The Living Memory
The Long View
On teaching the lessons of the Vietnam era to a new generation
For today's undergraduates, born in the late 1970s and early 1980s,
the Vietnam War is "history." Their impressions come from
textbooks and films. Their emotional response is expressed not at
a protest march, but at hallowed places such as the Vietnam Memorial
in Washington, DC.
Professors Paul Joseph (in right of photo) and Gerald Gill (left)
were students during the Vietnam War, part of a generation that
felt the heated urgency of a new political order. Today, in Tufts
classrooms, they can take the long view of the Vietnam conflict.
Their broad perspectives reflect their evolving interests and derive
strength from a growing body of research on a subject that refuses
to be quiet. Although their scholarly focuses are different, the
heart of their mission is the same: to help a new generation of
students discover and evaluate this volatile chapter in American
history because its questions resonate still, and its lessons are
Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program and the Center
for Interdisciplinary Studies, and chair of the Peace Studies Association,
Joseph has explored political sociology, social movements, and the
sociology of war for three decades. An antiwar activist while an
undergraduate at McGill University, he went on to earn his master's
and PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, in sociology.
His dissertation would become Cracks in the Empire: State Politics
During the Vietnam War, an investigation into divisions among U.S.
policy makers during the war with Vietnam. Joseph joined Tufts in
1975, rising to full professor in 1994. After he visited Vietnam,
Cambodia and Laos in 1986, his interest in Vietnam was rekindled,
and he introduced "U.S., Vietnam and the War" into the
sociology curriculum. Meanwhile, he has continued to pursue other
research in books such as Search for Sanity, which focused on alternatives
to nuclear deterrence, and Peace Politics: The United States Between
the Old and New World Orders, exploring the possibilities of a peace
dividend after the end of the Cold War. His study of the impact
of the nuclear arms race has extended beyond the classroom to the
Tufts University Gallery, where he served as a guest curator of
the recent exhibition, "Hiroshima/Nagasaki: The Fallout."
This past spring he was co-convener of a three-part conference,
Peace Culture, Religion, and Market Economies, at the Boston Research
Center for the 21st Century. Most recently, he spent the 1995-96
academic year at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New
Zealand, where he studied the intersection of race and class in
Maori-Pakeha (European) social relationships.
A similar restless curiosity characterizes the work of Gerald Gill.
This past summer found Gill revising Dissent, Discontent and Disinterest:
African American Opposition to the United States Wars of the Twentieth
Century, a chronological and thematic study of African American
opposition to war from World War I through the Persian Gulf War.
He was also writing a study of black protest activities in Boston
from 1935 to the early 1970s entitled Struggling Yet in Freedom's
An associate professor of history, Gill has achieved a creative
balance between teaching and writing; he has written extensively
on civil rights, including The Case for Affirmative Action for Blacks
in Higher Education and Meanness Mania: The Changed Mood. He is
co-editor of The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader and of numerous
articles on African American history and public policy matters.
He is an academic adviser to Blackside, Inc., a Boston-based film
company, and was a consultant for Eyes on the Prize, and adviser
to The Great Depression, America's War on Poverty and I'll Make
Me a World. A graduate of Lafayette College, he earned his master's
and PhD in United States history from Howard University. He has
been honored by Tufts for Outstanding Teaching and Advising, and
in 1995 he was named Massachusetts College Professor of the Year
by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Council
for the Advancement and Support of Education.
What questions do you hope students will ponder in their study
of United States history?
Joseph There are a series of questions around U.S. intervention
that tried to impose a particular outcome on the people of Vietnam.
There's the assumption that technological prowess or military might
will be able to bring a certain result. I like to have students
consider the collision of cultures and the depth of the motivation
and commitment of the Vietnamese in trying to secure their independence.
I also like to discuss how history produces results that neither
side could predict, and also the so-called sideshows or spin-offs
that come out of Vietnam. The devastation in Cambodia would be one
example. Or how Vietnam won the war, only to fall afterward to political
and economic mistakes that made life very difficult for most Vietnamese.
And the supreme irony of the fact that the United States has won
Vietnam to its side economically in a way it never could while using
As much as possible I also try to have the class think of Vietnam
as a place where there were real people, not as a mythology or a
symbol. One of my favorite sources that I use in the class is an
autobiography written by Nguyen Thi Dinh, a woman who was a leader
of the National Liberation Front. And there's a wonderful book by
Neil Sheehan about John Paul Vann, an extremely aggressive colonel
in the U.S. counterinsurgency program and I try to put these two
individuals side by side and have students explore the differences.
I ask them, "Who, in the final analysis, is the stronger person?"
I also have a U.S. veteran talk to the class to see what it was
like in human terms to be in Vietnam. My favorite moment in 10 years
of teaching the course was the day when a North Vietnamese veteran
co-taught a class with a U.S. veteran. They had much more in common
than you might suppose.
Gill I would like my students to gain an understanding of
American involvement in Southeast Asia as a part of American foreign
policy decisionmaking in that region from the Franklin D. Roosevelt
administration through the Carter administration. While the American
role, particularly from 1954 to 1975, has been viewed by policy-makers
and the public as either a "noble cause" or as a blunder
and misunderstanding born out of neo-imperialistic and Cold War
consideration, I would like my students in the time I allot to the
war to look at diplomatic and military policymaking over decades
and how that policymaking allowed successive administrations to
step up American economic and military assistance until the United
States became fully involved in the fighting. Unlike Paul, I don't
teach a course devoted to the war in Vietnam. I can only offer a
cursory overview that some students may find incomplete. I would
encourage them to take Paul's course or courses taught by my colleague
Researching African Americans' varied reactions to the Vietnam
War has been one of my major research projects, as reactions in
support and in opposition to the war affected African American activities
and consciousness during the mid- to late 1960s through 1975. In
my upper-level seminar on the Civil Rights movement, I can present
in more detail materials that discuss African American protest activities
and the connection to anti-war activities. From Eyes on the Prize
students can see and hear Muhammad Ali explain why he had "no
quarrel with them Viet Congs" and hear Martin Luther King's
eloquent exposition of why he, as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate,
was opposed to the war in Vietnam. Regrettably, too few students
have been taught about King's opposition to the war, and Muhammad
Ali's principled opposition to the war has been minimized in the
reconstruction of his persona today.
How do you bring the experience of your generation to the classroom?
Joseph For me, when I look at Vietnam, it's like peeling
an onion: you can explore so many things about it. For example,
I think it's a mistake to treat Vietnam just as the place the United
States went to war. I like to back up to before the war and say:
"There's this place called Vietnam with a people and a culture
and a history." It's important to think about that country
apart from the war. It's also a place that existed after the war,
after 1975. Otherwise, no matter your position on the war itself,
you're still seeing Vietnam primarily through the lens of its conflict
with the United States. And I think that's a mistake.
The classroom is a good place to talk about Vietnam as a society.
It's also a good place to talk about the United States. So much
about class and inequality in the United States is played out in
the war. So much about racism in the United States is being expressed.
There are many hidden things that do not appear on the official
records about the way in which the United States prosecuted the
war in Vietnam. Even the antiwar movement itself has different layers
that can be used to reflect more generally on the United States
as a whole.
Gill As Paul mentioned, you have to look at the layers of
resistance to the war in Vietnam particularly in terms of class,
race and gender. Increasingly, what I have been looking at is the
intersection of all these factors in terms of giving a broadened
view of those Americans who came to oppose the war in Vietnam and
the differing reasons that individuals used in terms of their critiques
against the war in Vietnam. Until recently, the activities of the
antiwar movement have been depicted largely as a middle-class, middle-income
to upper-middle-income, white, college-educated response to the
war in Vietnam. But if you look at polling data, you generally will
find that African Americans as a group were among those in the United
States who were more opposed to the war in Vietnam. African American
women, in particular, were more inclined to oppose the war for a
wide variety of reasons: politics, gender, class. African American
students were also among the vocal opposition, at great cost. In
addition to those four students killed at Kent State, there were
the two black students slain on the Jackson State campus, where
students had organized and taken part in antiwar and antidraft protests
centering around the invasion of Cambodia. So at the very least,
I hope to make students today aware that African Americans and students
at historically black colleges and universities consistently pressed
for social change and for an end to the war. This is important.
Black student protest of the late 1960s is sometimes presented as
only calling for changes on campuses and yet it was also connected
to the war.
Joseph We bring our own personal involvement to the curriculum,
but another interesting facet is the personal involvement of the
students. Many had a father or a relative who served in Vietnam
and had the experience of wanting to know more from them, but they
also received a message that their questions were not fully welcome.
Every year I've taught the course there's been at least one student
who has used the material to explore aspects of his or her own family.
Another layer concerns the Vietnamese students themselves. It's
commonplace to say that many American high school students don't
know much about Vietnam because the conventional way of teaching
U.S. history presents only superficial coverage. But it's also true
for many of the Vietnamese students. Those who either came here
when they were very young or were born and grew up here don't know
very much about the history of their own country and have come to
this course to try to learn more about it.
We were talking about perspectives on the war. What have been
some of the key challenges for you in your own scholarship?
Gill In terms of challenges, there's challenging one of
the myths in African American history: that oftentimes wars have
served as a means of providing more opportunities for African Americans.
Certainly, if you look at the Civil War and the end results of the
Civil War, if you look at World War II or World War I or right up
until the middle part of the 1960s, you will see the attitude that
wars can be a means to fight for first-class citizenship or to try
to fight for fair representation and equal representation in the
armed forces as a civil rights issue.
I have found, though, if you look at the views of African Americans
who opted against involvement in war, you see a debate within the
African American community over rights versus responsibilities.
Do rights come before responsibilities in terms of the right to
first-class citizenship and equal opportunity and equal rights under
law? Ought those rights to come before assuming the responsibilities
of citizenship, even if one is segregated in the armed forces? My
father served in the segregated armed forces during World War II,
and he also came to support my being a conscientious objector to
the war in Vietnam. And I point to one of the ironies, because I
went to a college where ROTC was required. And I took ROTC my first
two years in college because it was required. But I also know my
father was upset that I didn't advance and seek a commission in
the United States Army because he was remembering his own experiences
during World War II, serving in a segregated army as a private.
He did not want me to repeat that. But once I became an opponent
of the war, my father was one of my strongest supporters. And my
father always used to paraphrase Voltaire: "I might disagree
but I defend to death your right to that position." He supported
But the point is that you start to see a generational shift in
terms of African American leadership and also African American political
opinion. In the 1960s, shaped in part by reactions to the Vietnam
War, it's certainly clear in terms of African American political
thought over the past four decades. While Colin Powell is oftentimes
held up to be a model of how individuals could advance through the
military . . . you'll also start to see points of view held by African
American leaders who will argue that the military was, largely,
even with a voluntary army, still a "ghetto draft."
So, basically, scholars, historians and sociologists are asking:
What does the military mean for African Americans? Is it a detriment
or does it open or offer opportunity? That's one of the reasons
why you start to see continued opposition to ROTC in public schools,
whether or not these programs are channeling usually lower, middle-income
working-class individuals who may not have ready access to college
into the military.
How do you convey what American society was like during the
Joseph But you see, it's not only Vietnam. The period is
also about the emergence of the women's movement and the spread
of counterculture views. The U.S. was undergoing a deeper process
of self-questioning. And it's very important to try to reconstruct
How do you do that in the classroom?
Joseph There's a five-minute clip taken when the news comes
to Eugene McCarthy's headquarters that Robert Kennedy has been shot.
Both are vying to be the Democratic nominee for the presidency,
and the campaign volunteers are stunned. The cameraman had the wherewithal
to keep his finger on the record button and he circles the room
and looks at the faces. This is June of '68; it's two months after
King has been assassinated, so now you've lost two prominent figures
in the United States. There have been a powerful series of race
rebellions in the cities. It's four months after the Tet offensive,
which has punctured all government credibility about making progress
in Vietnam, and you can see it all mirrored on their faces as the
camera slowly moves around the room. It's remarkable and the students
respond to that. For them, it's shocking and yet so far removed
from the times in which we live. So I don't think you can teach
this course without somehow trying to capture the emotional mood
and the cultural mood of the times.
But you can't leave it there either. You also need to consider
the positions on the different sides, not only Vietnamese voices
and American voices, but all the different voices within the United
States about the war. What I try to stress too is that there are
also different voices in Vietnam, not only between Saigon and Hanoi,
but also between the North Vietnamese and the southern-based revolutionary
movement, the National Liberation Front.
So you use culture to show the context.
Gill The cultural lens is an important point. The students
that we're teaching right now were probably in elementary school
when the Persian Gulf War was fought. They have no real recollections
of the Persian Gulf War, but at the same time, this is a generation
that has been affected by film, and I know that many of the students
who have seen Saving Private Ryan are now starting to look at World
War II through the lens of that particular movie. I think they're
also starting to look at Vietnam, not necessarily for the movies
that are made about Vietnam, but through a sense of patriotism or
a sense of allegiance to the country that was defended through the
courage demonstrated in Saving Private Ryan. I'm finding that when
some students first come into the course, they have to undertake
a reexamination based upon preconceived notions they have acquired
from current films. It's interesting to hear what they say. For
example, most say they would have supported World War II, but they
don't know enough about the Persian Gulf War.
Do you think the students who were protesting the war did indeed
have an impact?
Gill I think the November 1969 moratorium, where an estimated
500,000 Americans protested in Washington, was key. One of the things
my scholarship has stressed, however, is the fact that the student
population generally should not be seen as Harvard, Yale, Columbia,
the University of Wisconsin and Berkeley. We also need to look at,
for example, what was taking place at less selective institutions
and particularly historically black schools. That it was a generational
issue in terms of how people were starting to respond to the war.
And also, for example, some of the scholarship that's coming out
now by women scholars looking at how women responded to the Vietnam
War is very important. Much of the scholarship of the antiwar movement
has been focused on male activists and has not necessarily looked
at the impact of the antiwar movement and how women defined it,
not only in terms of their relationship with men, but in the context
of their own political and social consciousness and setting the
stage for aspects of the feminist movement.
Joseph There are so many ways that you can look at this
complex entity called the antiwar movement. One question is whether
the movement had an impact on Washington's decision making. That's
a very, very difficult question to answer. I would say yes, but
also divide the question into direct and indirect forms of influence.
The direct influence that Gerald mentioned, such as the moratorium
in November 1969, when President Nixon was thinking, "Well,
I can't win with ground troops, but perhaps threatening a massive
blow against the North with air power will work." But Nixon
had to cancel the attacks due to the demonstrations in October and
November of 1969. That's one example of a direct impact. But the
antiwar movement also had an indirect influence on Washington's
policies. To take just one example, Nixon and Kissinger could no
longer prosecute the war in the high-profile ways of the Johnson
administration. The public face of their policies had to be one
of winding the war down. They did bomb North Vietnam and, of course,
Cambodia, but they did it secretly, covertly. When news about the
bombing occasionally reached the press, Nixon and Kissinger felt
they had control those leaks. They formed a "plumber's unit"
to stop the leaks so that The New York Times and The Washington
Post and the other papers wouldn't carry stories about the covert
bombing of Cambodia or of North Vietnam.
But the plumbers' unit, formed in 1969, grew on its own, acquired
its own momentum, and eventually, in 1972, broke into the Democratic
National headquarters. In turn, this leads to the Watergate scandal
in 1974 and 1975, and ultimately makes it impossible for the United
States to respond with military force when the Vietnamese launch
their final offensive. I don't think you can posit a direct causality
between the antiwar movement and Watergate. Nixon's personality
is certainly a factor. But there is a connection between the scandal
and Watergate and the fact that Nixon and Kissinger could not tell
the truth about what they were doing in Vietnam.
What do you think are the lessons here?
Gill Respect for dissent. Dissent has always had a respectful
tradition in the United States. Oftentimes individual dissenters
have had to pay the cost of their views. But one of the ongoing
legacies of Vietnam should be respect for an individual to uphold
the right of his or her conscience in opposition to government action.
And we can see what happens when individuals do make a stand in
opposition to government policy.
Joseph I would say that it is important to measure the
full cost of war. Vietnam had so many casualties, not only the 58,000
U.S. soldiers but also the two million Vietnamese who died. And
we cannot overlook the environmental and psychological scars of
the war. Another point I'd like the students to think about is:
What was the motivation for the intervention? It was carried out
in the name of democracy. As citizens, we must hold up some standards
for democracy and ask: Did the United States actually try to achieve
democracy in its actions in Vietnam? If democracy means these particular
sets of values and these particular sets of political mechanisms,
was it actually achieved in Vietnam? And what was the impact of
the Vietnam War on democracy in the United States? These are questions
students of any generation I hope will find worth investigating