The Vietnam War was worse than just a tragic miscalculation

Why are Americans always cast as the well-meaning innocents and others as the bad actors?

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick begin their documentary The Vietnam War with a statement of belief. The narrator declares that the war “was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and cold war miscalculations. And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than admit that it had been caused by tragic decisions, made by five American presidents, belonging to both political parties.”

But the rest of the film casts doubt on these assertions. Over ten episodes and 18 hours, viewers learn that the war was begun more in bad faith than good, by leaders who often behaved indecently, and that its fatefulness derived more from willful blindness than well-intentioned misunderstanding. Americans may have been overconfident and miscalculating, but they were also calculating and cruel. And if they muddled through, they did so not only tragically but with blood on their hands.

The creators of The Vietnam War seem to know that something more haunting lurks behind their narrative, something more damning than a tale of tragic miscalculation. They never have their narrator say so, but the facts they highlight speak for themselves.