THOMAS VALLELY MC/MPA 1983 first set foot in Vietnam in 1969. The United States had already invested more than 500,000 troops, and more than 34,000 Americans had lost their lives. Vallely was just 19 years old. For the next year, he served as a radio operator in the U.S. Marine Corps infantry in the communist-controlled province of Quang Nam, south of Danang, in Central Vietnam. It was a “dangerous business,” he says.

Returning home to Massachusetts in 1970, ready to put the experience behind him, Vallely had little reason to believe that Vietnam would remain at the center of his career for much of his life. But after several years in politics, as a political consultant and as a Massachusetts state representative (1981 to 1987), he has returned many times in the course of his work with the Kennedy School’s Ash Center.

In 1989, Vallely became the founding director of the Vietnam Program, and in its early years he helped with the “normalization” of the U.S.–Vietnam relationship, establishing some of the first educational exchange programs with Vietnam. He later worked to develop the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP)—a center for public policy teaching and research in Ho Chi Minh City—and more recently he was part of an effort to create Fulbright University Vietnam, Vietnam’s first independent, nonprofit university, with FETP as its nucleus. Vallely is now a senior advisor for mainland Southeast Asia at the Ash Center.

14 HKSmag_su17_unsettled history_1.jpg
(left to right) Tony Saich, Thomas Vallely, Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein at the screening of The Vietnam War

It is his most recent connection to Vietnam, however, that is perhaps the least expected: advising the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns on his latest series, The Vietnam War. Burns, with co-producer Lynn Novick, made the ambitious decision to include not only American perspectives but also those from both Vietnamese sides—the communists and the non-communists. With his extensive knowledge of modern-day Vietnam, Vallely—along with colleagues Ben Wilkinson, executive director of the Trust for University Innovation in Vietnam, and Hanoi-based Ho Dang Hoa, an associate producer of the film—has assisted Burns and Novick in identifying and gaining access to many of the Vietnam veterans and eyewitnesses who appear in the film. Vallely compares their role to that of investigative reporters.

The 10-part series, which will air in September on PBS, has been a decade in the making, and for Vallely, who also appears in the series discussing his Vietnam experience, having a front-row seat to the making of The Vietnam War has been a fascinating and emotional experience. He guesses he has watched it at least 13 times. “I can watch the film now without crying,” he says.

“Most of Burns’s films deal with settled history, but Vietnam is not settled history, and this film does not settle it. It unsettles it further.”

Thomas Vallely

Vallely is impressed by what the makers of the series have accomplished. “These people are like sculptors,” he says of Burns, Novick, and the series director, Sarah Botstein. “So much footage didn’t make it into the film, but there is now a volume of archival material that is recorded and verified.” And he is grateful that the film was completed in time to hear from the people who bore witness to a war whose wounds have yet to heal. “If we didn’t do it now, we wouldn’t have the voices,” he says.

The Vietnam War, Vallely says, is unlike any of Burns’s other films, because so much about the war, which claimed the lives of more than 200,000 South Vietnamese and 50,000 American soldiers, is still unsettled in the minds of many people. “Most of Burns’s films deal with settled history,” he says, “but Vietnam is not settled history, and this film does not settle it. It unsettles it further.”