In the 1960s, the relatively new medium of television brought the war in Southeast Asia into living rooms across the United States like never before. And, this month, TV is once again at the center of the story as filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick present “The Vietnam War,” a 10-part, 18-hour series on the Public Broadcasting Service.
America is about to the relive the horror and deep divisions spawned by the U.S. war in Vietnam — convulsions that also tore apart the nation’s religious fabric and still echo across the political and cultural landscape.
“So much of the disunion and cynicism we see today dates back to the Vietnam era,” Novick told RNS. “The tension between the secular and religious is part of it, but also class tension and ethnic tension, and the whole urban/rural and red state/blue state split. This didn’t come out of nowhere. A lot of that started to bubble up during Vietnam.”
There was no unified religious or U.S. Christian response to the rapid escalation of the war in Vietnam in the mid- to late 1960s, just like there is no single response to the current war on Islamic extremism in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Africa.
In the mid-1960s, Christian peace organizations such as the Catholic Worker Movement, Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam and the American Friends Service Committee protested rising American involvement, but mainstream groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association for Evangelicals firmly backed the hawkish policies of President Lyndon Johnson.
The tide began turning against the war in the spring of 1967, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. condemned a massive U.S. bombing campaign as “blasphemy against all that America stands for.” King’s speech at Riverside Church in New York City and the quagmire of Vietnam marked the beginning of the end for Johnson, who would soon decline to seek a second term.
“In the film, we hear Dr. King’s words and understand what a watershed that was,” Novick said. “Dr. King felt loyalty to President Johnson because of the work they were doing together on civil rights. King took quite a hammering from many quarters for not being patriotic and not being on the team — from the black community and from the Democratic establishment. In 1967, it was not a popular thing to do to criticize the government about the war.”
Public opinion shifted with the rapid escalation of the conflict between March 1968 and March 1969, when the total number of U.S. soldiers who died in Vietnam jumped from roughly 19,000 to 33,000. Eventually, more than 58,000 Americans would lose their lives. By November 1971, the nation’s Catholic bishops had reversed themselves, saying the war in Vietnam no longer met the religious criteria for a “just war.”
“Before the war began, most Christians in America possessed a naive belief in the inherent goodness of all things American,” observed American religious historian Mark G. Toulouse. “In the years following Vietnam, and later Watergate, this trust in American institutions and government officials dissipated as one of the options truly available to thoughtful Christians.”
Another scholar who has written about the religious response to the war, Kenneth Heineman, said media coverage of radicalized religious leaders, such as the left-wing Catholic priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan, “hurt the overall brand of religion” in America.
“Did the church’s anti-war activism turn off people? Yes,” said Heineman, who teaches at Angelo State University in Texas. “The church was divided, as was the country.”
The Berrigan brothers were among the Catonsville Nine protesters who served prison time for pouring homemade napalm on hundreds of stolen draft records in May 1968. (Here’s a video of that dramatic act of civil disobedience.)
Burns’ and Novick’s marathon series does not focus much on the role of organized religion in contesting or supporting the war. It relates the human stories of the war in Vietnam — the struggle of U.S. military personnel and also of Vietnamese soldiers on both sides of what, for them, was a civil war.
“There were many individual acts of conscience and individual existential questioning about what is right,” Novick said. “There was the question of conscientious objector status and who could have access to it. For part of this time, you had to belong to an organized religion like the [pacifist] Quakers or Seventh-day Adventists” to claim that status.
But Novick noted that the horror of the war raised broader “existential questions about the human condition and the existence of a higher power. … Some people questioned God, while others turned to God to help them get through.”
Novick and Burns also show how the war looked from the perspective of the Vietnamese people. More than 3 million of them died in the war, which began against their French colonial overlords in the aftermath of World War II.
“Religion is also important in Vietnam, and just like in America, there are many Vietnamese perspectives. North and South Vietnam were predominantly Buddhist, with a minority Catholic population. Before the country was divided in 1954 into north and south, the Catholic minority had close ties to the French and often were in positions of authority and power in the French colonial government.”
“When the communists took over in the north, about a million Catholics fled to the south,” Novick continued. “We show that in the film. They would have felt persecuted if they had stayed in the north. In the south, the government formed eventually around [Prime Minister Ngo Dinh] Diem. He was a Catholic and his brother was a bishop. So he was a problematic figure in a Buddhist country.”
“The legitimacy of his tenure was always complicated,” she said. “Over time he became authoritarian and repressive against Buddhists who were protesting the lack of freedom and civil rights. That culminated in immolations by monks and mass demonstrations, which were brutally repressed in 1963, and that resulted in the Kennedy administration deciding to overthrow Diem and put somebody else in power. This all laid bare the tensions between Buddhists and Catholics.”
These history lessons may be new for many viewers of the Burns/Novick project, which premieres on PBS on Sept. 17.
Even for those who were alive to remember it, the war in Vietnam, the filmmakers hoped to convey, was more complicated than our experience or opinions of it.
“Too often,” Novick noted, “when Americans talk about Vietnam, they are talking about themselves.”
Don Lattin is a freelance journalist the author of six books, the most recent being “Changing Our Minds: Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy.”