U.S. Compilation Documentary

Vietnam: A Television History, was the most successful documentary produced by public television at the time it aired in 1983. Nearly 9% of all U.S. households tuned in to watch the first episode, and an average of 9.7 million Americans watched each of the 13 episodes. A second showing of the documentary in the summer of 1984 garnered roughly a 4% share in the five largest television markets.

Before it was aired in the United States, over 200 high schools and universities nationwide paid for the license to record and show the documentary in the classroom as a television course on the Vietnam War. In conjunction with this educational effort, the Asian Society's periodical, Focus on Asian Studies, published a special issue entitled, "Vietnam: A Teacher's Guide" to aid teachers in the use of this documentary in the classroom.

The roots of the documentary reach back to 1977 when filmmaker Richard Ellison and foreign correspondent Stanley Karnow first discussed the project. Karnow had been a journalist in Paris during the 1950s and a correspondent in French Indochina since 1959. Karnow and Ellison then signed on Dr. Lawrence Lichty, professor at the University of Wisconsin at the time, as director of media research to help gather, organize and edit media material ranging from audio and videotape and film coverage, to still photographs and testimonial. As a result, Vietnam: A Television History became a "compilation" documentary relying heavily on a combination of fixed moments (photographs, written text) as well as fluid moments (moving video and film).

The final cost of the project totaled approximately $4.5 million. At the time of its broadcast in 1983, it was one of the most expensive ventures ever undertaken by public television. While the initial funding came from WGBH-TV Boston and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting refused financial support. Ellison and Karnow sought additional backing abroad gaining support from Britain's Associated Television (later to become Central Independent Television). Coproduction with French Television (Antenne-2) enabled access to important archives from the French occupation of the region. Antenne-2 produced the earliest episodes of the documentary, and Associated Television partially produced the fifth episode.

Karnow and Ellison saw the documentary as an opportunity to present both sides of the Vietnam war story, the American perspective and the Vietnamese perspective. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, documentaries and films on the Vietnam war tended to look solely at American involvement and its consequences both at home and in the region. Karnow and Ellison sought a more comprehensive historical account that traced the history of foreign invasion and subsequent Vietnamese cultural development over several hundred years. Both producers believed that to gain a more comprehensive view of Vietnam would enable the documentary to become a vehicle for reconciliation as well as reflection.

The series aired first in Great Britain to good reviews, although it did not receive the high ratings it achieved in the United States. At the time of its broadcast in the U.S. in the fall of 1983, the documentary received very positive reviews from The New York Times, The Washington Post and Variety. Furthermore, both Time magazine and Newsweek hailed the series as fair, brilliant, and objective.

Vietnam: A Television History
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research

Still, other critics of the documentary were less complimentary and viewed it as overly generous to the North Vietnamese. The organization, Accuracy in Media (AIM) produced and aired a response to the documentary seeking to "correct" the inaccurate depiction of Vietnam in the series. PBS's agreement to air the two-hour show entitled, Television's Vietnam: The Real Story was seen by many liberal critics as bowing to overt political pressure. PBS's concession to air AIM's response to the documentary (its own production) was rare, if unprecedented, in television history.

The controversy surrounding Vietnam: A Television History and the response to it, Television's Vietnam: The Real Story, raises the important question concerning bias in documentary production. Bias in the interpretation of historical events has fueled and continues to fuel rigourous debates among historians, politicians and citizens. The experience Karnow and Ellison had in creating this documentary underscores the sense that the more "producers" involved in a project, the more difficult the task of controlling for bias becomes. The episodes prepared by the British and French teams were noticeably more anti-American in tone.

Vietnam: A Television History
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research

Despite the controversy, Vietnam: A Television History remains one of the most popular history documentaries used in educational forums. It inspired Stanley Karnow's best-selling book, Vietnam: A History, which was billed as a "companion" to the PBS series. The book also remains one of the top history texts used in college courses concerning the war and its controversy, both in the United States and around the world.

-Hannah Gourgey


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Broyles, W. "Vietnam: A Television History." Newsweek (New York), 10 October 1983.

Henry III, W. A. "Vietnam: A Television History." Time (New York), 3 October 1983.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. Middlesex, England: Penguin.

Lichty, Lawrence. "Vietnam: A Television History: Media Research And Some Comments." In, Rosenthal, Alan, editor. New Challenges For Documentary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Maurer, Marvin. "Screening Nuclear War And Vietnam." Society (New Brunswick, New Jersey), November-December 1985.

McGrory, Mary. "The Strategy Of Stubbornness And The Policy All Too Familiar." The Washington Post. 22 December 1983.

O'Connor, John E. Teaching With Film And Television. Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 1987.

Renov, Michael, editor. Theorizing Documentary. New York, London: Routledge, 1993.

Vietnam: A Television history
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research

Rhodes, Susan, editor. "Vietnam: A Teacher's Guide." Focus on Asian Studies (New York), Fall 1983.

Springer, Claudia. "Vietnam: A Television History And The Equivocal Nature of Objectivity." Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), 1985.

Toplin, Robert Brent. "The Filmmaker As Historian." American Historical Review (Washington, D.C.), December 1988.

Walkowitz, Daniel. "Visual History: The Craft Of The Historian Filmmaker." Public Historian (Santa Barbara, California), Winter 1985.


See also Documentary; Vietnam on Television; War on Television