On a sultry summer day last month, I drove winding westward roads to Walpole, N.H., to interview Ken Burns about “The Vietnam War,” his and Lynn Novick’s new film, 10 years in the making. I had seen an advance copy for the purpose of reviewing it. The film opens at 8 p.m. Sunday on PBS with the first of 10 episodes.

Burns moved Florentine Films to Walpole nearly 40 years ago. With a voice recorder between us, we sat down in a room at the Florentine editing house on Elm Street. This is a shortened, slightly edited transcript of our conversation.

What was your thinking when you set out to make this film?

We just wanted to tell as much of the story as we could, to triangulate with other voices, not just the wide variety of American experience. We wanted to get into why we ended up there, what were the circumstances. We knew it was a much longer story than going from some few advisers under Kennedy to Johnson and boots on the ground. As in our other films about wars, we wanted to make certain battles and moments familiar to people. We wanted to do it from a bottom-up as well as a top-down perspective.

I went to John Kerry and John McCain very early in the process, and I said, “We need your help, and you’ll be in the film as archival historical figures, but we’re not going to interview you. We’re not going to do Kissinger, we’re not going to do Jane Fonda – we’re going to keep this mostly among folks that are not bold-face names.”

We made a decision that we’re not going to have any historians on camera, any experts. If you’re an expert, it’s because you were there, participating in some regard. This is a war in which we are fortunate that we have actual witnesses, and it doesn’t need to be mediated by avuncular commentary. Soon enough, these people will be gone, and the war will be abstracted, and we’ll be into argument and conjecture. Here you could hear testimony.

At the presidential level, because we had the tapes, what is normally remote and distant and interpretive was intimate. You could hear Johnson’s anxiety, you could hear the cold-bloodedness of Richard Nixon. You could see the connection between domestic and foreign policy. It’s always been easy for our conventional wisdom to say, “Ah, he’s good here, not so good here,” but you see there’s no dividing line.

Conventional wisdom is like skywriting: It dissolves instantaneously once you begin to ask tough questions of the material.

So you chose on-screen subjects not so much by their credentials but because they were there.

You had to be there at some part of the story – waiting for the guys to walk up the steps to tell you the worst possible news, or marching in the demonstration, or tending to a wounded body, or being a prisoner of war, or dropping bombs, or strafing sites, or climbing up the hill as an army or Marine guy – that’s what we wanted.

Because you turned 11 in 1964 and lived through the period, you must have had preconceptions about Vietnam.

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1963 to ’71. At the University of Michigan, my dad was in the anthropology department, which was one of the sponsors of the first teach-ins in March of ’65. But it occurred a month before my mom died, so I’ve got lots of garbled messages about Vietnam.

Intellectually, I was opposed to it. I came across letters I’d written to Lyndon Johnson – you should be focusing on the Soviet Union and Communist China, not this. I was opposed to it as I got older on moral grounds, but I also didn’t want to lose, you know. I saw the body counts each night on the nightly news and was thrilled that they were 10 times us. My young mind didn’t grasp it.

By the end of the period, I was in the wheelhouse of a potential draft, but I got a high draft number, the war was already drawing down and I wasn’t going to be taken.

I guess I brought all of that into it, and a certainty about certain things. I loved the way the pursuit of what happened obliterated any sense of what those things were. Somewhere in the first leg of a 10-year series of flights on this project, I lost my baggage.

Could you discuss your conclusion about Kennedy’s culpability in expanding the U.S. role in Vietnam?

We didn’t reach a conclusion. One of the great arguments about Vietnam is that if Kennedy had lived, we would not have gotten into Vietnam. We don’t even touch that.

All we do is show what happened, and we show some of the decisions that Kennedy made that increased the number of advisers from several hundred he inherited from Eisenhower to 16-17,000 by the time he was murdered in Dallas.

And then, I think most tellingly, the fact that Lyndon Johnson takes on Kennedy’s entire foreign policy apparatus and says, “I need you perhaps more than he needed you,” with the idea that, as he said, “Foreigners aren’t like the people I know.” It’s reasonable to assume that had Kennedy lived, he might have made the same kind of decisions that Johnson made.

But we have no way of knowing, and we never say that in the film.

How do you see Kennedy’s role in the war’s historical narrative?

An interesting thing takes place in the 1950s that has to do with the arc of politics – that a congressman from Massachusetts (Kennedy) can visit Saigon in ’51 and be given one story from his French minders and another story from Seymour Topping (AP correspondent in Saigon) and still evolve from that into what both parties had accepted about Vietnam.

And that is: The French broke it, we’re there to fix it. That is an interesting migration, for all the reasons that all the other presidents from Truman and Eisenhower to Johnson to Nixon know one thing, are talking among themselves and exchanging memos about one thing, but doing the opposite.

Kennedy understands proxy wars as an alternative to nuclear Armageddon. I mean, he presides over the 13 days that come closest to that Armageddon. So, it’s very clear you don’t want to have those. You want to have these apparently meaningful proxy wars.

How do you account for this string of presidents who seem to know the war is unwinnable but continue to send young men into it?

They’re all different, but I think at the end of the day they are all prisoners of domestic political considerations, meaning huge decisions regarding foreign policy on the other side of the world are filtered through, “Will I get re-elected?”

How did you tell the Vietnamese side of the story?

Lynn Novick, the co-director, was there (in Vietnam) with Sarah Botstein, the senior producer. They did all the interviews.

We had extraordinary access through Tommy Vallely of the Kennedy School (at Harvard), a decorated Marine, who was mostly responsible for wrangling McCain and Kerry and others to normalize relations with Vietnam. He has spent a generation and a half educating the leaders of Vietnam. He knew everybody there. They’ve got veterans organizations, too. And so you go and ask, “What kind of music did you listen to? Where were you? Tell me about that battle.”

It was important to have Vietnamese civilians and North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas as well as South Vietnamese soldiers. There are three countries in this, and all of a sudden there are two countries. One country disappeared – South Vietnam.

It was convenient for Americans to blame the ineptness of the ARVN (the South Vietnamese army), but in fact they were incredibly brave through most of this. Obviously, there was corruption that was replicated in the various regimes, but I know of no one braver than Tuan, the South Vietnamese marine who has to crawl for three days back to Bin Ja with maggots and worms all round.

One revelation in the film is that Le Duan – not Ho Chi Minh or Vo Nguyen Giap – was the real orchestrator of the North Vietnamese military effort for most of the war.

Ho Chi Minh was the face of the revolution to his people and to the rest of the world. But by 1959 – and that’s not a typo – Le Duan is an important figure in the Politburo. It’s his hardline positions that are going to win out more often than not.

By 1964, Ho is effectively neutered in my opinion, and Le Duan is dominant. He’s designing a failed offensive in ’64. He’s designing the failed Tet Offensive in 1968, though it’s a much greater public relations victory than he could anticipate – but a terrible military defeat in every place they attacked. And he designs the Easter offensive, and that’s a disaster as well. But that’s the guy.

Le Duan appears in Episode 1 and then there is not an episode when you don’t hear from Le Duan or hear about him. I revel in this. Because we just want to say what happened, we have a joyful process of discovery, which we then get to share. Le Duan is one of them.

It seems important – to me at least – that younger generations see this film. How do you make that happen?

We realized somewhere on this journey that the Vietnam War was the most important event in American history since the second World War. It’s essential to who we are. It can help us understand where we are today – this lack of civil discourse, the partisanship, the sense that we’ve made enemies of each other – all of these were seeds borne during the Vietnam era that haven’t yet played out.

Maybe if we can unpack Vietnam, we can begin to have intimate conversations between a father and son, between a granddaughter and a grandmother, about what went on, why did you do that, what were you feeling. The spirit with which we interviewed all the different people in the film and let them express themselves permits there to be communicated that there is always more than one truth. Wynton Marsalis said in our jazz series, “Sometimes a thing and the opposite of the thing are true at the same time,” and we held to that throughout this thing.

When you want to communicate what’s centrally important, you want to do it artfully as a good story, and that will pull anybody in. We’ve had young interns here, 18, 19, 20, blown away. They had no idea. They never got to it in history classes, and they’ve got a few set beliefs, a few images, the napalm girl, the assassination on the streets of Saigon during Tet, the student hovering over the body of her dying friend at Kent State.

All of those become things you’re obligated to in a good way, but then you want to say, there’s more, it’s much more complicated. The answer in Vietnam is always that it’s complicated.

You used quotes from the Nixon tapes sparingly, but many of them I had not heard before.

We worked with the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, and the scholars there were incredibly helpful. Some of the stuff is familiar, but most of it is brand new for 99 percent of our audience. It’s important to get a fresh view. We’re not beating you over the head with a familiar bromide. We bent over backwards to find the illumination.

Nixon went in there with Kissinger’s realpolitik – and they knew they had to get out of Vietnam, and they couldn’t get out. That goes to your other question. They couldn’t get out. And there’s thousands and thousands of dead Americans and hundreds of thousands of dead Vietnamese as a result of being unable to do what you had to do in the case of Nixon.

At one point in the film, Nixon gives a speech in which he says turning the fighting over to the South Vietnamese army is working when he knows it isn’t. Then, talking to Kissinger, he lauds his own speech as “a work of art” and claims, “No actor in Hollywood could have done that.”

And you also see a sycophantic Kissinger going along with it, and this does not comport with the kind of decades-long revision of his own image that Kissinger has tried to maintain – and why, again, I would not interview him.

There’s a film out called “The Last Days of Vietnam” by Rory Kennedy, the last child of Robert Kennedy, and Kissinger says, “South Vietnam failed because of the liberal media and liberal Congress.” We actually have many, many tapes that show something entirely different, and I invite our audience to hear what the actual tapes say from the period and not what he has been saying for many decades.

Your Civil War film used expert historians, especially Shelby Foote, and resonant voices to speak for long-dead characters. Your World War II film used the reductive lens of four American towns. Would you talk about your evolution as a military storyteller?

In some ways, it’s the same process for all the films, but of course the war films are elevated because the intensity is overwhelming.

The Civil War, World War II, Vietnam – the same in a way. And yet there is some immediacy to the footage of World War II and a hyper-immediacy to the footage of Vietnam. Each film determines what it needs, the kind of music you’re going to have – the music is important in this film, as it was in World War II, as it was in our Civil War film.

I hope that as craftspeople we get better, but that’s a judgment for others to make. We just know that we have put the very best of ourselves into it; it’s an amazing collection of people.

Obviously, this film is not encyclopedic. It’s attempting to find and signal emblematic stories. They have to stand in for all the other events. We have one Gold Star mother, and there are more than 58,000 others, but she does a damn good job. And families – military families – torn by the different directions sons go and the internal journeys many of the people in our film make.

These journeys reminded me of just how long the war was. I knew that because I lived through those years, but you have people coming back episode after episode with changed perspectives based on what happened to them and the passage of time.

The Tet Offensive doesn’t happen till Episode 6. Richard Nixon’s elected halfway through Episode 7 – oh, my God! You’ve got three more episodes to go. It’s almost Dante. You’re just getting into the various rings of hell.

The film deals with the way many Americans blamed the soldiers when the war went bad. As a soldier, although I was never in Vietnam, my reception when I came home in 1970 after two years overseas was so icy that I ran into the airport bathroom and changed out of my uniform.

Probably the lesson from the war that’s most durable is that we’re not going to blame the soldiers anymore. It has been exaggerated the extent to which the spitting and all that occurred, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that almost everybody felt the way you felt – felt alienated, and felt like because this didn’t turn out the way Americans were positive it was going to, as everything else in our past had turned out, this was a reminder of something they didn’t want to know.

Think about the South Vietnamese in this country. They had it even worse. They couldn’t change their racial features. You could put on civilian clothes and blend in, and you were okay – sort of – that doesn’t deal with whatever psychological wounds happened. But we learned that lesson – to some extent – that we weren’t going to blame the warriors.

Does the war or your film offer any other lessons that are useful in our time?

The lazy thing is to say that history repeats itself. We’re condemned to repeat what we don’t remember. It’s like saying, “Thank you for your service.” It’s become meaningless.

I don’t think history repeats itself. I don’t think we’re condemned to repeat what we don’t remember. Ecclesiastes may be right: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there’s nothing new under the sun.” Which suggests that human nature remains the same and superimposes itself in each time with the same sets of characteristics. What you perceive are patterns and echoes.

Mark Twain was supposed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” You can, if you wish, listen to those rhymes. We prefer to get the story straight.

Once we take our head out of this project, we can go, yes, I’ve been working for 10 years on a film about mass demonstrations taking place around the country against the current administration, that it’s about a White House in disarray, obsessed with leaks, that it’s about a president convinced that the news media is lying and making up stories, that it’s about asymmetrical warfare that has the fighting might of the U.S. military confounded, that it’s about big document drops of stolen classified material into the public sphere that destabilize the national conversation, that it’s about accusations that a political campaign reached out to a foreign power at the time of a national election to influence that.

Now, these are just a few of the things that rhyme.

But we said yes to this project in 2006. At the end of 2006, Barack Obama hadn’t even announced that he was running for president, let alone won against overwhelming odds, let alone won two elections and given way to the next guy. And eight months into that, everything seems to be echoing.

Well, it’s always echoing.

Mike Pride is the editor emeritus of the Concord Monitor and the retired administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. He lives in Bow and Goshen, N.H.