I am writing both to commend American Heritage for publishing Ronald H. Specter’s “What Did You Do in the War, Professor?” (December 1986) and to attempt to set the record straight with respect to two of his criticisms: that professors of the war lack direct experience and that they even lack knowledge of the conflict.
All of us who are in the business of teaching and writing on the Vietnam War can be grateful to Dr. Spector for calling attention to the growing interest in the Vietnam War on American campuses. Specter’s account of the personal odyssey of his own course over time and space presents a vivid glimpse into the shifting concerns that animate this interest.
In two respects, however, I feel he has done a disservice to his fellow-travelers in this profession. First, he has understated the number of professors on the war who have personal experience of it. Based on the Project on the Vietnam Generation survey, he comes to the conclusion that only 6 of the 236 respondents surveyed were actual veterans of the conflict. If this is the case, the validity of this survey must be highly suspect. Here at Duke University we have four courses on the Vietnam War, and all four professors are Vietnam veterans. I personally know of at least a half-dozen other Vietnam veterans teaching such courses elsewhere. In addition, other courses are taught by professors with government or academic-field experience in Vietnam; men and women like Douglas Pike, Alan Goodman, William J. Duiker, Samuel Popkin, and Marilyn Young, to name just a few.
Second, Dr. Spector asserts that most professors of the Vietnam War lack knowledge of the war because they leave the research and publishing on the war to others, most notably “journalists and former participants in the war.” At best this is a serious oversight. Indeed, there is a large and growing body of scholarly work on the Vietnam War that parallels that of nonacademics and, I would like to think, is equally influential. In addition to the works of Alan Goodman, William J. Duiker, Jeffrey Race, and George Herring (whom Spector does mention), there are the writings of Alexander Woodside, Guenter Lewy, Samuel Popkin, Carlyle Thayer, William Turley, David Marr, Truong Buu Lam, and George McT. Kahin. For those of us teaching in this field, then, there are ample source materials from our academic colleagues to fill any seminar.
Thus, both because of and in spite of Dr. Spector’s article, the future of scholarship on the Vietnam War is assured a vital place on the American college campus.