease by now we do our best and our leaders do our best asset and one thing we had to really. Discipline has been way go back and say we can't judge. The past days some of you know now we really have to try to put ourselves back into the what did they know what were they trying to figure out. Over their goals and so in the time of the Cold War there was a threat of nuclear annihilation there was genuine fear that we might help resolve around. And that we had to find a way out of this. Existential threat to mankind. And so in that context the war in Vietnam actually made a lot of sense. The fact that it. Didn't work out is not to say that there wasn't good intentions in going after Christmas I was accuse. We learning about America. I went thing I enjoy. Even though they weren't central's the narrative at that point a young JFK a young LBJ. Members of congress that Nixon when he's out of office acting in real time they don't know full story and he went public it. That's exactly right and and that's what you want to do and I think in the case of Vietnam. Is particularly wonderful that we have the presidential tapes that permit us to have intimate relationships. With the people who are supposed to be the macro top down voices. In addition to the bottom up voices but in our first episode which is a good deal of table setting and and and getting to JFK's inauguration we wanted to introduce who are going to be the principal players. The vice president of the United States Richard Nixon percent of opinions. This young went behind his years congressman and then later senator. Who is migrating tremendously in his own beliefs for sinking stay the hell out of there and then beginning to sort of line up with the central thinking of both parties that we needed to be there a master of the senate Lyndon Johnson. All of these people are going to populated the rest of our episodes and we wanted. To sort of introduce them. As they started out just is the way you do an epic novels you know where did this general began his career and and and I I think it is really. Worthwhile to see them in action early on in their professional lives because pretty soon this war's gonna overtake them. And completely dominate their administrations. Certainly Nixon and Johnson but also Kennedy and as well. I want to ask an accident Johnson particulate there's something you feel like history has done wrong about about. Did you learn something fundamental about they are mindset has people heard the tapes that read about these. Now that we would argue that. You might argue that even for ourselves we had spent the biographies in rebel leader of the tapes that we really had he is. From them in contact. It's what they're releasing mealtime hasn't happened. And hearing that's always there are times. Financial standing. Generally their mood and went there you know what they have for breakfast and. Just that the back and forth that's just sort of casual conversation. It gives you an inside the canvassing. They're human beings. They live up on some huge pedestal even if they're deeply flawed. We don't know them as people never have known as people please think for ourselves until we heard these states in the context of this now. And we think that the coverage easily revelatory and we really here's president Johnson. A lot of Dallas feet and angst about what he's doing and if it doesn't seem to feel he has any choice. He feels trapped Eddie House to increasingly commit to Vietnam and escalate the war and keep on telling sort of good money after bad basically he doesn't see any way I keep saying there's no daylight Vietnam and it keeps on doing it. And he knows on some other you hear his voice. This isn't gonna work out well but there's no way to his or get off the the speeding train that's going to track. And of course you you don't just tell an American story here tonight tell global story also tell us from the from the side. The Vietnam can't interview the former former soldiers people involved than any other so why was that important for the story. You know and Americans talk about the Vietnam War they just talk about themselves and it's true the Hollywood movies and most of the books and it was really important us to realize that to other countries involved one of which by the way. Disappeared off the face of the maps of the world. And that was. An incredibly wrenching experience for them and so we felt it was really incumbent upon us. To triangulation all of these things to have multiple perspectives and so we interviewed. North Vietnamese soldiers in north Sudanese civilians in Viet Cong guerrillas. And south Vietnamese army guys in south Vietnamese civilians even south Vietnamese protesters and diplomats to just sort of. Co you know sort of complemented the wide range the dozens and dozens of. And Americans that we had and I think what they do is a shows where the similarity of the experience of war you know fired GI's either marine are. Our army son an awful lot like the DC in the NBA and placed first aid to the same and they may have a plan at the end you can you know you see either wonderful coming together you sort of wish. Human beings who we just gets episode ten. No and it would be over. But it's it's it's hugely destructive it was important here those voices because I would argue. There one of the reasons why things did not go well for us. Is it we kind of had a hubris and arrogance that he didn't permit us. To learn about our enemy or more important even to learn about our allies and the nature of the people we were supposedly there to try to save. And all of those things came back to bite us the under appreciation of of the commitment. Of the the opposition. But also the culture that would have had this. Attend to our ally and its people in a different fashion than we did because we were constantly producing more enemy. By indiscriminate bombing in an indiscriminate firepower. It all the time and and that's you know. Counterproductive. 11 thing not to mention the protests that did work so problem in the with a very brown at we're standing on right now what is the lesson teaching your guy's mind about the what the protests meant there there's some of the iconic images of the Vietnam the American side it didn't matter to be changed the course of the war debate she's understanding of the. That's a very complicated question which. We'll be taking eighteen hours to explore and there's not one simple answer but one of the things that we've taken away saying this period. To see that on the one hand she could see. The fact that we had you know. Protests in the streets against the government's latest sign of weakness country and maybe our Kenji he could say was torn apart at that conflict over the war. But also as a sign of great strength of our democracy that the people got engaged because we had a job because the way to what was covered because it was important. These people were dying and killing other people that mattered to our country and there was a great debate that happened in the public way. When we think that's healthy for our democracy and ultimately. Ultimately our government responded that the war became untenable and the public no longer supported in this country to be over. We were just being earlier today with the general McCaffrey who was. Decorated veteran of the morning said he thought that was it greatest thing happened. Some of the people rose up ultimately until the government now. Democracy didn't look so ugly at that time you don't meaning you had an affinity soldier who just said you know I didn't see them protests as a sign of weakness I saw the film and I realize I'm no. It's a sign of strength and he then is reflecting back at his own closed society in which. The regime the Communist regime tightly controlled the flow of information of death notices never admission of any defeat and never admission of any atrocity. No protests allowed if you protest you would disappear. But here and you know and they except if you were violent you do and subject to arrest and as Lynn said buying you know. Towards the end a majority of Americans had turned against the war and their politicians. And their elected officials reflected that. That desire to change its return journey back to this current political moment you've been very critical of president pumped at the time one point talked about him as a it's an insult to our history. When you saw Charlottesville. And the reaction and what went through your mind is the story as an American. Well like Chris says the president didn't and then then he was just. Present and to nominee. For the Republican Party only ones Tom and I I did feel. Very strongly that he was not. Prepared for our ready for the god job and was seen temper mentally completely different from all the other presidents. That had ever served and I I think that we are in a moment where. We have to. Should deal with this and and understand and and see whether our institutions. Can hold in the face of these things. Do you feel like this this moment is airing out ability of those institutions very much so I'm I'm I think history makes you an optimist and I can tell you there a lot worst periods in American history than people might believe now. There are some people that have just passers by that actually think this is a a great momentum and that's entirely. Their right to do that but I I think then lessons of Vietnam. Remind us particularly now in the wake of Charlottesville that unless we are. Adamant about what we believe in collectively. In the civil wars the subject of another film we've made is still going on as can't scholar Barbara feels as in our film. Not only can still is still going on but could still be lost. And then now it turns out that even. The correctness of the supposedly good war world war two and then our triumph over the non. She's in fact been dead if you make room and give breathing space and oxygen. Two white supremacists in the kkk and the Nazis you are against the tide of American history. And American values more important. They think I mean. It seems we just received news is that if you have an ability and willingness to go back and examine his painful chapters in our history in fact they got an opinion that slavery. The Vietnam War and like waiting these things at all touching you know. We have we have to look at ourselves squarely in Marion trying to understand why these things happens we'll be can do about it now and they only do those like him saying. I'd be honest and true and fair about what actually happened. And facts do matter but I. And that's that's a hugely important thing that has I think atrophied from our national discussion it becomes very simple if you don't agree with someone to say that they're making stuff up. And that's a terrible situation this is all of the the failures of other empires and other regimes in the past. Have come that way we've spent ten years trying to get the facts right so that we can permit to coexist in this film all these different points of view. And not make the other wrong but listen to them and when we listen. And we're not in our hardened silos absolutely certain certainty is that. Death and any real understanding or communication suddenly could certainly hear somebody else on our Vietnam vets. Both in the film and who attended screenings have said the best part of this. Is learning what the enemy felt like I have such respect for them my fear than I hated them and such respect and to hear them now is old Graham plus two. Is it is a really important gift of the film and I hope people can sort of we're so at each other's throats these days maybe this might help us. Pull some of those fuel rods out and have a civil discourse. But so Ken burns and other thank you so much for her for being here really appreciated time again yet it Vietnam War starts airing on PBS stations this week. Thank you guys think you make so much.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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