Miller Center Presidential Tapes Featured in New Vietnam War Documentary

Aug 24, 2017

The Vietnam War is the focus of a new PBS documentary produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.  Marc Selverstone, associate professor in presidential studies at the Miller Center and specialist of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, discussed his role as a consultant for the film at the Miller Center yesterday.  WMRA's Marguerite Gallorini reports.

Historian Marc Selverstone provided important sources and feedback during the making of the new PBS documentary on the Vietnam War. Indeed, as chair of the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program, he edits the secret White House tapes of Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon. These tapes were not available at the time of the first PBS documentary, back in 1983.

MARC SELVERSTONE: And they play a significant role in this film. There's a real disparity between the public optimism of so many officials, and particularly the presidents, and their private pessimism. It's that gap between what the public was being told, and what the policy-makers were thinking and wondering about the war and wondering about their capacity to win this war - I think that's what's really arresting.

The tapes notably show Nixon tampering with peace negotiations, so that the war would not end until after he was elected. Another topic addressed in the film, is that of "American exceptionalism."

SELVERSTONE: People of that era, the early 1960s, believed that they were going over there to do right, to do good. I think it changes in the latter part of the 1960s. And then there’s this sense of… 'We really are, perhaps, capable of doing ill,' there's that realization on the part of many who were fighting at the time. It's a much richer, more complex picture of the war on all sides. I think one of Ken's and Lynn's objectives is to give the public a better sense of who the people were, that went through this war, as part of an opportunity to give us a chance to heal.