Past Personal: Teaching the Vietnam War as History

[Note:  This piece originated as a talk to a group of history teachers; it explains the genesis of the series, already posted here, “Growing Up With Vietnam.” (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4]

When I began my prep school teaching career in the autumn of 1973, the Vietnam War was not quite history:  What President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger hailed as “peace with honor” had taken hold, most American troops had left Vietnam, and, thanks to Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization,” only the Vietnamese were dying; but the war was not yet over.  So, I didn’t worry about teaching the war as history, nor could I if I had wanted to.  After five years in graduate school, I was convinced that only with the perspective provided by the passage of time could a “good historian” hope to approach such a controversial issue with “objectivity.”  Moreover, I wasn’t particularly interested in modern American history, since most of my time in grad school had been spent immersed in the politics of late 18th- and early 19th-century Georgia.

During my first seven years on the faculty, I literally could not teach about the war in Vietnam.  This presented a problem each spring, because I was obliged to “finish the textbook” in my Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) course, which included a fairly superficial treatment of ‘Nam.  I surmounted this difficulty at first by lapsing into “anecdotage”:  I told my students about ROTC and spun a few yarns about my time in the U.S. Army (1966-1968), but, since I had not been to Vietnam, I could tell no first-hand “war stories.”  I could share some stories I had picked up from friends in the service, but these were related without much effort on my part to establish any sort of context for them or speculate on their veracity.

The one Vietnam-related activity I had participated in was also the only worthwhile thing I did in twenty-four months on active duty:  I arranged for the burial in Arlington National Cemetery of an Army officer who’d been killed in Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive, and I spent the last six months of my service working with the man’s family.  I also talked about this each spring but avoided drawing any “conclusions” or “lessons” from it.

Even though I wasn’t much interested at first in most aspects of modern American history, in grad school I had become fascinated with the impact of war on the American homefront.  Once I started my teaching career, I continued to read about how the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean conflict had affected those Americans who had not fought in them and even included some of that in my APUSH course.  Since I had experienced  at least some of Vietnam’s impact on the homefront first-hand, I felt that there was a lecture there as well, but I also knew that I couldn’t write it until I understood better how we’d gotten involved in the conflict in the first place.

By the summer of 1980, I was ready to try to explain to myself the chronology of our Vietnam involvement.  After dismissing my morning summer school class, I spent several afternoons in my sweltering classroom (the school turned off the air conditioning at the end of the summer school day), poring over Thomas Bailey’s The American Pageant (the summer school text)and his companion book of primary sources, The American Spirit.  This exercise in scholarly “sweat equity” resulted in three lectures tracing the trajectory of America’s foray into Southeast Asia.  They served to bring a more objective, less anecdotal tone to my treatment of Vietnam but failed to generate much discussion or enthusiasm.  Either I seemed to my students to be handing down unassailable truth, or my attempt at “objectivity” had bleached all of the human interest from the story.

About this time, the APUSH teachers began searching for a monograph on Vietnam to add to the spring reading list.  Our initial choice, George C. Herring’s diplomatic history, America’s Longest War:  The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (New York, 1979), was solid and objective but pretty dry for high school seniors.  The next year, we selected Al Santoli’s Everything We Had:  An Oral History of the Vietnam War (New York, 1981).  This went over much better with our students because of its autobiographical emphasis, but Santoli gave little attention to the events, decisions, or blunders that had hurled his witnesses into the maelstrom of war.

Also in the early 1980s, we found a documentary that brought the war home powerfully to our students, a chronological compilation of CBS news coverage.  In addition to showing the course of the conflict, “Vietnam:  Chronicle of a War” conveyed clearly the important shift over the years in reporting style, from the Cold War “flag-waving” of the 1950s to the skepticism and cynicism of the 1960s.  As color film replaced black-and-white, and as technology made it possible for correspondents to accompany troops into combat, news footage became much more graphic.  I found myself reminding my students, as we settled back to watch, that what they would see was merely a small sampling of material Americans had viewed nightly at dinner time, and that, unlike the latest “Rambo” flick, the wounded and the dead in the CBS documentary didn’t simply dust themselves off and head for a coffee break when the camera stopped rolling.

By the mid-1980s, our textbook included more detailed coverage of Vietnam; I had found an effective documentary and experimented with a couple of supplementary books; and I thought I understood at least the chronology of our involvement in Southeast Asia.  I was finally “teaching the Vietnam War as history,” but I still felt that, by trying to adhere to the “standard of objectivity” imbibed in grad school, I had somehow reduced a conflict that consumed vast amounts of money and more than 58,000 American (and countless Vietnamese) lives to the level of interest of the War of 1812 or the Spanish-American War.

Things began to change in the spring of 1984 as I thought about teaching the Vietnam War one more time.  I kept coming back to two things:  my desire to show the impact of the war on those who did not fight in it; and the title of George Herring’s book–Vietnam was “America’s Longest War,” and we had been involved in it in one way or another for twenty-five years.  I jotted down a series of key dates in the Vietnam conflict, from 1950, the tentative beginnings of our involvement there, through May 1975, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.  Next to each date I briefly noted how old I was at the time, what I was doing, and, where possible, how a particular event affected me.  This filled only half a page, but the exercise both personalized the war for me and opened an avenue to explore in a small way the domestic impact of Vietnam.  What I had produced was the sketchy odyssey of a kid from the lower middle class growing up during “America’s Longest War.”

I also realized that, if this were to be more than an ego trip, I must transcend the “What Did You Do in the War, Teacher?” angle.  So, I added to the half-page of autobiography another page-and-a-half of issues and questions I believed were raised by the coincidence of dates and by what I now perceived as the war’s impact on me.  These included possible parallels between the beginnings of our involvement in Vietnam and our growing role in Central America during the Reagan Administration; the still hotly-debated question of whether we had “won” or “lost” in Vietnam; the “lessons” of the war; and the pitfalls of trying to be “objective” about something one had lived through.  This approach worked well with my classes over the next few years, generating lots of discussion, both of my experiences and of the “lessons” I drew from them.

There was a downside to the modest success I began to enjoy with my personal approach to teaching the Vietnam War.  Each spring as I worked over my notes, adding or deleting a few things and modifying others, I became angry all over again.  Clearly, the war was not yet over for me, and it would not be, as I’ve explained elsewhere, until the summer of 1988, when my family and I visited the Vietnam Memorial.  The following spring, I had the opportunity to share my views of the war in Vietnam with a larger audience, when my school inaugurated a “Senior Lecture Series,” wherein members of the History, English, and Bible departments took turns presenting talks to our assembled twelfth-graders on topics of interest (to the teachers, but not necessarily to the students).

It was one thing for me to offer a highly personal interpretation of the Vietnam experience to a class or two of APUSH students who had been with me for the whole year, but quite another to do so before 180 seniors, many of whom I had not taught.  To prepare for this lecture, I fleshed out the chronology I had devised and called attention to conflicting interpretations of key events in the conflict.  Since I left the account of my own activities pretty much as it had been earlier, my role for most of the lecture was that of occasional commentator.  However, I dropped all pretense of “objectivity” in the final section of the talk, on the “lessons” of the war and what I saw as its continuing impact on this country.  Not surprisingly, my view of the Vietnam War and its legacy did not set well with some in my audience, teenagers who had grown up amid the shallow patriotism of the Reagan years, the cinematic derring-do of Sylvester Stallone as “Rambo,” the “heroism” of Colonel Oliver North, and, eventually, televised coverage of Operation Desert Storm.

Is what I have described really “teaching the Vietnam War as history”?  I think so, but I must admit that in my talk to the seniors I skirted the issue by describing it as a “meditation” on the title of Herring’s book.  It may not be the sort of history I was taught to do in grad school, but I believe it is a valid approach to a controversial–and significant–topic in this nation’s modern story. Those of you old enough to remember Vietnam (or one of our more recent conflicts) have your own stories to tell, however different they may be from mine, and I encourage you to share them with your students.  If you are uncomfortable with a first-person approach, there are other options.  You could, for instance, have your students interview parents or other relatives about their memories of Vietnam (or Desert Storm, or Iraq, or Afghanistan) and share these experiences in either oral or written form.  Another possibility would be to use local history to relate the impact of the war on the city or town in which your school is located (you could do the research yourself or have your students do it as a class project, using oral history, newspapers, or other resources).  Or, you might invite a few guest speakers to present their views of the war to your classes, either individually or in a panel discussion or debate format.

Treating the Vietnam (or other modern American) War in personal terms is risky, but it is a risk worth taking.  As historian David Thelan wrote, by reducing the scale of a narrative about war to a personal level, one can in some measure “join life as people experienced it then with history as professionals practice it now.  The process of creating history is joined with the experience of living life.”  (“A Round Table:  The Living and Reliving of World War II,” Journal of American History, 77 [September 1990], 592)  And that’s what history is–or should be:  conveying to the present generation the triumphs and tragedies of life in the past.

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About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
This entry was posted in American History, Cold War, Current Events, History, Research, Retirement, Teaching, Vietnam War and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Past Personal: Teaching the Vietnam War as History

  1. admiral17 says:

    Boss,
    I do love the classics! The journey through the war is a “long strange trip.” As usual you have inspired me. I shall try to offer an echo worthy of the original.

  2. I wonder how historians of the future will approach the teaching of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict?

    • Funny you should ask. Eddie D. and I were at the Braves game last night, and he told me that Vietnam no longer resonates with his students. But at least, I replied, I kept updating my VN talk each year to reflect parallels and differences between it and our then current efforts to “defend freedom.” That’s what was so frustrating: my message, such as it is, obviously doesn’t translate well in the “real world,” where “Rambo” always wins. I hope historians will keep that in mind when trying to understand more recent conflicts, for all the good it’ll do ’em.

      • jackm4162 says:

        The only way Vietnam resonates with my students is when I get them to read “The Things They Carried.” They don’t seem to be able to find anywhere to hide from the human suffering and strength communicated in that excerpt from ) O’Brien’s longer work.

      • I’ve never used “The Things They Carried” with my classes, but, boy, did it resonate with me! I’m glad you are exposing your students to this fine example of VN war literature, because, if they never read it, they surely won’t be able to reflect on it.

  3. jackm4162 says:

    George, when I was a kid, some older man of my grandfather’s generation told me that an idiot learns by making the same mistake over and over again till the lesson sinks in; a smart man makes mistakes and learns how to recognize similar situations in the future so he can act differently; but the wise man observes and listens to the idiots and smart men, then acts in a manner the former can understand only when he explains in terms they can relate to. It strikes me that the historian who balances his or her personal story with the collective story resembles that wise man. Thanks for your thoughts and for inspiring Admiral17 whose words also make it a pleasure to read both of your posts.

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