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Understanding and Teaching the Vietnam War

Edited by John Day Tully, Matthew Masur, and Brad Austin

Publication Year: 2013

Just as the Vietnam War presented the United States with a series of challenges, it presents a unique challenge to teachers at all levels. The war had a deep and lasting impact on American culture, politics, and foreign policy. Still fraught with controversy, this crucial chapter of the American experience is as rich in teachable moments as it is riddled with potential pitfalls—especially for students a generation or more removed from the events themselves.
            Addressing this challenge, Understanding and Teaching the Vietnam War offers a wealth of resources for teachers at the secondary and university levels. An introductory section features essays by eminent Vietnam War scholars George Herring and Marilyn Young, who reflect on teaching developments since their first pioneering classes on the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. A methods section includes essays that address specific methods and materials and discuss the use of music and film, the White House tapes, oral histories, the Internet, and other multimedia to infuse fresh and innovative dimensions to teaching the war. A topical section offers essays that highlight creative and effective ways to teach important topics, drawing on recently available primary sources and exploring the war's most critical aspects—the Cold War, decolonization, Vietnamese perspectives, the French in Vietnam, the role of the Hmong, and the Tet Offensive. Every essay in the volume offers classroom-tested pedagogical strategies and detailed practical advice.
            Taken as a whole, Understanding and Teaching the Vietnam War will help teachers at all levels navigate through cultural touchstones, myths, political debates, and the myriad trouble spots enmeshed within the national memory of one of the most significant moments in American history.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xii

Our inspiration for this project began with the career of an amazing teacher and prolific scholar, Harvey Goldberg. Born in New Jersey in 1922, he earned both his undergraduate degree and his PhD in history from the University of Wisconsin– Madison, completing his dissertation on the life and contributions of the French socialist Jean Juarès. He...


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pp. xiii-2

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Introduction: Key Questions and Enduring Debates

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pp. 3-18

Any teacher who has taught the Vietnam War (or student who has learned about it) will recognize certain inherent challenges in defining the conflict. For example, how do we identify the beginning and end points? Did it start, as many Americans believe, when US Marines arrived in Danang in 1965? If so...

Part One: Reflections on Teaching the Vietnam War

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Teaching the Vietnam War: A Life History

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pp. 21-25

I began teaching about Vietnam and its wars in 1969, in the Residential College at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. We, the students and faculty, were living through the war together, though only the young men in the college had to fear being sent to fight in it. The students and faculty went to the same local...

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Teaching the Vietnam War: Recollections and Reflections from More than Thirty Years

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pp. 26-38

From the time I started teaching, the Vietnam War was center stage. I began my first job at Ohio University in September 1965, just two months after President Lyndon Baines Johnson had announced a major increase in US forces in Vietnam and their assumption of a combat role. Domestic protest against the war...

Part Two: Methods and Sources

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Putting Students in “Their Shoes”: A Decision-Making Approach to Teaching the Vietnam War

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pp. 41-56

America’s experience in the Vietnam War was a result of a series of decisions made within specific historical contexts. Many lessons can be learned by looking back and analyzing these decisions. Students, however, will learn most when making decisions for themselves, based on the information the decision makers had...

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Understanding the Vietnam Era through Music

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pp. 57-74

Over seventy- five years ago Sigmund Spaeth wrote that popular music “had become a most revealing index to American life.” He went on to say, “[I]t will tell as much to future students of current civilization as any histories . . . of the time.”1 Even as music changed over the decades, its ability to capture the ethos of the times that produced it has remained...

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“We Must Bear a Good Deal of Responsibility for It”: The White House Tapes and the War in Vietnam

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pp. 75-95

A mericans seeking to understand (and teachers seeking to teach) a particular presidential administration or government policy rarely suffer from a shortage of primary materials from which to seek enlightenment. The sheer volume of documents produced by the American government can be overwhelming, especially if...

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Movies and the Vietnam War

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pp. 96-110

Whether we like it or not (and, I suspect, most of us do not), movies are how many of our students first encounter the Vietnam War. In fact, it is often the only way they have encountered it. They may have been touched by the depictions of heroism and sacrifice in Mel Gibson’s We Were Soldiers. They may have...

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The Books We Carry: Teaching the Vietnam War through Literature

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pp. 111-126

The unnamed narrator- protagonist of Ward Just’s 1984 novel The American Blues is struggling to complete his history of the Vietnam War. Like Just, the narrator was a journalist in Vietnam earlier in the war, and he is “obsessed” with America’s long misadventure in Southeast Asia. It is April 1975, and the television...

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Teaching the Vietnam War in the Internet Age: Libraries, Websites, and Information Literacy

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pp. 127-149

In December 1871, Congressman James A. Garfield addressed his fellow Williams College alumni during a banquet at Delmonico’s in New York City. “I am not willing,” Garfield offered in praise of the college’s president, “that this discussion should close without mention of the value of a true teacher. Give me a log hut, with...

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Hearts, Minds, and Voices: The Vietnam War and Oral History

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pp. 150-166

The promise of oral history resides in the potency of voices from the past, and fewer collections of oral histories are more prodigious than those on the Vietnam War. Teachers and students can tap into audio, video, print, and the web to mine thousands of local, regional, national, and international oral histories...

Part Three: Understanding and Teaching Specific Content

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Nationalism, Communism, and the Vietnam War

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pp. 169-184

Two narratives or frameworks tend to dominate histori- cal teaching of the Vietnam War. In the “nationalist” narrative, the struggle in Vietnam pitted local nationalists against traditional French colonialism and its successor, American neo- imperialism. In the “Cold War” narrative, the United States, guided by the dictates...

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From the French to the Americans

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pp. 185-201

For most teachers and students, the story of American involvement in Vietnam begins in the 1960s, with a brief overview of earlier US actions there. Usually missing from this narrative is the French experience. France had consolidated control in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos by the 1880s and refused to relinquish...

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Teaching the Antiwar Movement: Confronting Popular Myths,Teaching Complexity

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pp. 202-222

Although I have been teaching the history of the Viet- nam War to college students for more than twenty years, I am always a little apprehensive about the things they carry into the classroom. However indifferent they seem, they are rarely blank slates...

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The Vietnamese Sides of the “American” War

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pp. 223-244

I have taught the Vietnam War classes a half dozen times at three universities. 1 In the final exam, I have always included a variation of the following question, whether as a regular essay or an extra- credit mini- essay: “In your opinion, which of the following years was the most significant in the long Vietnam conflict...

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“America’s Most Loyal Allies”: The Hmong and the War

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pp. 245-258

The first time I taught a course on the Vietnam War it was to a class of two hundred students at the University of Wisconsin– Milwaukee. Similar to all first- day classes, I briefly introduced myself by highlighting my educational background, then my research and teaching interests before moving on to the syllabus...

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Vietnamese Americans in the Context of the Vietnam War

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pp. 259-275

In the decades since the end of the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese American community has claimed Little Saigon in Orange County, California, as its unofficial “capital.” In other regions, such as San Jose, California; New Orleans, Louisiana; Houston, Texas; Falls Church, Virginia; and Dorchester, Massachusetts, relatively...

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The Tet Offensive in the Classroom

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pp. 276-291

Teaching the Tet Offensive is always quite rewarding, in part due to Tet’s unparalleled centrality to the outcome of the war and its role in the public perception of the Vietnam War era. For most who lived through that period, Tet and its aftermath remain etched in their memories— memories intimately intertwined...

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Teaching the Collective Memory and Lessons of the Vietnam War

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pp. 292-312

The US collective memory and the lessons of the Vietnam War remain highly contentious. This essay advances suggestions on how to teach and generate learning experiences that capture the diversity of opinion and argument on these phenomena. It is important, at least from our perspective, that the teacher eschews...

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Teaching the Vietnam War in Secondary Schools and Survey Classrooms

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pp. 313-328

The Vietnam War continues to be a favorite topic for many high school students and teachers alike. A number of students have seen at least part of some Vietnam movie even if it is only the Vietnam- related scenes of Forrest Gump. Some students are still fascinated by the overall subject of the 1960s or have heard an...


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pp. 329-334


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pp. 335-352

E-ISBN-13: 9780299294137
E-ISBN-10: 0299294137
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299294144
Print-ISBN-10: 0299294145

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 22 b/w illus.
Publication Year: 2013