Sunday, May 17, 2015


I didn't study anything about the war in Vietnam until college. Like all too many American students, my high school history education stopped abruptly with V-J day.

But my first exposure to Vietnam was in middle school, when part way through the school year, we got a new student in class.  Our teachers introduced him and explained that he was from Vietnam. We didn't know where that was, and he couldn't tell us much, because he didn't speak much English. Despite his poor grasp of English, he seemed to understand all too clearly that at least some kids made fun of his odd-sounding foreign name and funny accent. 

One day his mother came to class as a guest speaker. She spoke English just fine. And she told us about the family's harrowing experiences escaping from Vietnam after the war, and their eventual journey to the United States.  I remember watching some of my classmates--the ones who had teased this boy--squirming uncomfortably in their seats.

Political cartoon by David Levine.
The Vietnam War is like that. It makes us squirm in our seats. Not only is it a story without a happy ending, it has left more than just the scar on Johnson's presidency, as depicted in the famous cartoon on the left. Not even counting--for a moment--the actual casualties of the war, this conflict that lasted over twenty-five years was responsible for an increasing skepticism and cynicism about U.S. foreign policy, distrust of the government in general, and the presidency in particular, from which we have yet to recover.

Funny that the seventies is known the "Me" decade, isn't it? When we think about the Vietnam War that ended in the 1970s, it's all "US, US, US"--pun intended. Our study of the conflict is very much from the American perspective.

That makes some sense. We are, after all, American and teaching American history. But widening our perspective might not be a bad thing to do. For starters, students are often surprised to know that in Vietnam, the conflict is referred to as the "American War."

Try this experiment with your students: have them search on Google the term "Vietnam War Casualties." Of the nine sites that showed up on the first page of Google results when I tried this, only three (Wikipedia was one) included Vietnamese casualties. Or even before that, try Googling "Vietnam." If you do a search on any other country, you will get news, tourist information and the like. You will get that if you enter "Vietnam," too, but you will also a few sites just about the war. That is not true of any other place on earth. Only googling "Iraq" and "Afghanistan" come close.

So I think before we teach anything about Vietnam, we might want to point out this American, war-centric perspective. And share the casualties. From both sides. (Note: this link is a great resource for all things Vietnam War related.)

A few years ago, I stumbled across the book, History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History which I mentioned in an earlier post about the Annexation of the Philippines. There is a chapter on Vietnam that includes excerpts from textbooks from Vietnam, France and Canada. For an excellent online source about the Vietnamese perspective, see this page. It's well worth reading the whole thing, but then scroll down to the part where it mentions the overall key points that are taught in Vietnam. I have excerpted the first point below:

It was a war against American invasion
In Vietnam, the war is called as the “Resistance War Against the United States (to protect the country)” (chien tranh chong My cuu nuoc). It is always taught that the U.S. was another colonist power and imperialist just like the French and that Vietnam is not a civil war but instead a war against American invasion.
This is an important concept for students to grasp and worth introducing at the beginning of your unit. It is complex, and you would probably want to revisit this interpretation as you go through the unit. But it speaks volumes about how differently both sides saw the war. We need to consider the Vietnam War from these different perspectives. Was it a proxy war, a civil war between North and South Vietnam, a colonial war of resistance, an effort to stop the spread of communism? That depends on what side one was on, and there were more than two. (I can feel a new idea for a lesson coming on...."Read each of the quotations below. Which perspective from this list best describes the author's understanding of the war?")

In my next post I will share a few lesson materials on Vietnam, but in the meantime, I will conclude with a few basic points that I think students need up front before they can start critically examining the period.

1. Where is Vietnam? Make sure students can find it on a map. Understanding that it was a nation few Americans could find on a map when we first became involved is key, too. Understanding Vietnam's location in relation to China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines is worthwhile, too.

2. War was never declared, so why do we call it a war?  Remind them: only Congress has the power to declare war, as stated in Article I, section 8, clause 11. You could have a whole lesson on this, and later in your unit students will likely encounter the War Powers Resolution of 1973. But I like to at least mention this at the outset and remind them that the precedent had been set in Korea.

1975 Political Cartoon - this particular copy of this cartoon, 
coincidentally, is the copy owned by President Obama that 
will be displayed in the Obama library. 
3. Vietnam was America's longest war.  Students associate Vietnam with the sixties. Understandably. But make sure they know that while the U.S. first sends troops in 1965 and "advisers" before that, the roots of the conflict in Vietnam begin much earlier. Vietnam was a matter of discussion by Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. And Ho Chi Minh was at Versailles back in 1919 trying to get an audience with Woodrow Wilson. (FYI, the link is to a the Wall Street Journal's commemoration of World War I. Bookmark this site for your World War I unit--wish I had known about it sooner!) Just like the Civil Rights movement doesn't begin overnight with Brown v. Board, the Vietnam War doesn't start with Kennedy or Johnson.

4. I also like to set up the unit by introducing a few overall, essential questions raised by U.S. involvement in Vietnam. There are many, but the three I like to focus on throughout the unit are below. They are adapted from historian George C. Herring. I post them up on the board and refer back to them as we go.
  •  Why such a huge commitment in an area of so little apparent importance? In other words, why did we get involved in Vietnam in the first place? Why did we continue?
  • Why, despite an enormous military arsenal and spending $150 billion, did the world's most powerful nation still fail to accomplish its objectives?
  • What were the long term consequences of this failed foreign policy for the U.S. government? for public confidence? for later foreign policy? For good measure, either to introduce the unit or conclude it, you could introduce the concept of the Vietnam Syndrome. The cartoon below is useful for that, though pretty challenging. There is a lot of background knowledge students would need to understand it. An easier one, and one of my personal favorites, you can see here. It's by cartoonist Daryl Cagle and dates from March 2003. This is a theme to develop further when you get to the Gulf Wars and --if you make it!--to the present day.
There are a few other good cartoons and a thought-provoking article about Iraq replacing Vietnam in our national psyche which you can see in this article from the Huffington Post.
Cartoon above found here. 

For more on Vietnam see my next post which includes a few things of mine and links to some other great resources. Find that here.

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