Understanding the limits of the Super-powered Nation - Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's Vietnam War

What makes a great power? It is a term that, in recent centuries, has come to refer to European and North American nations which have the capacity to exert their influence globally; both through ‘hard’ power, for example military invasion, or ‘soft’ power through diplomacy. When the Second World War came to an end, this system of power balance was fundamentally undermined. Britain was economically and militarily depleted, France hallowed of its armed forces, China embroiled in civil strife and Germany, Italy and Japan in total ruins. Resultantly, only two powers remained; the United States of America and the Soviet Union. Alice Lyman Miller famously recategorized these nation-states as ‘superpowers’, arguing that they were countries that had “the capacity to project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world, and sometimes, in more than one region of the globe at a time, and so may plausibly attain the status of global hegemony”.Their relationship would come to define the next half century of international relations, give rise to innumerable conflicts and see movements to secure geopolitical supremacy.

One of these key conflicts, was the Vietnam War. Enter, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, who, over the course of 17 hours, show in unparalleled detail the slow build-up of the war, the different motivations and perspectives, the atrocities and violence and the eventual withdrawal of American forces in stunning style. Accompanied by a haunting score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (of Nine Inch Nails fame), the series features interviews with key actors, including two presidential candidates, John McCain and John Kerry, a former Nixon advisor, Henry Kissinger, as well as a number of significant Vietnamese actors.

In this review, my focus will not be on the entire series – which I highly encourage the reader to watch (if they feel they can spare close to the requisite 17 hours…). Rather, my attention will be on the preliminary episode, which sees the United States dragged into a war that it does not wish to be involved in.

The documentary opens to a black screen listing all the benefactors that have made this project possible. Estimates vary, but Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times suggests the budget exceeded $30 million and took ten years to produce. Evidently, the decision has been made not to hide the patrons of the film - which include some potentially divisive figures, including Bank of America and David H. Koch – and risk them being discovered at a later date and critiqued for partisanship.

A rather standard montage of the war then opens the film, and a narrator sets the scene. As the French attempt to re-establish colonial culture, the Americans find themselves divided. The division is rooted in the American experience – one of liberty and free enterprise. This produces a contradiction in the former French colony. Naturally, they oppose colonialism. Indeed, the episode details early interactions between the CIA and a young Ho Chi Minh, in which his life is saved and his followers given weapons and training. Nevertheless, the spectre of communism haunts the region. America has just been involved in devastating wars in Europe, Asia and Korea, but the Cold War’s long shadow precipitates a paranoia of a ‘domino-theory’ in the region, preventing a long-deserved break for its armed forces. Nevertheless, The Korean experience also gives them confidence that peace can be assured.

Domino-Theory; This theory, which was heavily influential during the entire Cold War period, but especially in its earliest period, proposed that if one country fell to communism in a given region, its neighbours would follow suit. It was first used by President Eisenhower in 1954 in relation to the region of Indochina, warning that the fall of China would drag down Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Burma, before finally hitting the recently independent India. Debate still continues as to the veracity of this theory, but even generally revisionist scholars like Noam Chomsky have accepted its potential.

The documentary takes incredible effort to show, without obvious partiality, the realities and complexities of this period. As the peace negotiations develop, the directors reveal how both sides can act agreeably and defensibly in trying to win themselves the best terms. The result is a major battle between French and Vietnamese forces at Điện Biên Phủ. The decidedly nasty nature of this battle and desperation of the French troops forces the American hand, and they send limited aid.

Ho Chi Minh led an incredible life, being unapologetic in his anti-colonial nationalism for decades. He is the namesake of the Vietnamese capital city to this day.

The episode is masterful in its acknowledgement that few watching it are ignorant of the eventual fate of the American and Vietnamese troops, and it uses this foresight to its advantage, by constantly raising the question of whether its viewers would act differently. Each decision seems justified in its context, but the viewer nevertheless can see the broader picture; America lowering itself into a pool of quicksand, from which escape will come only after much strife pulls the nation deeper.

After the Geneva Accords of 1954 divides the nation along the 17thparallel, however, many in the States seem confident. The film draws from archives such as President Eisenhower’s diary, in which he confides that a military victory would seem impossible. Happily, however, the situation appears stable; and the viewer would be forgiven for seeing the parallels with Korea and being perplexed that the situation would ever devolve. Furthermore, the contradiction between being anti-communist and anti-colonial seems resolved, with the French withdrawing to allow for an independent, democratic South Vietnam that the Americans can support wholeheartedly.

Nevertheless, Burns and Novick are excellent at foreshadowing the problems ahead; namely the popularity of Ho Chi Minh, shown through archive footage of adoring followers, as well as South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem’s out of touch, aloof and unrepresentative nature. This is evidenced from more archive film showing less than enthusiastic onlookers at his open-top parade through a large village.

The narrative is enhanced by interviews with all sides of the conflict, and the directors are exceptional in showing that the two sides viewed this conflict so differently. Among the American interviewees, a pattern of confusion is revealed, as marines try to recount how it was that the United States evolved into the world’s policeman, embroiled in a conflict halfway around the world in a country that many back home would be unable to locate on a map. Conversely, the Vietnamese interviewees note how passionate they were to experience this long sought-after independence after centuries of foreign rule.

The remorse, regret and realisation of a lack of understanding from the American forces has contemporary parallels too blatant to name, but this conflict, and the way in which the United States found itself embroiled within it, is a fantastic case study for how a superpower can act in seemingly logical ways but end up in a weak and regrettable position. It is a fascinating episode, filled with historical context and the demonstration of international relations notions. The contradicted US position and the foreshadowing embedded throughout make this a highly watchable and engaging piece of work, and the film’s devotion to being bipartisan within the historiography of this conflict (although perhaps leaning more towards a revisionist interpretation at times) is a credit to all involved.


Lyman Miller, “China an Emerging Superpower?” Stanford Journal of International Relations, http://www.stanford.edu/group/sjir/6.1.03_miller.html(accessed September 28, 2018).

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/01/arts/television/ken-burns-and-lynn-novick-tackle-the-vietnam-war.html (accessed September 29, 2018).

https://chomsky.info/unclesam01/ (retrieved October

7th, 2018).