Ken Burns is making a 'Vietnam' documentary. Here are 5 things he should read before he does.

Ken Burns has found another war, one arguably as divisive as the one that made his career, the Civil War. PBS announced today that Burns is working with various collaborators on Vietnam, “a ten-to-twelve hour documentary film series about the history and meaning of the Vietnam War.”

The press release continues: “The series will focus primarily on the human experience of the conflict, using eyewitness testimonies of so-called `ordinary’ people – Americans as well as Vietnamese – whose lives were touched by the war.  Parallel to the unfolding military narrative, the series will also tell the story of the millions of American citizens who became deeply opposed to it, taking to the streets in some of the largest protest demonstrations the nation has seen.”

If you’re looking for the pop culture content in this, be assured: “Vietnam will interweave the television news reports that vividly brought the fighting into American living rooms night after night. TV and radio newscasts will also provide invaluable cultural contextualization through their coverage of politics, popular culture, the growing generational divide, and the anti-war and civil rights movements. Popular music of the era, particularly rock and roll and rhythm and blues, will infuse the series with the sensibility of the war years.”

Ah, I can hear Country Joe and the Fish’s “Fixin’ to Die Rag” now, can’t you?

As Burns and his minions buckle down to their task, I’m going to suggest five items frequently left off the usual lists of Vietnam War history on the domestic front that I strongly urge Burns to absorb as he puts this miniseries together. In no particular order:

Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press, by Abe Peck. This wide-ranging history offers an alternative to the establishment media’s coverage of Vietnam War protests, and analysis of the establishment media itself.

Eat the Document, by Dana Spiotta. This superb 2006 novel is one of the finest evocations of what it was like to live in America during the war, living underground after the war, and what it was like to see that history distorted in the decades afterward.

“Democracy Is in the Streets”: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago, by James Miller. Miller’s 1987 history of left-wing politics and cultural history of the 1960s strips away many cliches and misconceptions about what the antiwar movement was about.

“Drooling on the Vietnam Vets,” Jack Shafer, A 2000 piece about the “myth of the spat-upon veteran,” purporting to debunk the widespread belief that many antiwar protesters spat at military veterans returning from Vietnam. Me, I don’t believe this did not happen — passions ran too high; there were too many different kinds of people involved in the antiwar movement, some of them disrespectful of veterans, for this not to have occurred, especially when you factor in anecdotal evidence. But Shafer’s piece is an important one.

Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, by David Bianculli. A 2009 book about the most popular TV show to reflect the tumult of the times, and which paid the price for it: cancellation.

Ken Burns’ Vietnam is slated for broadcast in 2016. Do you look forward to seeing what Burns does with this subject?

Twitter: @kentucker

Comments (41 total) Add your comment
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  • Slezak


    • True Chizz, this news is Jank!!!!!

      I loved the Civil War series, but I hope in this new series he sticks to his famed technique of panning over photographs and adding sound effects – I loved watching it in school

  • MB

    2016? This won’t be on my radar for another five years.

  • LOL

    I hope I live long enough to see it.

  • Mya- Anne

    The world is going to end in 2012, so I doubt any of us will be around to see this…

  • Beanseboy

    How about suggesting some books that talk about, you know, the actual war?

  • Zbob

    What I find strange about this attitude is that the anti-war movement was both a fringe movement and it failed. Why would you want to make a ‘historical’ drama that emphasized it rather than dealing with the majority of the citizens who had more nuanced feelings about the war?

    • Bill Benson

      Because then as now “citizens who had more nuanced feeling about” [anything] don’t make the news.

  • Al

    Maybe he should do interviews with participants and decision makers. The antiwar movement will only be a small part of it.

  • Bryan

    Don’t you think he should also read, if he hasn’t already, Michael Herr’s Dispatches?

    • Ken Tucker

      Sure. I’m assuming Burns and his staff will read all the most well-known histories, reportage, fiction about the war; I’m suggesting a few things that might be slightly off their radar. But for sure, I agree, Herr’s Dispatches is good and essential. Thanks.

  • n

    2016??????? WHA?????

  • Bill on da Shore

    PBS already did this, and did this well with “Vietnam: A Television History”. Don’t see the need for this one.

    • Doremifah Solatido

      That series (11 parts) will remain the standard for comparison. I get the feeling, reading this article & knowing Ken Burns’ work, that his effort will be like a long explication of the 10th episode, “Homefront USA”.

  • thin

    The Smothers Brothers peaked well before my time, and I never cared much about them. Until I learned about how things went down with their show. I saw them in concert and heard their story, and I agree that it is fascinating.

  • unlisted


    • maddy


  • jlh

    I understand your suggestions are (hopefully) all in good fun, but I still don’t think one of the greatest documentary filmmakers ever needs suggestions on pre-production reading materials from the likes of you or me.

  • John Zur

    Don’t forget “Born on the 4th of July”

  • Alexia

    Maraniss’ “They Walked Into Sunlight.”

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