Review by Mark Wiechman
Stars: Tom Brokaw, Gene Kranz, Rushmore Denooyer, Tony
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Features: See review
Length: 1717 minutes total on 14 discs
Release Date: February 24, 2009
“Their cause must be our cause too. ‘Cause it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson, addressing congress about the need for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act
The above quote was from a man who had never once voted to support a single piece of civil rights legislation during his years in the House or Senate, but even his stubborn Texas mind was astute enough to know that by 1964 the time for change had come, and that he was meant to finish what JFK had begun in 1963 when he spoke to the nation before his assassination and affirmed that “race has no place in American society.”
As I write this, the first president with any African-American ancestry has been in office a short time, so it is difficult to comprehend how different America was in the 1960’s. It is easy to point to the statistical differences between various ethnic groups that continue today, but in most of America, life had not changed very much between the 1860’s and the 1960’s. Reconstruction ended abruptly, and in while blacks were no longer technically the property of anyone, their poverty kept them in chains. Even into the early twentieth century, it was illegal to just teach a black child how to read in many southern states. It would make anyone wonder why we bothered fighting the civil war in the first place. It is harrowing to watch the footage of blacks being arrested for…well just being black.
What made everything different in the 1950’s and 1960’s? Several factors led to people standing up for themselves, especially black men coming home from the war, fighting for the freedom of the country, then returning to the same old slums and discrimination. Another factor was mass communications, which illuminated the whole world to the double standard of separate but equal. Brokaw’s expertise in this area helps since even southern newspapers had to investigate what was going on, and the demonstrators would stage things in such a way that television could get the story clearly and broadcast it to the world. “Bull” Connor’s tactics, including vicious beatings and public mistreatment of protestors could not hide. And the overall prosperity of the country, which left so many behind, encouraged people of the brave new world to expect more. Many modern music stars seem to revel in being thugs or criminals, but they only do this because most of them have no idea what their ancestors went through, or if they do know, they enjoy portraying themselves as victims.
While the content of each special varies, they are mostly free of artifacts in sound and picture, which is amazing considering how many years have passed and the poor quality of videotape at the time. They are consistently well-mixed in the audio department and are recommended, all but one, as you will see below.
Disc 1: King
KING is a fast-paced and finely produced special which avoids being too preachy, but is filled with historical footage and interviews with those who knew him, although naturally they are only complimentary of him. This is a fairly objective portrayal but for the most part it tells his story as it was.
Martin Luther King Jr. was well-educated, well-spoken, and managed to combine his preacher’s skill with intellectual discipline. He saw Gandhi as the pioneer in non-violent protest for change. While King’s house was bombed, he was imprisoned several times, and endured innumerable threats, he possessed the charisma and calm at the center of the storm, and while he was taken from the world so young.
This special elaborates on allegations of King’s infidelity, his exhaustion, the rise of Black Power (which he felt was too violent), his opposition to the Viet Nam war, and contains interviews with former Secretary of State Condi Rice, who grew up in segregated Alabama.
Disc 2: 1968 with Tom Brokaw
I have to admit that I am prejudiced against this special because of the inane opening remark from Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, who is hardly an icon of the time---then or now. He says that the main difference between then and now (just in general) is that there was a draft then, and not now. He goes on to say that there was more of a “shared conscience” than there is now.
Of course, in 2009 there is no draft because Americans volunteer to fight. This leaves liberals who hate all war out of the equation because they are irrelevant: neither their bodies nor their permission is needed to fight. While I try very hard to be objective about these historical specials, Stewart’s remark may be literally true, but to boil 1968 down to just opposition to the war is just the usual, mainstream deception.
The truth is that most Americans of either major party supported the defeat of communism and this was shown partly by Richard Nixon’s overwhelming victory. By the end of this year, the peace supporters had damaged their own cause so severely that they became outsiders—not that they were ever inside anyway.
The Smothers Brothers are also featured, with their shared delusion that they owned the network on which they were shown, saying that the drug culture is “just neat.” Then Pat Buchanan says that 1968 was the worst year in our nation’s history, and others saying that the youth generation was very indulgent and spoiled. So it may have been the year that divided the nation more than it had been since the Civil War, and some of those divisions and misconceptions continue through today.
I think the conclusion that can be drawn from this special is that the assassinations and the war just about pushed the nation to the brink and that it only barely pulled back, splitting itself asunder. It was the end of the “dream” of the counter-culture mainly because drugs and promiscuity were no way to live your life. On the other hand, music was near its peak, and while I may revile their political views, hippies knew how to rock!
This special also shows that television shots of the fighting in Saigon shocked the nation much as Matthew Brady’s photographs of the Civil War dead seemed to prove that everything was going badly, not well as most people had believed.
When Walter Cronkite spouted that we could not win the war, LBJ allegedly knew that the gig was up, and he had lost America’s support, even though we were actually making progress. Footage of Cronkite in Viet Nam is shown, and his opinionated commentary was either insightful or treasonous depending on whether you like communism or not.
Disc 3: The Vietnam War, Vol. 1: Vietnam: On The Frontlines 1-4
This series is a more traditional special with interviews of veterans and reporters. It tries to show the highlights of the most pivotal battles, but it is not as well organized as the ones that follow. It portrays the war as mostly a disorganized mess, and does not discuss why we got into it in the first place, but it does provide details of why no one who fought in it would ever be the same. It is almost impossible to establish a timeline or understanding of the fight as a whole, with no maps or special effects nor any visuals to truly educate the viewer.
Disc 4: The Vietnam War, Vol. 2: LBJ and Vietnam: In the Eye of the Storm
This is a tough special to watch, a gloomy overall review of the war shown through video and re-enactments of the Johnson White House, asking and trying to determine why, amid so many doubts, we went ahead with the war. Many historians speculated that JFK would have withdrawn altogether after he won re-election, but not before, since that would be politically murderous. But since JFK did not make it that far, Johnson felt he had to finish what he had started. LBJ was also very suspicious that the Communists might have been behind the assassination. The JFK-supported coups had promoted a leader that Viet Nam would not support. LBJ asked Senator Russell for advice, and neither saw an easy way out. LBJ had actually opposed the coups, and he was right, but he inherited the anarchy of the situation. Conspiracy. Unrest in Santo Domingo seems to support this.
This special illustrates how LBJ saw the Viet Nam war not as a civil war, but a larger communist plot worldwide. He saw no solution. The American people clearly did not want to escalate, but the Viet Cong did not meet American half way. He decided to escalate since he saw no choice.
Command Decisions: Tet Offensive
This brief, punch-out military special puts us right in the middle of 1968 Viet Nam and I really wish it had been as long as the ones above because it was objective and actually educational about warfare. It provides a brief background, and then actually puts the viewer in the shoes of General Westmoreland before, during, and after the Tet Offensive. We actually won this showdown, but it did demonstrate that the war was not going to be over soon. South Viet Nam troops were on leave for the holiday, but the North attacked, the first such attack which deeply penetrated the cities, including storming the grounds of the American embassy. While the north lost four times more men, the four thousand American troops lost caused political trouble at home, and the tide turned against the Johnson administration, and “peace with honor” is now the talk of the day.
Considering that most of the footage is from the battlefield, it is mostly free of artifacts, and the excellent narration and music is well-mixed and clear in stereo as we normally receive from A&E.
Unsung Heroes: The Battle of Khe Sanh
As someone who was too young to understand what the Viet Nam conflict was about at the time, and in school we were provided with very little information about it. More than likely our teachers still had wounds from that era that were slow to heal and used the excuse of a too-short school year to omit this from our history classes, even the advanced ones. Therefore, I knew little or nothing about this battle.
It features in interviews with Veterans and the naiveté’ of the time, assuming that America would win no matter what. It is not as well done as the above specials, with some silly sound effects and melodrama. The foreboding music throughout makes it hard to take seriously as a military documentary, it is more of a
Disc 5: Race to the Moon, Vol. 1: Failure Is Not an
Disc 6: Race to the Moon, Vol. 2: Code Name: Project Orion / Modern Marvels: Apollo 13 / Modern Marvels: The Space Shuttle
It’s hard to believe that Project Orion, named after the constellation of a man in the sky, was originally an idea for using atomic bombs to blast whole cities of people into space, offering a utopian, peaceful solution to the problem of nuclear weapon stockpiles and the weakness of most rockets. It would eventually take a Saturn V designed by former Nazi scientist von Braun to get us to the moon.
This special includes interviews with many of the early scientists working on the project, although some of it frankly seems pretty silly today. What about all of the radiation and fallout from every launch? Most of the early attempts to get the USA into space ended in the whole rocket going to pieces, so using atomic weapons would evaporate the crew of the rocket and much of the rocket itself!
Moving beyond those early challenges, the space program story is thrilling, though I recommend the Modern Marvels Apollo 11 special reviewed below, which is more interesting and is a better production overall.
The Modern Marvel special about the Space Shuttle is also interesting but that was definitely a phenomenon of the 70’s, only a continuation of a dream in the 60’s. It doesn’t really belong here.
Disc 7: Voices of Civil Rights Vol. 1: Voices of Civil Rights / Mississippi State Secrets / Crossing the Bridge
There are three programs on this disc, the first being Voices of Civil Rights, a 2004 project in which the producers toured the United States interviewing people who were witnesses of the changes in America before, during, and after the 1960’s. For example, we meet a white male from Arkansas who recalled in episode from his childhood in which he once was observed by his grandfather warmly kissing his black nanny good-bye, and his grandfather spanked him harshly, telling him that white men don’t do that. Many of the black interviewees came from relatively secluded existences in which they rarely interacted with whites and did not experience prejudice and racism until later in life. Most of them assumed that segregation was just normal. This is a well-done program that does not attempt to take sides but simply shows first-hand what life was like during this period. Mississippi State Secrets is far more upsetting, revealing that Mississippi actually had a state agency called the “State Sovereignty Commission” that acted like a state-run FBI, spying on every civil rights activist in the state and working with the KKK to terrorize them. Papers detailing this operation were only recently re-opened by courts. Crossing the Bridge discusses the bloody Sunday in 1965 when black demonstrators attempted to peacefully march across a bridge in Selma when local law enforcement beat them down, and it seemed no one cared.
This incident is discussed in King but here we learn much more about what led to this climax in the Selma campaign.
It is difficult to know whether Alabama or Mississippi deserves the prize for being more backward or narrow-minded.
My only complaint about this special is that it presents some contemporary interviews with the participants which might lead people to believe that little has changed in the South, but I can attest to the fact that prejudice still exists but only among a few bitter individuals of both races.
Disc 8: Voices of Civil Rights Vol. 2: Biography: Martin Luther King Jr. / Biography: Thurgood Marshall
This disc features extensive biographies of two of the pivotal figures, MLK and Thurgood Marshall. The special on MLK contains mostly interviews from lesser-known friends and admirers, and discusses the relationship between JFK and MLK. It is not as well done as the King special above, but it makes a good companion piece to it and it is only duplicative in its overall outline. It points out many similarities between the two men, such as the fact that both smoked and both were skirt-chasers, but neither wanted anyone to see them this way. Kennedy was uncomfortable with King’s absolute moral stances, and Kennedy needed King to help the traditionally Republican black vote to go his way, and it largely did, but the two men were never comfortable around each other despite their mutual admiration. Most of the footage of King here is not contained in the other special.
Marshall was the attorney fighting in the Brown case which struck down segregation, and LBJ appointed made him the first African-American to the Supreme Court, but the special does not discuss the many eccentricities such as falling asleep during hearings and publicly saying that he learned a great deal about life from soap operas. But at least the special does not back away from the fact that he was one of the few liberal voices on the court, though it would be much more accurate to say he was one of the most liberal voices, hardly the lone liberal. Conservative presidents appointed several justices who would turn out to be less conservative than they would have liked, but while Marshall fought for equal rights and claimed that the Constitution backed him up, he actually fought for even more justice than what is written in the document. The special also discusses how he became very active in civil rights longer before King, Malcolm X, or Jesse Jackson.
Disc 9: JFK: A Presidency Revealed, Vol. 1: Feature
Disc 10: JFK: A Presidency Revealed, Volume 2: Bonus programs Bio John F. Kennedy / Bio: Joseph Kennedy Sr.
The story goes that shortly after JFK was nominated for President at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960, there ensued a vicious debate among his advisors about his vice presidential choice. Eventually Jack grew tired of the debate, for he was a man of action and not really the intellectual he pretended to be, and he told his brother Bobby that Lyndon Johnson was his choice. It was no big deal, he said, because he was a young man who would not die in office…
While there is no doubt that the tragedy of 9/11/01 was the greatest terrorist act on American soil, the death of JFK sent shock waves through the world in a very different way. While only one life was lost on 11/22/63, it was as if every American lost a friend. Even people like me who were not born yet see him as a giant who would have made everything better if he had only lived. But the reality of his health, only now fully known, is that he may not have lived beyond a first term anyway, slowing wasting away from Addison's disease and eventually burning himself out from using amphetamines.
But the glow of prosperity and patriotism which was on the surface of the American mind in the 1950's burned off in the noon day sun of Dallas that day, and the unrest that had already begun in the late 1950's exploded soon after JFK's death. We can only wonder how JFK might have handled the civil rights movement and Viet Nam. Anyone who could stare down Khrushchev certainly could have kept America together, one would think. Forget Jeb Bartlett, Kennedy was the man.
This excellent first program shows a young man who seemed to be the very embodiment of masculine vigor—vigah!--who was a giant, though a flawed one. Through the magic of TV, Americans felt like they knew him personally. Even many who did not like him or support him could not escape the feeling that America really had royalty, nor the shadow of grief that fell over America when he died. Walter Cronkite, who did not like Kennedy personally and who calmly reported the news every night to the nation, choked up for a moment when he confirmed to his viewers that Kennedy was gone. Love him or hate him, the most inspiring figure of the latter half of the century was gone, and to this day no one can say conclusively who killed him.
Every president since then has tried to catch Kennedy's fire, and no one has come close. Government programs come and go, but the Peace Corps goes untouched like the Eternal Flame itself. While his all too human failings are better known, so is his physical suffering, and his courage seems even more palatable.
Even though I have read most of the better Kennedy biographies, this film surprised me with little tidbits I did not know and was very fair in discussing "the flawed giant" as most presidents are. His problems are not glossed over, but rather put into historical perspective in a sympathetic way. Even callous viewers will be moved by Kennedy's visceral presence and the belief that the New Frontier really was coming and that Camelot may have been an illusion, but one which we still love to this day.
The first feature is by far the best. This excellent 2003 feature includes interviews with Robert Dallek, author of the recently published John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, the first biography which includes medical information only recently available.
The pace of the program is swift but not dizzying. Since every interviewee is either a personal acquaintance of the family or a published historian, the viewer feels like we are there again.
The two other programs, which are on disc two, are good but seem very pedestrian and censored for television. JFK: A Personal Story goes more into his personality and idiosyncrasies and repeats much of what is in the other two programs. It seems very quaint compared with the first program.
Joseph Kennedy, Sr.: Father of an American Dynasty is very positive without going into too much detail about Joseph Kennedy's endless philandering and focuses on the central contradiction of a ruthless, cunning Wall Street tycoon who also was selflessly devoted to his children. He was a man of great charity who attended mass regularly but did not hide his affairs. He was a flawed giant who begot a dynasty.
I was very surprised at the high quality of the picture and the ease with which it flowed, considering the age of the footage. Only minimal distortions and other problems inherent in old news footage were noticeable. The editing is also excellent and before you know it, an hour has gone by. Images show both Kennedy's vigor and his all-too-human frailty.
Only stereo, but levels are fairly consistent and just as with the video, quality of the old news broadcasts is better than you might expect.
Anyone wanting to know about JFK’s presidency with its missed opportunities and great triumphs will not be disappointed. Hopefully the History Channel will also release their recently aired documentaries including The Men Who Killed Kennedy and others.
Disc 11: The 60's: The JFK Assassination / Modern Marvels: Apollo 11 / Bay of Pigs Declassified
One of the greatest inspirations of the JFK years was his call in 1961 to reach the moon by the end of the decade. It seems like no big deal with some of our modern technology flying messages around the world instantly, but in 1969 one of the true turning points in human history occurred when the astronauts of Apollo 11 landed on the moon. It was all the more amazing because technology was so much more primitive at the time. The USSR beat America by having the first unmanned satellite in space and the first manned flight as well. These were damaging to an American psyche that assumed we were the best at everything and that godless commies were inferior in every way.
Despite the age of the NASA and newsreel footage, there are remarkably few artifacts, if any. Clearly A&E has taken some time to clean up old footage and use only the best available. The shortcomings of the original tape are obvious but not distracting.
I sure wish Modern Marvels had been around when I was young. They are so far superior to ancient PBS specials that it is hard to compare them. They are brisk, well produced, and chock full of info. This one is even more exceptional because we get to meet the specialists.
The tragedy of Apollo 1 burning up on the launch pad during testing with three of our best and brightest is something I am reminded of every day. I live near Chaffee Road and Ed White High School in Jacksonville Florida, memorials to the lost pioneers. Virgil Grissom was NASA’s most seasoned astronaut, Ed White performed the first space walk, and Roger Chaffe, the rookie. Tests were being run, and things were not going well. Suddenly they heard “fire in the cockpit” and before they even knew what had happened, the command module burned up and killed all three astronauts. The capsule was completed redesigned for safety.
Many other problems are explained here that are not familiar to most viewers such as how little fuel Apollo 11 had, how a fuel line froze and nearly caused an explosion, how small the computers were (only holding 60,000 words) and how it almost overloaded as they were landing. They did actually land four miles off target. The door of the capsule was stuck when they tried to exit the Eagle. There was also a broken switch that Armstrong had to bypass when they left the moon. The module also rolled and pitched erratically because they had two fuel tanks that emptied at different rates and with fuels of different densities. There was no room for error.
Bay of Pigs reveals many problems in the CIA plan such as a lack of any intelligence to support it, and there were briefly declassified documents that reveal that the plan may have been doomed before it even began and that Kennedy would have sent in the Marines and given them what they wanted. Many advisors to Richard Bissell, the architect of the plan are interviewed here for the first time. Bissell was apparently overriding the advice of his own agency’s advice to abandon the plan, but the Inspector General Kirkpatrick “crucified” him in the internal report because of their personal rivalry to succeed Dulles as CIA director.
On the other hand, Bissell knew about plots against Castro himself which others could not have known about. Bisell even paid anti-Castro agents in the Mafia with money set aside for the Bay of Pigs, and witnesses to these expenditures are interviewed such as Jacob Esterline, Director of the CIA Invasion task force at the time.
Some of the freedom fighters at the time were also interviewed, such as one that says they could have taken over Guatemala with their weapons, had they been forced not to send the men to Cuba. Bissell also admitted before his death that there was no backup plan for the landing, and it was actually Castro’s favorite fishing spot, so the fishermen who lived there were no supporters of America. It is also revealed that two pilots of aircraft were killed possibly because they went in an hour late because of a mix up of time zones, and the families were paid off.
While I no longer take conspiracy theories seriously, the activities of the investigators after JFK was shot was shockingly incompetent. Suits were cleaned, blood was cleaned up, Oswald’s gun and shells were handled by hand, and the “magic bullet” was not secured until long after the assassination. No one ever even was able to review the car, since LBJ had it cleansed and destroyed. Modern researchers may not even see the original documents in the archives since they mostly only have copies. A new question is brought up: why didn’t anyone look for fingerprints on the boxes in the book depository? Clearly some are from police officers. Dr. Lee, a researcher interviewed for the special, raises this issue. However this special is somewhat watered down since it does not have the most modern and complete empirical evidence, shown in newer specials and books. It tends to follow the trajectory of the OIiver Stone JFK science fiction debacle but does contain some information not shown in the many other programs on the same subject.
Disc 12: The 60's: Peyote to LSD This may be the only part of the whole series that I could just not get into. We learn the origins of Peyote and other mind altering drugs coming to the USA. Wonderful. And the narrator just can’t avoid using the cliché “long strange trip.”
Disc 13: Days of Rage and Wonder: Hippies
I did not expect too much from this program and the introduction looked like just another love letter to the generation that may have had great music, but also began the self-destructive drug and sex craze that in some ways continues to this day, destroying whole swaths of several generations. But it actually discusses the origins of LSD and the concerns of psychotherapists that it would leak into the community, and Dr. Leary’s experiments did use them in vague group experiments, and used it himself, becoming known as the “pope of dope.” The government administered it through the VA on soldiers and civilians, and through these “victims” the drug made it out into the community, and inspired Ken Kesey to work at night as a guard at the VA. This served as his inspiration for the best-selling One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Profits from the book transformed him into the Johnny Appleseed of LSD.
The program goes on to discuss how the transformation of society, beginning in California, culminated in the utopia of 1/21/66 “trips-festival” in Haight-Ashbury with 10,000 attendees. This special is unique because it just tells it more or less like it was, noting the fallout from marital breakups and parentless children related to sexual excess. LSD induced psychosis in many patients and led to accidents and brain damage. Even many interviewees who were there admit that drugs were bad and they did not know it at the time, or when they were told it was, no one listened. Strangely, this special provides thoughtful theories on what inspired the hippie movement, but Viet Nam is never mentioned as an excuse for rebellion as the media usually portrays today. Kudos to the History Channel for its research and organized programming of such a chaotic time. Gray Line tours even started going through the Haight-Ashbury area in 1967 where tourists wanted to see the “freaks, which resulted in arrests as incoming hippie wannabes threatened to take over. The opening of minds due to LSD also made these young people vulnerable to manipulation by cult leaders.
The special also discusses how the Beatles changed through drugs, then through transcendental meditation, so that they could get high naturally. Aleister Crowley, a well-known Satanist, is even discussed since he became popular with rock stars and hippies after the Summer of Love fizzled, and Charles Manson emerged from the movement. Since hippies often lived near minority areas, they ran into problems with black Americans since blacks were trying to go forward and hippies were going in the opposite direction.
And the same weekend of Woodstock, Manson went on his rampage killing the pregnant Sharon Tate, which combined with the disastrous Chicago 1968 Democratic convention, ended whatever chance that the original hippie dream of peace, love, and music. Then the Altamont Rolling Stones show degenerated into murder, and the Beatles broke up, drugs killed Hendrix, Morrison, Brian Jones, and Janis Joplin...and Viet Name was beginning to wind down with troops coming home in 1969.
There were other causes for the popularity of the movement of course, including the male voyeurism that led to pictures of braless young women in the media. And of course the environmental movement came along in 1970.
Disc 14: Days of Rage and Wonder: Riot: The Chicago Conspiracy Trial
This material was covered to some extent in the 1968 special, but portrays in more detail how the riot took on a life of its own. There was plenty of violence on both sides, and seeing it on television turned many democrats away from their traditional party. The violence by “peace” lovers displaying Viet Cong flags while our young men were at war with them was too much for many Americans.
Interestingly, we see interviews with the lawyers involved in the trial on both sides, with the defense saying that the whole system is corrupt, while the prosecution saw the demonstrators as nothing but rabble. The judge saw both sides as overreaching in these areas. With Abbie Hoffman in attendance it was hard to tell if it was on Earth or on another planet.
Sex and the Vietnam War
This is an interesting program because it weaves the various threads of all the others together. The brothels right on military bases is a real eye opener. Unlike modern wars, just about all of the soldiers were men, and in Viet Nam prostitution was fairly open in most major cities. There were a half a million prostitutes in South Viet Nam at the time, and since many soldiers and civilians made more money there than at home, they often employed mistresses. There was almost one prostitute for every soldier. They could buy women for a month or even a year, called “bungalowing” because the soldier would often rent an apartment for her.
Interestingly, none other than Hugh Hefner acknowledged that many soldiers lost their families due to promiscuity in the war.
It is difficult to say what period of American history was the most astounding, but the 1960’s are definitely one of them, especially considering the cultural and artistic changes in civil rights, music, going to the moon, assassinations…whew!