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Paper Trails: Connecting Viet Nam and World History Through Documents, Film, Literature and Photographs

Marc Gilbert
North Georgia College and State University


Part I     Part II     Part III


What is in a Name/In A Year?

The Vietnamese people are too polite to express their discomfort at the misconstruction of their nation's name, which is not "Vietnam," but Viet Nam, i.e. two words, Southern (Nam) Viet (a name of the people of the region).  One may argue that the Northern Viets, who occupied southern China in the region around what is Guangzhou and Hong Kong today, were absorbed into Chinese culture at the time of the Han dynasty's march south in 221 B. C. E.  Publishers' wrongly insist on issuing titles under that name despite their authors' protests with a view to their sales, but instructors are not competing in that market.  However, the late Robert M. Slabey of Notre Dame University did offer a short discourse that parsed out the meaning of this term beyond nationality that students might engage with some profit. He wrote:

Viet Nam is an independent country in Southeast Asia with its own people, language and culture.

Vietnam is an American formulaic identifying a continuing American "experience" in Southeast Asia (including Laos and Cambodia) in the United States and elsewhere.

Vietnamese is an adjectival form of both the above terms and is the language of Viet Nam.

Viets are the majority of the people of Viet Nam who have called themselves and have been called "Viets" for over 2,000 years.

Viet Kieu are "Overseas Vietnamese" including but not limited to those in the United States.1

    Robert Slabey might also have added the propensity of Americans to call the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (and later the unified Socialist Republic of Viet Nam) as "North Vietnam" and the Republic of Viet Nam as "South Vietnam," terminology that obscures the fact that the founder of the regime in the "south" (Ngo Dinh Diem)was from the "north" and that some of the chief leaders of the 'north" were from what later became the Republic of Viet Nam or "South Viet Nam" (see for additional treatment of this question and related student questions). Moreover, during the American War in Viet Nam, Americans routinely described their allies as Vietnamese and their opponents, "north" and "south," as communists, a conflation that inhibited the effectiveness of the American war effort as it concealed from themselves the political complexities as well as the motivations of the rank and file of the forces that opposed them. Some of these complexities can be demystified by the photographs shown here of a Viet Cong colonel from the Mekong delta who now runs a plant nursery (fig.1) and a former soldier who was "born in the north to die in the south," but survived his stint as a northern-born filler for depleted ranks of southern born-Viet Cong (fig. 2).

Figure 1

Figure 2


    While all forces opposed to the Republic of Viet Nam's existence either worked in tandem with or were led by the Politburo in Hanoi,2 according to American wartime analyses most of these forces would have been unable to explain what the word communism meant, as cadre indoctrination focused on the repelling of foreign-backed troops; in other words, they were motivated by traditional Vietnamese xenophobia and nationalism, not communist ideology—a successful strategy the Soviets also employed in their "Great Patriotic War" against the Nazi war machine.  The examination of these terms and their use may open up venues to explore American ethnocentrism.  More importantly, together with the Declaration of Vietnamese Independence of 1945, they offer a rare means of examining the heuristic foundation of many of the world's conflicts. Another means of doing this may be through the use of the "Munich Analogy," by which contemporary American leaders associated Ho Chi Minh with Adolf Hitler. Indeed, the "Munich Analogy" became a staple of much post-Second World War rhetoric, up to and including its current application to Saddam Hussein of Iraq.  Excerpts from documents and speeches referring to the "Munich Analogy" can be found in anthologies such as Robert McMahon, Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War (Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath, 1991) and is given closer analysis by Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War:  Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992).  Students can, without necessarily making any value judgment in regard to the correctness of these analogies, use this background to explore the use of political rhetoric throughout world history, such as has been applied to "pagans," "infidels," "barbarians," "rednecks," "reactionaries," and "liberals." 3
    A parallel activity can set students to the task of examining why the American War in Viet Nam is or is not better identified as the Second Indochina War or, even more challenging, to cruise the Internet for the answer to the question as to when the American War in Viet Nam began, with hints that 1950, 1959, 1961, 1961 and 1965 are often variously touted as the year of origin, while 1973 and 1975 are alternative closing dates. 4

Indochinese Resources for the Study of Comparative Genocide

In the United States, the political right-wing strives to associate the genocide in Cambodia with the Vietnamese struggle for independence and re-unification, while the left-wing often voices its criticism of the American War in Viet Nam, with its free-fire zones, chemical warfare, and massive peasant relocation programs, in genocidal terms.  Instructors are welcome to engage in these battles, but should not overlook the unquestioned genocide itself.  The Khmer Rouge auto-genocide has one feature that is common to virtually all genocidal activities: state-sponsorship. Fortunately for teachers, the Cambodian example has many eyewitness accounts that will enthrall students. These include Elizabeth Becker, When The War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge (New York: Public Affairs, 1986), Joan Criddle and Teeda Butt Mam; To Destroy You Is No Loss; The Odyssey of a Cambodian Family (New York: Anchor reprint,1989), Dith Pran, Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1999), and Molyda Szymusiak (her adopted Western name), The Stones Cry Out: A Cambodian Childhood 1975-80 (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, paperback edition, 1999). The use of the personal memoirs of the Cambodian women cited above has yielded excellent student papers. Any of the works can be used with profit by students who are also assigned Elie Weisel's Night (New York: Avon, 1973) for which there is a lesson plan ( that can easily be adapted to a comparative approach to genocide. Instructors might consider also using Philip Gourevitch, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories From Rwanda (New York: Picador, 1999) that served as the basis for the film, Hotel Rwanda (2004).
    However, my own greatest success has resulted from employing such readings on the Cambodian genocide alongside Laurence Picq's memoir, Beyond the Horizon (1989).  Picq was the French wife and co-worker of a Khmer Rouge official who forced his family to experience the full force of the genocide to protect his place of privilege. Picq recounts her experience of the genocide in clear terms, including the death of one of her children at its hands, but also displays some of the behavior illustrative of the Stockholm Syndrome: her survival was so dependent on the Khmer Rouge that, even after her hard-won freedom from Cambodia, she has trouble condemning that movement with the strong terms students' might expect. A very good list of works on Cambodian history and the auto-genocide, including biographies of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and studies of the Khmer Rouge itself, can be found at:

Figure 3


The Tet Offensive of 1968: A Tumultuous Year in Global Context

The international dimensions of the pivotal Tet Offensive/General Uprising Campaign of 1968 are explored, if somewhat less than authoritatively, in Robert V. Daniels, The Year of the Heroic Guerilla: World Revolution and Counterrevolution in 1968 (New York: Basic Books, 1989) and in M. J. Gilbert and William Head (eds.), The Tet Offensive (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1996). The offensive itself is much misunderstood by Americans, some of whom insist on shaping it to suit an American exceptionalist view of that campaign that would have it as military defeat for the enemy, even though the offensive actually achieved its chief political goals.3 Perhaps it is not only Americans that can dismiss Clausewitz's dictum that war is politics by other means, but many of its scholars seem to deny its application to the Tet Offensive. This controversy will not be further discussed here, but can be addressed as part of a "Thinking Critically About the Tet Offensive" lesson plan/exercise set included in Selected Papers on Teaching the Vietnam War: Occasional Paper no. 1, an informally printed publication on teaching about the American War in Viet Nam produced by the Center for Vietnam at Texas Tech University.   This article can be obtained in electronic form free of charge by merely e-mailing a request for a copy to 

Globalizing Literature from the Battlefields to the Home Front: Korea, Viet Nam and the United States

Just as the American war in Iraq is supported by a limited (and shrinking) "coalition of the willing," so too was the American War in Viet Nam then labeled as war of "Many Flags," (a reference to the limited support from Australia, Korea, Thailand, etc.) The Korean participation, however, far outweighs in world historical terms the participations of other states.  Korea's participation, which amounted to over 300,000 soldiers over the course of that war, was obtained as part of trade and commercial agreements with the United States that was expected to, and succeeded, in boosting Korean chaebol-driven industrial base (chaebol is the Korean equivalent of Japanese keiretsu) to the front rank of manufacturing.  Some among the rank-and-file of the Korean troops returned from their service to discover that their lives had been sacrificed for the benefit of mere commerce, from which they were excluded.  Unable to crack the tight-knit nature of the Korean miracle of development, they slipped into poverty and homelessness, much as their American counterparts who had trouble negotiating the shift in the American economy from manufacturing to service industries (an American infantryman in Viet Nam after his return earned an average of $10,000 less than his fellow Americans). These common predicaments have produced some of the finest novels in recent Korean, as well as in Vietnamese and American literature. There is a new Viet Nam War awareness expressed in the literature and cinema of the Republic of Korea, where democratization is "slowly giving South Koreans the chance to explore the difficult path they have taken to their current prosperity."  One of the soldiers in the film of Chfong-hyo An's now famous White Badge:  A Novel of Korea (1989) concludes that:

The blood money we had to earn at the price of our lives fueled the modernization and development of the country.  And owing to our contribution, the Republic of Korea, or at least the higher echelon of it, made a gigantic stride into the world market.  Lives for sale.  National mercenaries.4
    In Viet Nam and around the world, Bao Ninh's Sorrow of War (New York: Pantheon, 1995, Riverhead, 1996), is rightly touted as a rival of Erich Maria Remarque's All's Quiet on the Western Front (1929) for its deeply humane treatment of the effects of modern war.  Even excerpts from this work, such as the Vietnamese graves registration's teams search for MIAs, are deeply moving and can be usefully compared with the often anthologized "Graves Registration" excerpt from Philip Caputo's famous Marine memoir, Rumor of War (New York: Henry Holt, 1977).  Teachers can do little better than assigning Sorrow of War in tandem with Larry Heinemann's award-wining Paco's Story (New York: Penguin, 1987), an exercise that will enable students to examine not only the horrors of modern war from each side of the conflict, but also the horrors at home that faced those who "survived" those experiences.  Sorrow of War contains some sexual subject matter. Paco's Story addresses its account for a wartime rape and sexual longing in more graphic terms than the treatment of these events in Sorrow of War, but most instructors will easily be able to form their own judgment as to their suitability for their students.  Neither work is nihilistic. Nor is le Ly Haslip's When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, for which many globalized lesson plans have been developed, such as that using it to explore "Understanding Responses to Oppression" at,1607,7-155-13515_ 13526_13527-0591--00.html.

Figure 4: Bao Ninh [Photo courtesy of Ted Englemann]

    It is worth noting that the most accessible of all American Viet Nam War poets, David Connolly of South Boston, offers poetry and stories that all of my students find enthralling, resulting in superior book review assignments. His work, Lost in America (1994), contains comparisons of America in Viet Nam to the British in Ireland from his family's IRA experiences and perspective. Instructors may also wish to experiment with a lesson plan for studying Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1955) that asks students to discuss to what degree for the United States was in Viet Nam experiencing a "Catch-22" situation (see

No More Viet Nams?

Viet Nam's struggle for unification and independence preceded the Cold War, but that has not stopped historians from reducing that country to merely one of many victims of Cold war politics, such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua or Iraq. Those instructors who wish students to explore the boundaries of these comparisons can find essays on that subject in George Donaldson Moss, A Vietnam Reader: Sources and Essays (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990) and Robert McMahon, Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War (Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath, 1991). Those instructors interested in exploring the many, but sometimes misleading, recent comparisons between Viet Nam and Operation Iraqi Freedom, may wish to employ the text or the sources cited in M. J. Gilbert, "Fatal Amnesia: American-Nation-Building in Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq," in the Journal of Third World Studies, vol. 21, no.2 (Fall 2004), pages 19-43 (or for an electronic copy, e-mail This article was written not long after the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom, so students can employ its treatment of the subject as a "Change-Over-Time" (COT) question by comparing it to current events (the successful Iraqi elections, continued insurgency, corruption in oil and defense contracts in Iraq and the U. S., etc.).  Since then, Afghan President Kharzai's thus far successful effort to fight off U. S. demands for opium eradication via an aerial spraying program in favor of the use of traditional appeals through ethnic leaders is reminiscent of Ngo Dinh Diem's difficulties with American advisors in the interview provided in Phillip Riley, et al., The Global Experience cited above.

The Opium Trade

Those who study the role of the opium trade in world civilization have long been aware of Alfred W. McCoy's groundbreaking study of the French opium monopoly in Viet Nam and opium's role in the wars in Viet Nam. However, McCoy has revisited and updated this pioneering work and now accuses the C. I. A. of sustaining, if not promoting, the opium trade.  See Alfred W. McCoy, with Cathleen Reed and Leonard Adams, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia: C. I. A. Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2nd revised edition, 2003).

Filmography: Viet Nam and World History at 24 Frames Per Second

The filmography of the wars in Viet Nam grows annually (see the annotated list provided at or Michael Lee Lanning, Vietnam at the Movies, New York: Fawcett, 1994), but few of these films possess a global reach. My own students find Dang Nhat Minh's Bao Gio Cho Den Thang Muoi (When the Tenth Month Comes, (English subtitles, 1984) )has too little  sex and violence to compensate for its social-realist, black and white production values, but the film acknowledges the protective power of a deified village hero to protect his flock by acting through the hearts of the villagers, and its climatic scene occurs in the Tenth Lunar Month during the Day of Forgiveness, when the souls of the departed can visit their still-living loved ones; literally a Day of the Dead. It is then that the spirit of a soldier returns to comfort his widow and to free her from her love so that she may be able to continue on with her life.  "The Ring" or "Scream 3" it is not, but a world historian will see value in this modern survival of the days of the ancient Roman nine-day feast of the dead, when it and the later All Hallows Eve or Halloween meant something to society more than children asking for treats while wearing Bush or Kerry masks, and when a statue in the park of a founding father or war hero meant more than a place to collect pigeon droppings and graffiti.  However, it greatest value may be in its evocation of a larger and universal image of the home front in war (and its aftermath) that is as intimate and powerful as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and far superior as world history to films such as Coming Home (1978), or the book-based Born on the Fourth of July (1989) or Forrest Gump (1994) in terms of exploring the human experience. Much of the film's plot involves the complications arising from the widow's effort to conceal the loss of her husband from her son and dying father-in-law, her tentative emotional opening to a sympathetic school teacher, the meddling of local party leaders seeking to sustain "family values," the place of the veneration of village ancestors and heroes in an increasingly material world and, perhaps above all, the deep survivor guilt that is the special burden of many soldiers who escape death on the battlefield: the true weight of which is revealed at the film's deeply moving conclusion. Information about the director, a plot synopsis and other information about the film can be found at 13
    More familiar conventional films, such as The Green Berets, can be approached by using the many lessons plans for such films on the web. Fortunately, there is a flexible model for developing Viet Nam film-study lesson plans for any film provided at A similar site has a primary focus on the John Huston film, The Red Badge of Courage (1951, now on DVD), but also includes the means to create comparative lesson plans that address Viet Nam war films (see Internet searches will easily locate lesson plans and guides that compare films and their literary sources, such as Graham Greene's The Quiet American (1955) and the two films derived from it, the version starting Audie Murphy as the "innocent American-as-hero" (The Quiet Man, 1957), and the more recent and more cynical version starring Michael Caine (see
    Because of its home-front setting and its focus on a journey of self discovery, the novel and film versions of Bobby Ann Mason's In Country (a daughter's coming of age story in the shadow of the war, featuring a subdued and effective Bruce Willis) is blessed with having several lesson plans developed for classroom use, including a good course syllabus that demonstrated how to incorporate this film in the classroom (see
    Perhaps an even greater book/film, Dear America:  Letters Home from Vietnam (book, 1987, film on VHS and video, 1988) is the subject of a descriptive lesson plan and an admirable discussion of the American War in Viet Nam through the use of key still photographs prepared by the American Museum of the Moving Image at  (prepared in both advanced and intermediate formats). The film can be compared or used in tandem with the equally moving sequel produced in 2005 by Home Box Office production, Last Letters Home: Voices of American Troops from the Battlefields of Iraq ( Many related resources can be found by "googling" by title other films mentioned above.

Figure 5: Vietnam -related posters were produced and/or appeared in a variety of countries


The Vietnamization of Political Poster Art

The American War in Viet Nam coincided with the maturation of world revolutions in Africa, Asia and Latin America and also political poster-making. Both combined to produce an international outpouring of political posters related to Viet Nam.  The Soviet Union perfected the art of posters as agiprop, but it was Cuba that led in the way in the production of political posters supporting the Vietnamese revolution and opposing the American presence in Viet Nam. These have been masterfully collected and illustrated in Susan Martin (ed.), Decade of Protest: Political Posters from the United States, Vietnam, Cuba 1965-1975 (Santa Monica, CA: Distributed Art Publishers: 1996). Though this work is now rare, many of these posters are available online on the homepage of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics that sponsored this publication and the exhibit upon which the book was based (see The manner in which these posters reflect the larger world of political posters was the subject of a previous article in this journal.5 For another source of this material, see 17

Googling the Way to a Broader Treatment of the Wars in Viet Nam

Patricia Schulze of Yankton, South Dakota has created a learning protocol entitled "Building Vietnam War Scavenger Hunts through Web" designed to help develop student research skills (see or This approach uses search engines via techniques well rooted in contemporary learning methodology and would seem to require only a teacher willing to assign students to seek out the global content. Thus, any of the topics cited above could be assigned for student investigation.

Oral History Approaches

The Public Broadcasting System has developed a protocol for using oral histories in the classroom. This model program focuses on oral histories of Chicano Viet Nam Veterans. Because most interview subjects, whether live or on the web, are Americans (if of varying ethnicity) or are refugees from the southern Viet Nam, such assignments have limited value for truly internationalizing approaches to the American War in Viet Nam, but will prepare the ground for collections that include participants from other countries and political viewpoints. Current banks of oral histories on the web can, as suggested above, be accessed through a variety of search engines, such as These currently emphasize veteran testimony, but, as time goes by, such holdings will expand.

Document Sets and Other Teaching Resources in Print

Julie Shackford's guide and history for teachers, Vietnam: A Historical Perspective (Manoa, Hawaii: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1992) is an indispensable resource which contains classroom-ready illustrations, map exercises, and test questions suitable for high school seniors, advanced placement students, and college courses. This resource is very inexpensive and can be obtained by contacting the publisher directly at or calling 808-956-2688 (Fax: 808-956-2682) A lesson plan for a short course designed around this work is provided at As has been mentioned above, Alfred J. Andrea and James H. Overfield, The Human Record, Volume II, Since 1500 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1998) contains good document-based questions for primary sources on Vietnamese nationalism, while Philip Riley, et al, The Global Experience: Readings in World History to from 1550 (New York: Prentice Hall, 2002) offers key documents replete with comparative study questions linking Vietnamese history and political ideologies to other parallel societies and movements.  The Internet Modern History Sourcebook and other such sites offer documents useful for comparison, such as the 1962 program of the National Liberation Front (see and the program of the Algerian Liberation Front ( Gareth Porter (ed.), Vietnam: A History in Documents (New York: Meridian, 1981) is one of only a few document collections on the subject that has a global scope, especially about the immediate post-1945 years. Marvin Gettleman, et al. (eds.) Vietnam and America (New York: Grove Press, 1995) is also useful.  Among world history texts, Peter Stearns, et al (this writer is an et al.), World Civilizations: the Global Experience provides the greatest emphasis on the Vietnamese in world history and provides associated documents and images (see also the outlines of Vietnamese history at, click on chapters 18 and 40, then at right on "Outline").  Its treatment of the Vietnamese nationalist movement and the American War in Viet Nam features a boxed essay comparing the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions, and a concluding section that directly addresses the Marxist revolutionary content as well as indigenous traditionalist elements of Vietnamese and Chinese communism.  Sadly, there are only a handful of works in print that address the challenges of teaching about the Viet Nam War.  The only one that directly tackles syllabi and lesson plan issues related to world history is my own Teaching the Vietnam War: Approaches and Resources (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1991).  An extensive list on resources for teaching about Viet Nam is offered at 20

Figure 6: The Electronic Age comes to the Mekong Delta


Electronic Teaching Aids for Studying Viet Nam in World History Perspective

A very valuable teachers' guide for Viet Nam prepared under the auspices of the Asia Society is located at For key Vietnamese images, maps and other useful documents see This site includes the full text of such documents as the Vietnamese declaration of independence. An even larger source for documents suitable for broad historical analysis is offered both by Robert Brigham at (which also features useful analysis of key terms) and at (includes documents and articles to 2001, i.e. Nike's shoe-making debacle in Viet Nam as an example of the darker side of globalization). The Vietnam Project of the Center for Vietnam at Texas Tech University offers free, unparalleled web-based access to documents, images, maps and oral histories at (includes a "Teacher Resources" Website). One site, the "ehistory" website, features a search engine for images related to Viet Nam ( For other useful sites and links, go to For a good basic map of Vietnam see A list of electronic resources for teaching about Viet Nam and its wars is included at 21


Viet Nam's place in world history has been too long limited to the Cold War. Too often the complex lives of its modern leaders, such as Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem, have been reified and demonized to suit Cold War ideology and culture wars of more recent vintage. It is hoped that this essay has demonstrated how the application of world historical approaches can assist in taking students beyond the shibboleths of the past, and also how Vietnamese history can return the favor by offering a virtually inexhaustible supply of examples illustrative of world historical processes. Instructors are encouraged to keep this in mind when examining Viet Nam's neighbors (Laos and Cambodia), the larger region of Southeast Asia, as well as its many diasporas in world history. 22

Part I     Part II     Part III  


Biographical Note: Marc Jason Gilbert is Professor of History at North Georgia College and State University.



1 Robert M. Slabey (ed.), The United States and Viet Nam from War to Peace (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Publishers, 1996), ix.

2 See Robert Brigham, "Why the South Won the American War in Vietnam," in Marc J. Gilbert, Why the North Won the Vietnam War (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 98-116.

3 See Marc Jason Gilbert, "The Cost of Losing the 'Other' War," in Marc J. Gilbert, Why the North Won the Vietnam War," Ibid, 173-185.

4 James Sterngold, "South Korea's Vietnam Veterans Begin to Be Heard," in The New York Times (May 10, 1992), 6A.



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