Ken Burns’ Vietnam: The Westport Connections

Ken Burns’ epic, 10-part PBS series “The Vietnam War” shines a spotlight on one of the most consequential, divisive and controversial events in American history.

Like all of Burns’ masterful works it combines visual images, music and 1st-person accounts, plus the insights of experts with a wide array of perspectives.

One of those contributors has Westport roots.

Marc Selverstone

Marc Selverstone adds his wisdom, as chair of the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. The project produces scholarly transcripts of secret White House tapes, from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon.

The 1980 Staples High School graduate — who earned a master’s in international affairs from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in history from Ohio University — also serves as an associate professor at UVa.

His contribution began 6 years ago, with a call from co-producer Sarah Botstein. Selverstone sorted through “countless” Vietnam-related transcripts, and forwarded them on. It was an arduous — but crucial — process.

The next phase of collaboration began in the fall of 2015. Selverstone and Ken Hughes — the Miller Center’s Nixon expert — spent 4 days watching the entire series at WNET in New York, with Burns and the full Florentine Films team.

Also in attendance were key figures who appear in the film: Tim O’Brien, Les Gelb, Hal Kushner and many more.

“To hear their stories on film, then speak to them — because they’re sitting right next to you — was a profound and immersive experience,” Selverstone says. “It offered access to the war, and its era, that’s hard to come by.”

Born in 1962, he remembers the assassinations 6 years later of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. He recalls too the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium protest — he was there with his father, then-Staples guidance counselor Bob Selverstone — but as an adult he’s studied Vietnam as a scholar.

“I did not have a lot of contact with people who shared so much of themselves, and the way they’d been affected by the war,” he notes.

Though the film was nearly finished, Selverstone offered feedback. He was impressed that Burns’ team was “really concerned about getting it ‘right.'”

Selverstone then worked closely with co-producer Lynn Novick on post-production, and on an Atlantic story she and Burns published last week called “How Americans Lost Faith in the Presidency.”

Now, Selverstone is writing a chapter on President Kennedy, for the upcoming “Cambridge History of the Vietnam War.” He met with Burns, Novick and the 15 other scholars involved in that book, prior to a public presentation for 1,000 people at Dartmouth College.

Selverstone has been involved in a few recent events surrounding the film too. Last week he was at the Kennedy Center with John McCain, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel.

He’ll be at a special screening of the final episode in Washington on September 28. The next day he’s a panelist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In November he’ll join Novick for a Q-and-A at the Virginia Film Festival.

Meanwhile, Selverstone is busy building the Miller Center’s pages to provide more content to visitors to the PBS “Vietnam” website.

Selverstone is glad for the buzz around the film. “I hope it provides an opportunity for the country to think about its past, about those who suffered and sacrificed, and about us as a collective,” he says.

“Ken talks about how frequently we focus on the ‘pluribus’ at the expense of the ‘unum.’ If these 2 weeks and their extension into the fall allow us to take comfort through a moment of national uplift — to watch this film together, as a people, and celebrate those who endured — then it might have a tonic effect on a country sorely in need of one.”

Burns’ film has another Westport connection. Christian Appy — who graduated from Staples 8 years before Selverstone, and is now a University of Massachusetts history professor and Vietnam expert — is writing 7 articles about the film for the Organization of American Historians.

Christian Appy, and his book.

Appy — the author of “American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity” — says that Burns’ film will reach more people than any book ever written about the war. It could rival audiences for films like “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon.”

Thus, Appy says, it is critical that “history teachers of all kinds — not just Vietnam War specialists — give this documentary serious attention.”

Of course, he and Marc Selverstone already have.

9 responses to “Ken Burns’ Vietnam: The Westport Connections

  1. As always, a great job of chronicling how Westport meets the world: in this case, it’s the world of the media and the academician. But you’ve also reminded us in the past of the direct impact of the Vietnam war on our town: the plaque opposite Town Hall saluting the 5 Westporters killed in Vietnam.

  2. Thanks, Jeff — much appreciated. Here’s a direct link to one of those stories:

  3. Carl Addison Swanson

    I spent two tours of Vietnam, ’68-’70. Navy Air. While I am sure the documentary is excellent, I can not watch, especially with all the interviews. I lost 30 buddies of my sister EC-121 crew at DaNang AFB in a crash landing. BTW, 44 Westporters served in country, Vietnam. My mother headed up “Project Hope” which sent “care packages” each month for six years to our resident troopers. Bravo Zulu!

  4. My Staples classmate Sam Freeman, a thoroughly good guy, was killed in the war. I later found and touched his name when I visited the ‘Nam memorial in DC.
    ADW Staples 1956

  5. Dorrie Barlow Thomas

    Marc Selverstone?! Unless he has a brother I’m mixing him up with, he served a stint as a student teacher in Dave LaPonsee’s AP History class in 1985/86…he was not really that much older than the seniors and I think all of the girls in the class wanted to flirt with him (we all coyly contemplated just what to say on the evaluations we had to fill out about him at the end of the semester) 😊

  6. Mark Bachmann (@BachmannMark)

    Thanks for this, Dan. Like a lot of us, I remember these times well and I’ve been riveted to this documentary since it began. It’s pleasing to find we have a local connection to it.

  7. I live across the street from where one of the boys who were killed from Westport, Tim, lived. And growing up, I lived only a few hundred feet from his house. My parents knew his parents, and when it happened, the neighborhood was abuzz in disbelief. I never saw Dan’s piece from 2012. That letter he wrote his parents made me squirm. It was like watching a movie for a second time and you knew the character talking is going to die in the next scene.. only this was real life. War is just hell. It’s all so sad.