Vietnam: The Living Memory


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The Long View

On teaching the lessons of the Vietnam era to a new generation

Professors Gerald Gill (left) and Paul Joseph (right) For today's undergraduates, born in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Vietnam War is "history." Their impressions come from textbooks and films. Their emotional response is expressed not at a protest march, but at hallowed places such as the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.

Professors Paul Joseph (in right of photo) and Gerald Gill (left) were students during the Vietnam War, part of a generation that felt the heated urgency of a new political order. Today, in Tufts classrooms, they can take the long view of the Vietnam conflict. Their broad perspectives reflect their evolving interests and derive strength from a growing body of research on a subject that refuses to be quiet. Although their scholarly focuses are different, the heart of their mission is the same: to help a new generation of students discover and evaluate this volatile chapter in American history because its questions resonate still, and its lessons are never complete.

Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program and the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, and chair of the Peace Studies Association, Joseph has explored political sociology, social movements, and the sociology of war for three decades. An antiwar activist while an undergraduate at McGill University, he went on to earn his master's and PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, in sociology. His dissertation would become Cracks in the Empire: State Politics During the Vietnam War, an investigation into divisions among U.S. policy makers during the war with Vietnam. Joseph joined Tufts in 1975, rising to full professor in 1994. After he visited Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1986, his interest in Vietnam was rekindled, and he introduced "U.S., Vietnam and the War" into the sociology curriculum. Meanwhile, he has continued to pursue other research in books such as Search for Sanity, which focused on alternatives to nuclear deterrence, and Peace Politics: The United States Between the Old and New World Orders, exploring the possibilities of a peace dividend after the end of the Cold War. His study of the impact of the nuclear arms race has extended beyond the classroom to the Tufts University Gallery, where he served as a guest curator of the recent exhibition, "Hiroshima/Nagasaki: The Fallout." This past spring he was co-convener of a three-part conference, Peace Culture, Religion, and Market Economies, at the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century. Most recently, he spent the 1995-96 academic year at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, where he studied the intersection of race and class in Maori-Pakeha (European) social relationships.

A similar restless curiosity characterizes the work of Gerald Gill. This past summer found Gill revising Dissent, Discontent and Disinterest: African American Opposition to the United States Wars of the Twentieth Century, a chronological and thematic study of African American opposition to war from World War I through the Persian Gulf War. He was also writing a study of black protest activities in Boston from 1935 to the early 1970s entitled Struggling Yet in Freedom's Birthplace.

An associate professor of history, Gill has achieved a creative balance between teaching and writing; he has written extensively on civil rights, including The Case for Affirmative Action for Blacks in Higher Education and Meanness Mania: The Changed Mood. He is co-editor of The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader and of numerous articles on African American history and public policy matters. He is an academic adviser to Blackside, Inc., a Boston-based film company, and was a consultant for Eyes on the Prize, and adviser to The Great Depression, America's War on Poverty and I'll Make Me a World. A graduate of Lafayette College, he earned his master's and PhD in United States history from Howard University. He has been honored by Tufts for Outstanding Teaching and Advising, and in 1995 he was named Massachusetts College Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.

What questions do you hope students will ponder in their study of United States history?

Joseph There are a series of questions around U.S. intervention that tried to impose a particular outcome on the people of Vietnam. There's the assumption that technological prowess or military might will be able to bring a certain result. I like to have students consider the collision of cultures and the depth of the motivation and commitment of the Vietnamese in trying to secure their independence. I also like to discuss how history produces results that neither side could predict, and also the so-called sideshows or spin-offs that come out of Vietnam. The devastation in Cambodia would be one example. Or how Vietnam won the war, only to fall afterward to political and economic mistakes that made life very difficult for most Vietnamese. And the supreme irony of the fact that the United States has won Vietnam to its side economically in a way it never could while using military force.

As much as possible I also try to have the class think of Vietnam as a place where there were real people, not as a mythology or a symbol. One of my favorite sources that I use in the class is an autobiography written by Nguyen Thi Dinh, a woman who was a leader of the National Liberation Front. And there's a wonderful book by Neil Sheehan about John Paul Vann, an extremely aggressive colonel in the U.S. counterinsurgency program and I try to put these two individuals side by side and have students explore the differences. I ask them, "Who, in the final analysis, is the stronger person?" I also have a U.S. veteran talk to the class to see what it was like in human terms to be in Vietnam. My favorite moment in 10 years of teaching the course was the day when a North Vietnamese veteran co-taught a class with a U.S. veteran. They had much more in common than you might suppose.

Gill I would like my students to gain an understanding of American involvement in Southeast Asia as a part of American foreign policy decisionmaking in that region from the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration through the Carter administration. While the American role, particularly from 1954 to 1975, has been viewed by policy-makers and the public as either a "noble cause" or as a blunder and misunderstanding born out of neo-imperialistic and Cold War consideration, I would like my students in the time I allot to the war to look at diplomatic and military policymaking over decades and how that policymaking allowed successive administrations to step up American economic and military assistance until the United States became fully involved in the fighting. Unlike Paul, I don't teach a course devoted to the war in Vietnam. I can only offer a cursory overview that some students may find incomplete. I would encourage them to take Paul's course or courses taught by my colleague Marty Sherwin.

Researching African Americans' varied reactions to the Vietnam War has been one of my major research projects, as reactions in support and in opposition to the war affected African American activities and consciousness during the mid- to late 1960s through 1975. In my upper-level seminar on the Civil Rights movement, I can present in more detail materials that discuss African American protest activities and the connection to anti-war activities. From Eyes on the Prize students can see and hear Muhammad Ali explain why he had "no quarrel with them Viet Congs" and hear Martin Luther King's eloquent exposition of why he, as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was opposed to the war in Vietnam. Regrettably, too few students have been taught about King's opposition to the war, and Muhammad Ali's principled opposition to the war has been minimized in the reconstruction of his persona today.

How do you bring the experience of your generation to the classroom?

Joseph For me, when I look at Vietnam, it's like peeling an onion: you can explore so many things about it. For example, I think it's a mistake to treat Vietnam just as the place the United States went to war. I like to back up to before the war and say: "There's this place called Vietnam with a people and a culture and a history." It's important to think about that country apart from the war. It's also a place that existed after the war, after 1975. Otherwise, no matter your position on the war itself, you're still seeing Vietnam primarily through the lens of its conflict with the United States. And I think that's a mistake.

The classroom is a good place to talk about Vietnam as a society. It's also a good place to talk about the United States. So much about class and inequality in the United States is played out in the war. So much about racism in the United States is being expressed. There are many hidden things that do not appear on the official records about the way in which the United States prosecuted the war in Vietnam. Even the antiwar movement itself has different layers that can be used to reflect more generally on the United States as a whole.

Gill As Paul mentioned, you have to look at the layers of resistance to the war in Vietnam particularly in terms of class, race and gender. Increasingly, what I have been looking at is the intersection of all these factors in terms of giving a broadened view of those Americans who came to oppose the war in Vietnam and the differing reasons that individuals used in terms of their critiques against the war in Vietnam. Until recently, the activities of the antiwar movement have been depicted largely as a middle-class, middle-income to upper-middle-income, white, college-educated response to the war in Vietnam. But if you look at polling data, you generally will find that African Americans as a group were among those in the United States who were more opposed to the war in Vietnam. African American women, in particular, were more inclined to oppose the war for a wide variety of reasons: politics, gender, class. African American students were also among the vocal opposition, at great cost. In addition to those four students killed at Kent State, there were the two black students slain on the Jackson State campus, where students had organized and taken part in antiwar and antidraft protests centering around the invasion of Cambodia. So at the very least, I hope to make students today aware that African Americans and students at historically black colleges and universities consistently pressed for social change and for an end to the war. This is important. Black student protest of the late 1960s is sometimes presented as only calling for changes on campuses and yet it was also connected to the war.

Joseph We bring our own personal involvement to the curriculum, but another interesting facet is the personal involvement of the students. Many had a father or a relative who served in Vietnam and had the experience of wanting to know more from them, but they also received a message that their questions were not fully welcome. Every year I've taught the course there's been at least one student who has used the material to explore aspects of his or her own family.

Another layer concerns the Vietnamese students themselves. It's commonplace to say that many American high school students don't know much about Vietnam because the conventional way of teaching U.S. history presents only superficial coverage. But it's also true for many of the Vietnamese students. Those who either came here when they were very young or were born and grew up here don't know very much about the history of their own country and have come to this course to try to learn more about it.

We were talking about perspectives on the war. What have been some of the key challenges for you in your own scholarship?

Gill In terms of challenges, there's challenging one of the myths in African American history: that oftentimes wars have served as a means of providing more opportunities for African Americans. Certainly, if you look at the Civil War and the end results of the Civil War, if you look at World War II or World War I or right up until the middle part of the 1960s, you will see the attitude that wars can be a means to fight for first-class citizenship or to try to fight for fair representation and equal representation in the armed forces as a civil rights issue.

I have found, though, if you look at the views of African Americans who opted against involvement in war, you see a debate within the African American community over rights versus responsibilities. Do rights come before responsibilities in terms of the right to first-class citizenship and equal opportunity and equal rights under law? Ought those rights to come before assuming the responsibilities of citizenship, even if one is segregated in the armed forces? My father served in the segregated armed forces during World War II, and he also came to support my being a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam. And I point to one of the ironies, because I went to a college where ROTC was required. And I took ROTC my first two years in college because it was required. But I also know my father was upset that I didn't advance and seek a commission in the United States Army because he was remembering his own experiences during World War II, serving in a segregated army as a private. He did not want me to repeat that. But once I became an opponent of the war, my father was one of my strongest supporters. And my father always used to paraphrase Voltaire: "I might disagree but I defend to death your right to that position." He supported me throughout.

But the point is that you start to see a generational shift in terms of African American leadership and also African American political opinion. In the 1960s, shaped in part by reactions to the Vietnam War, it's certainly clear in terms of African American political thought over the past four decades. While Colin Powell is oftentimes held up to be a model of how individuals could advance through the military . . . you'll also start to see points of view held by African American leaders who will argue that the military was, largely, even with a voluntary army, still a "ghetto draft."

So, basically, scholars, historians and sociologists are asking: What does the military mean for African Americans? Is it a detriment or does it open or offer opportunity? That's one of the reasons why you start to see continued opposition to ROTC in public schools, whether or not these programs are channeling usually lower, middle-income working-class individuals who may not have ready access to college into the military.

How do you convey what American society was like during the Vietnam years?

Joseph But you see, it's not only Vietnam. The period is also about the emergence of the women's movement and the spread of counterculture views. The U.S. was undergoing a deeper process of self-questioning. And it's very important to try to reconstruct those circumstances.

How do you do that in the classroom?

Joseph There's a five-minute clip taken when the news comes to Eugene McCarthy's headquarters that Robert Kennedy has been shot. Both are vying to be the Democratic nominee for the presidency, and the campaign volunteers are stunned. The cameraman had the wherewithal to keep his finger on the record button and he circles the room and looks at the faces. This is June of '68; it's two months after King has been assassinated, so now you've lost two prominent figures in the United States. There have been a powerful series of race rebellions in the cities. It's four months after the Tet offensive, which has punctured all government credibility about making progress in Vietnam, and you can see it all mirrored on their faces as the camera slowly moves around the room. It's remarkable and the students respond to that. For them, it's shocking and yet so far removed from the times in which we live. So I don't think you can teach this course without somehow trying to capture the emotional mood and the cultural mood of the times.

But you can't leave it there either. You also need to consider the positions on the different sides, not only Vietnamese voices and American voices, but all the different voices within the United States about the war. What I try to stress too is that there are also different voices in Vietnam, not only between Saigon and Hanoi, but also between the North Vietnamese and the southern-based revolutionary movement, the National Liberation Front.

So you use culture to show the context.

Gill The cultural lens is an important point. The students that we're teaching right now were probably in elementary school when the Persian Gulf War was fought. They have no real recollections of the Persian Gulf War, but at the same time, this is a generation that has been affected by film, and I know that many of the students who have seen Saving Private Ryan are now starting to look at World War II through the lens of that particular movie. I think they're also starting to look at Vietnam, not necessarily for the movies that are made about Vietnam, but through a sense of patriotism or a sense of allegiance to the country that was defended through the courage demonstrated in Saving Private Ryan. I'm finding that when some students first come into the course, they have to undertake a reexamination based upon preconceived notions they have acquired from current films. It's interesting to hear what they say. For example, most say they would have supported World War II, but they don't know enough about the Persian Gulf War.

Do you think the students who were protesting the war did indeed have an impact?

Gill I think the November 1969 moratorium, where an estimated 500,000 Americans protested in Washington, was key. One of the things my scholarship has stressed, however, is the fact that the student population generally should not be seen as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the University of Wisconsin and Berkeley. We also need to look at, for example, what was taking place at less selective institutions and particularly historically black schools. That it was a generational issue in terms of how people were starting to respond to the war. And also, for example, some of the scholarship that's coming out now by women scholars looking at how women responded to the Vietnam War is very important. Much of the scholarship of the antiwar movement has been focused on male activists and has not necessarily looked at the impact of the antiwar movement and how women defined it, not only in terms of their relationship with men, but in the context of their own political and social consciousness and setting the stage for aspects of the feminist movement.

Joseph There are so many ways that you can look at this complex entity called the antiwar movement. One question is whether the movement had an impact on Washington's decision making. That's a very, very difficult question to answer. I would say yes, but also divide the question into direct and indirect forms of influence. The direct influence that Gerald mentioned, such as the moratorium in November 1969, when President Nixon was thinking, "Well, I can't win with ground troops, but perhaps threatening a massive blow against the North with air power will work." But Nixon had to cancel the attacks due to the demonstrations in October and November of 1969. That's one example of a direct impact. But the antiwar movement also had an indirect influence on Washington's policies. To take just one example, Nixon and Kissinger could no longer prosecute the war in the high-profile ways of the Johnson administration. The public face of their policies had to be one of winding the war down. They did bomb North Vietnam and, of course, Cambodia, but they did it secretly, covertly. When news about the bombing occasionally reached the press, Nixon and Kissinger felt they had control those leaks. They formed a "plumber's unit" to stop the leaks so that The New York Times and The Washington Post and the other papers wouldn't carry stories about the covert bombing of Cambodia or of North Vietnam.

But the plumbers' unit, formed in 1969, grew on its own, acquired its own momentum, and eventually, in 1972, broke into the Democratic National headquarters. In turn, this leads to the Watergate scandal in 1974 and 1975, and ultimately makes it impossible for the United States to respond with military force when the Vietnamese launch their final offensive. I don't think you can posit a direct causality between the antiwar movement and Watergate. Nixon's personality is certainly a factor. But there is a connection between the scandal and Watergate and the fact that Nixon and Kissinger could not tell the truth about what they were doing in Vietnam.

What do you think are the lessons here?

Gill Respect for dissent. Dissent has always had a respectful tradition in the United States. Oftentimes individual dissenters have had to pay the cost of their views. But one of the ongoing legacies of Vietnam should be respect for an individual to uphold the right of his or her conscience in opposition to government action. And we can see what happens when individuals do make a stand in opposition to government policy.

Joseph I would say that it is important to measure the full cost of war. Vietnam had so many casualties, not only the 58,000 U.S. soldiers but also the two million Vietnamese who died. And we cannot overlook the environmental and psychological scars of the war. Another point I'd like the students to think about is: What was the motivation for the intervention? It was carried out in the name of democracy. As citizens, we must hold up some standards for democracy and ask: Did the United States actually try to achieve democracy in its actions in Vietnam? If democracy means these particular sets of values and these particular sets of political mechanisms, was it actually achieved in Vietnam? And what was the impact of the Vietnam War on democracy in the United States? These are questions students of any generation I hope will find worth investigating for themselves.



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