[NOTE: The following editorial comes from the History Department newsletter in April 2000. Like the previous post, this one reflects on teaching about–and remembering–the War in Vietnam.]
I spent a recent Saturday at a seminar, “On Dixie Station: The Impact of the Vietnam War on the American South.” The moderator, a historian at a local college, spoke on “The Vietnam War: Debate Without End.” This talk was probably the most interesting to the audience, which was comprised mainly of schoolteachers.
The moderator made several provocative points. For instance, he argued that the incidence of drug use among soldiers in Vietnam was no higher than among 19-26 year olds in the U.S. at that time. He also asserted that neither the antiwar movement nor the media had much impact on domestic opinion about the war. Rather, he claimed, the development of widespread disillusionment with the conflict was rooted in the Johnson Administration’s failure to demonstrate success in managing it: the generals could not show the public that we were winning.
In laying out the chronology of American involvement in Vietnam, the moderator maintained that the war was already lost by 1961, when it became clear that the Diem regime could not sustain itself; then, however, President Kennedy acted to bolster the Saigon government. And, the historian continued, the situation was even worse by late 1964, at which time the Viet Cong controlled 75% of South Vietnam; then, President Johnson decided to use the so-called “Gulf of Tonkin incident” to deepen American involvement still further.
Another paper, on the antiwar movement in the South, started me to thinking about President Nixon’s decision to widen the war in 1970. The angry reaction of college students over the Cambodian “incursion” led to shootings at Kent State and Jackson State universities, which sparked protests at colleges throughout the nation, including on the usually placid southern campus where I was in graduate school. The faculty agreed to suspend classes and to hold “teach-ins” about the war instead. Students gathered in front of the main administration building and demanded that the university’s president express to Washington the outrage of our university community. When the president at last appeared, he announced that he had sent President Nixon a telegram deploring the invasion of Cambodia and the violence against American college students. (Yea!) Then, he told the crowd that he had signed the telegram as a private citizen, not as president of the university. (Boo!)
A third member of the panel, who spoke on the impact of the war on Southern fiction, used a bit of imagery I found arresting. The war was, he said, like a wound that is scabbed over but won’t heal; it’s the modern equivalent of the Civil War in Southern memory.
Like the “Requiem” exhibit I described last month, “On Dixie Station” revealed that it is possible to treat the Vietnam Era more or less dispassionately, as history, despite my personal difficulty in doing so. Two of the presenters looked too young to have strong memories of the war. Comments from the audience came either as questions or as personal reminiscences. While a couple of the latter, on the extent of drug use in Vietnam and on the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, were truly scary, most of what the audience contributed was pretty prosaic.
No one defended the war as a “noble cause,” but neither did anyone go off on a rant about how “evil” it was. Most members of the audience seemed to be there for the same reason I was, to see whether “history,” as presented by the experts, squared with “autobiography,” past events as they themselves remembered them. And the answer is. . . ?