Controversy in the Classroom

American Foreign Policy at an Impasse: Teaching about Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement

Karl P. Benziger and Robert Cvornyek | May 1, 2010

The collision between the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement has been well explored by scholars, but the question arises as to how to bring these connections into the classroom, especially at the secondary level.1 The American experience in Vietnam reveals the most glaring contradiction in Cold War liberal ideology that sought to contain communism while simultaneously promoting social reform and equality. The intensification of American efforts in Vietnam 1962–65 coincided with the continued violent resistance to the demand for Civil Rights. This led leaders of the freedom struggle such as John Lewis and Malcolm X to draw parallels between the violence being unleashed against people of color in the United States, Africa, and most notably Vietnam. Connecting the liberation struggle of the Vietnamese to the cause of Civil Rights was political fire. In many ways the Cold War liberal consensus found in mainstream American politics could tolerate the critique of those demanding equality before the law and dissent against foreign policy. It was another matter entirely to align in a critique of the United States that was joined by America’s nemeses in the global system.

Connections between the emerging Black Power movement and the war in Vietnam are painful, and avoidance of such discussions remains the most common path in Rhode Island secondary classrooms. This results in narratives where the explosion of radical politics and the breakdown of the liberal Cold War consensus, as best exemplified by the tumult of 1968, seemingly drop from the sky. This article discusses the challenges of presenting this material in secondary and collegiate settings using curriculum, lessons, and assessments developed through an Eisenhower Fund-supported project entitled, “The United States on the World Stage: Teaching Post-1945 History in the Secondary Classroom.” This material has been used in local high schools and in seminars taught at Rhode Island College.

Unit 1: Concepts of Freedom

Time for teaching post-World War II history is a recurring problem for secondary teachers given the constraints posed by a curriculum that often packs all of American history into one year. Keeping this in mind, we created a document-centered mini-unit that could be taught over a three day period. The unit opens with a student analysis of the concept of freedom as found in three key speeches: Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” Lyndon B. Johnson’s address at Johns Hopkins University, and J. William Fulbright’s comments on the arrogance of power. As students respond to these contrasting definitions of freedom, they can then be challenged to examine how these definitions applied to the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War in contrast to the American ethos. For example, using the documents, students write a critical essay explaining how freedom should be applied to people of color in Vietnam and the United States. Is the American concept of freedom as enunciated by these speakers a universal concept?

Students quickly ascertain the volatility of connections between civil rights and Vietnam through the examination of documents such as Robert Moses and the McComb, Mississippi, Protest, Malcolm X’s “Prospects for Freedom in 1965,” or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s position on the Vietnam War. Comparing and contrasting these documents with the earlier definitions of freedom allows students and teachers to detail contrasting ideas of freedom and responsibility to the Civitas in the context of the Cold War. Importantly, this exercise begs the question as to where these ideas sprang from and provides a place for both student and teacher to reconnect with World War II and its immediate aftermath through position statements enunciated in the Atlantic Charter, the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, and the Charter of the United Nations. Who would be the beneficiaries of the new world order as envisioned by the allies at the end of World War II? How long could these publicly broadcast aims be delayed and or denied?

After an initial run through with this unit we realized that the sharp contrasts being drawn by speakers such as Malcolm X or Robert Moses between the ideals of American democracy, Civil Rights, and Vietnam created a distortion in regard to the diversity of political views found within the African American community. One of the more successful strategies we have employed to address this problem is to have students compare and contrast Martin Luther King’s Riverside Address and a letter written to him by Jackie Robinson who strongly opposed King’s stance on the Vietnam War and his support of Muhammad Ali’s decision to resist the draft.2 Students can be asked to role play and respond to the linkage of Vietnam and Civil Rights from King’s, Robinson’s, or their own perspective.

The Need for Multiple Perspectives

Highlighting the multiplicity of views regarding Civil Rights and Vietnam is critical if students are to understand what Manning Marable has identified as the shift between the politics of engagement and the politics of confrontation.3 The year 1965 certainly provides an interesting transition in this regard if the diversity of views about Vietnam found in the executive and congressional branches is taken into account. For example, Birmingham in 1963 seemed to give the lie to the idea of the politics of engagement. Why then did the politics that coupled American foreign policy and the Vietnam War in 1965 seem even more dangerous to established institutions within American society after this point?

Another Eisenhower-funded grant over three years provided us with the opportunity to go into more detail with teachers and students about the necessity for providing multiple perspectives. Once again centered on a series of essential documents, the curriculum unit written by teachers highlights ideas embodied in the shorter unit over a longer period of time beginning in the American Depression and continuing through 1968.

Unit 2: The Comparative Approach

This unit begins by comparing the expectations of people of color in the colonized world and America at the end of World War II. Student examination of documents such as the Atlantic Charter in contrast to the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence enables students to grapple with questions such as: How well were the promises embodied in allied war aims kept, and equally important, what impeded the implementation of these promises? Discussion of these documents and questions provides a springboard for a closer examination of civil rights and foreign policy during the early Cold War. Importantly, it allows for a closer look at the Cold War by revealing the complexity of the politics of race and imperial ambition that was largely shrouded by bipolar interpretations of the time as found, for example, in the Truman Doctrine.

One useful exercise is to require students to explore the intersection of foreign and domestic policy found in reaction to the Bandung Conference and the murder of Emmett Till. Documents such as President Sukarno’s opening address to the Bandung Conference and selected writings of Richard Wright can be used to foster this understanding. Likewise, Adam Clayton Powell’s speech memorializing Emmett Till and reproductions of the story as found in Jet magazine further underscore the importance of the world stage in regard to the plight of people of color in the United States. Students can compare and contrast domestic reaction to these events with the ways in which established authority reacted to the challenges posed by Bandung and Emmett Till. By including this type of background material in the narrative of the Cold War, students are better able to get at the complexity that informed this period of history. A debate, role play, or persuasive essay can be used to get students to revisit arguments put forward by the major actors as to whether domestic concerns should remain subservient to American foreign policy interest.

America’s difficult relationship with authoritarian regimes as exemplified by Ngo Diem and the Republic of Vietnam provides an opportunity for students to struggle with issues of foreign policy interest and the realities on the ground. Realities further complicated by charges of neo-colonialism forwarded by Vietnam’s National Liberation Front in contrast to America’s stated goals and missions outlined by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson that included a massive development of the Mekong River system. The reaction by the elite to connections made between the plight of the Vietnamese and Black farmers as exemplified by the McComb, Mississippi, Protest provides a platform for student evaluation of these connections. What were the consequences of decisions made by those in power and those in the freedom movement in regard to their stand on Vietnam?

Teachers suggested a role play to get at this question. In the role play the United Nations appoints a mediator to broker an ending to the war in Vietnam that includes all of the actors. By forcefully arguing a point of view, students quickly come up against some of the same walls faced by the major players in the conflict. How then to resolve impasses that seem to give too much away, or are too painful to bear after years of struggle? In this light, the origins of radical politics are better understood as well as the institutional reaction to them.

Teachers agreed that these instructional materials could be easily integrated into the general themes and concepts already in use. Students need to have a good understanding of both American race relations prior to and during World War II set in a global context. In both our undergraduate and graduate seminars a great deal of care has to be taken to ensure that students have the background needed to get at these connections.4

At the secondary level the success of integrating this type of curriculum into mainstream-classes remains mixed. The curriculum is found primarily in AP classes or specialized courses that were developed after our three-year program. This is unfortunate as students enjoy these particular approaches and like grappling with the decisionmaking process. Role playing and writing position papers provides students with a sense of ownership and helps to personalize the experience for them. Far from undermining important American ideals, a detailed understanding of contested history provides the learner with an understanding of why the ideals embodied in the Constitution are unique and worth debating. The multiplicity of views presented and the intense debate that they still engender provides electricity to these discussions and certainly brings home the relevance of teaching contested history in the classroom. Students are interested at the secondary and postsecondary level in parallels between American foreign policy in Vietnam and the current crises the United States faces in Iraq and Afghanistan and regularly raise questions about echoes from the past. Are there lessons to be learned from the convergence of foreign policy and civil rights in the mid 1960s that might be useful to us today as our polity engages in discussions regarding nation building and establishing a more democratic global order? We would argue yes, if only to think more clearly about the promises embodied in our institutions, the role of dissent, and the place of American institutions in the contemporary global system.

Karl Benziger is associate professor of history.

Robert Cvornyek is professor of history at Rhode Island College in Providence, Rhode Island.


1. For example: Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative of Black Power in America (New York: Owl Books, 2006), Nikhil Pal Singh, Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), Brenda Gayle Plummer, ed., Window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs 1945–1988 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).

2. We have had great success utilizing sports in this regard. In addition to Jackie Robinson one could turn to Harry Edwards’ Olympic Committee for Human Rights and the falling out among Black athletes as to whether to boycott the 68’ Olympics. See: Douglas Hartman, Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete: The 1968 Olympic Protests and their Aftermath (Chicago: The Chicago University Press, 2003).

3. Manning Marable, Race, Reform, and Rebellion (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001) 84–105.

4. The seminars take a more historiographical approach in combination with documents.

Tags: Teaching Resources and Strategies


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