The Lessons of Vietnam: Using Literature to Introduce Students to the Vietnam War

By Kirkwood-Tucker, Toni Fuss; Benton, Janet E. | Social Education, October 2002 | Go to article overview

The Lessons of Vietnam: Using Literature to Introduce Students to the Vietnam War


Kirkwood-Tucker, Toni Fuss, Benton, Janet E., Social Education


DECADES AFTER the evacuation of American troops from Southeast Asia, the teaching of the Vietnam War remains one of the most controversial issues in the American classroom.

The lack of a shared perspective--even today--on the Vietnam War stands in sharp contrast to the mobilized support among Americans following the attacks of September 11,2001. The "war on terrorism," following the loss of lives and destruction of property on American soil, has a united nation showing its flag colors on homes, businesses, mailboxes, and cars. Images surrounding the Vietnam War, in contrast, evoke grainy stills of flag-burning protesters and the deepening anxiety among the "establishment" that the constant arrival of body bags from a faraway war might be not only endless but futile.

Of course, today's "united we stand" perspective presents its own unique challenges for the classroom teacher. Each moment in history requires its own set of responses for study and reflection. But whether teaching about September 11, 2001, or the Vietnam War, social studies teachers have an obligation to help future generations understand that there are multiple interpretations of global events. Teaching history entails more than teaching about cause and effect or simply providing background sketches of "the enemy." A global education involves helping students increase knowledge and understanding about the larger world. (1)

Same Time Next Year

The Vietnam War had profound consequences for U.S. foreign policy, domestic politics, and America's social history, yet students in the United States generally know very little about the war. (2) For many students, the end of World War II signals the end of the school year. The reasons are numerous: teachers overburdened by the scope of history, the limitations inherent in a chronological approach toward the subject, the superficiality or distortion of events in many textbooks, the lack of salient supplementary materials, and teachers' own restricted knowledge about the wars. Another reality that can't be ignored is the inability or insecurity among teachers to address the political ramifications and painful memories of the Vietnam War.

The limited knowledge students do possess about the war is often steeped in misconceptions and distortions acquired from media. (3) A review in 1979 found that most U.S. textbooks of the 1960s and 1970s had "no firm grip on Vietnamese geography or nomenclature," and presented inaccurate accounts of the "Geneva Accords, Pentagon Papers, Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the My Lai Massacre." (4)

By the 1980s, textbooks had improved, although coverage of the war was still inadequate. (5) Student knowledge and understanding of the event were largely derived from distorted images such as Sylvester Stallone's Rambo movies.

If teachers shy away from covering major events in the Vietnam War, even fewer teachers consider events from a Vietnamese perspective. Yet an inquiry into this perspective is an important part of the study of the war. Asking what the war was like for the people of Vietnam and how they fared in its aftermath can lead to a greater understanding of that period, and enhance a global perspective of wars.

Adolescent Literature

When addressing the Vietnam War, social studies teachers can benefit from a body of adolescent literature reflecting Vietnamese perspectives, as well as other materials that assist in teaching what the Vietnamese refer to as the "American Vietnam War" A genre of adolescent literature focuses on young adult characters and themes. Using adolescent literature to supplement history textbooks provides a multidisciplinary approach toward the complex subject of the Vietnam War. Several books address key events in Vietnamese history, including pre-colonial history, the Indochina War, the War in Vietnam, and the refugee experience, as well as the human and environmental impact of the war. …

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