Paper Trails: Connecting Viet Nam and World History Through Documents, Film, Literature and Photographs
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.
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 http://www.askasia.org/frclasrm/readings/r000189.htm
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).
|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 (http://www.sdcoe.k12.ca.us/score/night/nighttg.html)
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
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: http://andybrouwer.co.uk/biblio.html.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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"
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 http://school.discovery.com/lessonplans/programs/catch22/).
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 email@example.com). 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
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 http://www.thingsasian.com/goto_article/article.1883.html 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 http://www.yale.edu/seas/DangNhatMinhFilm.html).||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 http://www.globaled.org/vietnamandcambodia/lesons/lessons/vietnamwarfilms_green.php.
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 http://www.cloudnet.com/~edrbsass/redbadge.htm).
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 http://www.enotes.com/quiet-american-qn/).
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
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 http://www.ammi.org/site/education/content/guides/Dear%20America.pdf
(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 (http://www.hbo.com/docs/programs/lastlettershome/?ntrack_para1=leftnav_category4_show0).
Many related resources can be found by "googling" by title other films mentioned
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 http://lists.village.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Exhibits/Track16.html). 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 http://www.dailypast.com/history-posters/vietnam-war.shtml.||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 http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/modules/vietnam/index.cfm
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 http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/oralhistory/.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 808-956-2688 (Fax: 808-956-2682) A lesson plan for a short course designed around this work is provided at http://www.isp.msu.edu/asianstudies/fullbrighthays/vietnam/burindennis.html. 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 http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1962vietcong1.html) and the program of the Algerian Liberation Front (http://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast/flni.htm). 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 http://wps.ablongman.com/long_stearns_wc_4, 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 http://servercc.oakton.edu/~wittman/teaching.htm.||20|
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 http://www.askasia.org/frclasrm/readings/r000189.htm. For key Vietnamese images, maps and other useful documents see http://coombs.anu.edu.au/~vern/van_kien/docs.html. 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 http://vietnam.vassar.edu/ (which also features useful analysis of key terms) and at http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/vietnam.htm (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 http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/ (includes a "Teacher Resources" Website). One site, the "ehistory" website, features a search engine for images related to Viet Nam (http://www.ehistory.com/vietnam/ImageSearch.cfm). For other useful sites and links, go to http://www.42explore2.com/vietnam.htm. For a good basic map of Vietnam see http://grunt.space.swri.edu/visit/maps/mape.jpg. A list of electronic resources for teaching about Viet Nam and its wars is included at http://servercc.oakton.edu/~wittman/teaching.htm.||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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