WASHINGTON — Ken Burns, introducing his mammoth new PBS project “The Vietnam War” to a Kennedy Center crowd on Tuesday that included Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and former Secretary of State John Kerry, asked for veterans in the audience to stand up and remain standing.
A couple dozen men, largely in their 70s, many still vigorous but with white hair, rose to audience applause and cheers.
Then, Burns asked for any anti-war demonstrators to stand up.
After some nervous laughter, more men, also graying, stood up to more clapping from the audience.
“I couldn’t tell the difference,” Burns said.
“The Vietnam War” is 18 hours long and will be shown over the span of two weeks starting on Sunday, and Burns talked of the series as a way to find reconciliation over a time period that sharply divided the country.
“So much of the division that we experience today, the hyper partisanship, we think the seeds of that were sown in Vietnam,” Burns said. “Most of us have buried our heads in the sand about it. It didn’t turn out very well for us. Many of us have adopted sort of set, certain opinions that existed in our hardened silos for more than 42 years since the fall of Saigon, comfortable in our certainty but unable to have an open and civil discourse about it.”
Burns said that he and his co-director, Lynn Novick, are hoping “that we can change that with this film,” with its comprehensive approach.
“We hope that in showing this 360 degree view we might remind people that there is no one truth in war, that it is possible, as Wynton Marsalis told us in our jazz series, that a thing, and an opposite of a thing, could be true at the same time.”
About 45 minutes of clips were shown to the crowd, which included former senators John Warner and Bob Kerry, Lynda Carter, Diane Lane, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Admiral Mike Mullen. Also present were Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, the underwriter of the event and major corporate funder of the series, along with WETA CEO Sharon Percy Rockefeller and Patricia Harrison, the CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Hilary Rosen, Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.), Tammy Haddad, Jonathan Martin, Robert Costa and Mark Shields.
Chuck Hagel, former Secretary of Defense, said that it was “most compelling, most comprehensive, most honest telling of this story.”
The filmmakers later joined Vietnam veterans Hagel, Kerry and McCain for a panel moderated by Martha Raddatz.
McCain recalled working with Kerry during the 1990s on normalizing relations with Vietnam, which has “contributed significantly to the healing process which still goes on to this day.”
Kerry said that the film “recognizes that the great lesson we learned is that we should never confuse the warriors with the war. It takes a long time for a family to get to a place where they can say, ‘My brother, my son, didn’t die in vain. They served our country. They are patriots.’”
McCain talked about the need for shared sacrifice.
“There was a division in America because we had a draft, and those who were drafted were lower income Americans who didn’t have a college education and couldn’t get a deferment,” he said. “And when you see those pictures of those young people, they came from the lowest income level mostly. That’s not right. If we are going to fight a war, we should be able to ask everybody to fight in it. And that is one of the lessons.”
McCain then ran through three lessons from Vietnam. “Tell the American people the truth. Make everybody be involved if we are going to be involved. And three, learn what victory means and don’t forget it.”