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Teach Your Children Well: Raising the Next Generation on the Viet Nam War1
Steve Potts, Department of History, University of Nebraska
The past fifteen years have seen a plethora of courses, texts, and classroom materials developed to meet demands for teaching about the Viet Nam war in America's schools. The popularity of this subject is evident to anyone who has been at all active in secondary and post-secondary education. Fascination with the war has spawned a thriving cottage industry in developing new approaches to presenting a complex and controversial topic. Most major textbook publishers have one or more books on the war that can serve as college texts.2 At the secondary level, too, the war has been written into history survey texts, albeit in a manner that creates more frustration than understanding.3 As courses on the war have become more widespread, teachers with practical experience in developing and successfully teaching such courses in college and high school often appear at conferences, in particular the Popular Culture Association's annual meeting, to discuss resources and teaching approaches. There is, in short, no dearth of material on America's role in the war for competent college and high school teachers to fashion into successful courses.
Such is not the case, however, for those who teach younger students in elementary and junior high classrooms. For teachers in these classrooms, merely finding resources that are appropriate to the age and abilities of their students is a challenge. To date, most curriculum writers seem to have assumed that younger students either are not interested in the war or are not intellectually able to deal with the complex issues that the Viet Nam war raised.
As Bill McCloud found in 1987, Oklahoma junior high students were indeed fascinated by the Viet Nam war, but they also received little exposure to the war in their social studies courses. As he noted, students "seem to be saying that they know the war is the skeleton in America's family closet, and that they think they are now old enough to be let in on the secret."4 Although McCloud's diligence and unique approach to teaching about the war remedied that situation for Pryor, Oklahoma, students, there has not been a concerted effort to address the war throughout America's elementary and junior high schools. By the time students reach high school in some states, their American history requirement is completed. If they are enrolled in a U.S. history survey course, time constraints, teachers' interests, and political considerations sometimes relegate Viet Nam to a day or two at the end of the year.
Many high school students, though, do not even review their sketchy knowledge of our nation's history acquired in elementary and junior high school. The current fad in the nebulous field called "social studies" seems to be world history. World history courses often approach their subject matter from a spatial or temporal framework; however, events that encompass more than a single time period or geographical area are often considered too difficult for students to comprehend and, perhaps, for teachers to teach. If students receive little or no exposure to the Viet Nam war in their elementary, junior high, or high school classrooms, they are ill-prepared for college courses that suddenly introduce a new panorama of facts, impressions, and thought-provoking interpretations to their limited vision of the past. And, sad to say, it is still possible to complete a university education at many schools without ever having taken a U.S. history course, much less a course in Asian history that includes Indochina's recent past. In short, there is far too little history taught, and far too little Viet Nam in that history.
To fully comprehend the lack of attention paid to the war and its impact on Indochinese and Americans, it is necessary to examine some of the books that elementary and junior high students frequently use when they study the war and assess their value for both teachers and students. While many of these texts are lacking in one way or another, this essay was not written merely to lay blame on authors and publishers but also to suggest some avenues that might be taken to improve the education our elementary and junior high school students receive about the war. In the end, what we teach younger students about the Viet Nam war will determine to a large degree how the next generation interprets this wrenching experience.
For those who have studied history at a more advanced level, the complexities of our nation's past are evident. When it comes to history, there is no such thing as a simple explanation or a reliable formula. "Facts," where such things are available, are subject to vastly different interpretations as to their validity and importance. History is, in short, the constant reassessment of a body of knowledge whose parameters increase with each new study, each document discovered, and each interpretation that provokes reasoned thought.
Such comprehension, however, is not apparently encouraged in younger students. Their view of the Viet Nam war is shaped by books containing simplistic statements that do more to mislead students than to inform them.5 One of the most popular books on the war, Edward F. Dolan's America After Vietnam: Legacies of A Hated War, contains an unsophisticated explanation for why our involvement in Indochina made this a "hated" war.6 According to the author, the war divided Americans into two camps: "On the one side were all the people who supported the nation's participation in the fighting; on the other were those who not only opposed the U.S. role in Vietnam but also hated the thought of any war."7 As most adult readers are aware, choices made to support or oppose the war were far more complex and sophisticated than Dolan simplistically portrays. His judgment that the war be "dumbed down" into such black and white terms is reminiscent of the good/bad characterizations that children are exposed to in Saturday morning television cartoons. He ignores the numerous public opinion surveys as well as less rigorous empirical evidence that suggests that Viet Nam was only one of a host of issues that divided Americans during the tumultuous 1960s. Adult students of history find this simple dichotomy amusing if not insulting. For young people, however, who often tend to view their world--and consequently their history-in more black and white terms, such a division between support and opposition can quickly become transformed into good versus evil, an "us versus them" split that does little to educate students about the complexity of the Viet Nam war nor adequately prepares them to cope in a world where there are few such finely drawn absolutes.
A second deficiency is evident in the approach that writers take to explaining why the U.S. involved itself in Indochina's affairs. While the debate over the nation's involvement in Indochina shows no signs of abating among apologists, pundits, and historians, the issue seems to have been resolved by a number of textbook authors who write for a younger audience. They credit the United States with the basest of intentions in their crusade to staunch the spread of communism in South Viet Nam. This largely negative view of American involvement usually takes the guise of portraying one side as lofty idealists and the other as men of evil intentions, ruled by their immoral natures. Given the current interest in political correctness, it is to be expected that these two divergent sides are usually taken by the North Vietnamese (the good guys) and the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies (the ones in the black hats.) The Vietnamese who was "first in the hearts of his countrymen," to borrow an appellation from American history, is usually Ho Chi Minh. Whatever our views of "the George Washington of his country," they are likely to have been shaped by what we as adults know of the man's career. Ruthless dictator of kindly uncle? Choice of the Vietnamese people or tool of Moscow who rose to power in a vacuum of opportunity? Our adult knowledge of history allows us to base our judgment of this controversial man on informed opinion, and to assess Ho Chi Minh in more sophisticated terms.
This luxury is not afforded younger students. To them, Ho Chi Minh is variously described in American children's books as "the greatest Vietnamese leader of the twentieth century," or "Vietnam's most revered hero."8 Likened to George Washington, an interesting comparison since Ho, like George, has been raised to a mythic status that would probably surprise and perhaps dismay both, Ho Chi Minh is popularly acclaimed as the one Vietnamese that all sides, communist and noncommunist, north and south, rallied around as their leader. In fact, like George Washington, Ho has had large portions of his resume rewritten to reflect the mythic status he has achieved. Like Washington, who likely told a lie now and then and probably didn't chop down a cherry tree, Ho's failings have been glossed over by textbook writers anxious to preserve a saintly image of Viet Nam's national leader. Sidney Lens, writer of a popular young reader's book on the war, describes a man unknown to many Vietnamese in 1945 as "the Communist fighter who had gained great prestige because of his role in the struggle for independence during the 1930s."9 Conspicuously absent from most accounts of Ho's life are his ruthless suppression of opposition during the 1940s and abortive land reform efforts in the 1950s, both of which Ho Chi Minh himself expressed regrets for in later years.
If one side must be elevated, so the other must be lowered, and children's textbook authors do a marvelous job of portraying the Americans as representatives of an evil, immoral nation bent on conquering and colonizing a poor, prostrate Third World nation. A representative example of this is the treatment accorded the My Lai massacre and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
In many textbooks My Lai is portrayed as a typical occurrence, something that American soldiers did on a regular basis. Even Ha Noi's historians have largely abandoned such a radical and baseless position. As Sidney Lens described it, "War breeds atrocity, but seldom, if ever, before had there been an American perpetrated atrocity like the massacre." In the next sentence Lens notes that incidents such as My Lai demonstrate the links between the war, violence, and a predilection toward "lying and cheating among leadership" in government and American business that produced a climate after the war in which "'yuppies' would count success as a goal, with little or no concern for moral or ethical standards."10 Although the My Lai massacre should be studied and remembered for the horrible lessons it teaches, Lens conveniently forgets other, far greater atrocities perpetrated by both Americans in our numerous wars and by the Vietnamese, Khmer, and Lao communists against their countrymen. He also stretches the reader's imagination--and his authorial credibility--by linking what went on in My Lai with what goes on in the boardroom. Granted that some older Americans may not like yuppies, but insider trading scandals pale beside something like My Lai. To link the two in the same paragraph is a travesty.
Likewise, Henry Kissinger is usually not given a sympathetic portrayal in textbooks designed for elementary and junior high readers. Many older readers have their own beliefs about the erstwhile and ubiquitous secretary, but whatever one's politics we must admit that few humans are comprised completely of evil or, as the nursery rhyme goes, sugar and spice and everything nice. That basic fact of human nature apparently escaped some textbook writers. If Ho Chi Minh is the mythical hero, Kissinger is the representation of evil incarnate, the man who, Lens argues, "abandoned his beliefs, allowing hundreds of thousands of Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and others to be maimed and killed needlessly so that so-called great power could save face."11 Interestingly enough, Lens, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, and other writers who are quick to condemn American officials for lack of foresight are silent on the genocide perpetrated on Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge. As one junior high school student asked me after a class presentation several months ago, was Kissinger responsible for Pol Pot's excesses, too? I shudder to think that the leap of logic made by this lone, dazed student is being made in other classrooms across the country. No matter what we as adults may feel about the personalities who populated the war's landscape, we as teachers owe it to our students to present them with facts and train them to interpret facts. To do anything less, to rely instead on timeworn characterizations and outdated rhetorical shrieking, does a disservice to students' formative intellects and our skills as professional educators.
Finally, one of the most disappointing aspects of texts for younger students in the chauvinism inherent in their content. Americans' continued cultural isolationism when it comes to any sort of comprehensive understanding of other nations' history, religions, and literature is evident in many areas of the school curriculum, but it is especially distressing with the subject of the Viet Nam war is presented. The war may have been a clash of ideologies and a contest of national wills, but it was also one of the most striking examples of the violent and unsuccessful intermingling of two very dissimilar cultures. The Vietnamese were not "small Americans," and our lack of understanding, during the 1960s and today, of Vietnamese culture is perpetuated in the textbooks we are foisting off on unsuspecting children. In many instances, Viet Nam is conspicuously absent from the Viet Nam war. Sidney Lens, for example, deals with Viet Nam's history from its origins to the 1920s in three sentences; the period from the 1920s to 1964 receives only ten pages. Needless to say readers should have a bit more background on Viet Nam's rich and complicated past to place America's intervention in its proper perspective. Edward Dolan, while he does a masterful job of explaining the legacies of the war for Americans, notes that the five legacies he chooses "have been bequeathed especially to the United States. Others of a quite different sort have been left to Vietnam." He does not, however, detail or explain what the war's legacies were for the Vietnamese, nor does he explain that some of America's troubles in Indochina were the result of cultural ignorance. All of the major texts are remarkably silent concerning another of the war's legacies: the Cambodian genocide. For the Indochinese, it seems, and for young American students, the war ended in April 1975. When the Americans went home, so it seems, peace came to Indochina. Have we, as our textbook writers suggest, so quickly forgotten one of this century's greatest tragedies?
It does little good to criticize what is currently available unless one also suggests possible ways to improve what these captive consumers learn in their elementary and junior high school classrooms about U.S. involvement in Indochina. Although there are few standout sources and there is much to bemoan regarding major deficiencies in both content and approach, some contain useful material.12 Edward Dolan's America After Vietnam does a very competent and sensitive job with the war's American legacies: troubled veterans, Agent Orange, the MIA/POW issue, and refugee resettlement. Dolan, however, does not focus on the war itself, nor does he deal with Viet Nam itself as a cultural and geographical entity. Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler's Vietnam: Why We Fought contains superb illustrations and does attempt to leave students with a basic understanding of Vietnamese history. It does not, however, contain much information about Indochina's trials and tribulations after April 1975. As in so many instances, the authors' interest and historical coverage seem to drop off after 1973 when most U.S. troops were gone. The only competent general treatment of the war for this age group is Margot C.J. Mabie's Vietnam There and Here. Despite its evenhandedness, it has some deficiencies. Like her fellow authors, Mabie is not a specialist, something quite evident from her willingness to rely upon such dichotomies as "hawks" and "doves" to explain the contrasting positions many Americans took regarding the war.
As should by now be evident, although there are glimmers of hope in several current textbooks, none in and of itself is competent to meet the task of educating the next generation about the war in Indochina. Although many useful texts exist for high school and college students, there is a glaring gap when it comes to similarly sound books for younger students. There is also a need for either a single text or a series of volumes written for this age group that address the Vietnamese, Lao, Khmer, and Hmong cultures. In this regard we are far behind Australia, the location of another large refugee population. Phillip Institute of Technology and Vietnamese Language and Culture Publications in Victoria, Australia, have issued a multivolume set of Vietnamese folk tales, legends, and stories rendered both in English and Vietnamese and in bilingual editions.13 Although they cannot replace a textbook, they can, when used by the imaginative instructor, serve as a way to introduce students to some of the basic elements of Vietnamese and Indochinese culture while also introducing a needed cultural element into the course. Such an approach also helps students to realize that cultures other than their own can produce great art and literature and a history that merits study. Finally, there is also an enormous need for videos and educational documentaries appropriate to this age group. Many high school and college instructors are familiar with the Vietnam: A History (PBS) and Ten Thousand Day War series. We are also aware, though, that the content and language used in these productions makes them largely unsuitable for young students. I am not suggesting that Walt Disney do a Viet Nam war film, but certainly there are filmmakers who could produce a competent script and engaging scenes to portray the war for young viewers.
There are numerous other ways that we might improve the education that U.S. students receive about the Viet Nam war. New texts and appropriate movies are only part of the problem, however. We also need a new approach, a new outlook that allows young students to be treated like their older peers. They, like their high school and college counterparts, should be presented with all sides of the war and at the same time be given the critical thinking and analytic skills appropriate to their age group so that they may make informed judgments about the war. This is particularly important for this generation. We as teachers have a marvelous but frightening task here. This will be the first generation raised in a world no longer beset by the Cold War. We face the challenge in this new era of peace to create a curriculum that can both remind students who will grow up in more peaceful times what war is about and the costs attached to it and also recreate for them the climate that existed during the divisive war in Southeast Asia which shaped their parents' generation. I'd say we have our work cut out for us.
1This essay is a revised version of a paper presented at the American/Popular Culture Conference, Louisville, KY, March 1992. The author appreciates comments by Elizabeth Kahn, Kalí Tal, and Dan Duffy and Joe Dunn's suggestions about additional sources that aided in revising this essay.
2George Herring, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 2nd edition (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1986), deals with the period of American involvement. George D. Moss, Vietnam: An American Ordeal (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990) is one of the better new texts for college-level courses; it is written from a balanced perspective and attempts to treat the war as an American and Vietnamese experience, though it treats the whole of Viet Nam's history up to the 1930s in only fifteen pages. Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (New York: HarperCollins, 1991) and James S. Olson and Randy Roberts, Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam, 1945-1990 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991) are two recent texts that focus on the First Indochina War as well as the Second Indochina War and America's involvement. Thomas Whittemore's The Vietnam War: A Text for Students (Cambridge, MA: Cambridgeport Press, 1988) is directed toward the secondary school audience. More ambitious and challenging are Robert McMahon's Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War (Lexington, MA: DC Heath and Co., 1990) and Thomas D. Boettcher's Vietnam: The Valor and the Sorrow (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985). Both find ready audiences among students for their stimulating writing and comprehensive coverage. Perhaps the best short treatment for college-level readers is Vietnam: Nation in Revolution (Boulder: Westview Press, 1983), written by Viet Nam specialist William Duiker. This is one of the few texts that treats the history and culture of Indochina in ore than a cursory fashion.
3For a brief, provocative discussion of some of these books' failings, see David M. Berman, "In Cold Blood: Vietnam in Textbooks," Viet Nam Generation 1:1 (Winter 1989): 61-80.
4Bill McCloud, What Should We Tell Our Children About Vietnam? (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press) 1989: xiv-xvi.
5A good example of this tendency is the well-written but extremely misleading Charlie Pippin by Candy Boyd Dawson (New York: Macmillan) 1987. Like many children's books the story has a happy ending, but as an explanation of the war itself the book fails abysmally.
6An admittedly unscientific survey of 37 elementary and junior high school classrooms and libraries found Dolan's book in 23 schools.
7Edward F. Dolan, America After Vietnam: Legacies of a Hated War (New York: Franklin Watts) 1989): 13, 21.
8Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, Vietnam: Why We Fought: An Illustrated History (New York: Alfred
A. Knopf) 1990: 20; and, Margot C.J. Mabie, Vietnam There and Here (New York: Henry Holt & Company) 1985.
9Sidney Lens, Vietnam: A War on Two Fronts (New York: Dutton) 1990: 6.
12A list of popular Viet Nam war books written for elementary and junior high age students is contained at the end of this essay.
13Among the most accessible and interesting of these volumes are My Village, by Lang Toi, Five Vietnamese Folk Tales, Selected Vietnamese Folk Tales, Old Stories from Vietnam, and Folk Tales from Indochina, by Tran My-Van. All volumes are superbly illustrated, extremely readable, and present a side of Indochinese culture rarely included in American volumes on the war.
Ashabranner, Brent, Always to Remember: The Story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (New York: Putnam Publishing) nd.
Boyd, Candy Dawson, Charlie Pippin (New York: Macmillan) 1987.
Dolan, Edward F., America After Vietnam: Legacies of A Hated War (New York: Franklin Watts) 1989.
Edwards, Richard, Vietnam War, Reading Level 8, Flashpoints Series, Set I (Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Corp.) nd.
Garland, Sherry, Vietnam: Rebuilding a Nation, Discovering Our Heritage Series (New York: Macmillan's Child Group) 1990.
Green, Carl R., and William R. Sanford, The Vietnam War Soldier at Con Thien, The Soldier Series (Mankato, MN: Capstone Press) 1991.
Griffiths, John, The Last Day in Saigon, A Day That Made History Series (North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square) 1987.
Hauptly, Denis J., In Vietnam (New York: Macmillan's Child Group) 1985.
Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler, Vietnam: Why We Fought: An Illustrated History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 1990.
Huynh Quang Nhuong, The Land I Lost (New York: Harper Collins Children's Books) 1986.
Lawson, Don, The United States in the Vietnam War (Young People's History of America's Wars Series (New York: Harper Collins Children's Books) 1981.
----------------, An Album of the Vietnam War, Picture Album Series (New York: Franklin Watts) 1986.
Lens, Sidney, Vietnam: A War on Two Fronts (New York: Lodestar/Dutton) 1990.
Mabie, Margot C.J., Vietnam There and Here (New York: Henry Hold) 1985.
Nurland, Patricia, Vietnam, Children of the World Series (Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens) 1991.
Tran Khanh Thuyet, The Little Weaver of Thai-Yen Village (San Francisco: Children's Book Press) 1987.
----------------, Children of Viet-Nam (Washington, DC: Asia Resource Center) 1973.
Warren, James A., Portrait of a Tragedy: America & the Vietnam War (New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard) 1987.
Wills, Charles, The Tet Offensive, Turning Points in American History Series (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press) 1989.
Wright, David K., Vietnam, Enchantment of the World Series (Chicago: Children's Press) 1989.
----------------, The Story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Cornerstones of Freedom Series (Chicago: Children's Press) 1989.
----------------, War in Vietnam. 4 volumes (Chicago: Children's Press) 1989.