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‘What Did You Do In The War, Professor?’

May 2024
12min read

Historians have failed to help Americans understand what the war was all about. So charges this scholar, author, and Vietnam veteran.

Instead of fading away, as some thought it would, interest in the Vietnam War seems to be growing steadily. Last year all three networks devoted hour-long specials to the tenth anniversary of the end of the war, with weighty pronouncements on the meaning of it all. Newspaper columnists published similar pieces on the same subject. The Washington Post “Book World” devoted most of an issue to books about Vietnam, all of which had appeared during the previous few months. Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History became a best seller, and the related television series received phenomenal Nielsen ratings. Both the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the University of Southern California held lengthy symposia during 1983 in which distinguished scholars, journalists, and former officials searched for the “lessons of the war.”

Even Vietnam veterans have enjoyed an improvement in their public image. Until recently they were almost invariably portrayed on television as burdened by guilt, unable to adjust to normal life, possibly hiding homicidal tendencies or narcotics addiction, and suffering from delayed stress syndrome. In the television action dramas of the 1970s, Vietnam veterans figured mainly as alienated, psychotic killers; now they tend to be depicted as private detectives or fearless soldiers of fortune. If the Vietnam veteran is still seen as violent and alienated, these qualities now are viewed less with alarm than with a kind of admiring interest. The veterans almost invariably display a genius for mechanical and electronic gadgetry and a knowledge of esoteric weapons and explosives as well as an awesome mastery of hand-to-hand combat. Skeptics may contend that Magnum and Mr. T bear about as much resemblance to the average veteran as Hopalong Cassidy to the average frontier settler, but the vets themselves probably are grateful for any improvement in their public image.

The trendiness of Vietnam has inevitably affected the college campuses. More than two hundred colleges paid to license the PBS series “Vietnam: A Television History” for courses in the fall of 1983 and spring of 1984, and a recent survey by a group called the Project on the Vietnam Generation found 123 regularly offered college courses devoted to the Vietnam War, as well as thirty-one others on “the 1960s.” Almost all the courses in the survey had higher-than-normal enrollments. Indeed, one course at the University of California at Santa Barbara was reputed to have set a record with an enrollment of nine hundred students. This at a time when enrollments in history courses, indeed in liberal arts courses generally, have been declining steadily since the late 1970s.

The Project on the Vietnam Generation also observed that its survey “revealed a remarkable amount of passion and keen sense of responsibility among professors teaching courses on the civil rights movement, the 1960s, Vietnam War or women’s movement.” Whatever the motivation of those professors teaching about civil rights and the women’s movement, it seems curious that so few of the courses about Vietnam were offered before 1981. Yet the war has been over since 1975, and many of the most popular books about it were available even earlier.

In fact, there were many informal courses on the Vietnam War offered in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I taught one of these myself, at a large state university in the South. Even Ronald H. Specter stands in a classroom beside a map of Vietnam though the course was strictly voluntary, met at night, carried little academic credit, and, as I must now admit, was probably incredibly dull, it was always crowded with earnest-looking students, usually wearing the uniform of the day (work shirt and dungarees), intently scribbling down whatever esoteric lore I threw at them. Lectures and discussions that would have induced terminal boredom in any normal nineteen-year-old were swallowed whole by them, and they always came back for more. Part of it, of course, was the excitement and emotion of the time, the idea that if we only studied the problem closely enough, and learned enough about it, the Solution would emerge. Part of it also probably was the fact that I was not just a young assistant professor but a Marine, just back from Vietnam. (I never directly discussed my experiences there, but occasionally I’d let drop some allusion to suggest that the wartime adventures of Sergeant York paled in comparison with my own.)

The vogue of these courses eventually died out, however, and those teaching them turned to more reputable pursuits. In my own case, I continued to do research on Vietnam and to write about it. I didn’t have much choice, since 1 was by then working for the Army’s Center of Military History. But it didn’t take much urging anyway. The Vietnam War was definitely the biggest, bloodiest, most complex, most God-awful business I had ever been involved in in my twenty-six years, and it continued to exercise a strong fascination for me, even after it became an official non-event sometime in 1975.

The next time I taught a course on the Vietnam War, in 1981, the circumstances were considerably altered. I was a reserve officer teaching at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College at Quantico. The course had been literally smuggled into the curriculum by three regular members of the faculty who believed that the services’ self-induced amnesia about Vietnam had gone on long enough.

When I first began teaching that course, feelings about the war among the career officers who made up the class were so strongly held, so inflexible and didactic, that I would tell them to think of it as a course in comparative religion. There was plenty of anger in those classes, plenty of frustration and exasperation, but there was also a common language, born of common experience. We had all been in Vietnam, at one time or another. We knew the acronyms, the hardware. The special conditions of the war, the lack of front lines, the twelve-month tour, the short-timer’s syndrome were taken for granted. The strong emotions aroused by the war needed no explanation; they were still present.

It was a different situation at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where I introduced an undergraduate course on the Vietnam War in the spring of 1981 to the mixed apprehension, skepticism, and wonder of most of my colleagues. There the student attitude was quite different. Most of the students were too young to have clear recollections of the war, but there was a deep curiosity and concern, a concern so intense that, unlike other history courses I have taught before and since, the majority of the students enrolled in the class were not liberal arts majors. A new type of student had arrived on the scene, one for whom the war was not a direct experience but still an event far more compelling than, say, the American Revolution or the New Deal. As Arnold R. Isaacs, who teaches a similar course at nearby Towson State University, said, “It is as if they are curious about some mysterious family scandal that was important to their lives but which nobody would ever explain to them.”

While students had always shown curiosity and concern about Vietnam, the objects of that curiosity and concern had now changed considerably. Gone were the old arguments and discussions: How did we get into Vietnam? Who was responsible for what terrible mistakes and why? What were the crucial turning points in the war? And was it lost from the start? Except for the last question, which has, by now, evolved into the more upbeat “How could we have won?” there remains scarcely any student interest in such matters.

What fascinates students today are the people who were involved in the war—GIs, POWs, Viet Cong, helicopter pilots, boat people, nurses, anybody who was there. At the end of my first year of teaching “Vietnam,” the students completed the usual anonymous course critique. Aside from one student who declared that, despite being a Vietnam veteran, 1 “dressed correctly,” the most striking result was the number of students who complained that I hadn’t told them more about my own experience in the war. (I doubt whether these students ever complained that my older colleagues in American history hadn’t told them enough about their own experiences in the Great Depression or World War II.) I usually require students to write an essay on two or three related books about the war. The great majority opt for books about POWs, veterans’ autobiographies, books about refugees, oral histories, and other works of personal recollection.

Yet I have some doubts about whether this interest in personal experiences has yielded any profound insights into the nature of the war. Almost all students, for example, come away from their reading of personal accounts with stories of the bizarre behavior induced by “getting short” (approaching the end of a one-year tour in Vietnam). But few understand the more fundamental impact of the one-year tour on the U.S. conduct of the war. I was especially discouraged when one young woman, after diligently taking notes throughout the course and viewing several of the PBS Vietnam segments, asked me whether only Marines and Green Berets fought in Vietnam or were there Army and Navy guys there as well? Yet it is not difficult to gain the impression from casual viewing of television, movies, and book jackets that all Vietnam veterans were either Marines, helicopter crewmen, or members of some exotic reconnaissance and commando unit. The fact that one-third to one-half of all Vietnam GIs were never even under fire, let alone in heavy combat, is always greeted with incredulity by my students.

Those teaching the new 1980s-style courses on Vietnam are generally a different breed of cat as well. There are a few survivors of the old Vietnam-as-vital-issue days like Professor Richard Minear of the University of Massachusetts and a couple of former activists like David Cortright, as well as a handful of recognized specialists on the war like William J. Duiker, George C. Herring, Arnold R. Isaacs, Edwin E. Moise, Douglas Pike, and Joseph J. Zasloff. Most of the other hundred-odd purveyors of knowledge about the war are individuals with no particular expertise in the subject they are teaching.

Few of the teachers who responded to the survey conducted by the Project on the Vietnam Generation appear bothered by this fact. The overwhelming impression in reading the comments and descriptions of their teaching is that most believe just having lived through the 1960s is sufficient background to qualify an academic to teach a course on the Vietnam War. There are references to being “shaped by the war,” to being part of a special generation, ” ‘a lost generation’ cut off from all those who came before or after us,” to being profoundly influenced by the turmoil and anguish of the war.

Although at least two of the respondents proclaimed that those of their “generation” were “all Vietnam veterans,” only 26 of the 236 professors who responded to the survey—that is, 11 percent—indicated that they were “veterans of the Vietnam conflict.” A check with the Project on the Vietnam Generation, however, revealed that the 26 respondents really meant that they had served in the armed forces “during the Vietnam Era” (defined as 1964 to 1973). Since only about one-fourth of the people who served during this period actually spent any time in Vietnam, the figure for professors who served there is probably around 3 percent, rather than the already low figure of 11 percent. If we further subtract the respondents who are professional military officers teaching history at the service academies, we arrive at a still lower figure.

Of course I do not mean to suggest that personal experience is an indispensable prerequisite to successful writing or teaching in history. In my own field of military history, for example, Barbara Tuchman had no need to fight in World War I before writing The Guns of August . Garrett Mattingly did not sail with the Spanish Armada and John Keegan was not present at the Battle of Agincourt. Nevertheless there is something a little disconcerting about the spectacle of a hundred or more academics teaching a course about a recent historical event, experienced firsthand by hundreds of thousands of their contemporaries, fellow countrymen, and students, but not by them.

This situation has been noted with some unease by both the professoriat and the Vietnam veterans. John Wheeler III, a leading spokesman for Vietnam veterans, worried in his book Touched with Fire: The Future of the Vietnam Generation whether academics were “teaching the whole story.… Is he discussing his personal sentiments? Looking squarely at the war years as a disciplined and objective scholar must be extraordinarily difficult.…” Wheeler’s solution is to call on the veterans: “As the VVLP [Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program] shows, there are very able Vietnam veterans all over the country who will volunteer to aid teachers with courses on the sixties and the American future.”

A case probably can be made for the idea that a veteran who experienced the war in Southeast Asia may understand it better than a professor who experienced it mainly on television, but Wheeler’s solution wouldn’t really solve the problem. The veteran’s perspective must necessarily also be a limited one. In most cases it is confined to a single year, a single geographical area, and a single service. Few spoke the local language or knew anything about the country in which they found themselves. (Most of the Marines I served with did not seem to clearly distinguish between the people of Okinawa, from which our unit had deployed, and the people of South Vietnam. They were not only “gooks,” they were the same gooks.) Like Oliver Wendell Holmes’s soldier of the Civil War, the Vietnam combatant was involved “in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.” This may make him a transcendently noble figure, as Holmes believed, or a tragic victim of senseless mass murder, but few would arsue that it makes him a historian.

What have those hundred-odd academics teaching Vietnam courses done to dispel our confusion? Not much.

I would like to suggest that the problem with the present-day crop of history courses about Vietnam is not so much attitudes or experiences as lack of knowledge. John Keegan and Barbara Tuchman could write and lecture brilliantly about World War I because there is a solid body of international scholarship concerning that conflict, scholarship developed over fifty years and based on access to and extensive research in the primary records. The situation in regard to the Vietnam War is more than a little different. Ten years after the end of the war, our knowledge of the Vietnam conflict is still incomplete and profoundly confused. “The Vietnam War,” as Douglas Pike, an acknowledged expert on the subject, recently observed, “was marked by an outstanding range of interpretations of unfolding events and explanations of what each side was doing and why it was doing it.”

Take as an example the relatively straightforward question of whether the Communists or the Americans and their allies had the upper hand in the bloody battles that raged during 1966, 1967, and 1968. An examination of the answers to this question in recent publications by Gabriel Kolko and by Douglas Pike affords a graphic illustration of the obstacles to gaining an accurate and reliable picture of Vietnam events. Douglas Pike’s book Viet Cong has been translated into more than twenty languages. Professor Kolko is a leading historian of the left who has recently published a comprehensive history of the Vietnam conflict entitled Anatomy of a War.

How do these two experts assess the military success of the two sides? According to Kolko, the Vietnam War demonstrated the “ability of a determined, able revolutionary force to defeat immensely richer Americans.” American forces had superior firepower and more sophisticated war machines, but American forces were pinned down everywhere by the necessity to defend the large bases and enclaves that they established all over the country. The “key to [the Communist party’s] maintaining the strategic initiative was its ability to keep U.S. and ARVN forces dispersed. …” The “strategic initiative on the battlefield always rested with the Revolution … the American military to some extent always had to respond to its challenges. … by early 1967 everyone important in Washington knew from CIA and Pentagon reports that [American] strategy was failing. Indeed, the Americans won large numbers of battles, and the PLAF and the PAVN lost enormous numbers of men, but the Revolution throughout this period dominated the overall military situation.”

Pike takes a rather different view. He writes that Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the Communist commander, faced an enemy with three advantages, all of them the result of the “fact that American military technological development in the years since the end of the Viet Minh War had virtually revolutionized warfare. What had worked against the French no longer would work against the Americans. The three advantages of the enemy were greater use of heavy long-range weapons (naval shelling); increased use of air power (B-52 raids); and greater mobility … provided chiefly by the ubiquitous helicopter. …” By the summer of 1967, says Pike, Giap’s troops in the South “had not won a single battle of significance in nearly two years, when two years before they had been at the gates of victory. Now American firepower was eating deeply into PLAF/PAVN reserves of men and supplies. The desertion rate in the PLAF was doubling every six months. Logistics … were a nightmare as supplies were discovered and destroyed by the enemy. Morale was growing steadily worse, especially among the PLAF troops.”

These are, to put it mildly, disparate assessments of the same events. The situation might be likened to that of a historian in 1876 trying to teach a course on the American Civil War but still uncertain whether the Battle of Gettysburg was a result of Lee’s invasion of the North or Meade’s invasion of the South, whether the Union blockade really made any difference, and whether railroads and rifled weapons were of any importance.

And what have those hundred-odd academics teaching Vietnam War courses been doing to dispel confusion and increase our knowledge? Not much. As recently as June 1985 I attempted to organize a panel on the United States and the Vietnam War for the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. I anticipated little difficulty. The society has more than a thousand members, including most of the leading experts on the history of American foreign relations and national security policy. In addition it would be meeting in conjunction with the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association, to which hundreds of other historians belonged. The meeting would be in beautiful Palo Alto, California. The only requirement for our panel was that the papers present the results of original research, that is, research based on records, memoirs, interviews, and diaries. There were few takers. Not many scholars were doing any historical research on the Vietnam War. Lots of people volunteered to talk about the “innovative” courses they taught, about the literature of the war, the historiography of the war, and so forth. But rigorous research was scarce.

On reflection this is not so surprising, for the fact is, since the 1960s, academic historians have contributed little if anything to our knowledge of the Vietnam War. When one thinks of the books that have had a major impact on both popular and academic attitudes and approaches to the conflict—those that have done most to shape the debate about the war—works by historians are few and far between. From the books written by David Halberstam, Bernard Fall, Douglas Pike, and Joseph Buttinger in the 1960s to the books of Peter Braestrup, Jeffrey Race, Frances FitzGerald, Frank Snepp, Don Oberdorfer, and Alan E. Goodman in the 1970s to the more recent books by Truong Nhu Tang, Arnold R. Isaacs, Stanley Karnow, and Harry G. Summers, Jr., the works that have been most influential have largely been written by journalists and former participants in the war rather than by academics.

Why this extraordinary abdication by members of the historical community? Perhaps it is due to the mistaken idea that we already know all we need to know about the war. Perhaps it is due to a feeling that, despite all the professed enthusiasm for courses on the subject, the Vietnam conflict is not really a reputable topic for historians to deal with, that it is unlikely to win them academic prizes or to be discussed in learned journals. Whatever the reason, if the present trend continues, we can be reasonably confident that despite the vogue of Vietnam history courses, American historians will have little influence on how we remember the Vietnam War.

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