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Ken Burns argues that Vietnam is to blame for much of our current alienation and polarization

Historians in the News
tags: Vietnam, Ken Burns



Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are the directors of the forthcoming documentary “The Vietnam War.”

On April 23, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford delivered an address at Tulane University in New Orleans. As the president spoke, more than 100,000 North Vietnamese troops were approaching Saigon, having overrun almost all of South Vietnam in just three months. Thirty years after the United States first became involved in Southeast Asia and 10 years after the Marines landed at Danang, the ill-fated country for which more than 58,000 Americans had died was on the verge of defeat.

“We, of course, are saddened indeed by the events in Indochina,” the president told the crowd. The United States could soon “regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam,” he said, but only if we “stop refighting the battles and the recriminations of the past.” The time had come, the president concluded, “to unify, to bind up the nation’s wounds” and “begin a great national reconciliation.” Just seven days later, North Vietnamese tanks smashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon. The Vietnam War was over.

It’s been more than 40 years now, and despite Ford’s optimism, we have been unable to put that war behind us. As one Army veteran, Phil Gioia, told us, “The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America.”

For more than a generation, instead of forging a path to reconciliation, we have allowed the wounds the war inflicted on our nation, our politics and our families to fester. The troubles that trouble us today — alienation, resentment and cynicism; mistrust of our government and one another; breakdown of civil discourse and civic institutions; conflicts over ethnicity and class; lack of accountability in powerful institutions — so many of these seeds were sown during the Vietnam War. ...


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