Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns began working on “The Vietnam War,” his new multi-part project, a decade ago — long before Donald Trump entered national politics.
With the film debuting on PBS this week, Burns said in an interview with ABC News in the middle of Washington, D.C. that he sees parallels in the present day that make the past worth revisiting.
“Think about the echoes in the present moment,” Burns told ABC’s Rick Klein while in Washington, D.C. “This is about mass demonstrations taking place all across the country against the current administration, a White House in disarray, obsessed with leaks. The president accusing the media of lying about huge document drops of stolen, classified material, about a country polarized and disagreeing with itself, about asymmetrical warfare and accusations that a political campaign reached out to a foreign government.”
Burns elaborates that these parallels are more than coincidence.
“I think it reminds us that a good deal of divisions we experience today — the hyper-partisanship that had seeds in Vietnam — but that history can be just, in general, regardless of the topic, an extraordinarily good help in helping us understand this moment,” he said.
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Co-Director Lynn Novick sees the opportunity as a chance for reflection.
“We have to look at ourselves squarely in the mirror and try to understand why these things happened, and what we can do about it now,” she says of particularly painful portions of American history.
Both of the creators of “The Vietnam War” see the rich historical subject matter as a tool for understanding the present.
In Burns’ view, there is cause for optimism in the perspective it provides.
“I can tell you there are a lot worse periods of American history than people might believe. There are some people that have just passed us by that think this is a great moment, and that’s entirely their right to do that,” he says of the crowd visiting the war memorial located behind him.
“Facts do matter, by the way — that’s a hugely important thing that I think has atrophied from our national discussion,” says Burns.
When asked about his past criticism of the president, Burns responds earnestly that he did once remark that at the time he believed then-candidate and presumed Republican nominee Trump was not prepared for the job.
“I think that we are in a moment [where] we have to sort of deal with this, and understand, and see whether our institutions can hold in the face of these things,” he said.
As for the Vietnam War itself, Burns and Novick relished the opportunity to hear from multiple perspectives.
“The best part of this is learning how the enemy felt,” says Novick.
Burns agrees. “When Americans talk about the Vietnam war they only talk about themselves,” he said.
Burns laments what he describes as exuberance and arrogance preventing us from learning about the North Vietnamese experience — one that is instrumental in understanding the greater historical context of the war.