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Ken Burns: How Chicago '68 Protests Influenced Both Sides Of Vietnam War

By DNAinfo Staff | September 11, 2017 6:25am | Updated on September 17, 2017 5:18pm
 Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
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Chicago History Museum; PBS

THE LOOP — When Vietnam War protestors during the 1968 Democratic Convention here chanted "the whole world is watching," that world included Vietnam, notes documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

Burns and Novick, touting their upcoming "The Vietnam War" film at the Auditorium Theater earlier this month, said the rallies and clashes with police that occurred just blocks away in Grant Park "had a profound impact on the war" and influenced both sides of the conflict.

"This is one of the major battles of the war, the 1968 Democratic convention," Burns told a crowd at the Auditorium, 50 E. Congress Parkway. "It's central to understanding not only the Vietnam war but the war against the war."

One episode of the 10-part series on PBS includes a Vietnamese soldier telling captured American soldiers of the protests: "We know what's going on: Your people are turning against you."

Novick said a former North Vietnamese soldier told her of being encouraged at the time by reports of unrest in the United States.

"He said he had thought during the war that the protests were a sign of weakness ... that our attention wasn't strong and unified like they were," Novick said.

After being given an early look at the documentary, the former soldier "now he realizes that the ability to have dissent and to question government policy was a sign of strength of our democracy," said Novick, who co-directed the series with Burns.

"If the public eventually loses patience with a war it becomes very difficult. And that's what happens," Novick added.

 A soldier from the Vietnam War era with his children.
A soldier from the Vietnam War era with his children.
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PBS

During the convention, several thousand anti-war protesters gathered in Grant Park to call for the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. The clash with police was caught by TV cameras and broadcast around the world.

U.S. troops were watching, too.

"Intellectually, I certainly understand their right to freedom of speech," a former American soldier tells the documentary makers in the series.

But, he added, when he saw protesters at demonstrations carrying the flags of the Viet Cong — "the enemy I and my friends had to fight, and some of my friends had to die fighting" — it "doesn't sit well with me."

The New York Times calls the documentary "carefully evenhanded."

Burns said he was a 15-year-old "hippie in diapers" in 1968 and yearned to come to Chicago for the demonstrations. 

"I lived in Ann Arbor, Mich. at that time and I begged my father to let me go," Burns said. "And he was very much sympathetic to going and protesting but he wouldn't let me go."

The series debuts Sunday.