Many of them were born in 1968, the year the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong staged the Tet offensive and the year a beleaguered President Lyndon B. Johnson chose not to seek reelection.
By the time they were toddling through the “terrible 2s” in 1970, President Richard M. Nixon ordered U.S. and South Vietnamese troops to eliminate North Vietnamese supply centers in Cambodia, and the Ohio National Guard killed four students during a demonstration at Kent State University.
They were watching “Sesame Street” in 1973 when the evening news announced that the United States, North and South Vietnam and the Viet Cong had signed a cease-fire agreement and the last U.S. ground troops left Vietnam.
And they were mastering phonics in 1975 when newspaper headlines around the world proclaimed that South Vietnam had surrendered to North Vietnam.
As college students in 1988, they have seen “Platoon” at the movies and watched “Tour of Duty” on TV. They have read about Vietnam veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and they have seen news clips of the 58,156 names etched into the black granite Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. They may even have talked to a relative who served his own tour of duty in Vietnam or a neighbor who marched against the war.
But, just as with many of those old enough to remember once-familiar names like Da Nang, Chu Lai and Cam Ranh Bay, the Vietnam War remains a puzzle to the generation born during the peak of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.
Now the same age as their ‘60s counterparts who were forced to march off to the rice paddies of South Vietnam, many of the students are eager to learn more about the nation’s longest and most controversial war.
At Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa this fall, 45 students--most of them 19 and 20 years old--signed up for History 109 to try to piece together the Vietnam puzzle.
History professor David DiLeo’s new three-unit class is titled simply, “The Vietnam War.”
At the start of a recent class meeting, DiLeo’s students were asked to describe what comes to mind when they think of the Vietnam War.
“My dad,” Kevin Phillips, 26, said quietly. “My dad was killed in Vietnam.”
“The Vietnam War was a very traumatic experience for me,” said Kim Pham, 20, a Vietnamese refugee. “What comes to mind, to me, is a whole people--a whole nation--destroyed by a foreign force, and that foreign force is communism.”
“It’s a mystery to me,” Debbie Barnes, 20, said about the war, “and I kind of wonder what would have happened if we were not there: What would have happened to Vietnam if America didn’t even go?”
“The main reason I took this course is I can remember seeing Vietnam on TV when I was real small, and it was never touched on in any schooling,” said Drew Traulsen, 21.
Twenty-three years after Johnson sent the first U.S. ground combat forces to Vietnam and 13 years after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War is still a touchy subject for many Americans.
But the red-hot emotions that erupted on college campuses during the ‘60s and early ‘70s have cooled.
And classrooms are benefiting.
“The country is now at the time where the Vietnam War is not such a visceral issue, and we’re able to teach it better than a few years ago,” said Marilyn Harran, director of Chapman College’s freshman seminar program, which focuses on issues of war and peace and includes an examination of the Vietnam War.
DiLeo, who also teaches history at San Clemente High School, agreed:
“My senior colleagues who were teaching this subject in the 1960s and ‘70s had a very difficult time with it because as soon as you expressed an opinion on the subject of Vietnam, what did you do? You sort of categorized yourself as a hawk or a dove.
“At the secondary-school level and the university level, this was the divisive issue of the day. Professors would, if at all possible--unless they were historians viewing the 20th Century--leave it out. It would be almost as if you were asked your personal opinion about a very delicate subject.”
As DiLeo’s new course illustrates, the subject of Vietnam is not only no longer being left out of classroom discussions, in many cases it is the focus of entire classes.
Nationwide, about 300 courses dealing specifically with the Vietnam War are being offered at colleges and universities, according to the Indo-China Institute at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. In fact, the most popular class at UC Santa Barbara is religious-studies professor Walter Capp’s four-unit course on the Vietnam War. The highly publicized course won’t be offered again until the winter quarter, but last fall nearly 2,000 students signed up for the class, which includes testimony from Vietnam veterans.
“Nowadays you can expect an increase (in the number of courses) every year,” said Nguyen Manh Hung, director of the Indo-China Institute, which serves as a clearinghouse for information on the Vietnam era and conducts and promotes research on Indochinese affairs and the Vietnam era.
Hung, a professor of government at the Virginia university, said only a couple of college courses on the Vietnam War were offered a decade ago. He cited several reasons for the increase:
“No. 1, when the war was lost, people lost interest in it. And now people like to look back. After all, the war affected many American people, and they want to know what happened. I think the times make it possible for people to look at experiences--no matter how bitter it would be. Nowadays people talk a lot about the lessons of the Vietnam War.
“It’s a major event in American history. It doesn’t go away.”
As for today’s generation of college students, Hung said, “they are willing to look at the war with a new look. They don’t have any hang-ups (about the war), so they look at it with a different attitude. They were too young at the time, so they can (be) more detached.”
Orange Coast College is the only county college offering a course dealing solely with the Vietnam War. But UC Irvine English professor John Carlos Rowe has taught a film-studies class, “Documenting War: Vietnam on Television and Film,” in which he examines the war from a visual perspective, and this fall a Chapman College assistant professor of political science, David Sadofsky, is offering a new class, “Politics of the 1960s,” in which the Vietnam War is a major component.
“My suspicion is the ‘60s is far enough past that we are beginning to re-evaluate it, and we’re starting to appreciate some of the positive values it projected,” said Sadofsky, who has noticed that catalogues from academic publishers that carried just a few books on the ‘60s several years ago now have entire sections devoted to that decade.
As someone who “grew up in the ‘60s,” Harran--Chapman’s freshman seminar director--said she was shocked at how today’s college students perceive her generation’s war.
“For them, it’s ancient history,” she said with a laugh. “They want to learn about it and why there was so much conflict in the country. But for them, it’s certainly not an issue that brings forth the kinds of memories and strong feelings it does for many of the people who teach the course, I expect.”
To help make the Vietnam War seem less abstract, some history teachers invite combat veterans into the classroom to describe their war experiences.
“I think it’s terribly important not only to have people who were involved in decision-making but to have students hear from those who were very involved personally in the war,” said Harran, whose guest speakers last year included former Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) and Ken Flint, team leader of the Vet Center in Anaheim.
Flint, who has discussed the Vietnam War at many colleges and high schools in the county, said the number of requests for him and other Vietnam veterans to speak to students has increased dramatically in recent years.
“We have done history, psychology and sociology classes,” he said, adding that students usually want to know why the Vietnam War occurred and why the U.S. was not victorious. They’re also interested in hearing personal experiences about the war.
“A lot of the kids in high school and junior college have parents and uncles and relatives who did serve in Vietnam, and there seems to be an interest along those lines,” said Flint, a draftee who served in the Signal Corps with the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1969. “Some of the younger kids are thinking of military service. They’ve seen a lot of war movies and wonder, is it realistic?”
Flint, who said the Vet Center still sees 30 to 40 new people a month for short-term counseling, believes that it is important to teach new generations about the war:
“If there’s any real message I often bring up, it’s, if it happens again, to be real clear about what we’re doing and to be real clear that this is everything that needs to be done (to win) and it isn’t an exercise in futility and political gamesmanship using people’s lives on a grand scale. And, also, if we’re going to do that, we need to support the people who are asked to make the sacrifice.”
Bill O’Neill of Irvine is one who was asked to make the sacrifice.
The 43-year-old independent TV producer, who also spoke at Chapman last year and will speak to Harran’s class again this fall, was drafted into the Army in 1966. He went to Vietnam in 1968 as an artillery officer assigned to the infantry.
Unlike other Vietnam veterans who have difficulty talking about the war, O’Neill said he does not have a problem with it: “Generally, any trauma or bad feelings I felt inside, I’ve been able to talk them out. “
When he spoke at Chapman last year, O’Neill described the U.S. military buildup in Vietnam and showed slides that O’Neill took during his Vietnam tour. Then he answered questions, many of them blunt. One student wanted to know how if felt to be shot at. (Six months after he arrived in Vietnam, he was sent home after being wounded by mortar fragments). O’Neill also was asked what he thought of the war: Was he for it, or against it?
“The simple answer is when I was there less than a month, I could see the United States would tire of the war, and the South Vietnamese would never fight it, and the North was going to win. That (feeling) was pretty universal,” said O’Neill, whose message to college students is: “Be as informed as you can about what’s going on in the world. The young people end up being the cannon fodder in any war that’s being fought.”
DiLeo said he realizes that students are interested in personal recollections of the war: “That’s the first question they asked me: Were you drafted? And, did you serve?” A 1970 high school graduate, DiLeo was eligible for the draft lottery until the draft ended in 1973 but was never called.
He does not, however, plan to have guest speakers in his course: “I’ve done that in classes, but I found the conversation tends to get narrow. It tends to get to be about one veteran’s experience about his tour of duty. Now that’s legitimate and it’s important, but (students) are here for the same reason I’m here, and I’ve pursued this subject rather deliberately for the last six years, and that is to ask the question: Why were we there? That’s not an easy question. It’s an enormously complex question.”
Most college students have little background on the war to begin exploring answers to the question. Many educators agree with DiLeo that the teaching of the Vietnam War on the high school level is “woefully inadequate.” High school history books typically offer just a page or two on the war. And in history classes that must cover the colonial period to the present, there is little time for teachers to give Vietnam more than a cursory examination.
Despite the complexity of the war, and the failure of many instructors to understand the complexities of Southeast Asian cultures, some high school teachers are trying to devote more time to Vietnam.
At Buena Park High School, social science teacher Debbie Allison has brought Flint in to speak to her students. “These kids just see ‘Rambo’ and these TV shows, and they really have a misconception about what war is like,” she said.
In his U.S. history class for college-bound juniors, Kevin Fawley has his Buena Park High students re-enact the court-martial of Lt. William L. Calley Jr., who was convicted of the massacre of civilians in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai.
“We talk about the idea of free-fire zones and what do you do in a situation where you are told everyone in there is supposedly the enemy,” said Fawley, who devotes two weeks to Vietnam.
“We are certainly spending more time on Vietnam, and we are trying to take it simply past the facts and into its influence on the present day,” he said, adding that as educators, “we need to work on the idea of how the Vietnam War is still influencing politicians today, and I don’t think the kids are getting that. It’s necessary for them to understand the impact (Vietnam) had on all of our lives.”
DiLeo is developing a proposed curriculum for an elective history course on the Vietnam War for high schools in the Capistrano Unified School District.
To offer less is to virtually ignore what DiLeo considers the most important event of the 20th Century.
“In a way,” he said, “the Vietnam War is even more important than World Wars I and II: I believe the United States found the upper limits of its influence (because of the war), and that was a profoundly revealing experience.”
DiLeo is especially equipped to teach a course on Vietnam. For six years he has been working on a book on the war from the perspective of a dissenter who was an insider: George Ball, undersecretary of state under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The University of North Carolina Press plans to publish DiLeo’s “Rethinking Containment” in 1989.
DiLeo is showing episodes of the acclaimed “Vietnam: A Television History” in class; his students are also doing their share of reading. In addition to two textbooks--George Herring’s “America’s Longest War” and Larry Berman’s “Planning a Tragedy"--DiLeo has supplied them with a lengthy bibliography that includes Frances Fitzgerald’s “Fire in the Lake” and Gabriel Kolko’s “Anatomy of a War.”
“The younger folks see this as their heritage, their link to a more intense and interesting generation,” DiLeo said. “I think the kids of the ‘80s are sort of awash and adrift in not having a political and cultural anchor point. This generation is without an event around which to rally or to form their political views, and I think a study of the war serves that purpose.”
But even with 18 weeks to devote to the Vietnam War--even after wading through the internal workings of Vietnamese Communism, the war between France and the Vietminh, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Vietnamization and the Communist victory--DiLeo conceded that his class offers only an introductory level examination of the war.
“We’re introducing them more to the questions than to the answers to the war,” he said, adding that by the time the class is over, “I’d hope they’d be able to discover the complexities behind political rhetoric, to be able to see those hidden complexities and to learn that (national) policies should match desirable ends with available means. I think that’s the lesson of Vietnam.”