Controversy in the Classroom
Teaching "The United States and the Vietnam War"
Donna Alvah, May 2010
Controversies about what Americans call “The Vietnam War” that go back to the 1960s live on in classrooms today. I teach about this war and its effects on American domestic politics, foreign relations, and society and culture, and the interconnections among these, in a seminar for history majors and minors called “The United States and the Vietnam War.”
I begin the seminar by asking students to write a three-to-four page essay describing what they already know about the Vietnam War, or think they know about it, and how they know it, as well as their two or three chief assumptions about the war. These essays, turned in at the next class meeting, disclose perspectives shared by most Americans born after the war, whose knowledge of it is largely gleaned from movies, documentaries, music, and other popular cultural expressions, as well as from older relatives who served in the war, or who in any case hold strong opinions about it. Several students say they had a relative (usually an uncle; less frequently, a father) who served in the U.S. military during the war. Some say that one or both parents participated in the antiwar movement. Articulating their knowledge of and assumptions about the war, and identifying the sources that have shaped their perspectives, facilitates students’ awareness that what they think they know about the war is not necessarily an established fact, but perhaps is in question, or at least subject to debate. Sometimes this awareness arises as they write the essay; for example, with the recognition of the U.S.-centrism of the accounts with which they are familiar, and the lack of consideration of Vietnamese experiences and perspectives. In some versions of the seminar, I have asked students to revisit these essays at the end of the semester, writing another essay in which they discuss how the class has expanded, altered, or reinforced their understandings of the war.
At the small, liberal arts college in rural, upstate New York where I teach, most students are white and were born in the United States. The tendency of my students to gravitate toward Americans’ perspectives and experiences means that a first order of business is to study Vietnam’s history prior to the Cold War and the involvement of the United States in the country, including centuries of Vietnam’s subjugation by and opposition to China; colonization by the French and the creation of a new class of Vietnamese elites under French rule; Ho Chi Minh’s experiences in Europe, the Soviet Union, and China between the 1910s and 1941; and the creation of the Viet Minh and resistance to Japanese domination during World War II. This helps to draw students’ attention to Vietnamese perspectives, and to broaden their understanding of the international significance of Vietnam beyond U.S. interests. Memoirs and fictional accounts provide vivid Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American perspectives of the war and its aftermath, which students discover are not monolithic.1 Still, despite my efforts to get students to comprehend effects of the war on those who suffered and lost the most—the Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians—at the end of the semester, a few persist in exhibiting a dismissive attitude toward this, including the massive death toll. Perhaps fathoming the enormity of the war takes more than a semester.
I take seriously my college’s “Aims and Objectives,” including “a respect for differing opinions and for free discussion of those opinions; and an ability to use information logically and to evaluate alternative points of view.”2 Students should understand why U.S. government officials strongly believed in containing communism in the region, and why a majority of Americans supported this until the late 1960s. I assign primary documents that illuminate the U.S. government’s official rationale for assisting the French in the First Indochina War, and then the anticommunist South Vietnamese government, as well as scholarly accounts examining the increasing involvement of the United States in Vietnam between the 1950s and 1960s. We do not shy away from accounts of atrocities committed by communists, and I urge students to acknowledge them and to complicate their understandings of the war.
Because the objectives of a liberal education include students’ development of their critical thinking skills and well-informed interpretations, I ask them to consider various standpoints and arrive at their own conclusions. Toward this end I assign readings demonstrating disagreements among scholars, and Americans more generally, about the war.3 To give students insight into vastly diverse experiences and points of view, I also assign Christian Appy’s Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, a collection of riveting oral histories from numerous historical actors, and screen segments of episodes from the PBS American Experience documentary Vietnam: A Television History, first broadcast in the mid-1980s. In addition, it is important for students to see how assumptions about the alleged racial and cultural inferiority of Vietnamese, and gendered attitudes, shaped U.S. policymakers’ decisions and the actions of military personnel in the war.
Besides the argument over whether or not the United States should have intervened in Vietnam, and whether the means by which it did so were effective and just, additional debates enliven classroom discussions. Most students accept the characterization of antiwar protesters as routinely hostile to U.S. soldiers, verbally harassing and even spitting on them upon their return to the United States. Most also believe that the U.S. news media portrayed the war in a negative light, causing many Americans to withdraw their support for it. I push students to get past simplistic, received views of these topics to develop more nuanced interpretations. They read accounts of soldiers who describe insensitive and disrespectful treatment by civilians as well as veterans of earlier wars, but they also read about Vietnam veterans joining the antiwar movement, and attempts by opponents of the war to reach out to soldiers. U.S. veterans of the war (including a nurse) have visited the classes, sharing viewpoints that are not always in agreement with one another. Students also read sophisticated analyses of the U.S. news media.4
Research projects and presentations of the findings to the rest of the class provide opportunities for students to delve more deeply into events and issues that they find important, and to discuss these with their classmates. American protest music, antiwar activism in the United States, African-American soldiers, U.S. prisoners of war, the fate of U.S. soldiers reported missing in action, and post-traumatic stress disorder in U.S. veterans are among the most popular topics for these projects. Other students have investigated the participation of Republic of Korea soldiers, Australian soldiers, Vietnamese women, and American women in the war, and have conducted research on “Amerasian” children of Vietnamese mothers and American fathers.
Even by focusing on the topic of “The United States and the Vietnam War” in a fourteen-week semester, there still is not enough time to study everything that the students and I would like to examine at greater length, such as Vietnam after reunification in 1975, the civil wars and anti-communist political and military interventions in Laos and Cambodia, and life in those countries afterwards. I wish to implement a two-week travel component to Vietnam in January 2012, for students who will have completed this seminar in fall 2011. I also hope one day to teach another seminar, “The ‘American War’ and its Aftermath from Southeast Asian Perspectives.” In the meantime, I hope that I have helped to cultivate in students “an enthusiasm for life-long learning,” yet another liberal education goal, that will move them to further investigate these and related topics on their own.5
Donna Alvah is associate professor in the history department at St. Lawrence University, where she also holds the Margaret Vilas Chair of U.S. History.
3. David L. Anderson, “No More Vietnams: Historians Debate the Policy Lessons of the Vietnam War,” in The War that Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War, edited by David L. Anderson and John Ernst (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007); Michael Lind, Vietnam, the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict (New York: Free Press, 1999); Robert J. McMahon, “Contested Memory: The Vietnam War and American Society, 1975–2001,” Diplomatic History 26:2 (Spring 2002), 159–84.
4. Patrick Hagopian astutely examines the value of but also problems with oral accounts, including veterans’ classroom visits. “Voices from Vietnam: Veterans’ Oral Histories in the Classroom,” The Journal of American History 87:2 (September 2000), 593–601. The best study of the American news media remains Daniel Hallin’s The “Uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), particularly for its painstaking analysis of television news coverage of the war between 1965 and 1975.