April 23, 2018

Vietnam Catharsis: Welcome Release From Burns and Novick | Blatant Berry

I’m certain I am not the only American who has finally achieved the catharsis we needed for so long by watching PBS’s production The Vietnam War, the great film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. (In a starred review, it is a recommended purchase for all libraries—see LJ 10/1/17, p. 48). The tragedy of the events and the emotions many of us have borne since have finally been given release and relief in this newest archival work of art. We all owe Burns and his colleagues our gratitude.

As librarians and archivists we have a special appreciation for works of such intense impact that also record for us the crucial details of the awful circumstances every American experienced in that unhappy time. That, after all, is one key purpose of libraries and archives and one reason why we have built the institutions and collections to make such documentation available. Not many such compilations have the power of Burns’s work, but when they do, we gain understanding of our past and that catharsis that allows us to live on, remember it, and yet suffer much less intensely the emotional and mental strain we have carried from those experiences and the memories they left with us.

I will be forever indebted to Burns for this production and for reminding me that this is one of the most important reasons we must revisit our past and its documentation, collect it, and ensure that generations to come can learn what we did and how we felt about it. That, of course, is the purpose of archives and history when they effectively present the depth and breadth of carefully selected detail that chronicles the consequences of events on individuals and our society.

Too often we get versions of our past that are cleansed and less scrupulous, so we can’t know the truth of what happened and how our forerunners reacted to it.

That is especially true of the history we get of times when we were mired in controversy and deep disagreement and even took to the streets and the battlefields with our arguments. Too much of our backstory has been revised by those who endeavor to strengthen their agenda or make us less ashamed of the weaknesses we exhibited and wrongs we committed as a group, a society, a race, or a nation. Sometimes we can recover the lost truths of our past, but it is so much better when we get an unadulterated version such as the one provided by Burns and Novick. It is often painful and always perplexing to experience that time and that war again, but revisiting it with these filmmakers gives us a true understanding and a trustworthy account. For that we can be grateful.

The program delivers the many faceted truths about the Vietnam War. By doing that, it helps us appreciate the function of archives and reputable, accurate, and comprehensive history. It is an important lesson for those of us whose profession requires us to make that information available to all.

Collecting and reporting that legacy is one of our fundamental responsibilities as archivists and librarians. We are duty-bound to bring the past to the present as honestly as possible. That means not only possessing the facts but curating and connecting them to provide the context that turns fact into meaning. Documentary creations like Burns and Novick’s make our work much easier.

This article was published in Library Journal's November 1, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.



  1. Noel Elliot says:

    This is a wonderful recommendation for a wonderful and factual film. It also explains WHY there were huge protests throughout a great many countries, again and again. Now we can at least have some relief because the real story has finally been told.

  2. Glenn Storbeck says:

    Yet again, Mr. Berry is completely wrong. Does he own stock in the producer of this show? The Burns show is terrible! A twisted rewrite of a horrible war, and the propaganda does not stand to honest scrutiny. All one had to hear was the description of the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” and the listener knows the fraud is on. Berry should have retired many years ago, libraries need real leadership.

    • I realise that John’s article and your reply to it were written several months ago but I have only just come across them.

      “The Vietnam War” film is an excellent production that has found wide acclaim amongst those familiar with the time and events. I understand very well that history is readily and far too often re-written by those in whose interest it is to have it seen from a particular perspective. That is one of the reasons why this film is so valuable – it exposes the half-truths and lies that have clouded the more recent understanding or beliefs about the War.

      Regardless of one’s opinion of the film and its perspective, I find it both objectionable and arrogant to write that someone is “completely wrong” and I doubt that it could be evidenced. Further, to imply that the critique of the film, made by a professional of repute, was motivated by personal pecuniary interests is, in my view, both distasteful and unprofessional.

      I am not sure what is meant by “real leadership” in the context of comments here but, again, it seems that reference to it is made only to imply that Mr Berry is not capable of it and hasn’t been for some time, so should have retired.

      My own view is that positive and effective library leadership requires a wide variety of traits, skills and knowledge. Not least among them is that relatively rare ability to put aside personal bias and consider, disinterestedly, the gamut of views on a particular issue with as much objectivity as possible. It also requires focus upon the *issue* and avoiding the, all too common, mistake of confusing the issue with the person holding it. We should not conflate the two.

      I very much appreciated this article both as a professional librarian and as someone who undertook active service in a different theatre and who has a long interest in the politics of warfare and its consequences.

      I believe that the Burns & Novick film makes a valuable contribution to documentation of the Vietnam War and views about it, whether one agrees with those views are not. Certainly it highlights some of the disparity in various interpretations of the conduct of that campaign, the reasons for it, and the rightness or wrongness of it. I see that as a positive.

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