Column: PBS series on heroism, altruism could repair PBS’ ‘Vietnam War’ damage

Three weeks ago, a long article was published in The Augusta Chronicle that expressed my dismay over the Ken Burns TV series The Vietnam War. I have received a great deal of feedback on this article via email, phone calls and personal, face-to-face, contact.


The feedback so far has been very positive.

The following is an email I received from a retired Army officer who has settled down in Augusta. He served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. He expresses the concerns of so many.

“Based on Ken Burns’ previous works, I was hopeful this would be a comprehensive and unbiased report. That it was both shallow and largely one-sided troubles me most because members of younger generations will accept it at face value and come away with a distorted understanding of both the conflict and those of us who were called to serve.

“I was taken by the predominant theme: the United States was wrong and stupid and North Vietnam was right and smart. North Vietnamese combat footage always shows brave NVA and VC troops enduring hardships and running into battle; U.S. footage consistently shows assaults on meaningless objectives, combat casualties and troops setting fire to peasant houses. If the story line itself isn’t one-sided, the visuals clearly are. There is no attempt to show any of the many, many successes on both tactical and humanitarian levels.

“The other glaring disappointment, in my view, was the program’s failure to honestly explain, in terms of the times — 1950s and ’60s — why the Unites States felt compelled to support South Vietnam. In hindsight, having watched the demise of communism, it’s easy to criticize the decisions made by four successive administrations. But faced with the threat of communist expansion as our leaders understood it then, and being the world’s most powerful free nation, going to the aid of people struggling to remain free of communist domination was an absolute obligation. That we failed to understand the true nature of the conflict and allowed poorly informed military and political decisions to drive the massive enlargement of our commitment are covered well in H.R. McMaster’s book. The shortcomings, though, seem to be the sole focus of the documentary. The larger theme of doing our best to stand against communist expansion — right or wrong — is brushed aside.

“Some lessons can be painful; Vietnam was one of those. It’s unfortunate that Ken Burns decided to add to the pain by emphasizing the negative and discounting the positive.”

If PBS is going to maintain strong public support across the political spectrum, it is important to get its ship on an even keel. In the past several weeks, I have taken a number of steps which may lead to some positive results at the Public Broadcasting Service.

A series of letters have been sent to some key people: the CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service (Paula Kerger), Ken Burns, Judy Woodruff and Charlie Rose.

Included in each letter are some suggestions of ways that the damage caused by this flawed series might be repaired in part.

To give an example of my approach, the following is an excerpt from my letter to Ms. Kerger:

I am writing to draw your attention to an article that was published in The Augusta Chronicle yesterday (15 October, 2017). Although I am a great fan of PBS, I would be remiss if I did not share my concerns about the Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War.

As you can see from my enclosed articles (on the Augusta Warrior Project, the Augusta Museum of History, Saint Paul’s church, etc.), I am almost always positive in my commentary. However, when I find something fundamentally wrong (example: the CNN nerve gas story), I feel compelled to raise my voice publicly.

Here are some recommendations.

1. Commission a PBS series on American heroism. Take a close look at the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission and the Medal of Honor Society. Interview a few recipients of the Carnegie Medal and the Medal of Honor. Interview those who have written books on altruism, compassion, and valor.

2. Ask Judy Woodruff to conduct a series of interviews on heroism and altruism. During this period in America where there is much gloom and doom in the news, viewers might be interested to know that there are more than 10,000 acts of civilian heroism in America each year. The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission has the details.

3. Charlie Rose has conducted a series of interviews on the brain, humor, and technology. Ask him to do a series on altruism.

The Vietnam War TV series has been responsible for PBS’s listing heavily to the port side. Let’s hope corrective action will take place—and soon.

Major General Perry Smith, US Air Force (ret.) flew 180 combat missions over Laos and North Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. His website is



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