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What Should We Tell Our Children About Vietnam?
That was the question an Oklahoma high school teacher sent out in a handwritten note to men and women who had been prominent movers or observers during the Vietnam War. Politicians and journalists and generals and combat veterans answered him. Secretaries of Defense answered him. Presidents answered him. Taken together, the answers form a powerful and moving record of the national conscience.
May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
Last year my principal and friend, Rick Elliott, told me that he wanted the Vietnam War to be covered more thoroughly than it had been in the social studies classes at our junior high school in Pryor, Oklahoma. Although Vietnam was our nation’s most recent war, America’s combat role in it had ended before most of our students were born. When you consider that the war was the most divisive event in the past hundred years of our history, it becomes obvious that it is something that desperately needs to be taught in our schools.
I was especially interested in the subject because of my own personal history. I had dropped out of my first year of college in 1967 and enlisted in the U.S. Army, knowing I would almost certainly go to Vietnam. While I knew we were fighting to keep Communists from taking over the government of South Vietnam, I had no sophisticated understanding of the real causes of the war or how things had gotten to the point they were at in late 1967.
I served in Vietnam from March of 1968 through March of 1969 as the flight operations coordinator (specialist fifth class) for an Army helicopter company based near the coastal city of Vung Tau. Although I never had a dull moment there, I was more amazed by and interested in the war that seemed to be going on back in America. While I was in Vietnam, both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated and there was rioting at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
After leaving the service in 1970, I pushed the memories of my Vietnam experience into the back of my mind, and I do not remember thinking much about the war until the spring of 1985, when I met Thomas Boettcher. He was a veteran from my hometown of Ponca City, Oklahoma, and his book Vietnam, the Valor and the Sorrow had just been published. I had never before bought a book about the Vietnam War, and as I read it, I found myself thinking for the first time of the conflict as history.
To prepare myself for teaching my eighth-graders about the Vietnam War, I started by surveying more than seven hundred junior high students in three Oklahoma cities to find out what they already knew and what questions they were most interested in having answered.
I got back statements like “The war was fought to save U.S. prisoners from Vietnam,” “It was really us against ourselves,” “We dropped a bomb on Hiroshima,” “I know that it was as bad as I can only dream,” and “It took place in the Philippines.” The most common responses were:
- 1. Many Americans were killed.
- 2. It took place in Vietnam.
- 3. The United States lost.
- 4. American POWs are still being held.
- 5. It took place in the 1960s and 1970s.
The questions I got back were often discouraging, too. Among them were: “Did they have automobiles back then?,” “How many heroes were there?,” “Did everyone die in it?,” “How many people tried to prevent that war?,” and “What were all of the names of the people who served in the Vietnam War, if you know?”
The five questions asked most often were:
- 1. What was the cause?
- 2. When was the war?
- 3. How many Americans were killed?
- 4. What countries fought in the war?
- 5. Who won?
I then sent surveys to the principals of sixty junior high schools in Oklahoma in an attempt to find out at what grade level the war is usually taught, how much time is usually spent covering it, and the number of veterans involved in teaching the war.
Thirty-five percent of the principals who responded reported that the war is not taught at all in their schools. When it is taught, it is usually part of an eighth-grade American history class, and one to two weeks are devoted to it. Twelve percent of those teaching about the war are Vietnam veterans.
Now that I had a pretty good idea of what students knew and wanted to know about the war, I realized I would need help deciding what they should be taught about the war.
I began writing letters to decision makers who had been in the government during the war, major journalists, authors of books on the subject, leading voices in opposition to the war, and public figures in America today. I asked each person this question: What do you think are the most important things for today’s junior high students to understand about the Vietnam War?
The replies started coming in at once. By now I have received about a hundred, some of which are published here. Virtually everyone took great care in answering my question, and I am very grateful to all who were willing to help me gain a better understanding of the war so that I could do a better job of teaching about it.
The first thing that young people should know is that the United States never fielded better armies.