Next Burns War Could Be Vietnam


Documentary producer

Ken Burns

told a

National Press Club

audience in Washington, D.C., Wednesday that he will never say never to war again, with a Vietnam documentary a possible next conflict to bring to TV.

He was talking about his reluctance to tackle the subject on TV after the huge and somewhat surprising success of The Civil War, his groundbreaking 1990 documentary.

Burns was eloquently plugging his new World War II documentary, The War, which debuts this weekend on PBS. He said he had been prompted to take up the subject again in part by studies that showed too many high-school seniors think the U.S. was allied with Germany against Russia in the war -- a finding that he said buckled his knees.

Pointing out that he had re-pped with PBS through 2022, he said his plate was full.

"We are finishing up a multipart history of our National Parks," he said, adding, "We're beginning work, we hope, on an update on our Baseball series and something on prohibition, and Vietnam is not off the table. We're not going to say no to war anymore."

Responding to criticisms by Hispanic groups that the documentary initially left out their stories, he said the show as produced had a "terrific amount of ethnic diversity," and that they set out "knowing that we could not be an encyclopedia or the Manhattan phone book," and went to four towns, advertised our presence and reached out to veterans groups and historical societies. "Out of those groups came the many, extremely diverse groups that are in our film," he said. "In the course of it, no Hispanics came forward, no WACS or WAVES came forward, no Filipino-Americans came forward."

But he did say that in an effort to "rise above," they went out and filmed a couple of Hispanic stories, which he called "fantastic," and a third, Native American story  he said he has wanted to tall for 20 years, and he added them without doing any damage to the artistic integrity of the work he had finished a year-and-a-half before.

But, he said, "We could not have told the story of the Second World War if we burdened ourselves by seeking every single group. We would have teetered and collapsed from our own weight."

Burns said that he thought that adding those stories "has made people whole." But Burns said they had gone beyond that.

Teaming with PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, they encouraged local PBS stations to seek out and tell similar stories of local vets, using The War as a stylistic template. He said that there are more than 40 such films telling hundreds more stories. They also created more than 117 oral-history projects and teamed up with the Library of Congress to encourage kids to take a camera and talk to grandpa, or the neighbor, or Uncle Charlie, and collect their own oral histories, which will be housed at the library.

Asked how World War II might have been different had today's media been around to cover it, Burns' co-producer, Lynn Novick, said it was something they had pondered. She pointed out that the media in World War II was strongly manipulated and generally conveyed an upbeat message until mid-1943, when the government felt that the country was getting too complacent. News outlets were then allowed to show photos, then footage, of dead American soldiers so that the country got a greater sense of the sacrifice.

Novick said part of the plan was to boost enlistment, but "as you can imagine, it didn't." She added that today, it would be much harder to control the media, then paused, cited the government's refusal to show Iraqi war casualties and said, "maybe not."

"We don't see the caskets," said Burns, "so we have to surf the net almost like pornographers."

Asked to contrast World War II with the current Iraq conflict, he said World War II touched everyone on every street, while we now have a military class that suffers apart from most of the rest of us. He also said that while Americans were asked to sacrifice and keep on sacrificing back then, after 9/11, we were asked to give up nothing and instead were told to go shopping.

Today, he said, "we are all free agents, listening to the radio alone, watching TV alone, surfing the net alone," and "unwilling to give up anything in the face of what we are told is a threat to our civilization."