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“The Vietnam War: An Intimate History”: Book Review


Ken Burns best known for creating a series of documentaries about the American Civil War, shot in 1990, also made a new series about the Vietnam War in 2017. This violent conflict in which America fought to ensure that the communist North did not subjugate the South of Vietnam still causes many controversies and attracts a broad audience. Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns co-authored a book that accompanies the documentary. The book describes various aspects of the events that occurred in Vietnam, especially highlighting diplomatic relations, military and political issues. Thousands of witnesses and historians were interviewed to create the film and book, an incredible amount of material was collected. Despite the relevance of the book’s goal and some advantages, a few aspects of the work, for instance, difficult perception, minor errors, reduce its value.

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The book begins with the introduction written by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, who expresses their intention to reflect all conflict’s sides and understand what a war was. As it becomes clear from the introduction, by creating a film and a book, the authors want to start a dialogue about past events, as they consider them crucial and influential. The book also includes additional works from historians and writers on various aspects of the war.

The first chapter, entitled “Déjà Vu,” deals with the conflict’s background, particularly the liberation of the land after the French occupation. The 1954 Geneva Conference put an end to the French claims to Indochina’s lands (Ward 2017). However, the agreement was signed only with North Vietnam, while the South rejected it. The Cold War aggravated the situation, and with the United States’ support, South Vietnam rejected the deal’s ideas. It believed that they could not be embodied in the communist North. With the conference’s end, US interference in the situation on this territory began to intensify.

The chapter “Riding the Tiger” describes the riots and the crisis that arose in South Vietnam during Ngo Dinh Diem’s reign – Viet Cong (communists) protests and Buddhist protests intensified. Simultaneously, the issue of more severe interference in the situation is being raised in the American government. The “Styx River” is dedicated to 1964-1965 when an army from the North is sent to help the South Vietnamese Communists, which accelerated the uprising. The new US president, Lyndon Johnson, authorizes Rolling Thunder, a long-term bombing operation.

Chapter 4, “Resolve,” describes North Vietnamese troops’ movements along the Ho Chi Minh trail – a network of roads that provided the North with a significant advantage. In America, due to the broad coverage of events, and the almost complete lack of censorship for journalists, citizens learn more about the Vietnam War. This turn of events reinforces the wave of discontent and the anti-war movement. The next chapter, “This Is What We Do,” highlights how significant the losses are among Americans while the government tries to convince citizens that victory is near.

Attacks on the eve of the Tet holiday are described in the chapter “Things Fall Apart.” These sudden communist attacks in Vietnam brought even more losses, destroying the Americans’ hope for victory. After these events, and the long-standing increase in tension, America is shaken by the protests of 1968 (Ward 2017). “The Veneer of Civilization” describes the contradictions faced by conscripts in the United States. Nixon became the new President, and the Vietnam War is continuing.

In “The History of the World,” although the American President promised to withdraw troops gradually, the population found out about a violent massacre. Protests arise again, and Kent State shootings occur as a result of which several people were killed. “A Disrespectful Loyalty” describes the end of the participation of American troops in the war. Finally, in “The Weight of Memory,” after the civil war, the Vietnamese end the hostilities; the text is partly devoted to each party’s recovery.

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The book complements a series of documentaries about the Vietnam War. Their main argument is that after several decades, the conflict still has some consequences and concerns people worldwide – the authors wanted to underline its significance and built a narrative in the anti-war direction. The question of who prevailed is not as important as how much was lost, so probably no one is a winner. To prove this point, the authors aspired to accurately and in detail convey the events from several perspectives. Besides the efforts to show various parties’ opinions, the historical narrative is diluted with witnesses’ real stories. Chronicle from ordinary people always makes a stronger impression than the formal statement of facts.

The book was written to supplement documentaries made by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Knowledge of history prevents mistakes of the past, helps to build a thoughtful strategy. Predecessors’ experience enriches people and broadens their horizons; learning from the past, people become more robust and wiser. Script and book writer Ward is sure that studying history is crucial because it is necessary to see how people act (Roosevelt House 2017). The authors also wanted to start a conversation about the past – how it changed people, why did people act a certain way, what they can tell their children and grandchildren.

The Vietnam War was the first loss for the United States, so it is crucial to understand the causes and events. Moreover, even after almost half a century, there is still debate about reasons the United States was in this war, everyone is looking for an explanation for themselves. With such arguments and the statement that it is necessary to show other prospects for the war, the authors were able to prove the topic’s importance. The project is aimed at a broad audience – both films and the book are designed to tell ordinary citizens trying to figure out what happened, the history of the war, and its background.

The book covered events from Indochina’s French occupation to the 1990s when Vietnam and America restored relations. The authors also note continuing efforts of the sides to recover from the events. The main discussion is about Vietnam – protests, attacks, bombing, and other affairs. The authors also reflect on what was happening in America in parallel with Vietnam. In the United States, this war caused public outrage and many protests. Ward describes the war as follows: “It is a proxy war in which we [Americans] were involved. It is a civil war between North and South. And it’s a revolution from the North and within the South” (Roosevelt House 2017, 27:02-27:18). This point displays how complicated and confusing the events were.

The intention of the book and film to be fair about the events. The authors seek to be objective – as Ward argues, he does not believe that everyone who made decisions during the war can be bad people (Roosevelt House 2017). However, as the author admits, one cannot but be angry at how the presidents made decisions and what they led to. The book is not entirely objective since it has a clear anti-war direction. Davis (2017), a writer and Vietnam veteran, also points to some errors found in the book by Richard Nixon Foundation. For example, the Linebacker operation’s was not named because of Nixon’s love for football, as Ward claims (Davis 2017). Despite the mistake’s insignificance, it demonstrates a bias against Nixon, presenting his decisions as spontaneous and non-strategic.

Ken Burns is a famous filmmaker, and Geoffrey Ward is a historian and writer who have been working together on similar historical projects for a long time. Although they are not historians specializing in the Vietnam War, authors already had successful experience transmitting critical historical events to the general public before publishing the book in 2017. Their experience significantly influenced the next book’s creation, although the Vietnam War is unique and confusing.

The type of book is similar to a textbook or handbook on the Vietnam War. It has a particular structure – historical events alternate with personal stories from politicians, military leaders, and ordinary soldiers. It also includes many photographic materials to make the story more visible. The creation of a book in this format to supplement the documentary film is quite justified and successful. Photos and stories elicit an emotional response, and famous authors attach value. Thus, the book’s advantage is the wide use of the memoirs and stories of soldiers, nurses, and other witnesses of events. Emotions they elicit will possibly leave a deeper understanding of the hardships that wars bring and that they should be prevented. Such memories, nevertheless, are almost unrelated to the narrative and are presented separately.

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However, the book is not suitable for those studying the Vietnam War topic for some time since it is difficult to find something new. The authors wanted to make the book special highlighting it among other works discussing this topic. To do make it unique, they expressed their intention to show the conflict on its various sides. Earlier, American historians discussed the predominantly American perspective, paying little attention to North and South Vietnam. Careful consideration of events can indeed be a great advantage. However, the Vietnamese view is not sufficiently represented, which does not allow readers to form an opinion on their position. As Davis notes in the book’s review, many facts were missed. Moreover, the positions of some crucial personalities – veteran Oliver North or Senator James Webb – were not covered. Thus, the narrative was aimed precisely at the anti-war point of view.

The book should be aimed at a broad audience, which implies an exciting and straightforward text. Nevertheless, it sometimes looks more like a textbook filled with facts. This feature, and that the book is not a historical work that opens a new perspective on a particular event, reduces its significance and value. Ward himself admits that he used very long sentences for both the script and the book (Roosevelt House 2017). The book is quite useful, and I learned more about some interesting aspects, namely, how political decisions were made. However, as mentioned earlier, some errors indicate bias, so it is essential to evaluate the work critically.


The book The Vietnam War: An Intimate History is designed to convey the events of the war from various perspectives and introduce them to interested audiences. It describes events in detail, but there are signs of bias and mistakes. Moreover, there are so many details of events that the book is sometimes difficult to perceive. As this book accompanies the movie, it is filled with photos that make a strong impression on readers. Thus, without being historical work or a fascinating reading for a broad audience, the book performs its accompanying function.


Davis, Paul. 2018.  The Washington Times.

Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College. 2017. “Geoffrey Ward – The Vietnam War: An Intimate History.” YouTube video.

Ward, Geoffrey C., and Ken Burns. 2017. The Vietnam War: An Intimate History. Alfred A. Knopf.

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