My generation came of age during the Vietnam War. Some of us volunteered or were drafted to fight in Vietnam. Others had friends and family who fought and some who died. ManyOthers of us joined or led the battle against the war, dropping other pursuits to take risks in those trenches, determined to change U.S. policy. By 1968, Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and others had called for withdrawal.
More than 3 million Vietnamese were killed in the war, along with fifty eight thousand, two hundred and twenty American soldiers.
We learned. We mourned.
Through the music of Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe, Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Peter, Paul and Mary our culture took shape around the war. The activist San Francisco Mime Troupe toured the country performing satirical agit-prop theater. Producer Joe Papp took his musical play, Hair, to Broadway.
Film director Arthur Penn faced hostile critics of the violence and startling sexuality in his 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde. Critical reaction against the film was so fierce that the distributor withdrew it from theaters. Penn noted his film’s metaphorical relevance to Vietnam – and he asked how people could oppose the violence in his film – yet accept the war. New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, nearly alone, declared the film a masterpiece, and argued for a second look. The picture was re-released and went on to huge success, winning eight Academy Award nominations.
50 years since the U.S. experienced its most intense fighting in Vietnam, filmmakers Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s ten-part PBS documentary series is simply titled “The Vietnam War” - with the tag line “There is no single truth in war.”
Washington insiders recently gathered at the Kennedy Center for an emotionally-charged preview of the series. U.S. Senator John McCain, who flew bombing missions against North Vietnam and spent more than five years there as an American POW, was among the guests. So, too, former Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry who commanded a Navy unit and came home to oppose the war.
At the screening, Ken Burns asked everyone who served in the military during the war to stand and be recognized. People applauded. He then asked anyone who protested to also stand. Dozens did. The veterans, including McCain, led the audience in applauding the American anti-war demonstrators.
And for that moment, said Burns, “I couldn’t tell the difference.”