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Turner, Sorley, and Moyar Discuss the Mistakes in the Burns-Novick Vietnam War Documentary

On Monday, January 23, 2018, three scholars of the Vietnam War came together at The Institute of World Politics to discuss the new documentary The Vietnam War by film directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

Each expert first provided their independent take on the claims brought up in the film series.  Professor Turner used a PowerPoint that is attached to this post. Dr. Moyer and Dr. Lewis did not use a PowerPoint but their audio is available in the attached video.

Professor Turner started off by asserting that the film was made well, but he stated that the content was not as great. Unlike his colleagues, Professor Turner refused to attack the character of Ken Burns and his team. He covered that the film series left out or diminished multiple key historical points. These include not talking enough to South Vietnamese who the United States was supporting during the Vietnam War. He also claimed that the movie disproportionately interviewed Vietnam War veterans who were against the war, while 91% of veterans polled stated that they were glad to serve. Professor Turner also discussed the portrayal of North Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, as a Jeffersonian Democrat instead of the communist Professor Turner believes Chi Minh was. Professor Turner explained how Ho Chi Minh changed from a patriot/nationalist to a Leninist after he returned to Vietnam from Europe. Professor Turner also pointed out that Ho Chi Minh had his people attack nationalist movements within Vietnam. Furthermore, Professor Turner used historical analysis to refute the myth that the State Department lied about “northern aggression”, by arguing that the National Liberation Front which attacked was directly linked to Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnam. Professor Turner also pointed out that domino theory was ever-present during the Vietnam War, as multiple communist leaders around the world, including Che Guevara, saw the Vietnam War as a test case for communists standing against the United States and as an inspiration to support future communist movements worldwide. One of the final arguments that Professor Turner made was that the United States did not unjustly stop reunification elections in 1956, and instead wanted United Nations monitored elections as there was a justified fear that Ho Chi Minh would manipulate and coerce his majority population in North Vietnam to win the elections. Professor Turner finished by saying that the Vietnam War was not a useless war.

Dr. Moyer was the next speaker. He argued that those who wanted to avoid serving in the war, argued that the war was unjust and unwillable to receive a deferment. He reiterated Professor Turner’s point regarding the elections of 1956. Dr. Moyer claimed that the movie used a few bad battles for the United States as a generic representation of the military campaign, and thus misrepresented the actual military successes of the United States. He also pointed out that the film did not mention domino theory and did not show the decrease of Vietnamese support for the Communists, a sign that the war effort was making gains. Dr. Moyer focused on how the Vietnam War could have been won if the government had made better strategic decisions. He touched on the Kennedy Administration’s inaction to stop a coup, Congress slashing military aid to the South Vietnamese after the United States leaves and in contradiction with promises made to the South Vietnamese to get them to sign the Paris Peace Accords, and deliberately choosing to not expand the scope of the war. Dr. Moyer talked about how the movies did not discuss the awards and successes of American veterans, and instead places veterans in a bad light. Finally, Dr. Moyer stated that the movie tried to kill the idea of American exceptionalism, the idea that American is an exceptional country that one should be willing to die for.

Dr. Sorley was blunt in his claim that the movie focused exclusively on convincing the public that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, useless, and poorly managed. As Dr. Sorley is famous for his biographies, he touched on the profiles of American war generals in the movie. He mentions that he is in the movie for a brief period talking about General Creighton Abrams, General William Westmoreland’s successor as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Dr. Sorley stated that he was mistreated by the Burns crew and in the end, did not find the experience fulfilling. Dr. Sorley also discussed one of the preview events he attended where he noted that Burns sees himself as the preeminent historian on Vietnam and in reality, was looking to push a narrative instead of the impartiality Burns claimed. Dr. Sorley also criticized Burns for starting the series with the sounds of war, instead of historical background that would be used by a historian. Dr. Sorley furthered his criticism by stating that the Burns team did not complete an adequate level of research by only completing 80 interviews in ten years. He also stated that General Westmoreland was misportrayed as a war hero and tactical mastermind, while in reality, he did not have the experience or skills to win in Vietnam. Another point was that Burns’ advisors were disproportionately anti-war and thus did not provide an honest account of the Vietnam War.

The question period featured Vietnam War veterans and scholars generally agreeing with the panel. There was not much contention and the question and answer session resembled an echo chamber. One point made by Dr. Moyer is that the film series’ companion book did a better job at accurately explaining the war.

Dr. Moyer referenced another event that occurred at the Center for Strategic & International Studies regarding the film. This panel was larger and held scholars with more diverse viewpoints. IWP Dean, Mackubin Owens, also wrote an article in October about the Burns-Novick documentary.

Professor Robert F. Turner holds both professional and academic doctorates from the University of Virginia School of Law, where in 1981 he co-founded the Center for National Security Law and continues to serve at the Center as a Distinguished Fellow. After leaving the Army as a Captain in 1971 and serving in Vietnam, he became a Research Associate and then Public Affairs Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, where he served as Asia & Pacific editor of the Yearbook on International Communist Affairs and authored the first major English-language history of Vietnamese Communism.

Dr. Lewis Sorley, a former soldier, is a graduate of West Point and holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. ewis Sorley’s books include the three biographies Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times; Honorable Warrior: General Harold K. Johnson and the Ethics of Command; and Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam.  His book A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Dr. Mark Moyar is the Director of the Project on Military and Diplomatic History at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. The author of six books and dozens of articles, he has worked in and out of government on national security affairs, international development, foreign aid, and capacity building. He holds a B.A. summa cum laude from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Cambridge. Dr. Moyar is the author of two groundbreaking histories of the Vietnam War: “Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965” (Cambridge University Press, 2006), and “Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism in Vietnam” (Naval Institute Press, 1997; Bison Books, 2007). Dr. Moyar is a member of the Hoover Institution Working Group on the Role of Military History in Contemporary Conflict.