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Experiences in Teaching the Vietnam War
By Ed White
In many ways, I wanted to teach a course on the Vietnam War to find out, as a combat Marine veteran, why it happened, what were the facts, and how to put it all together as a context of my own life. In the beginning I mused over some of these questions: Who teaches a course on the War? Do you need to be a veteran? Or is it a hindrance? Do you have biases that creep into the interpretations you give?
A 1984 New York Times article stated that the subject of the Vietnam War was largely "shunned" for nearly a decade. Then interest in the war increased in part due to new scholarship and research. Then, of course, the movies started to come out. Also, in 1983 the PBS mini-series—Vietnam: A Television History—spotlighted the war. The series was based on Stanley Karnow's book: Vietnam: A History. The initial "shunning" was probably due to the idea that the Vietnam War was the first war the United States had "lost". Hey, but wait, didn't we have a peace treaty? Didn't we leave with honor? Or did we lose because the North Vietnamese invaded the South and took it over? Do I have that right?
In preparation to teach the course on Vietnam, I decided to do extensive research through the normal process of researching primary and secondary sources. But, I also added attending conferences to the mix. The LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, sponsored a Vietnam Summit in 2016 with days of luminaries sharing their views of the war. It was at the Summit that I met Marilyn Young, one of the foremost historians of the period. As luck would have it, I sat next to Frank Snepp, author of Decent Interval, who investigated the Kissinger idea: we know we cannot win, but wait a period of time so that we (read Nixon) are not blamed.
There were three stellar conferences in 2018 sponsored by: the National Archives—The Vietnam War Revisited ; Notre Dame University—Voices of Conscience; and a SHAFR conference which featured the Vietnam War. In addition to these conferences, I took in museum exhibits: the New York Historical Museum held an excellent exhibit on Vietnam, and the National Archives finally curated a Vietnam exhibit with a little nudge from the Archivist, a Vietnam veteran.
After all this, I wanted the course to bring out a sense of the times by having veterans give personal accounts. My class heard presentations from a diverse twosome: a peace activist, and a Vietnamese air force pilot. I invited veterans who had been giving presentations to high school classes in the area, and were from my VVA chapter. Students learned that the peace activist actually went to jail for one and half years rather than report for the draft. The Chicago area has an extensive Vietnamese neighborhood, so finding a Vietnamese volunteer was not difficult. The pilot was in a re-education camp for ten years in Vietnam after the war. I also managed to get a former general who, after the war, started a non-profit organization to help vets. I also read correspondence to the class from a "Donut Dolly" who helped an activist avoid a CID capture in Germany. My greatest regret was not having stories of nurses who had served in Vietnam. It was good to read a current issue of the VFP Newsletter outlining an article by Fred Milano who addressed this topic. There is always grist for the next class!
And for the fun part, I added music and movies to the mix. Truth be told, these additions probably drew more students than the history lessons. And so it goes… We even had a capitalistic discussion on the revenue from these films, or the budget versus the box office dollars. Clearly, all of us have been in the wrong business. For the movies, I started with the Quiet American, and then moved on to some of the usual: Green Berets, Born on the Fourth of July, We Were Soldiers, Casualties of War, Coming Home, Hamburger Hill, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and ended with Good Morning Vietnam. I like the late Robin Williams. I relished the lessons with explanations on how these films came about, how the actors got the parts, described various mishaps, etc. All of this, I thought added a cultural context for the War back at home.
The music was something else. This was the most interesting type of research. I depended a great deal on We Gotta Get Out of This Place by Doug Bradley and Craig Werner which was reviewed in this publication. The influence of the Hispanic beat made me sit up and snap fingers. The class got: What a Wonderful World; The Green Berets; An Okie From Muskogee; Eve of Destruction; We Gotta Get Out of This Place ( my favorite); Soul Sacrifice; What Are We Fighting For; Give Peace A Chance; Born In The USA; and What's Going On. I played the entire songs, offering commentary, only to have the professor in the adjacent class ask if we would lower the volume.
I met Brian Lamb of CSPAN at the National Archives when I was doing research. After a lengthy discussion, he said he would pass my name on to his producer of American History TV on the weekend. They came to Triton College with a boatload of equipment. They filmed the last session, Lessons Learned from Vietnam, which you can actually view. That was amazing!
If truth be told, I really designed the course for me. I was both teacher and student. As I started preparing for the course, I thought over the questions raised at the beginning of this review. There is always more to learn, to teach. Bottom line: I wanted to know.
Ed White is a Marine Vietnam combat vet with memberships in VVAW, VFP, and VVA. He has taught courses on the Vietnam War at Triton College in Illinois.