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Series / The Vietnam War

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The Vietnam War is a documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about, you guessed it, The Vietnam War.

This 10-episode, 18-hour documentary series is a history of the entire conflict from the 1940s to the final North Vietnamese victory in 1975. The series starts in the 19th century with the French conquest of Indochina, making what are now the nations of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos a French colony. The French rule with cruelty and arrogance, turning the Vietnamese people against them—including an exile in Paris named Ho Chi Minh.

Ho Chi Minh leads an anti-colonial insurgency that after the end of World War II erupts into a full-scale war pitting the French against Ho's army, the Viet Minh. Nine years of bloody fighting ends with eventual French defeat and withdrawal, but the United States, determined to stop Ho from uniting Vietnam under communism, intervenes. America prevents unification of Vietnam in the 1950s and installs an anti-communist, pro-American regime in the south, leading to a second war before even a year has passed. Twenty more years of horrific combat pass before the United States withdraws in 1973 and South Vietnam is crushed by the North in 1975.


The series has a wide range of interviewees, from soldiers of the armies of the United States and North and South Vietnam, to Vietnamese civilians, to American and Vietnamese politicians and intelligence analysts.

This is not the first PBS documentary series to deal with the war, being preceded by 1983's well-received (and longer, clocking in at 13 episodes) Vietnam: A Television History. See also Last Days in Vietnam, a much shorter American Experience documentary film about the fall of Saigon and the end of the war in 1975 (another, earlier episode of the series dealt with the 1968 My Lai massacre), or Hearts and Minds, a shorter and much angrier film about the American war in Vietnam released in 1974, before the war ended.

Peter Coyote performs the narration. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed over 90 minutes of original soundtrack for the project.



  • AcCENT upon the Wrong SylLABle: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara appears with the new ARVN general, Nguyen Khanh (one in a long line of many), in early 1964 to send the message that America is behind Khanh all the way. Khanh ends a public speech with the phrase, "Vietnam muôn năm," meaning, colloquially, "Long live Vietnam." McNamara raises the general's hand after the speech and yells "Vịt nam muốn nằm!" with the wrong pronunciation and wrong tone which mean "the duck wants to lie down". Instead of being inspired, the Vietnamese audience become hysterical with laughter.
  • "Ass" in Ambassador: Graham A. Martin, the last American ambassador to Saigon, gets portrayed as stubborn and clueless, with his refusal to allow for even the conception of an evacuation plan in spring of 1975, long after it has become a question of when, not if, Saigon will fall to the communists endangering the lives of all the Americans and their allies and leads a number of CIA operatives working out of the embassy to wonder if he was even still sane. Marine Sergeant Juan Valdez, the last American to leave the US Embassy via helicopter during the fall, says he still blames Martin for how much of a disaster that the Fall of Saigon became.
  • Authors / Warrior Poet: Many of the American veterans interviewed went on to become best-selling authors, notably Philip Caputo (A Rumor of War), Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn) and Tim O'Brien (The Things They Carried), who have all published memoirs of their war experiences as well as war-related fiction. William D. ("Bill") Ehrhart and John Musgrave are also published poets, and Musgrave secured a book deal as well after becoming the series' "breakout star."
    • On the North Vietnamese side, Bao Ninh went on to write the best-selling novel The Sorrow of War, while Huy Duc wrote a two-volume history book on life in the country during and after the war.
  • Battle Couple: PAVN truck driver Nguyen Nguyet Anh and engineer Tran Cong Thang both served on the Ho Chi Minh trail during the war, and got married afterwards.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For:
    • French General Henri Navarre establishes a fortress at Dien Bien Phu with the express hope of luring the Viet Minh into a decisive battle. Well, he got one. That's what happens when you neglect to secure the high ground and underestimate the enemy's determination to place artillery there.
    • Subverted when Army lieutenant Michael Heaney, when caught in an ambush in which every one of his men was either killed or mortally wounded, prayed to God that he would be the next to die instead of anyone else in his platoon. He was even so worried about having tempted fate that he immediately said, "Holy shit, can I take that prayer back?" Thankfully, no one in his platoon died after that, though Heaney himself was so badly wounded he nearly lost his leg.
    • John Musgrave wasn't content with being stationed at Danang as he felt he wasn't "in the varsity" as far as combat went, and wanted to go up north to the DMZ, where the "action" was. The result: he was assigned to a company that took so many casualties they became known as the "Walking Dead," and nearly met the same fate himself.
    • Much like Musgrave, Mogie Crocker was so eager to kill communists that he deliberately fouled up his work while working a desk job so he could be assigned to combat duty. Both he and his best friend would end up dying in Viet Cong ambushes.
  • Berserk Button: Ron Ferrizzi, a helicopter crew chief, recalls returning from a mission and being asked by a young female reporter to describe what it was like. Furious at the question, he says he "wanted to whack her" but settled for firing a shot over her shoulder without another word, thus giving her a taste of what it felt like to have bullets whizzing by just inches from your own head.
  • Berserker Tears: Bill Ehrhart, a former Marine corporal, remembers sobbing hysterically after seeing the iconic photo of 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over the corpse of a murdered student at Kent State, which he says galvanized him to become more involved in the anti-war movement.
  • Black Sheep: Lt. Col. Matt Harrison's younger brother, Bob ("Robin"), who signed up with the Marines but ended up going AWOL twice, fleeing to Canada the second time. Though his family still loved him dearly (Matt even volunteered for a second tour of duty in Vietnam to keep Robin out of combat, and his sister covered for Robin when the FBI came looking for him, giving him time to escape), his being a deserter was an embarrassment to his mother. Robin eventually ended up addicted to drugs and died of an overdose in Hong Kong.
  • Blatant Lies: A 1971 audio tape of Kissinger and Nixon musing about how the South Vietnamese were doomed, and they could only hope that the collapse didn't come until after Nixon ran for reelection in 1972, is immediately followed by an April 8, 1971 public address by Nixon to the nation in which he confidently asserts that Vietnamization has succeeded. Nixon had already assured the American public that South Vietnamese President Thieu was all for Vietnamization and believed it would work, which was also false; Thieu only agreed because he felt he had no choice.
    • In a war in which the only barometer for success is body count, American journalists are given inflated numbers of Viet Cong/NVA casualties to report and are brushed off if they doubt the veracity of these figures. A particularly egregious example is following the battle for Hill 1338, in which a reporter, expressing doubt at Gen. Westmoreland's figure of 475 Viet Cong dead, is told flat out, "Too late; the report has already gone out." According to Lt. Col. Matt Harrison, the actual number of Vietnamese dead may have been as low as nine or ten. Similarly, during Operation Speedy Express, it's reported that American forces killed nearly 11,000 enemy operatives in the Mekong Delta in comparison to only 242 U.S. deaths (a 45:1 kill ratio); what's not reported is that likely more than half of the "enemy" deaths were unarmed civilians.
    • The Americans, of course, aren't the only side to deliberately mislead the public about the progress of the war. The North Vietnamese press reports the Tet Offensive as a major victory for their side, when in reality the NVA and Viet Cong fighters were crushed just about everywhere. Nevertheless, many citizens, especially those who haven't heard from loved ones who went south to fight, aren't fooled, and many tune in shortwave broadcasts from BBC or Saigon for the real story.
    • In 1963, eight protesters - none older than 20 - are killed in Hue when the Catholic provincial chief dispatches special forces to break up a protest by Buddhists upset about religious persecution. The Diem government blames the Viet Cong for the deaths, although the Viet Cong had nothing to do with it.
  • Bloodier and Gorier: The most violent of Ken Burns's War Trilogy, with mentions of Ludicrous Gibs and other graphic detail of battlefield corpses.
  • Bookends: Author and veteran Tim O'Brien reads the same passage from The Things They Carried at the beginning and end of the last episode.
  • Break the Cutie: As with most wars, many of the soldiers profiled went in as idealistic, patriotic young men eager to fight for their country, only to be broken down by the experience of combat. Mogie Crocker, for instance, volunteered to go to Vietnam out of patriotism and actively tried to get duty on the front lines, only to see his friends killed and wounded out in the jungle before eventually being killed himself at the age of just 19. His letters to home (or to friends anyway) grow increasingly despairing, with his last letter proclaiming that he's lost his faith in God after witnessing his best friend get killed right next to him.
    • Although Mogie's letters to his family weren't nearly so bleak, his sister Carol recalls him confessing to her, just before he was due to ship out, that he didn't want to go back, and yet remained determined to see it through.
  • The Cassandra:
    • Lt. Col. Peter Dewey, the OSS officer in charge in Saigon in 1945, who sends memos back home saying that the French and British are finished in Vietnam and that the United States needs to get out. He is mistaken for a French official and killed by the Viet Minh.
    • One officer counsels against the United States giving tacit permission for the 1963 coup against President Diem. The officer warns that while Diem is a corrupt, autocratic dictator he is at least a stable strongman, and if he's taken out, he'll be followed by "a succession of mediocre generals." This is exactly what happens, as political instability and weak leadership plague South Vietnam right up until the end in 1975.
    • During the Battle of Binh Gia, four American advisors are killed when their helicopter is shot down, with ARVN troops entering into a fire fight with Viet Cong in order to retrieve them. During the day the American bodies are retrieved and the soldiers wait for relief, but as night falls American Lieutenant Phillip Brady and South Vietnamese Marine Tran Ngoc Toan warn the ARVN officer, Major Nho, that night is falling and they need to get out fast before things get worse. Nho pulls rank and walks away. Ten minutes later the Viet Cong begin shelling their position.
    • Vice President Hubert Humphrey sends LBJ a private memo advising him that military intervention in Vietnam will undercut the administration's plans for the Great Society, hurt America's image abroad, and lead to escalating tensions with the Soviet Union. LBJ doesn't even answer the memo.
    • Later, Undersecretary of State George Ball in 1965 begs LBJ not to send in 50,000 more ground troops, arguing that they will only get bogged down in the jungle while blasting the hell out of the country and that public support for the war at home will dwindle. No one else agrees and the troops are sent.
    • Robert McNamara himself - the chief architect of U.S. involvement in Vietnam - becomes convinced the war is hopeless and several times tries to convince LBJ to stop bombing North Vietnam and to begin withdrawing U.S. troops instead of sending more. LBJ refuses. Not long afterward, McNamara leaves his post as Secretary of Defense.
    • The CIA is desperate to draw up evacuation plans in 1975 as the North Vietnamese begin to close in on Saigon, but the American ambassador is adamant that doing so would cause a panic and refuses to even allow a big tree that stood in the embassy parking lot to be cut down to allow the parking lot to serve as a helicopter pad until it's almost too late.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Used by both sides. The North Vietnamese used beatings, forced isolation, and various creative forms of torture to break the spirits of American prisoners, while South Vietnamese and American forces used this to root out suspected Viet Cong operatives. One of the reels shows South Vietnamese security officers waterboarding an elderly villager in a ditch on the side of a road.
  • Corrupt Politician:
    • A terrible problem for South Vietnam. Many South Vietnamese rejoiced at the death of Diem, little realizing there was just as bad, if not worse, to come. Phan Quang Tre, a government official interviewed in the series, calls out President and Vice President Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky for being extremely corrupt. The rampant corruption in the south greatly reduces the effectiveness of the South Vietnamese government and costs it legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
    • And, of course, there's you-know-who, who, apart from the obvious, also sabotaged peace talks to win his first Presidential election in 1968 (which his direct predecessor believed was treason but couldn't do anything about because he had himself learned of it by bugging his South Vietnamese allies) and created the Plumbers to try to dig up dirt on the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers in an effort to discredit him.
  • Could Say It, But...: When the narration talks about young men who got out of the draft by use of student deferments, a picture of Bill Clinton flashes onscreen. When the narration next talks about well-connected young men who got out of the draft by getting cushy National Guard duty in the States, a picture of George W. Bush flashes onscreen.
  • Crisis of Faith: Shortly before his death, Mogie Crocker wrote a letter to a friend confessing that he was sick of war and that he had lost his faith in God: "I was fantastically religious for a while... but back in the hospital I am once again an atheist until the shooting starts again."
    • Mogie's mother Jean-Marie recalls a conversation she had with her oldest daughter, Carol, after Mogie's death in which Carol asked her how she could believe in God any more. Jean-Marie told her that she could hold on to her faith because she regarded Mogie's very life as a gift from God.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Once the US completely withdraws from South Vietnam, the war very quickly turns into one of these in North Vietnam's favor.
  • Cut Phone Lines: President Diem cuts all the phone lines out of the U.S. embassy and the United States Information Service before launching his highly controversial August 1963 raids on Buddhist temples throughout South Vietnam.
  • Dark Is Evil: John Musgrave was left with a lifelong fear of the dark after his experience in Vietnam, so much so that he admits he still sleeps with a nightlight - which baffled his children years later when they wondered why they had to give up their nightlights while their father still had his.
  • Darker and Edgier: While this isn't the first of Ken Burns's projects to be rated TV-MA, this is his first miniseries to be rated TV-MA all the way, and in addition to being Bloodier and Gorier as mentioned above, more F-bombs get dropped than usual (especially for a PBS program) throughout.
    President Johnson: Hello, Frank. This is your President. Are you trying to fuck me?
  • David Versus Goliath: Though it would grow into one of the largest, most well trained and well equipped armies in the world by the end of the war, the PAVN was very much the David to the US Army's Goliath.
  • Death from Above: Used liberally by the US during Operation Rolling Thunder. It ultimately ends up being ineffective.
  • The Determinator: The NVA and Viet Cong were at a massive disadvantage technologically, continued to take immensely disproportionate casualties compared to the US for most of the war, and lost in almost every open battle against US forces, but ultimately won because they had more will to win the war than the Americans did.
  • Didn't See That Coming: The French forces at Dien Bien Phu definitely didn't foresee the Viet Minh literally dragging thousands of artillery and anti-aircraft pieces up the sides of mountains to encircle them.
  • Disguised in Drag: A North Vietnamese veteran recalls how soldiers streaming into South Vietnam in preparation for the Tet Offensive were instructed to dress like civilians and "blend in" to allay suspicion. This included men dressing as women and smuggling in their AKs under their dresses.
  • Dragon Lady: South Vietnam's original First Lady, Madame Nhu, was a real life example (and, although this is not mentioned in the documentary, was even referred to as "the Dragon Lady" in the American press). She horrified the world with her sharp tongue, arrogance, and brutality toward brother-in-law Diem's administration's critics, including nonchalantly writing off the self-immolation of Buddhist monks as "barbecues" (even mocking them in one interview for using imported gasoline).
  • Driven to Suicide: Narrowly averted by John Musgrave, who descended into a deep depression when he returned from the war and was eventually ready to blow his own brains out... but decided not to when he heard his dog scratching on the door to be let in.
    • Played straight during the fall of Saigon, when a South Vietnamese officer kills himself in front of a public war memorial rather than face capture by the communists.
    • Also during Dien Bien Phu, in which a French commander who began the battle overconfidently declaring he had more guns than he needed was quickly proven wrong by the Viet Minh and decided to end it all during the battle rather than face the fallout of the French defeat.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Almost everyone interviewed, but especially the South Vietnamese Marine veteran Tran Ngoc Toan, who spent almost a decade in a communist re-education camp after the war.
  • Evil Me Scares Me: John Musgrave, who felt this way after killing his first enemy combatant and (after seeing a fellow soldier blown to pieces by a land mine) resolved to bury these feelings in order to keep on fighting. See also These Hands Have Killed.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: Japanese-American soldier Vincent Okamoto relates a story about how he had once traded his rations and a pack of cigarettes to a kindly villager in exchange for some of her rice. One of his squadmates gave him grief for eating all her rice, to which the soldier joked that she had enough rice for a dozen men... and then realized that meant she was more than likely hiding Viet Cong guerillas. Sure enough, after discovering a nearby tunnel and tossing in a grenade, Okamoto discovered that the grenade had killed half a dozen enemy combatants - and when he and his fellow soldiers dragged the bodies to the town square to see who would mourn them, among the mourners were the kindly villagers who had shared their rice with Okamoto.
  • Fighting for a Homeland: Duong Van Mai, a woman whose father was a civilian administrator in South Vietnam, admits that this is why many South Vietnamese always sort of believed that the Communists would win in the end. They were making tough choices and moral compromises, while the communists were true believers fighting for a clear and obvious goal: unification of the country and expulsion of the Americans. She also admits that she and her family felt some pride when the Viet Minh defeated the French in 1954, since an Asian army had won over a major Western power - which didn't stop them from leaving their home in Hanoi for the South out of fear that her father, who had stayed faithful to the French, would be killed.
  • Final Battle: For the French, it's the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. For America and South Vietnam, it's the 1975 Spring Offensive which ended with the Fall of Saigon.
  • Flash Forward: Used many times in the first episode, to underline the similarities between the French colonial experience and the later American war. One example quotes a French soldier's despairing letter home to his mother, about how the war is going badly. The scene then cuts forward 20 years, to have American vet Roger Harris talk about his despairing phone call home when he told his mother that America was losing the war.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The fate of South Vietnam after the 1973 cease-fire, which allows all the NVA troops in South Vietnam to maintain their positions. One American talking head notes that what was billed as a peace accord was really an agreement for American military withrawal in exchange for the North releasing American prisoners. Everyone who's paying attention is fully aware that if the South Vietnamese weren't able to drive the communists out of their country when they had 500,000 American troops helping, they probably are going to be in a lot of trouble fighting alone.
    • Also, the fate of Mogie Crocker seems all but obvious from the moment he is introduced at the beginning of episode three - even without knowing his story, the viewer immediately knows he isn't going to survive the war.
  • Foreshadowing: A montage early in the first episode shows a clean-cut American Marine, then cuts to a long-haired, bearded hippie at a peace rally. Eventually the clean-cut Marine is revealed to be John Musgrave, one of the most prominent talking heads in the series. A later episode reveals that the long-haired hippie protester is also John Musgrave.
    • Mogie Crocker's mother, Jean Marie, recalls reading the famous St. Crispin's Day Speech from William Shakespeare's Henry V to her son as a bedtime story, including the passage: "For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother." Mogie would volunteer for combat and be killed in action in Vietnam.
  • Forever War: The full war between North and South Vietnam lasted from 1955 to 1975, before which it had been at war with France from 1946 to 1954. After the Fall of Saigon, it still had to contend with wars against the Khmer Rouge and Deng Xiaoping's China, the former lasting from 1978 to 1989. Before all of that, it was invaded by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1941 and saw a low level insurgency until the Japanese surrendered in 1945. All told, except for brief periods of peace that usually lasted less than a year, the country of Vietnam was at war more or less continuously for 48 years.
  • Fun with Acronyms: The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) straddling the border between North and South Vietnam, where some of the fiercest fighting of the war takes place, becomes referred to as the Dead Marines Zone.
  • General Ripper: Le Duan, party secretary and de facto leader of North Vietnam, who had no patience for Ho Chi Minh's desires for reconciliation and pushed to escalate the war against the South, likely extending the war by more than a decade. He also grew increasingly impatient with Vo Nguyen Giap's strategy of drawn out guerilla warfare and ordered several large scale conventional offensives against the South. Arguably a General Failure as well, as he repeatedly went against the advice of resident strategic genius Vo Nguyen Giap in doing so and almost all of them, with the exception of the 1975 Spring Offensive, failed with heavy casualties for the North.
  • Get Out!: After her son, about whom she had written her hit song "My Son," is killed in combat, country singer Jan Howard is approached by protesters who ask her to join them at an anti-war rally. She flatly refuses, reminds them that her son died for their right to protest in the first place, and tells them not to come back or she'll blow their heads off.
  • Grey-and-Grey Morality: The stance the documentary takes towards the war. It doesn't clearly side with either the communists or the Americans, and takes pains to acknowledge that all sides committed horrible crimes during the war.
  • Haunted House: When Danang falls to the Communists, NVA fighter Le Minh Khue is assigned to stay in the home of an ARVN officer who had fled with his family (apparently so quickly that they had to leave most of their worldly possessions behind). Later she learns that the officer and his family drowned when the barge on which they were attempting to flee sank, and is afraid to stay in the house alone at night for fear that their spirits will return and haunt her.
  • Hellhole Prison: North Vietnamese prison camps were infamous for the brutal tortures they inflicted on American prisoners. Some American soldiers were no kinder toward their Vietnamese captives.
  • Heroic Dog: After returning home and experiencing a long period of severe PTSD, the only thing that stopped John Musgrave from killing himself was the sound of his dog scratching on the door to be let in.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The USA inadvertently helps to create the Viet Minh by giving weapons and training to Ho Chi Minh's band of guerrillas to help them fight the Japanese in World War II. Their refusal to recognize the independence of Vietnam didn't help.
  • Hopeless War: Turning the war into one was the entire crux of the North Vietnamese strategy, and history shows that it worked. To summarize, Vo Nguyen Giap's theory of "people's war" acknowledged that the PAVN would be ground into dust in any conventional battle against US firepower, and so he greatly deemphasized winning battles and conquering territory in favor of simply keeping the US stalemated until they and their allies were forced to withdraw, leaving South Vietnam as easy pickings for a decisive assault.
  • Hope Spot:
    • Episode Nine ends with a treaty with North Vietnam signed, American combat troops, including the former prisoners of war, finally returning to the United States, and for all appearances looking like the United States has finally found a peaceful resolution to the war. Ray Charles' version of "America the Beautiful" plays to a crescendo... and then ends in a Last Note Nightmare, immediately transitioning into footage of a funeral for an American solider. The narrator then points out the still lingering questions, including whether or not the South Vietnamese Government would survive. The final shot of the episode even states the current date of March 1973, which knowledgeable viewers would know there are still more than two years of fighting left.
    • The North's Easter Offensive of 1972, after the US had pulled out almost all of its ground troops, was defeated by the ARVN with the help of American air support. This briefly created the hope that the South's government could hold its own against the North, which was disproved in 1975, once America had withdrawn completely.
  • Hormone-Addled Teenager: You end up with an army full of these when so many of your soldiers are just 18 or 19, like John Musgrave, who recalls ogling Playboy photos of topless Haight-Ashbury hippie women with his buddies (knowing little about the anti-war movement at that time, they thought "hippie" was pronounced "hip pie"). Little wonder Saigon and other South Vietnamese cities were soon overflowing with young country girls from destroyed villages there to work as prostitutes and "bar girls" (see also Miss Saigon).
  • Humans Are Bastards: "We're not the top species on the planet because we're nice," opines Marine veteran and author Karl Marlantes, adding that military training doesn't turn recruits into cold-blooded killers as much as it brings out the brutality that was already there.
  • Hurricane of Euphemisms: John Musgrave rattles off a list of anti-Vietnamese slurs when recounting how he had to dehumanize the enemy so he would be mentally prepared to kill them.
    Musgrave: And that's [after he witnessed a fellow Marine killed by a land mine] when I made my deal with the devil. I said to myself, "I will never kill another human being as long as I'm in Vietnam. However, I will waste as many gooks as I can find; I'll wax as many dinks as I can find; I'll smoke as many zips as I can find. But I'm not gonna kill anybody." It's Racism 101 - turn the enemy into an object.
  • I Am Spartacus: When the guards at Hal Kushner’s POW camp ask who killed the camp commander’s cat, all six prisoners including Kushner said they did. Kushner in his interview actually quotes the line from Spartacus.
  • Illegal Religion: President Diem, a Catholic, doesn't outlaw Buddhism per se in South Vietnam in 1963, but he does make the free practice of the faith for his nation's 70% Buddhist population virtually impossible. In Hue, eight protesters upset about the forced removal of Buddhist flags on Lord Buddha's birthday are slain by Catholic authorities. In August, Diem orders nationwide raids on Buddhist pagodas in which 1400 are arrested, angering many Catholics as well as Buddhists. And when the nation's college and high school students join the protests, Diem closes all the nation's schools. It's this religious intolerance that inspires generals in Diem's own forces to plan a coup, with the Kennedy administration's blind eye turned toward them.
  • Informed Attractiveness: Philip Caputo, one of the first Marines to land at Da Nang in 1965, remembers the welcoming committee, which consisted of young women clad in long white gowns who greeted the soldiers with leis, as being so beautiful they looked like "angels come to earth."
  • Insignia Rip-Off Ritual: The Vietnam Veterans Against the War, denied entrance to the U.S. Capitol by a hastily erected fence, wind up taking off their combat medals and throwing them over the fence onto the Capitol steps.
  • Insistent Terminology: One of the New York construction workers who beat up anti-war protesters in Brooklyn insists, when being interviewed by a TV reporter, that it wasn't an "attack" and that the construction workers were "provoked" by the very presence of the anti-war protesters.
  • Interchangeable Asian Cultures: Some of the epithets and other terms American soldiers used to describe Vietnamese had been used against other Asian peoples in previous wars. For example, "Gook" was used to describe enemy combatants in the Korean War (and had an earlier history of being used against Latin Americans), while "Mama-san" (elderly woman) was previously used in Allied-occupied Japan following World War II against female owners of whorehouses. "Hooch," the term used for the dwellings in which locals lived, also came from World War II, as a corruption of a Japanese world for "dwelling."
  • Intrepid Reporter: While most press coverage of Vietnam early on is positive, some journalists, like Neil Sheehan of United Press International, are steadfastly committed to making sure the American public understands what's really going on, which includes reporting the truth about ARVN incompetence and corruption despite pressure to write the puff pieces MACV wants. Later, while working for the New York Times, Sheehan obtains the Pentagon Papers, which, after publication (which Nixon tries to halt), hit the American public like a bombshell.
  • Ironic Juxtaposition: Near the end of Episode Six, a shot of US soliders listening to a speech is shown while the narrator quotes a British correspondent from 1968 saying "whoever captures the presidency this November will be obliged to end the conflict within a matter of months." The photo then pulls out to show that the soldiers are, in fact, listening to future president Richard Nixon, who will not be president when the war finally ends in 1975.
  • Irony: A very tragic example. Ho Chi Minh initially idolized the US and considered them to be a protector of the oppressed peoples of the world, and his nascent guerrilla movement received training and equipment from the OSS during World War II. He even went so far as to quote the Declaration of Independence when proclaiming the Viet Minh's provisional government in Hanoi in 1945. It was only after the US decided to back the French in their efforts to reconquer Indochina that he came to view the US as an enemy.
  • It's All My Fault: Roger Harris invoked this trope, at least to himself, during the Tet Offensive when he managed to escape from Dong Ha with his life only to run into more enemy fire at Da Nang. Having already lost a number of friends in combat whom he describes as "good Christians who didn't swear or have sex," he was convinced God was now punishing him for his own sins and that this would bring death upon him and those with him.
  • It's Personal: Vo Nguyen Giap became especially motivated to drive the French out of his country after Vichy French soldiers beat his wife to death in prison and guillotined his sister in mid-1943.
  • It's Raining Men: The French have to resort to this after they are surrounded at Dien Bien Phu. It doesn't save them from surrender after an eight-week siege.
  • Just Following Orders: Paul Meadlo's justification (in archive footage, no one from My Lai is interviewed) for why he murdered children and babies at My Lai.
  • Karma Houdini: Everyone involved in the My Lai Massacre except for William Calley is exonerated; Calley is sentenced to 20 years hard labor, but his sentence is reduced by the Army and then further marginalized down to cushy house arrest by Nixon, and he ultimately only serves 3 1/2 years before he is paroled.
  • The Ken Burns Effect:
    • Of course! It's his effect! Although a documentary about a 20th century conflict has much more live footage (and interviews with living witnesses) to call on than other Burns documentaries, like The Civil War, there still is a lot of panning-and-scanning of still photographs.
      • There is considerably much less in the way of actors reading lines, however, as we get to hear the actual voices of many of the deceased figures - not only Johnson, Nixon, etc., but soldiers like Michael Holmes. Two notable exceptions are Mogie Crocker and Pete Hunting (an American noncombatant volunteer murdered by Viet Cong in 1965), whose words are read by actors.
    • One particularly good use of the Effect starts with a closeup of a picture of Nguyen Van Thieu looking behind him with what for all the world appears to be a Death Glare. The film then zooms out to show that Thieu was looking at Richard Nixon. The context was Nixon's "Vietnamization" plan, the gradual American withdrawal which most everybody knew would doom the South Vietnamese to defeat.
  • Landslide Election:
    • President Diem decides to hold a referendum in South Vietnam on his leadership. His American advisers recommend not messing around with the results. They are embarrassed when the referendum shows Diem winning an absurd 98.2% of the vote.
    • The same damn thing happens with President Thieu in 1971; he claims 94% of the vote.
    • Both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon won their second terms in landslide elections. Both ended in disaster, though in different ways (i.e. Johnson's reputation was so tainted by his handling of the war that he opted not to run for a third term even though he legally could due to the circumstances of his ascension in 1963note , and Nixon was brought down by Watergate).
  • Language Barrier: In early 1966, in an (unsuccessful) attempt to distract the American public from televised hearings on the war, Johnson travels to Honolulu to meet with the two generals in chief of South Vietnam and tells them to get some "coonskins on the wall" - meaning some kind of proof of progress. The South Vietnamese, not being familiar with this expression, have no idea what Johnson is talking about.
  • La Résistance: The Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh. They start out by fighting the Japanese occupiers, then the French, after it becomes clear that the French are determined to take over again in Vietnam. The Viet Cong regard themselves as this when later fighting against the Americans in South Vietnam.
  • Late to the Realization: The apocryphal story about how, in 1967, military planners programmed a number of numeric figures - body count, weapon strength, etc. - into a computer to determine when the war would be won. After a weekend to process the data, the computer determined that the best chance to win the war was in 1965 - two years earlier.
    • Tim O'Brien, during his tour of duty, notices that the people of Quang Ngai province, even the young children, seem unusually hostile to the American soldiers' presence. Once the news of the My Lai massacre breaks, he realizes why.
  • Left for Dead:
    • John Musgrave is written off as a terminal case by no fewer than three triage workers (including a chaplain) after being wounded at Con Thien. Finally, someone sees he's conscious and lucid and yells, "Why isn't someone helping this man?!"
      • Averted with the Marines, who never abandon their wounded and dead and risk their lives to rescue their comrades, which is how Musgrave was wounded (and how two other Marines were hit trying to save him).
    • Similarly, Joan Furey, an Army nurse, recalls that some men were already labeled as terminal by the time they reached the hospital. Once, she decided to try to treat one of these soldiers even though he had been labeled as terminal, and asked for blood for transfusion purposes, only to be horrified when the transfused blood came right back out of the soldier's body through the hole in his head. Only then did she realize the man wasn't going to make it, but she was forced to bury her feelings and go on with her work.
  • Les Collaborateurs: The Vietnamese puppet emperors and mandarins under the French. Also, the Americans for collaborating with the French to maintain colonial rule in Vietnam after World War II, which made many Vietnamese hate the Americans years before U.S. combat troops set foot there.
  • Ludicrous Gibs: As Roger Harris put it in a phone call to his mother, in which she tried to convince him he would survive the war because he was "special": "I'm putting pieces of 'special' people in bags." Journalist Joe Galloway remembers tending to an American soldier who was severely burned in the Ia Drang Valley by "friendly" napalm and literally watching the young man's "cooked" flesh fall right off his feet and ankles, exposing the bone; the soldier later died of his injuries.
  • Lured into a Trap: How Hal Kushner becomes a prisoner of war. After he is left alone for several days after his plane crashes and his crewmates die and then literally just misses a rescue plane, a South Vietnamese farmer invites the injured Kushner in for something to eat. Almost immediately he hears Viet Cong telling him to surrender.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Le Duan, who is the most powerful person in Hanoi after 1960 due to Ho's ailing health and is pretty much solely in charge after 1963. The Americans don't even learn his name until some years later, thinking they are still dealing with Ho Chi Minh.
    • Also in South Vietnam by 1963, it's become increasingly obvious that it's President Ngo Dinh Diem's brother Nhu who wears the pants when it comes to government, with Nhu's wife serving as default First Lady (and appalling people on both sides of the Pacific with her diarrhea of the mouth). The U.S. suggests that Diem distance himself from his brother and sister-in-law; Diem refuses.
  • Manly Tears: This series disproves the idea that "boys don't cry", on both sides. One North Vietnamese soldier says he realized the humanity of his American adversaries when he witnessed how they mourned their fallen comrades. Even John Musgrave comes visibly close to losing his composure while describing his Interrupted Suicide attempt, and recalls sobbing uncontrollably during his first visit to the Vietnam Memorial.
  • Man on Fire: One of the most iconic images of the entire thirty-year conflict, as Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc burns himself to death at an intersection in downtown Saigon to protest Diem's persecution of Buddhists. Other monks follow suit. First Lady Madame Nhu nonchalantly writes off their sacrifice as "barbecues" and mocks them for using imported gasoline.
  • Mark of Shame / Medal of Dishonor: Medals were such for the veterans who participated in the Insignia Rip-Off Ritual at the Capitol in 1971, including Ron Ferrizzi, a former helicopter crew chief who says he certainly wasn't about to hang them on his wall for his son to revere.
    • For many American soldiers, simply being a vet in the first place was a Mark Of Shame. Karl Marlantes was angrily rejected by a potential girlfriend once she found out he'd been a Marine.
  • Martial Pacifist: Soldiers like Tim O'Brien and Karl Marlantes, who enlisted even though they believed the war was wrong and immoral. O'Brien says he regrets enlisting more than anything he did during the war itself.
    • Many who began as Wide Eyed Idealists, like John Musgrave, eventually developed their own anti-war sentiments and even joined the peace movement. Musgrave in fact points out that he continued to conduct himself as a Marine even while he was protesting the war and considers his time in VVAW service as honorable as when he was in combat.
  • Men Don't Cry: Averted, and how. A number of the veterans interviewed, on both sides, choke up during their interviews. Even John Musgrave comes visibly close to tears while talking about his Interrupted Suicide attempt, and also recalls sobbing uncontrollably the first time he visited the Vietnam Memorial.
  • Mickey Mousing: A montage in Episode 4 shows artillery, missiles, and rocket launchers being fired in sync with the drumbeat on the soundtrack.
  • Military Coup:
    • The overthrow and murder of Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Nhu in November 1963, executed by dissatisfied South Vietnamese generals. John F. Kennedy greatly regrets giving the thumbs-up.
    • Many more follow in South Vietnam, with eight different governments over the next two years.
  • Mobile Shrubbery: The NVA soldiers attacking the Americans at Ia Drang have shrubbery fixed to their packs as camouflage. An American says they look like "little trees." Many more clips over the course of the series show VC and NVA troopers with shrubbery tied to their backs.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: President John F. Kennedy has this when his tacit permission for a coup against Ngo Dinh Diem leads to the murder of both Diem and his brother Nhu, rather than sending the brothers into exile as Kennedy had anticipated. Not even three weeks later, Kennedy himself is assassinated in Dallas, leaving his fellow Americans to wonder for decades to come if the war would have turned out differently if he had lived.
    • In the final episode, anti-war protester Nancy Biberman breaks down in tears as she expresses her regret for the ugly things she and her fellow protesters said to returning soldiers.
    • John Musgrave experienced this after killing his first enemy combatant. He changed his mind quickly after seeing a fellow Marine killed by a land mine and thereafter trained himself not to feel any remorse by objectifying the enemy as "gooks."
    • Bill Ehrhart, a Marine from suburban Philadelphia who fought in Hue during the Tet Offensive, recalls a young local girl trading sex with him and several of his buddies in exchange for C-rations. Ehrhart says he regrets this more than any enemy combatant he killed in battle, as he had every opportunity to refuse and yet chose not to, and recalling it makes him think of his mother, wife and daughter.
  • Never Accepted in His Hometown: Many American soldiers dealt with this when returning home. Karl Marlantes recalls having to wind his way through a hostile mob of protesters after arriving home, and also mentions that having been a Vietnam Vet was such a Mark of Shame that he didn't find out a close friend was also a veteran until after they had known each other for over a decade. African-American soldiers had the added burden of facing racism, and not just in the South: Roger Harris wasn't able to get a taxi ride back to his home in the predominantly black Roxbury section of Boston until a police officer forced a taxi driver to take him.
  • Never Got to Say Goodbye: Army veteran Michael Heaney, who lost ten men of his platoon in an ambush in Pleiku in 1966, finally got his chance to bid his men farewell when he went back to Vietnam 42 years later and revisited the scene of the ambush.
  • New Year Has Come: Well, the lunar New Year. Which in Vietnam is called "Tet". The communists unleash hell at Tet 1968.
  • Nothing but Hits: And how. The official soundtrack CD is 2 discs and 38 songs, encompassing both actual hit songs and well-known album cuts, and barely scratches the surface.
  • Nothing Is the Same Anymore: Both Vietnam and the United States, as societies, were permanently scarred by the war.
    • For Vietnam, the country was united but left impoverished and internationally isolated, with its economy in shambles, its people traumatized, its very landscape poisoned by Agent Orange and littered with unexploded ordnance. Many Vietnamese who were unsympathetic to Hanoi were forced to flee their homeland by sea, leading to the Boat People Crisis in which many thousands perished, and those who survived were resettled in foreign lands with almost no chance to return home.
    • Meanwhile in the US, the war left deep gashes in American society and more or less permanently destabilized the public's faith in the government, with the revelations contained in the Pentagon Papers showing that they had repeatedly lied to the press during the runup to US involvement. Additionally, the debate surrounding Vietnam caused deep fractures in American political life that have, if anything, widened with time. American veterans who returned from the war were damaged both physically and mentally, with countless numbers turning to drugs and alcohol to deal with their pain and ending up homeless as a result. The war also permanently tarnished the reputation of the US military, being a costly and ignominious failure that broke the myth of American invincibility, as well as showing US soldiers to be capable of barbaric atrocities like the My Lai Massacre.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: A famous real-life example mentioned in the documentary is PO2 Douglas Hegdahl, a US Navy NCO who was captured by the North Vietnamese. In the POW camp, he played the part of an illiterate simpleton, who the Vietnamese derisively nicknamed "The Stupid One" In fact, Hegdahl was anything but; he memorized the names of over 200 fellow POWs to the tune of "Old McDonald Had a Farm" and was a goldmine of intelligence when he was released early as a PR move by the Hanoi regime.
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene:
    • Episode 3 shows the Marines torching the village of Cam Ne, much to the horror of Americans who watch on CBS. CBS and reporter Morley Safer are denounced by President Johnson and the Marines as Communists for daring to depict the suffering of the villagers afterward, but viewers are perhaps more shocked by the participating soldiers' lack of remorse.
      • Although Army veteran Mike Heaney does mention that often the burning down of villages was comically half-hearted and unenthusiastic, with soldiers holding lighters up to thatch and then shrugging when it only got a little singed, since he and his fellow soldiers were reluctant to destroy the locals' homes and food stores. Philip Caputo, a Marine turned best-selling author, also recalls putting himself in the locals' place by likening it to how people in Massachusetts must have felt during the American Revolution when British redcoats came barging into their homes.
    • The American "Tiger Force" spends much of 1967 killing every civilian they find in their province, including women, children, and the elderly, reporting every kill as an enemy combatant.
    • The North Vietnamese beat and torture captured American airmen. Jeremiah Denton blinks "TORTURE" in Morse Code with his eyelids when he's put in front of cameras in Hanoi; John McCain after being interviewed for French TV is beaten when he is insufficiently grateful to his captors.
    • The North Vietnamese massacre some 2800 civilians as they evacuate Hue in 1968, and a number of the hastily buried bodies (the first clue is an elbow sticking out of the earth) are found afterwards by American soldiers. Hanoi claims no massacre of innocent people took place. In addition, the number of NLF/VC supporters "disappeared" after the re-capture of the city was not mentioned.
    • Last, but not least, the American war crime of the century: My Lai. There's a reason those soldiers were spat upon and called "baby killers" as they returned home, after all, and not even the babies were safe when American soldiers touched down on My Lai.
  • Occupiers Out of Our Country: Ho Chi Minh feels very strongly about this. Whether they were Chinese, Japanese, French, or American, they were all occupiers and unwelcome to many Vietnamese.
  • Only Known By His Nickname: Denton Winslow Crocker, Jr., was nicknamed "Mogie" (from the word "mogul") as a baby by his parents because he was such a demanding toddler.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Nguyen Thanh Tung, a veteran of the war against the French, was asked by her superiors to drop out of the army to get married after four of her brothers were killed in the war. By the time Vietnam was reunified in 1975, she had lost her entire family, including her two sons. Another NVA veteran remembers that those who were lucky enough to have their sons or daughters come home didn't dare celebrate, because so many of their neighbors had lost their children in the war.
    • Jean-Marie Crocker's son, Denton Jr. ("Mogie"), was killed in action in 1966, and she speaks at length about her loss. Country singer Jan Howard's son was killed in action while the song she wrote about him, "My Son," was climbing the charts.
  • Papa Wolf: After John Musgrave participates in the Insignia Rip-Off Ritual, his father (a World War II veteran) receives harassment and threats from people upset that his son threw away "their" medals. Dad takes his son's side and promises that if anyone tries to give John any more crap Dad will be there to help.
  • Paper Tiger: The ARVN at the time of the American withdrawal in 1972. On paper it was the fifth largest standing army in the world, with over a million active duty soldiers and a massive arsenal of donated American weapons, vehicles, and aircraft. However, systemic corruption among the officers and NCOs meant many soldiers were allowed to go AWOL while their commanders pocketed their paychecks, or were outright "ghost soldiers" who never existed at all. Worse, the army was completely dependent on American military and economic aid to function, and once that was cut off by the US Congress in 1975, they didn't have a prayer. By the time of the final North Vietnamese offensive, artillery crews were only given 4 shells to fire per day, and the average ARVN soldier was limited to 1 hand grenade and 82 bullets per month!
  • Patriotic Fervor: The primary motivation for the North, even more than communism. The vast majority of Viet Cong soldiers didn't know or care much about the ideology of Marxism and simply wanted to drive what they considered to be a foreign invader out of their country.
  • Police Brutality: Prominently features in the first and seventh episodes, with the famous footage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots in Chicago. An anti-war protest that was forcibly broken up by police turned into a massive riot, where students fought against riot police. Helicopter crew chief Ron Ferrizzi was on R&R in Australia when he saw the melee on television, and couldn't believe what he was seeing:
    So I saw somebody who looked like my dad, hitting somebody who looked like me! Whose side would I be on?
  • Pop-Star Composer: In addition to the flurry of famous pop and rock songs from the period, the series features original music composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, as well as Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. Other Nine Inch Nails songs such as "01 Ghosts I" and an instrumental version of "The Wretched" can also be heard at various points.
  • The Power of Hate: John Musgrave talks at length about how his hatred for the Vietnamese was one of the only things keeping him sane in the jungle.
    Musgrave: My hatred for them was pure. I hated them. And I was so scared of them. And the more scared I was the more I hated them.
    • Rion Causey, a medic with the infamous Tiger Force, recalls that recruits were taught to hate the enemy as soon as they entered basic training: it was constantly drilled into them that they would be fighting "gooks" instead of Vietnamese.
  • Precision F-Strike: There are numerous examples throughout the series, but one in the third episode stands out for being unbleeped in the broadcast version.
    President Johnson: No more of this coup shit!
    • This word was bleeped in the "encore presentation" rebroadcast in October, as well as any pre-watershed broadcast; broadcasts which commenced at or after 10 PM retained the word uncensored in the above line, though the broadcast version still bleeped every other strong profanity. In addition, reruns aired on the UK channel PBS America have kept the word "fuck" unbleeped (as well as Country Joe and the Fish's infamous "Gimme an F! Gimme a U!..." etc. chant at Woodstock) while bleeping other expletives such as "holy shit."
  • The Purge: They have been known to happen in Communist systems. Vo Nguyen Giap conducts one while Ho Chi Minh is in Paris in 1946, executing anybody who isn't perceived as being Communist enough. Later, during the planning of the Tet Offensive, anyone in the government who disapproves is relieved of his duties and sent to a reeducation camp.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The Tet Offensive. Militarily, it is an epic victory for the Americans and South Vietnamese, as the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong take massive casualties and don't gain any of their objectives, and two smaller-scale offensives later in 1968 end in the same result. But the simple fact that it happens and the communists prove that they were still in the war and fighting hard - not to mention the U.S. military's subsequent call for 200,000 more troops for a war that was allegedly being won if the government's public declarations were to be believed - makes for a sea change in public opinion in the United States, convincing many Americans that the war can't be won and making them suspicious of their own government.
  • Retirony: Averted. Roger Harris is supposed to be leaving Vietnam on January 31, 1968—the day the Tet Offensive opens. Averted, because Harris survives and is available to give interviews 49 years later.
  • River of Insanity: And not even for the side you'd expect! Multiple North Vietnamese veterans describe the famous Ho Chi Minh trail as being one of these. It was hundreds of miles of tiny dirt roads snaking through the jungles and mountains of Laos, and many soldiers fell victim to disease, starvation, wild animals, and American bombs before they ever set foot in the south. One former NVA soldier recounts marching down the trail and passing by legions of horribly wounded soldiers being carried back the other way as well as makeshift cemeteries for the thousands of soldiers killed by American bombing on the trail.
  • Rock & Roll: Describes much of the iconic music of the war, from the folk of Bob Dylan to the psychedelic rock of Jefferson Airplane to the proto-heavy metal of Steppenwolf (all of whom are featured in the series' soundtrack). Air Force veteran Merrill McPeak says he considers the changes in music one of the best things that came out of America's societal changes during the Vietnam War.
  • R-Rated Opening: The opening shots of the very first episode set the tone for the rest of the series, depicting a combat scene where American soldiers are mowed down mercilessly towards the end.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Interviewee CIA Operative Frank Snepp admits that he and the CIA staff at the US Embassy were forced to do this after Ambassador Graham Martin refused to acknowledge the impending fall of Saigon in the spring of 1975. Realizing that Ambassador Martin won't cooperate, Snepp and the CIA break "every rule in the book" to get people out of Vietnam before it's too late.
  • Secret Underground Passage: Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Nhu escape the presidential palace this way, during the 1963 coup. It does not stop them from being murdered the next day.
  • Semper Fi: For John Musgrave, joining the Marines was a lifelong dream. Philip Brady, a Marine advisor and later USAID member, says he wanted to join the U.S. Marines because of their elite reputation, because he was "pugnacious and competitive" and "eager to jump into the first war [he] could find." Bill Ehrhart, whose father, a pastor, had never served in the military, never considered joining another branch but the Marines, thinking it would make him not only stronger but popular with the opposite sex, and felt an air of invincibility once he finished with the living hell that was basic training.
  • Senseless Sacrifice: One of the biggest beefs American soldiers had with their commanders, representative of the great difficulty in fighting a guerilla war. American troops would suffer dozens, sometimes hundreds of casualties engaging the NVA or PAVN on numbered hills and random fields all over the country, only for the North Vietnamese to slip away back into the jungle once American airpower or artillery was called in. The Americans would stay just long enough to collect their casualties and make an (often exaggerated) count of enemy dead, then chopper back to base leaving the area free for the NVA to move through again. Worse was when the Americans would be called in to fight for the same bombed out area all over again.
  • Sex for Services: During the fight for Hue during the Tet Offensive, Bill Ehrhart and his fellow Marines all had sex with a local girl in exchange for C-rations. Ehrhart is unable to forgive himself for this, as he knew it was wrong at the time but didn't have the courage to speak up.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Many of the soldiers profiled, on both sides. Notably John Musgrave, who was nearly Driven to Suicide.
  • Shocking Defeat Legacy: For the United States and France.
  • The Siege:
    • The French surrender at Dien Bien Phu after a 55-day siege, leading them to abandon their war effort.
    • The American frontier outpost of Con Thien suffers through an extended siege in the fall of 1967.
    • Khe Sahn goes through a long siege during the Tet Offensive, although this is only mentioned briefly, in that the American generals don't want the siege to be their 'Dien Bien Phu'.
    • Danang, the second largest city of the South, averted this trope when ARVN soldiers deserted the city.
    • Saigon was under attacked from 5 sides simultaneously in the final battle of the war. 50 helicopters continuously ferried US personnels and Saigon civilians out of the city. The newly elected president Duong Van Minh declared a surrender, ending the war. Some ARVN officials decided to stay to the end despite fear of a bloodbath. While there was no systematic killings, hundreds died to individual acts of revenge. The others went to reeducation camps.
  • Signs of Disrepair: During the Mini-Tet Offensive of May 1968, a Shell gas station in Saigon is hit, and burns down. One of the letters falls from its sign, which now reads "hell".
  • Sound-Effect Bleep: An 800 Hz tone is used to censor most strong profanity in the broadcast version. Didn't stop most episodes from scoring an "L" subrating for their TV-MA ratings, though.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance:
    • During the Tet Offensive, Viet Cong soliders attempt to seize control of Radio Saigon in order to broadcast propaganda from Ho Chi Minh. The station staff are able to inform the transmitting tower to cut them off before hand, and Radio Saigon plays Viennese waltzes and music by The Beatles instead. It is this music that forms the soundtrack for a large portion of the Tet Offensive footage.
    • Episode Nine begins with footage of the various protests and counter-protests against and for the war, including US Marine Karl Marlantes recalling one incident he had with protestors, all while the Youngbloods "Get Together" (the "Smile on your brother, Everybody get together, Try to love one another right now" song) plays.
    • The signal that the emergency evacuation of American personnel is underway is "White Christmas" played over the American radio station. So that's what's on the soundtrack as footage of the mad scramble to escape the fall of Saigon plays.
  • Spreading Disaster Map Graphic:
    • From an American perspective anyway, as maps show Red China spreading communism into Burma and Malaya and Korea. Later the graphic is used to demonstrate fears of the "domino effect" in which Americans imagined the communists would take over all of Southeast Asia, as well as the Soviets' ambitions of spreading Communism into the Middle East.
    • In the finale, one map shows the North Vietnamese army swiftly conquering the Central Highlands & vital cities en route to reaching Saigon.
  • The Squadette: Quite a few of the communist veterans interviewed are women.
  • Stock Footage: A whole lot, of course, going back to the colonial era.
  • Stock Scream: The Howie Scream can be heard towards the end of the aforementioned R-Rated Opening, as an American soldier falls.
  • Talking Heads: Many survivors from all sides of the conflict are interviewed.
  • These Hands Have Killed: American vet John Musgrave talks about how terrible he felt after he killed his first Vietnamese. This regret vanished after he witnessed a fellow Marine get blown to bits upon stepping on a "Bouncing Betty" land mine, and he resolved to objectify his adversaries and think of them as "gooks" to continue. He calls it "Racism 101".
    • An Army veteran, James Gillam, recalls killing an enemy soldier by crushing his windpipe, and noting that the other casualty in that incident, besides the enemy soldier, was "the civilized part of me."
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: The last shot of the last episode is from a news reel showing a young American soldier looking into the camera with one of these.
  • Title Drop: Invoked with many of the individual episode titles, which are taken from key phrases in the participant interviews or archival footage - for example, "Riding the Tiger" references John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, "A Disrespectful Loyalty" is a phrase used by Marine veteran (and series adviser) Tom Vallely in an interview, and "The Weight of Memory" comes from Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (from which the author reads during the episode).
  • Trauma Button: Karl Marlantes recalls an incident after the war in which he was stopped at a red light with his four-year-old daughter in the car and heard someone honking at him from behind, and his response was to get out of his car and begin pounding on the impatient motorist's car. He also says he had no idea at the time that this sudden outburst was related to his war experience.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Used to illustrate how badly the stability of the South Vietnamese government in Saigon had deteriorated by that point. One of the interviewees, the daughter of a Saigon Government official, recalls how when she first heard the gunshots of the Viet Cong go off in the streets of Saigon during the Tet Offensive her first reaction was to sigh, thinking that it was yet another military coup.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: A tactical mistake made by outgoing President Johnson, and the resulting October Surprise fail, allowed one of the most controversial Presidents in American history to make his ascension.
  • Urban Warfare: Most of the war was fought in the countryside, but the Tet Offensive saw a brutal, month-long battle inside the old capital of Hue.
  • Vetinari Job Security: Subverted by President Diem. While he's massively unpopular and corrupt, some in the American government caution against overthrowing him, as he's the only person able to hold the government of South Vietnam together. This ultimately doesn't stop the CIA from okaying a military coup that leads to the deaths of him and his brother. After this, South Vietnam is governed by a series of incompetent military generals who need US power to back them up.
  • The Vietnam Vet: Many are interviewed, of course, on both sides. John Musgrave talks about how his time at a forward observation post in close proximity to the Viet Cong left him afraid of the dark for the rest of his life. Another becomes emotional at the memory of his fellow military adviser being killed at the battle of Ap Bac.
  • War Is Glorious: Karl Marlantes relates an anecdote about his platoon seizing a hill from the NVA. He talks about the "savage joy" of defeating the enemy, then says yes, War Is Hell, "but there's an enormously exhilarating part of it."
  • War Is Hell: Despite the above, the series hammers this home again and again, with graphic footage of combat deaths, villages burnt to the ground, mass graves filled with innocents, and men left permanently crippled and traumatized by the war.
  • We Have Reserves: One of the primary advantages of the North. The US could afford to muster up more heavy equipment and manpower, and North Vietnam had only a little more of a population than the South. Nevertheless, the North could politically afford to take much greater casualties—both in absolute terms and as a proportion of their population—because of their higher morale and investment in the war. It's repeatedly stated throughout the series that the Vietnamese could lose 10 men for every dead American, but the Americans' resolve would break first. Indeed, despite being victorious, the communist forces lost nearly a million men compared to the 300,000 or so total allied military deaths.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The last episode ends with one detailing the life of almost every single person interviewed throughout the series.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Played straight with soldiers like John Musgrave and Denton "Mogie" Crocker, who eagerly volunteered for the war (Mogie even dropping out of high school to do so) and were keen to do their part to fight Communism. It didn't turn out so well for either: Crocker died in combat, and Musgrave was nearly killed himself and struggled with PTSD and suicidal feelings afterward. Compare to Martial Pacifist.
  • The Worf Barrage: The USAF spent Operation Rolling Thunder unloading more ordnance on Laos and North Vietnam than had ever been used in human history, to negligible effect on either the enemy's morale or resources.
  • Worthy Opponent: Multiple American soldiers confess to feeling this way about the PAVN and Viet Cong. Major Charles Beckwith states "I'd give anything to have 200 of them under my command" to a news reporter asking him about the VC while Vincent Okamoto says "I killed a lot of brave men that day" when recounting a particularly fierce battle he participated in. Air Force pilot Merrill McPeak, who would later become Air Force Chief of Staff, goes so far as to opine that the U.S. was fighting on the wrong side (mainly because South Vietnam was so hopeless).
  • You Can't Go Home Again: The fall of South Vietnam in 1975 created an enormous refugee crisis of Vietnamese fleeing overseas to escape communist retaliation. Those who survived their journeys overseas largely settled in western nations such as the United States, Australia, and Canada, creating thriving expat communities in their new homes. One refugee interviewed expresses a desire to die in his homeland, despite raising his children and grandchildren in the United States.
  • Young Future Famous People:
    • An obscure congressman named John F. Kennedy is shown visiting Vietnam in 1951.
    • Future U.S. Senator and 2008 candidate for President of the United States John McCain was not interviewed for the series, but one of the witnesses to his capture is interviewed, and Stock Footage of an interview with a wounded McCain in a North Vietnamese hospital is also shown.
    • Future U.S. Senator and 2004 candidate for President of the United States John Kerry is shown at the moment he became famous, when he addresses the Senate in 1971 on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.


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