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Researching and Teaching Controversial Subjects:
A Mini-Forum


What the Vietnam War and the Buddha Can Teach about Researching, Teaching, and Writing on Controversial Subjects

Jeffrey Race



     Teaching or writing to convey knowledge about bland subjects is difficult enough; doing the same about subjects touching readers’ values, goals and aspirations is tough indeed and often not done well as shown by the extent of obtuseness, vituperation and talking past each other in academic journals, in the press, on television, and in online scholarly discussion groups. Scholars are sometimes even thrown off academic newsgroups.1

Figure 1

     Perhaps we can do better. This paper offers conclusions how we might do so, drawing upon my own personal experience 40 years ago conducting a case study in the midst of a tremendously controversial conflict: the Vietnam War.

     At the start of my project in 1967 I thought hard how to proceed so that my work would contribute to understanding (to the extent it had worth) while stimulating not at all the controversy then engulfing public and scholarly debate.

     That work, first published in 1972, was War Comes to Long An. It examines how, despite substantial American military and economic support, southern Vietnamese authorities lost influence to a social movement with incomparably fewer local and foreign resources.2 Widely used as an instructional text in courses on social revolution and social change, War Comes to Long An also appears on the reading lists of all senior American military schools, despite the work's sometimes adverse implications for American military perceptiveness in the past.3 Never out of print, it was recently republished in a second extended edition.

     To the extent the book has found enthusiastic readers across the spectrum of Vietnam War opinion, decisions I made many decades ago contributed to that success. A similar approach, applied to controversial issues in today’s classrooms, might also succeed. Of course, I base this completely personal narrative on my own experience. Other approaches may work as well. These ideas worked for me.

How It Happened

     In October of 1965, having earned my first college degree and a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, I found myself wading ashore at Vungtau off the southeast coast of Vietnam. Aboardship 23 days from California, I had spent most of my time listening to Vietnamese language instructional tapes so I would be able, if only modestly, to communicate upon my arrival.

     Shortly after landing, I became a platoon leader at the Saigon airport responsible for communications between the Military Assistance Command in Saigon and up-country military units. Vietnam was so shockingly different from anything I had seen before that I became consumed with learning everything possible about the country, its people, and its war. Gradually I fell in with a circle of Vietnamese intellectuals. The more I studied (and I became quite fluent in Vietnamese) the more curious I became.

     Though scheduled to return to the United States after a year in this combat zone, I felt I was really just starting a fascinating adventure. I could hardly continue my studies were I to leave, nor could I pursue them to the fullest were I to remain in Saigon. So I volunteered for a second year to join a rural military advisory team, to be nearer our Vietnamese hosts and farther from American forces.

     If the American military were to have condensed its policy into two sentences, it might have read: "We help those who help us; the rest we suppress. As time goes by opposition will lessen, our friends will triumph, and we will return home." By the end of my second year in country, at least one thing was clear to me: little was happening according to this script.

     In fact the opposite occurred: the harder we tried, the worse the violence. No one could say why this was so. My government’s explanations were, to me, plainly nonsensical on their face but no serious person I encountered could plausibly explain this puzzle.

     After completing my two years of military service, I decided to return to Vietnam on my own. Arriving back in Saigon in late 1967 as a freelance journalist, I spent the next year researching how this puzzling process of government collapse and revolutionary advance had occurred over the previous decade, focusing on Long An province just south of Saigon. This evolved into two noteworthy journal articles,4 the book War Comes to Long An, and finally with more time and effort, a doctoral dissertation at Harvard University.5

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Extract from New York Times Book Review, May 14, 1972  

The Public Reception

     War Comes to Long An earned praise both for its evidence and in its conclusions.6

Critics particularly noted the authorial voice, which avoided polemic and aimed instead for empathic understanding.7

Figure 3

Figure 4
  Figure 3-4: 1972 reviews reproduced on the rear cover  

     This was so even in the eyes of the American military. The Marine Corps Gazette’s review of the book noted that:

Mr. Race does not appear to espouse views either
for or against the American effort in Southeast
Asia and is only concerned with presenting the
facts from both sides along with detailed analyses
of key events and time periods. 8

Anti-war campaigners also valued the book. Noam Chomsky, for instance, drew on it extensively, writing that:

Long An happens to be a particularly well-studied province because of the outstanding work of Jeffrey Race, who described Communist success there prior to the U.S. invasion of 1965.9

Interestingly, Chomsky’s critics found my work useful as well when attacking Chomsky.10

In the four decades since the Vietnam conflict, War Comes to Long An has become a starting point for readers hoping to understand why the American war failed so dramatically. According to an annotated Naval War College reading list, “If one wishes to understand the Vietnam conflict and why the United States lost, start here.”11

Figure 2
  Figure 5: Cover of Bogdanor's attack on Chomsky citing War Comes to Long An.  

     In short, War Comes to Long An engaged a deeply divisive issue without generating rancor. Looking back on how I wrote it, I can extract some lessons which may help others who decide to study or to teach emotionally charged and politically polarizing topics.

First Step: Define Your Personal Goal(s)

     Before teaching or writing about controversies, define personal goals clearly and early. This is not a trivial exercise. Success requires serious and perhaps uncomfortable introspection. Defining personal goals comes first because doing so shapes subsequent choices.

     No such effort would be necessary were each of us an ideal teacher and scholar, sheltered from mundane controversy and immune to professional ambition. But we are not.

     So we must clarify our motives and our identity, identifying our peers and our reference groups. We have to decide whom we are willing to offend (if anyone), and whose favor we wish to curry (if anyone's). Teaching or writing about controversies can provide an excellent exercise in self-knowledge.

     Returning to Vietnam I aimed only to solve for myself the troubling puzzle of the then-impending US defeat. Because an early quasi-official grant was cancelled, I funded the work entirely myself. I later learned, in dramatic fashion, the constraints money imposes on truth: during one presentation of my Vietnam findings to an official audience, the Marine Corps general managing the project interjected that he could summarize in two pages all the errors of American strategy and policy in Vietnam, “but the Defense Department will not pay to be told such a thing,” so the research contractor to the Defense Department “[could] not permit such subjects to be discussed."12

     I also sought to avoid attracting the attention which controversial or sensational analyses inevitably bring. I chose to use neutral language which implied nothing about political legitimacy of the parties to the conflict, as I will explain in the next section.

     Ambrose Bierce summed up my approach:

"[an aspiring writer] should . . . forget that he was an American and remember that he was a Man. He should be neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Buddhist, nor Mahometan, nor Snake Worshipper. . . He should free himself of all doctrines, theories, etiquettes, politics, simplifying his life and mind, attaining clarity with breadth and unity with height . . . [knowing] that this is a world of fools and rogues, blind with superstition, tormented with envy, consumed with vanity, selfish, false, cruel, cursed with illusions . . . ." 13

Choice of Author's Voice

     Nathan Bransford, in a blog for aspiring novelists, offers useful insight into the author’s voice. “Voice,” he wrote, “at its most basic level, is the sensibility with which an author writes. It's a perspective, an outlook on the world, a personality and style that is recognizable even out of context."14

     In writing War Comes to Long An, I decided to keep myself out of my work, except in a confessional preface. I also chose to avoid judgmental and loaded terms.

     For example, my duty as a US Army officer was to assist people sitting in Saigon offices who styled themselves "the government" to expand their influence over a population whose loyalty was being solicited by another group of people sitting in different places. My government likewise called those whom I was assisting "the legitimate government," and its opponents "rebels" or "insurgents."

     Common usage defines an insurgency as "an instance of rebellion"15 and rebellion as "open, armed, and organized resistance to a constituted government."16

     When I conducted my project in 1967, the US government characterized its strategy as "counterinsurgency." Research, including academic research, employed the same term. But this terminology framed the issue as one of political legitimacy. This force-framing (the government we supported was legitimate because we supported it; its opponents could thus possess no legitimacy) rendered sterile most American research on the war. It certainly violated all my prior training in political science. Only much later did I realize that this problem was the greatest obstacle to my understanding of the war.17

     Another troublesome word was "control" as in "Who controls the population?" If one begins with a "control" mindset, it is difficult to make sense of complex personal relationships between rulers and the individuals they claim to rule.

     Words like these do not just convey meaning; they shape both our questions and our understanding of events.

     As it turned out, the answer to my puzzlement over the reversal of power relationships during a decade was trivially simple and well understood in a related field.18 But loaded words like “insurgency” and “control” had deflected analysis away from that body of knowledge.

     It took an act of will on my part to escape this perceptual cage and to substitute terms that, in my view, were less fraught: "revolutionary movement” and “counterrevolutionary movement." These terms, I believe, better captured the actual relationship between the adversaries and refocused attention on the participants’ own motives.

     This was a risky choice. Political and military leaders publicly justified the entire American war effort on an asymmetry between the notionally "legitimate government" and the "rebels." My use of language implicitly questioned this formulation and put me at odds with the position of my own government and of the Vietnamese political and military officials whose help I sought in my research. I risked creating the impression that I had overstepped the boundary between scholarly discourse and political agitation.

     Though the new vocabulary allowed me to envision the conflict in a new way, I felt obliged in the preface to give my readers fair warning:

This is the study of the victory in a single province of Vietnam of a revolutionary social movement, led by a communist party, using the technique of people's war. The reader will find few evil or incompetent characters in this book, but rather an account of how such a revolutionary movement was able to gain victory despite the efforts of a considerable number of honest and conscientious men, acting according to their best understanding . . . . I should note that the former communists interviewed were not the "bloodthirsty killers" or "ideological fanatics" ordinarily portrayed. Instead they were, like their government counterparts, simply good people who had done what they believed to be right.19

Crafting A Study Design

     As teachers or writers we want our work to be persuasive, even irrefutable. This can be tough for controversial subjects. How can we do it?

     Anecdotes have emotional impact if well told, but probative value only with truths established by scientific method. Careful methodology elevates a work above controversy.

     This means identifying amidst the controversy the disputed facts and relationships which scientific method makes knowable. In the jargon of science: identify the null hypotheses.

     Then identify the variables which can decide the null hypotheses, specify their metrics, and finally locate, measure and assemble the data in a way confirming (or not) the null hypotheses. If you're doing primary research, go into the field for original research. If you're teaching, comb the body of existing knowledge and present it according to this template. This process will either confirm particular conclusions about a controversial issue, or explain why conclusions have proved so elusive.

     Sometimes you need no data, only logic. Such was the case in one controversy in the war in Vietnam in the 1960s: that "terrorism" explained the success of the opponents of the Saigon government.20

     Sometimes you may have to invent concepts and metrics--I did in writing War Comes to Long An.21

     Several procedures enhance credibility:

* Comprehensiveness;

* Multiple aspects/forms of data; for example longitudinal, areal, functional;

* "Three-hundred-sixty five degree vision": viewing the same issue, variable or phenomenon from all sides to the controversy, as I did for example by asking the same question of persons on both government and anti-government sides.22

* Use of original documents from all sides to the controversies.

* Strong focus on the intentionality of the actors, as Max Weber taught us. It is very important to clarify the intentions of the actors as they see their actions--not as part of some frame of analysis of ours. If the latter we may miss some aspect of motivation. For example, my interviews showed that opponents of the Saigon government were motivated to take risks and expend effort, not forced by "terrorism." Were one in the terrorism/insurgency thought mode, the issue would be framed as one of overthrow of existing authority, when in fact there was no legitimate authority structure. With an unconstrained frame of mind one could envision the emergence of a new or alternative authority structure, which for me led to importing from the field of sociology the concept of "emergent structure," a key analytic breakthrough.

     An important early decision in the case of primary research is to select the domain (geographic, administrative, functional) best suited to the hypothesis-defining and -testing procedure described above. In my case study, Long An province best met these criteria.

Crafting a Presentation Design

     Thoughtful attention to methodology and evidence is insufficient: crafting a successful response to a controversial issue requires an appropriate narrative structure. One common structure simply interleaves evidence, arguments and explanations into one cohesive narrative. Another approach prefaces examination of evidence with a précis anticipating the study’s core analysis and conclusions. Both structures impose the author’s opinions on a reader who may be unready to hear them, straining the reader’s patience while risking the author’s credibility.

     I chose a different path. Though quite clear about my conclusions shortly after I began to write, I held back my argument from my first three chapters, leaving my readers to assess the evidence on their own and therefore prepared to agree or to refute the conclusions I revealed in the analytic fourth chapter titled "Lessons from Long An." As I wrote in the preface:

I might have placed the analysis first, thus easing the reader's puzzlement at the contradictory accounts in the historical section, but I have felt it more appropriate to ask the reader to work through the confusing historical material first, to give perspective to the analysis described in Chapter Four, and to show how this analysis was in a sense forced on me by the logical and factual inadequacies of the conventional explanations of events recounted by government decision makers in the first three chapters.23

     Thus, while I could have drawn conclusions as I went along I instead gently allowed the evidence to build to conclusions in the reader's mind. If ours coincided, credibility was high; if divergent, the reader would have to consider his own conclusions carefully when presented with my elaborate and well integrated reasoning at the end.

     To sum up: pose the problem for yourself; explore the field of data (areal, longitudinal, functional); draw some initial conclusions; apply to the existing understanding of disputed issues.

Oral History as Research into Controversial Subjects

     Evoking useful responses from interviewees in troubled situations requires special attention. I had no experience in interviewing so just did what I thought common sense would dictate. My challenge was made more difficult by the natural suspicion of a foreigner who, fluent in the local language, posed sensitive questions about life-and-death issues in a situation of endemic civil violence. Perhaps surprisingly no one whom I approached ever refused an interview. Some yielded little new knowledge, but others were treasures, generating insights which enriched War Comes to Long An for the reader.

     Most emphatically I did not start (as graduate student interviewers often do) with "Thank you for seeing me; I have a few questions which will take about 45 minutes." My procedure instead followed these guidelines:24

* I met each interviewee alone in quiet surroundings.

* At the outset I took notes—if at all—in long hand. Only later, if the interview was going well and mutual trust seemed sufficient, did I ask permission to tape-record the conversation.

* I began by explaining my purpose (to understand a situation I found both puzzling and troubling). I presented myself (accurately) as confused and ignorant, in need of my interviewee’s greater knowledge. I invited the interviewee to help dispel my ignorance.

* Initially I asked only very general and open-ended questions, allowing the interviewee to direct the discussion as he found comfortable, gradually revealing his domain of knowledge, his level of abstract reasoning and his comfort level.

* As the interview proceeded I crafted issues and questions to fit the comfort range between specificity and abstraction appropriate to the interviewee.

* With mutual confidence established and a more-or-less clear map of the interviewee's knowledge and comfort in relevant subject areas, I forked out from his comments to explore specific areas important to the research.

* In cases where the free-form discussion produced no facilitating forking point, I gently raised new issues in new pathways of questions. In my experience, greatest interviewee comfort (so important in cases of controversy, stress and personal risk) came from beginning with the general and gently moving to the specific at a rate and to a point set by the interviewee’s comfort level.

* Without fluency in the local language I could not successfully have accomplished my research. It inspired confidence and obviated need for an interpreter. In my experience interviewees would, perhaps surprisingly, confide in me as a foreign stranger in ways they wouldn't with a fellow countryman, except perhaps for a trusted friend or relative.

* The other essential ingredient was sincere human interest in the interviewee and his situation. This arises from the mental preparation mentioned at the very beginning of this paper.

Building Out a Network of Interviewees

     I always ended my interviews in a certain way.

     During the interview I would challenge people, first letting them talk about their understanding. Then I would raise ideas which might differ from theirs, or which they might not have considered. Some might be my pet theories, which I'd test against them.

     I would always end by telling them their answers had been valuable to me and that I had made a lot of notes, and I would ask them whether I could use their name. Often they would agree, sometimes not. I would say, "I want to learn more about this. Among all the people you know, who are the ones who know most about the subjects we have discussed?" Often they would provide me names, contact data, and sometimes even a personal reference. Thus did my interview network spread.

The End State

     These techniques, which I learned as I went along, worked for me to a certain extent. I used inoffensive terminology, stayed away from loaded words which would force-frame an issue and so infringe the reader's mental sovereignty, stated in advance that my conclusions were subject to revision should new evidence appear, and disclaimed any intention to influence anyone's actions.25 Persuasive conclusions would by themselves change actions, while pushing conclusions unsupported by irrefutable reasoning would only irritate the reader.

     I believe that this approach allowed me to present my work without inviting opprobrium. That said, another result (positive or negative according to one's preference), is that despite the book’s success, news outlets have never invited me to become a talking head about Vietnam or any other issues. Perhaps this is a downside, or perhaps it is a benefit, of avoiding controversy, disputation and public argument everywhere understood to attract newspaper readers and television viewers. It may be that effective researchers and teachers are thus excluded from public dialogue.

     Still, for those many of us who never vent in the mass media, a very large audience remains in classrooms and in other local forums. Many in these audiences have learned to ignore talking heads and pundits. They rely on us.


     The secret to teaching, writing and researching on controversial subjects is that there is no secret. It is merely deep introspection so as to understand causes and consequences beforehand, with a profound awareness of how our actions affect others. Nothing needless must be said, but everything needful may be said in the proper way at the proper time and place. This has never been explained better than it was to Prince Abhaya two and a half thousand years ago, by one who styled himself Tathagata, also known as the Buddha--the Enlightened One:26

     In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

     In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

     In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

     In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.

     In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.

     In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing and agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.

Jeffrey Race earned a doctorate in Political Science from Harvard University after completing military service in Vietnam. Since that time, he has conducted research in Southeast Asia, consulted for governments, private industry and the UN, and founded an electronics manufacturing firm. Two of his recent projects explore new ways to conceptualize “corruption” and the causes of and remedies for pathologies in public decision-making. His body of work can be found at


1 "Administrative Notice" of the Vietnam Studies Group dated May 23, 2011, accessed on December 3, 2011, from

2 Jeffrey Race, War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972); revised and expanded edition 2010. Events leading up to its birth and some secrets of its intellectual creation are recounted at Jeffrey Race, "War Comes to Long An: Back Story to the Writing of a Military Classic” accessible at <> and Michael Montesano, "War Comes to Long An, Its Origins and Legacies: An Interview with Jeffrey Race," Journal of Vietnamese Studies 6:1 (Winter 2011): 123-183.

3 "Military Classics," U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Historical Bibliography No. 8, <>, accessed February 1, 2009.

4 Jeffrey Race, "The Origins of the Second Indochina War," Asian Survey X:5 (May 1970): 359-382 and "How They Won," Asian Survey X:8, Special Issue on "Vietnam: Politics, Land Reform and Development in the Countryside" (August 1970): 628- 650.


6 John T. McAlister, Review of War Comes to Long An, New York Times Book Review (May 14, 1972).

7 "A Tale of Two Countries," The Economist (March 11, 1972): 65 and Library Journal (January 15, 1972).

8 Marine Corps Gazette (May, 1972): 18.

9 Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology--The Political Economy of Human Rights: Volume II (Cambridge: South End Press, 1979), 32, fn 244.

10 "The Top 200 Chomsky Lies," compiled by Paul Bogdanor, < 200chomskylies.pdf>, citing War Comes to Long An at footnote 95.

11 accessed June 1, 2005.

12 Jeffrey Race, "The Unlearned Lessons of Vietnam", Yale Review 66:2 (December 1976): 161-177.

13 Ambrose Bierce, Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography edited by S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz (Knoxville: University of Tenneesee Press, 1998), 247-249.




17 Race, War Comes to Long An, ix in the 1972 edition and xix in 2010 edition.

18 Jeffrey Race, "Toward an Exchange Theory of Revolution," in John W. Lewis, editor, Peasant Rebellion and Communist Revolution in Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974).

19 Race, War Comes to Long An, ix and xiv respectively in the 1972 edition and xix and xxiv in the 2010 edition.

20 Race, War Comes to Long An, 196.

21 Race, War Comes to Long An, 141-145 and expanded in "Interview," JVS for example at 156-66.

22 In the preface (xii in the 1972 edition, xxii in the 2010 edition) I note "It is indeed an unusual situation which does not have at least three sides and perhaps more: that of officials appointed by the central government in Saigon; that of the local officials whose views tend to coincide more closely with those of the villagers; and that of the revolutinary forces and their sypathizers. Where possible I have tried to match up all three perceptions."

23 Race War Comes to Long An, xvi-xvii in the 1972 edition and xxvi-xxvii in the 2010 edition. The interview elaborates on this at 152.

24 “Interview”: 141-143.

25 "While one aim of this study is to suggest some alternate ways of analyzing conflicts such as that in Vietnam, it is not intended to suggest any alternate policies or strategies." See page xix in the 1972 edition of War Comes to Long An and page xxix in 2010 edition.

26 Slightly elided from the "Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya," translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight,, accessed on December 3, 2011.


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