Teaching Vietnam: Lessons Change With Time

May 24, 2019

By Rob Nielsen rob.nielsen@yankton.net

Editor’s Note: This is the last installment in a series on how various conflicts have been and are taught in classrooms today.


In 1985, a young graduate student was asked a question that, in a broader sense, had been asked by this country silently for nearly a decade since images of the last helicopter to leave the U.S. Embassy in Saigon were broadcast.

"The first year I was teaching a college class, I was in graduate school at the University of North Dakota," Mount Marty College professor Dr. Richard Lofthus told the Press & Dakotan. "One of my students came up to me and said that she had had a brother who was killed in the Vietnam War. This was after class and she was hoping that I could explain to her why her brother had been sent there. At that time, I really couldn’t answer the question. Her asking that question is kind of what set me off on this odyssey to try to figure out what I really think about the war and trying to come to terms with it."

Why had more than 58,000 American soldiers died on a foreign shore?

What drove us to this conflict?

Why did this country involve itself in another’s civil war?

Why did the United States lose the war?

What are the lasting impacts?

What is the truth?

These are questions that educators — armed with growing perspective and analysis — are trying to bring some clarity to as they teach students about one of the country’s most controversial conflicts since the Civil War.

The Press & Dakotan recently sat down with two educators who have taken it upon themselves to help bring the conflict into focus for those who were unable to experience those events.

• Dr. Richard Lofthus is a history professor at Mount Marty College (MMC) who has taught a semester-long course on the war periodically for 30 years.

• Dr. Steven Bucklin is a history professor at the University of South Dakota (USD) where he has taught courses on the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the Vietnam War in film. Bucklin also visited Vietnam following the reestablishment of diplomatic relations.

‘Collective Amnesia’

Both Bucklin and Lofthus have a unique perspective on the war.

In addition to teaching the conflict, both were alive to see much of it play out.

Bucklin said just as the war was about to end, the possibility of him going to Vietnam was looming.

"I was born in 1955, so I actually got a lottery number," Bucklin said. "I was going to turn 18 in April 1973. They had released the lottery numbers in December of ’72. As I recall, my lottery number was 333, which meant that I wasn’t likely to get drafted, but the war ended in January 1973, so I never had to worry about that."

However, the conflict was still on his mind.

"I did worry about the war," he said. "My older brother was seven years older than me and, of course, he was drafted during the war. We were all concerned that he would end up going to Vietnam. He was one of the fortunate ones who didn’t. He ended up spending his service in Germany and at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C."

Bucklin said much of his family had served in the military. He, too, would eventually serve in the South Dakota National Guard.

Lofthus said that when he was growing up, there were in-class discussions around some of the ongoing events.

"I’m just young enough where I didn’t have to worry about being drafted, but also old enough to remember a lot of the events that took place while I was in high school," Lofthus said. "I can remember sitting in classes, for example, when we went into Cambodia — first, the secret bombing and then the invasion (ordered by President Richard) Nixon — I remember discussing … whether or not we should’ve done that."

Bucklin said one particular piece of the conflict helped thrust it into the American consciousness.

"I remember becoming really aware of Vietnam in 1968, and I think that’s when many Americans became aware of Vietnam because that’s the time of the Tet Offensive," he said. "The Tet Offensive really changed a lot of Americans’ opinions about the war."

The Tet Offensive was a large-scale operation in January 1968 by North Vietnamese forces and the Viet Cong against targets in the south. The offensive was noteworthy because it came just months after Gen. William Westmoreland declared communist forces incapable of such operations.

Bucklin said there’s one major misunderstanding that many people have about this juncture in the war.

"This is one of the fallacies we hear about the war," he said. "We hear critics say, ‘The American media was opposed to the war and the media didn’t support our soldiers.’ ... Walter Cronkite, the guy everybody turned to and trusted in the 1960s — Cronkite supported the war until the Tet Offensive. You can read practically every major newspaper editorial up until 1968 supported the war. I think the idea that the media somehow opposed the war throughout its duration is a fallacy."

Bucklin said it was about this time that public opinion on the war turned sour.

"If you look at public opinion polls up until 1968, the majority of the American people supported our effort in Vietnam," he said. "That began to change with the Tet Offensive."

However, Lofthus said it wouldn’t take long after the war for Americans to try and forget it.

"After 1975 when all of the Americans left and Vietnam was unified, the author of the textbook I use — George Herring — says that what the nation did then is drift into kind of a ‘collective amnesia.’ We’re just going to forget about it because we didn’t know how to handle the fact that we had not achieved our objectives and, now, Vietnam was united as a communist country."

Changing Focus

Bucklin said that, at first, teaching largely focused on what was going on at home, rather than what had occurred in Southeast Asia.

"When I was young, very little of the military component of the war was taught, I think in large part because after 1968, the protests against the war began to evolve," he said. "They began to become larger, there was oftentimes violence associated— usually on the side of the state rather than on the side of the protesters, but violence was not the monopoly of the National Guard like at Kent State or what have you. We’ve got students lying dead at Kent State; we’ve got students lying dead at Jackson State just 11 days after Kent State. You’ve got the Democratic convention in Chicago in ’68 which was really violent. Really, what was taught was the domestic consequences of the war, and that holds true throughout the 1970s because we don’t have a lot of historical perspective."

It would take nearly a decade after the war’s end for Americans to take a hard academic look at the conflict.

Lofthus’ first experience teaching a course on the war came in 1985 —10 years after the last Americans had left Saigon — as a graduate assistant at the University of North Dakota.

He said it was largely thanks to the 1983 PBS documentary series "Vietnam: A Television History" and a rapidly accumulating amount of material that had broken the collective amnesia.

"For a long time after that, that was kind of the gold standard of Vietnam documentaries," he said. "Ten years after the war, we were beginning to have accounts with a bit of perspective. We also already had a lot of accounts written by journalists who had been there in the early ‘60s during the military advisors’ stage. The resources were beginning to accumulate."

Lofthus said that this isn’t exactly unique when it comes to historical events.

"It takes a while to have perspective on something that happens in history," he said. "Ten years is kind of when it begins to appear, and 20 years later, you get a more mature and comprehensive look."

The 1980s also saw another analysis of the war released in the form of Harry Summers Jr.’s "On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War." Bucklin said it painted a picture akin to another country’s reflection on a loss in another war earlier in the 20th Century.

"In that book, Summers declared the American military could’ve won that war if it hadn’t had one arm tied behind its back by the civilian government back in Washington D.C.," he said. "This is sort of a ‘stab in the back’ theory like the Germans said about World War I, ‘We could’ve won if the civilians back in Berlin had let us do the war the way we wanted to.’"

He said the book was a contributor in a growing mythos about the war.

"That was kind of popular with the American people and the American military, but it really doesn’t address the reality of the war," he said. "Lyndon Johnson asked his military advisors, ‘Can we win the war if we introduce combat troops?’ … He said, ‘Look, we’ve got certain restrictions — one, we want this to be a limited war, we want to make sure we don’t draw the Chinese in like we did in Korea — can we win under those restrictions?’ The Joint Chiefs of Staff and William Westmoreland and others told him, ‘Yes, we can win.’"

Bucklin said that following the landing of 8,000 marines on China Beach, the war really began to take off for American involvement.

"He’s told by his best military advisors that they can do the job with 100,000 troops," he said. "That proves to be wrong. The next year, he’s told that they can do the job with 250,000 troops, and he gives them that. That proves to be wrong. The next year, they ask for 400,000 troops. He gives them that and they still don’t do the job. By 1968 and the Tet Offensive, we’ve got 550,000 troops in Vietnam and the enemy launches that enormous offensive. Really, Johnson gave the military everything they asked for."

Lofthus said approaching the war in the decades immediately following it were made difficult primarily by one factor.

"We did not achieve the objective that we set out to accomplish," he said. "In many regards, the whole Vietnam experience turned into an international tragedy. Americans are much more accustomed to learning about wars in which we were the victors, as in World War II, or where we at least held the line in Korea. How do you explain a war in which the United States did not achieve its objectives? That’s what makes it really controversial — there’s all kinds of explanations as to why that happened."

He said that it’s still a necessary piece of American history to learn about.

"It’s a valuable thing for people to study because I think one of the lessons you can gather from teaching and learning about the war is that the United States does have limits on its power and it can’t necessarily impose its will on every area of the globe. That’s a difficult thing for Americans to comprehend and accept, but I think it’s an important thing to ponder."

Teaching Today

Lofthus has been offering a Vietnam class every two years at Mount Marty College since 1990, with this past spring semester being his most recent. He’d also taught a three week interim course on it at MMC in 1989.

"It’s usually taken by people who are majoring in history and minoring in history," he said. "We also have some people who are interested in it because they have a family member that maybe was a part of the war."

He said that he takes a few approaches to each class.

"I like to introduce, at the beginning of the course, at least three basic ways that the war is interpreted," he said. "I have the basic George Herring textbook, which is eight chapters long, that kind of lays out the nuts and bolts of the policies. Then I feature many of the major documentaries that have been produced on the war."

Lofthus said this year marked the first time he could use Ken Burns’ "The Vietnam War" as part of teaching the class.

"There’s more and more documentaries that are made and more and more research that can be used," he said. "I think we have a better way of looking at all of the different perspectives."

He said the final branch of his class is a research component.

"I also require that students interview someone who was at least involved in the events of the Vietnam era," he said. "They don’t have to necessarily be a veteran of the war — they could be someone who was living on the homefront but was connected to the war in a certain way. Then, after everything is said and done, I ask my students to ponder in the final essay which of those three interpretations they think is the best explanation."

Lofthus said the classes have been very well-received

"We generally have some really good discussions after we watch these documentaries because they’re very intense, there’s a lot of interviews with veterans and the newer documentaries have also gone over to Vietnam and interviewed people there," he said. "I had one student this semester who told me that every week after class, she had to just go back to her room and just sit and think about all of the things we’d covered for a while and try to process through it."

He added that the class, and others like it, can be a real eye-opener for college students.

"They learn they need to be critical thinkers," he said. "They need to listen to the explanations that our government might be offering regarding whatever, but they can’t just believe it just because the government is saying it — they need to think critically. … A healthy, critical attitude towards whatever you hear is a lesson you can learn when you study the Vietnam War."

The Vietnam War has been a breeding ground for myths, according to Bucklin.

"One of the main difficulties are the myths that have grown up around the war," he said. "In the mid-1980s, I was teaching at the University of Iowa. This was right about the time the ‘Rambo’ movies were very popular and ‘Rambo II’ had just come out. There are a lot of inaccuracies in ‘Rambo II,’ not least of which is how it portrays the Soviets as being the puppet masters of the North Vietnamese."

It was another one of the myths perpetuated by the movie that would inspire one of Bucklin’s classes.

"My students were grabbing on to this stuff and saying, ‘Doc, did you know they’re holding hundreds of prisoners of war there still in 1985?’" he said. "I said, ‘No they’re not. John McCain has investigated as a U.S. senator and a former prisoner of war and he doesn’t believe there are any prisoners being held.’ So I got to thinking, Americans take their history from popular media like movies, so I put together a course called "Vietnam In Film" and I began showing movies that dealt with Vietnam as Hollywood produced them. … We would examine the films against the historical record."

Bucklin said it’s been one of the most popular courses he’s taught in 25 years at USD.

‘Your Bombers Did That’

While Americans continue to seek out ways to grapple with the cause and effect of the Vietnam War, there’s some who have never had the luxury of being able to ignore it.

In 1995, President Bill Clinton extended diplomatic recognition to Vietnam and the two countries have been trying to build up the relationship ever since.

Bucklin said that he was among the first Americans to visit the country since the end of hostilities 20 years prior.

"I had been hired by a company called Vietnam Tours, owned by a couple of Vietnam vets," he said. "They wanted somebody to go over with an eye to history and examine whether or not historical locations of interest to Americans who served there were readily accessible."

He was on the ground for a month on a trip that took him from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Hanoi and points between.

"So I’m a little nervous," he said. "I’m in a country that we had dropped more bombs on than were dropped in all of World War II, so I’m not sure how I’m going to be received. In the South, I was received with extraordinary hospitality — very, very friendly. They said, ‘The war is over, we need to be friends now.’ They were effusive and treating me to wonderful meals."

That reception wore somewhat thinner as he traveled to the north.

"The farther north we got, the cooler reception we got because the farther north, the more bombing, the more combat, the more remnants of the war."

Upon his arrival in Hanoi, it was September 1995 and the city was marking 50 years since the Japanese — who had occupied French Indochina — surrendered.

"My tour guide in northern Vietnam was pointing to some of the damage that was still expounded from the war," Bucklin said. "Vietnam was terribly poor. They couldn’t afford lots of things. She said, ‘Your bombers did that. Your bombers destroyed that.’ The war was still vivid in her memory and the memory of northerners. There was less of that expression of hospitality, although they were still very, very nice and pleasant."

Bucklin said that there was an experience near Khe Sanh that has stuck with him since that trip and drives home just how much the war was still present in the daily lives of the Vietnamese.

"There was a young girl with a metal detector and she was out in the middle of a field," he said. "I said to my interpreter, ‘What is she doing?’ He said, ‘She’s looking for unexploded ordinance. Her father wants to send their pigs into the field and doesn’t want them to get injured by a landmine or whatever.’ And I said to him, ‘What about the girl?’ And he said, ‘In this farmer’s community, the girl is more expendable than a son or the livestock.’

Bucklin said expended ammunition has even become a commodity, of sorts.

"I had a kid, maybe 9-10 years old, come up and want to sell me rounds — 50 caliber, huge rounds, unexploded," he said. "He’d lost his left hand searching for unexploded ordinance to sell."

He was also able to gain some insight on how the Vietnamese have taught the war.

"My interpreter was put into a reeducation camp after the war and had to stay there for three months — he had been a lower ranking enlisted man in the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam," he said. "His brother, who had been a captain in the Saigon police force, had to be in a reeducation camp for three years. The war is taught as a war of imperial aggression on the part of the United States."

‘More Information’

As with other conflicts, students stand to learn more and more about the how and why of the Vietnam War.

Bucklin said that academics will continue to learn more as time goes along.

"This is true about teaching any history," he said. "We keep getting more and more information. Just last year, the New York Times ran a story that … shook me to the core — Richard Nixon, when he was running for president in 1968, had Anna Chennault … go to the South Vietnamese and tell them if they would hold off negotiating a peace treaty, that he would get them a better deal if he were elected president. Here we had a candidate for the presidency trying to prevent Lyndon Johnson’s peace negotiations from coming to fruition. … That’s something that was just revealed recently, and we’ll get more things like that. As time passes, restrictions that were placed on certain presidential papers are removed and that gives us a broader and more complete and more comprehensive picture of these wars."

Lofthus said there’s a key lesson to be taken from the war.

"If one of the lessons is that there are limitations on the way American power can be applied to parts of the globe, that seems to be a lesson that we’ve forgotten," he said. "I’m impressed with the work of Mark Bowden who, a couple of years ago, published a book on the Battle of Hue. That’s one of the things he emphasizes in his book — that democracy is difficult to import to another area. It doesn’t just spring up; it has to be cultivated, it has to be connected to traditions in the culture. And I think that’s something we tend to forget."