College Offers Short Course of the Long Effects of Vietnam War

Times Staff Writer

The sounds are what Thong Nguyen, 24, remembers most about growing up in Saigon.

Exploding bombs and the rhythmic popping of distant machine gun fire at night often summoned his soldier father into battle against the Viet Cong.

"I know the war," Nguyen said recently. "At night, we couldn't sleep well. My mom would wait for my dad, hoping that he would come back home alive."

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Nguyen's father was forced into a Communist reeducation camp where he remains today. Nguyen and his six brothers and sisters attended Communist-run schools in Saigon where for nearly eight years he studied the Vietnam War.

More Than a Million Dead

But, he said, he knows little of the U. S. viewpoint about the conflict that took the lives of 58,000 Americans and more than a million Vietnamese.

Today, Nguyen, who left most of his family behind when he escaped his native country by boat, is a Glendale resident and one of about 40 students enrolled a Vietnam War history class at Glendale Community College.

"I want to know the point of view of the American," Nguyen said as he waited for class to begin one recent morning. "I want to know why they left my country in 1975. That is my big question."

Called "History of the Vietnam War," the semester class taught by Marshall E. Nunn is the first of its kind at the school and possibly the first for a Los Angeles-area community college.

Nunn said he hopes the elective course will teach students some lessons of the Vietnam War.

'Sense of History'

"I think a sense of history is important in order to judge today's events," he said. "For example, a lot of problems regarding the lack of American policy in the Persian Gulf could be compared to Vietnam where we didn't have a clear policy."

Glendale College trustees approved the course outline submitted to them by Nunn last spring, making the school one of an increasing number of colleges and universities nationwide that now offer Vietnam-era courses.

"Vietnam is in the air," Nunn said. "It's like the flu. It's going around and this is the time to teach it."

Indeed, in September about 425 four-year schools offered such classes while in 1980 only a handful of colleges and universities taught Vietnam-era courses, according to a recent study.

"The end of the war came about the same time Watergate occurred," Nunn said, trying to explain the apparent delay in studying the war and its ramifications.

'Double Whammy'

"It was a double whammy and it took the American public a long time to evaluate all this. . . . We didn't want to recognize it for many years."

But now, he said, "We've gotten over that phase of trying to shut it out of our minds and we're bringing it out in the open. . . . We're at a different level of consciousness about the war."

The Glendale class, offered three mornings a week through the history department, covers the background of U. S. involvement in Vietnam beginning with the French occupation in 1857 to the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Hourlong lectures, documentary films and guest lecturers focus on the historical and cultural aspects of the war and the increasing U. S. commitment during the Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations. Early last month, students began studying U. S. involvement starting from 1954.

"Nobody ever sat down to figure out, 'What is the purpose of the war? How are we going to succeed in the war? And what is our strategy?' " Nunn told the students during a recent lecture.

Students were told that Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, who served between 1961 to 1968, and other administration officials had no clear policies regarding the war, and more importantly, did not understand the enemy.

Instead, he said, officials wrongly believed sheer force could defeat the Viet Cong.

"But the Viet Cong did not live in the same world. They were willing to absorb losses we could not comprehend. We assumed they thought like we did.

"So it was always more men, more tanks, more troops, more B-52s, more bombing raids--always more," Nunn said. "After the fall of Saigon, there were 1 million M-16 rifles left behind.

"This idea of the American military force not being stopped came directly out of the second World War where we won by overwhelming force . . . and by American feelings of superiority. . . . We felt all-powerful and this feeling persisted into the Vietnam War era where it shattered on the rocks of Vietnam, but it held on for a long time."

Then, quoting Ho Chi Minh, leader of Communist North Vietnam, Nunn said: "You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at these odds, you will lose and I will win.'

McNamara in Error

"McNamara believed . . . they would cease their fighting," Nunn said. "How wrong he was."

Like Nguyen, many of the students in the class said they enrolled in the class to try to understand better the U. S. role in this country's longest war.

"I'm familiar with the military background," said student Paul Ipock, 25, a Glendale resident who grew up on an U. S. Air Force base during much of the war period. "But the thing about this class is that you do pick up the political reasoning behind it . . . and how the U.S. stumbled into it."

Student Des Smallwood, 60, of Burbank said he viewed the course as his first opportunity to take an objective look of the Vietnam War.

"Even those of us who were mature and were able to read the newspapers on an ongoing basis were subjected to such a lack of information," Smallwood said. "I think with all the other problems we have today . . . it is best that we look at the historical facts and see what mistakes we did make that we can avoid. I think that's the main thrust that brought me here."

Student Tim McCauley, 18, of Glendale, said he remembers watching film snippets of war on nightly newscasts.

"But in school there was nothing really said about it," McCauley said.

McCauley said he hopes the class will answer for him some difficult questions: "I hope to learn why we were there and why we stayed there so long and why we were willing to cause so much damage. What was the purpose?"

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