Lessons of the Vietnam War

Teaching the Forgotten 50th Anniversary

By Bill Bigelow

There is a startling encounter in the Vietnam war documentary, Heartsand Minds, between producer Peter Davis and Walt Rostow, former adviser to President Johnson. Davis asks Rostow why the United States got involved in Vietnam. Rostow is incredulous: “Are you really asking me this goddamn silly question?” That’s “pretty pedestrian stuff,” he complains. But after several more expressions of disgust, Rostow finally answers, “The problem began in its present phase after the Sputnik, the launching of Sputnik, in 1957, October.”

Despite Rostow’s patronizing bluster, Davis’ question is not silly at all. It’s the fundamental question that a film — or teacher — should ask about the war. What’s silly is Rostow’s answer. Sputnik? 1957?

With one blow, the former adviser erases years of history to imply that somehow the Soviet Union was behind it all.

The “present phase” caveat notwithstanding, Rostow ignores the World War II cooperation between the United States and the Viet Minh; Ho Chi Minh’s repeated requests that the U.S. acknowledge Vietnamese sovereignty; the U.S. refusal to recognize the 1945 Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam; $2 billion in U.S. military support for the restoration of French domination, including the near-use of nuclear weapons during the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu, according to the Army’s own history of the war; and the well-documented U.S. subversion of the 1954 Geneva peace accords. All occurred before the launching of Sputnik.

Rostow’s historical amnesia is reflected in today’s major U.S. history textbooks, according to a new study by Jim Loewen of the University of Vermont [see the review of his book, LiesMyTeacherTold Me, p. 24.] Of the 12 textbooks Loewen studied, not a single one probes earlier than the 1950s to understand the origins of the war. Why was the United States at war in Vietnam, according to these texts? Loewen writes: “Most textbooks simply dodge the issue. Here is a representative analysis, from American Adventures: ‘Later in the 1950’s, war broke out in South Vietnam. This time the United States gave aid to the South Vietnamese government.’ ‘War broke out’ — what could be simpler!”

When teachers pattern our curricula after these kinds of non-explanatory explanations, we mystify the origins not just of the war in Vietnam, but of everything we teach. Students need to learn to distinguish explanations from descriptions, like “war broke out,” or “chaos erupted.” Thinking about social events as having concrete causes, constantly asking “Why?” and “In whose interests?” need to become critical habits of the mind for us and our students. It’s only through developing the tools of deep questioning that students can attempt to make sense of today’s global conflicts.

However, especially when teaching something like the war in Vietnam, bypassing explanation in favor of description can be seductive. After all, there’s so much stuff about the war in Vietnam: so many films, so many novels, short stories and poetry, so many veterans who can come in and speak to the class. These are all fine and important resources, but unless built on a foundation of causes for the war, using these can be more voyeuristic than educational; they can generate a kind of empty empathy.

The Missing Anniversary

The year 1995 is full of 50th anniversaries: the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps; the surrender of Germany, ending the war in Europe; the testing of the first atom bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico; the first use of atomic weapons against human beings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the final end of World War II, with the surrender of Japan; and the birth of the United Nations. However, one anniversary likely to be overlooked in this year of remembrance also had an enormous impact

on the course of world history: the Declaration of Independence of Vietnam, announced September 2, 1945 by Ho Chi Minh. If we in the United States had spent more time considering the origins of the war, perhaps we wouldn’t experience this commemorative omission.

A video I’ve found useful in prompting students to explore a bit of the history of Vietnam and the sources of U.S. involvement is the first episode of the PBS presentation, Vietnam: A Television History [available in many libraries]. Called “Roots of a War,” it offers an overview of Vietnamese resistance to French colonialism (which began in the mid-nineteenth century) and to the Japanese occupation during World War

II. My students find the video a bit dry, so in order for students not to feel overwhelmed by information, I stop it often to talk about key incidents and issues. Some of the images are powerful: Vietnamese men carrying white-clad Frenchmen on their backs, and French picture-postcards of the severed

heads of Vietnamese resisters — cards that troops sent home to sweethearts in Paris, as the narrator tells us, inscribed, “With kisses from Hanoi.” The goal of French colonialism is presented truthfully and starkly: “To transform Vietnam into a source of profit.” The narrator explains, “Exports of rice stayed high even if it meant the peasants starved.” Significantly, many of those who tell the story of colonialism and the struggle against it are Vietnamese. Instead of the nameless generic peasants of so many Hollywood Vietnam war movies, here, at least in part, Vietnamese get to tell their own stories.

Toward the end of the episode, Dr. Tran Duy Hung recounts the Vietnamese independence celebration in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh square following the defeat of the Japanese — and occurring on the very day of the formal Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, September 2, 1945: “I can say that the most moving moment was when President Ho Chi Minh

climbed the steps, and the national anthem was sung. It was the first time that the national anthem of Vietnam was sung in an official ceremony. Uncle Ho then read the Declaration of Independence, which was a short document. As he was reading, Uncle Ho stopped and asked, ‘Compatriots, can you hear me?’ This simple question went into the hearts of everyone there. After a moment of silence, they all shouted, ‘Yes, we hear you.’ And I can say that we did not just shout with our mouths, but with all our hearts. The hearts of over 400,000 people standing in the square then.” Dr. Hung recalls that moments later, a small plane began circling overhead and swooped down over the crowd. When people recognized the stars and stripes of the U.S. flag, they cheered enthusiastically, believing its presence to be a kind of independence ratification. The image of the 1945 crowd in Northern Vietnam applauding a U.S. military aircraft offers a poignant reminder of the historical could-have-beens.

Although this is not the episode’s conclusion, at this point I stop the video. What will be the response of the U.S. government? Will it recognize an independent Vietnam or stand by as France attempts to reconquer its lost colony? Or will the United States even aid France in this effort? This is a choice-point that would impact the course of human history, and through role play I want to bring it to life in the classroom. Of course, I could simply tell them what happened, or give them materials to read. But a role play that brings to life the perspectives of key social groups, allows students to experience, rather than just hear about aspects of this historical crossroads. As a prelude, we read the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, available in the fine collection, Vietnam and America:A Documented History, edited by Marvin Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn Young, and H. Bruce Franklin [New York: Grove Press, 1985], as well as in Vietnam: A History in Documents, edited by Gareth Porter [New York: New American Library, 1981].

Role Playing a Historic Choice

I include here the two core roles of the role play: members of the Viet Minh, and French government/business leaders. In teaching this period, I sometimes include other roles: U.S. corporate executives, labor activists, farmers, and British government officials deeply worried about their own colonial interests, as well as Vietnamese landlords allied with the French — this last, to reflect the class as well as anti-colonial dimension of the Vietnamese independence movement.

Each group has been invited to a meeting with President Truman — which, as students learn later, never took place — to present its position on the question of Vietnamese independence. I portray President Truman and chair the meeting.

Members of each group must explain:

  • How they were affected by World War II?
  • Why the United States should care what happens in Vietnam, along with any responsibilities the U.S. might have (and in the case of the French, why the United States should care what happens in France)?
  • Whether the United States should feel threatened by communism in Vietnam, or in the case of the French leaders, France?
  • What they want President Truman to do about the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence — support it, ignore it, oppose it?
  • Whether the United States government should grant loans to the French, and if it supports loans, what strings should be attached?

Obviously, the more knowledge students have about pre-1945 Vietnam, France, and World War II in general, as well as the principles of communism, the more

sophisticated treatment they’ll be able to give to their roles. [An excellent film on U.S. Communism, Seeing Red, produced by Jim Klein and Julia Reichert, is available from New Day Films and can be helpful.] However, even without a thorough backgrounding, the lesson works fine to introduce the main issues in this important historical choice-point.

To work students into their roles, I may ask them to create an individual persona by writing an interior monologue — one’s inner thoughts — on their post-war hopes and fears. Students can read these to a partner, or share them in a small group.

In the meeting/debate, students-as-Viet Minh argue on behalf of national independence. They may remind Truman of the help that the Viet Minh gave to the Allies during World War II, denounce French colonialism, and recall the United States’ own history in throwing off European colonialism.

The students-as-French counter that the would-be Vietnamese rulers are Communists and therefore a threat to world peace. Like the Vietnamese, the French remind Truman that they too were World War II allies and are now in need of a helping

hand. In order to revive a prosperous and capitalist France, they need access to the resources of Vietnam. Because the United States has an interest in a stable Europe, one that is non-communist and open for investment, they should support French efforts to regain control of Vietnam.

I play a cranky Truman, and poke at inconsistencies in students’ arguments. I especially prod each side to question and criticize the other directly. [For suggestions on conducting a role play, see “Role Plays: Show, Don’t Tell,” in the Rethinking Schools publication, Rethinking Our Classrooms:Teaching for Equity and Justice, pp. 114-116.]

The structure of the meeting itself alerts students to the enormous power wielded by the United States government at the end of World War II, and that the government was maneuvering on a global playing field. As students will come to realize, U.S. policymakers would not decide the Vietnam question solely, if at all, on issues of morality, or even on issues related directly to Vietnam. As historian Gabriel Kolko writes in The Roots of American Foreign Policy, “even in 1945 the United States regarded Indo-China almost exclusively as the object of Great Power diplomacy and conflict. . . [A]t no time did the desires of the Vietnamese themselves assume a role in the shaping of United States policy.”

Following the whole-group debate, we shed our roles to debrief. I ask: What were some of the points brought out in discussion that you agreed with? Do you think Truman ever met with Vietnamese representatives? What would a U.S. president take into account in making a decision like this?

What did Truman decide? What powerful groups might seek to influence Vietnam policy? How should an important foreign policy question like this one be decided?

To discover what Truman did and why, we study a timeline drawn from a number of books on Vietnam, including the one by Kolko mentioned above, his Anatomy of a War[Pantheon, 1985], Marilyn Young’s The Vietnam Wars:1945-1990 [HarperCollins, 1991], The Pentagon Papers [Bantam, 1971], as well as excerpts from Chapter 18 of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States [HarperCollins, 1980]. It’s a complicated history involving not only the French and Vietnamese, but also Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Chinese forces, the British, and Japanese. What becomes clear is that at the close of World War II, the United States was in a position to end almost 100 years of French domination in Vietnam. The French government was desperate for U.S. aid and would not have defied an American decision to support Vietnamese independence. Nevertheless, U.S. leaders chose a different route, ultimately contributing about $2 billion to the French effort to reconquer Vietnam.

While a separate set of decisions led to the commitment of U.S. troops in Vietnam, the trajectory was set in the period just after World War II. The insights students glean from this role play inform our study of Vietnam throughout the unit. We follow-up with a timeline tracing U.S. economic and military aid to France; a point-by-point study of the 1954 Geneva agreement ending the war between the French and Vietnamese; and from the perspective of peasants and plantation laborers in southern Vietnam, students evaluate the 1960 revolutionary platform of the National Liberation Front. Students later read a number of quotations from scholars and politicians offering opinions on why we fought in Vietnam. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon assert in almost identical language that the United States was safeguarding freedom and democracy in South Vietnam. President Kennedy: “For the last decade we have been helping the South Vietnamese to maintain their independence.” Johnson: “We want nothing for ourselves — only that the people of South Vietnam be allowed to guide their own country in their own way.” Students ponder these platitudes: If it were truly interested in Vietnam’s “independence,” why did the U.S. government support French colonialism?

On April 7, 1965, President Johnson gave a major policy speech on Vietnam at Johns Hopkins University. Here Johnson offered a detailed explanation for why the United States was fighting in Vietnam [included in TheViet-Nam Reader, edited by Marcus Raskin and Bernard Fall, pp. 343-350]. Embedded in the speech was his version of the origins of the war. As Johnson, I deliver large portions of the speech, and students as truth-seeking reporters pepper me with critical questions and arguments drawn from the role play and other readings and activities.

Following this session, they write a critique of LBJ’s speech. Afterwards, we evaluate how several newspapers and journals — The New York Times, The Oregonian, I.F. Stone’s Weekly — actually covered President Johnson’s address.

None of the above is meant to suggest the outlines of a comprehensive curriculum on the Vietnam war. Here, I’ve concentrated on the need for engaging students in making explanations for the origins of U.S. government policy toward Vietnam. But policy choices had intimate implications for many people’s lives, and through novels, short stories, poetry, interviews, and their own imaginations, students need also to explore the personal dimensions of diplomacy and political economy. And no study of the war would be complete without examining the dynamics of the massive movement to end that war. Especially when confronted with the horrifying images of slaughtered children in a film like Remember My Lai, or the anguished sobs of a young Vietnamese boy whose father has been killed, in Hearts and Minds, our students need to know that millions of people tried to put a stop to the suffering. And students should be encouraged to reflect deeply on which strategies for peace were most effective. [See the accompanying resource suggestions.]

If we take the advice of the Walt Rostows and the textbook writers, and begin our study of the Vietnam war in the late 1950s, it’s impossible to think intelligently about the U.S. role. The presidents said we were protecting the independence of “South Vietnam.” Students need to travel back at least as far as 1945 to think critically about the invention of the country of South Vietnam that was intended to justify its needed “protection.” The tens of thousands of U.S. deaths and the millions of Vietnamese deaths, along with the social and ecological devastation of Indochina require the harsh light of history to be viewed clearly. Among the many worthy 50th anniversaries this year, perhaps we can acknowledge another one that means so much to so many.