Social Education 55(6) pps. 367-370
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies
David M. Berman
HO CHI MINH CITY, SOCIALIST REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM-July 12, 1990-Hard by the banks of the Red River delta (figure 1), the Vietnamese landscape appears locked in historical time. With the onset of the monsoon rains in the north, water buffaloes plow the muddy fields, farmers transplant rice seedlings by hand, and irrigation canals fill with life-sustaining water. In the delta plain, water pours through the shutter gates of the canal network and into the paddies, the landscape a patchwork of reflecting pools divided by footpaths and dikes.
Along Highway 1 between Hue and Da Nang (figure 1), the scene is little different although in reverse of the monsoon cycle; the rains have recently ended here and the dry season has begun. With the rugged mountains along the coast of the South China Sea forming a scenic backdrop, the rice plants are well along and wave in the wind, now patches of green velvet. As the dry season begins along the coastal plain, children still herd the water buffaloes, and farmers dressed in black thresh rice grains by hand and take their midday break during the high sun's heat.
To someone who has been in Vietnam during the U.S. presence, something is distinctive among the serenity of the villages. But it takes time to notice. In virtually every Vietnamese village, north and south, the eye is drawn to a break in the village contour, a disruption marked by a large vertical monument that rises above the thatch and tile-roofed houses. To Quoc Ghi Cong Cac Liet Si the monument proclaims: "The Fatherland Remembers the Sacrifice of Each Fallen Soldier." Each village we pass has its own monument, with scores of markers and gravestones for its fallen sons and daughters. The lasting effect of the U.S. war in Vietnam upon Vietnamese society and upon the Vietnamese population strikes home, a vivid reminder that extends beyond the treelines and hedgerows that mark the village boundaries.
"One way or another, it appears that almost every village in Vietnam lost men in the war," I observed to Nguyen Ngoc Hung, 3d Battalion, 64th Regiment, 320th Division-the "iron fist" of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), what we once knew as the NVA (North Vietnamese Army). "Every family," he corrected me. "Almost every family was a victim of the war. I feel a very deep sadness inside me about the war," he continued. "I have one aunt and five uncles and we've lost, I've lost, seventeen cousins and brothers in my family" (interview with author, 21 June 1990). Nguyen Ngoc Hung, who fought some six years in the war, "not out of hatred against the Americans but for the love and independence of the country," is now the Vice-Director of the Vietnamese Language Centre at the Hanoi Foreign Language College where among his other duties, he teaches English.
Casualties of War
The two largest Nghia Trang Liet Si ("soldiers' cemeteries" or, more properly translated, "heroes' cemeteries,") that I have visited were south of the old DMZ (Demilitarized Zone)-the Truong Son Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery near the old DMZ just west of the hill at Con Thien, and the cemetery in Cu Chi district, northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), near the tunnels and the old base camp of the Twenty-fifth Infantry Division at Dong Du (figure 1). The Truong Son Cemetery contains some 16,000 graves; the cemetery at Cu Chi contains approximately 6,200. Many of the grave markers are inscribed with the names, dates of birth, dates of enlistment, names of hometowns or villages, military units, and dates of death of the fallen soldiers. Some markers have only a name; many have none. The Cu Chi Cemetery contains a monument to the unknown soldier of Vietnam, Liet Si Vo Danh, with the inscription Anh Vo Danh Nhuong Ten Anh Song Mai, "The Brother Gives Up His Place to the Brother Who Lives On." The fallen soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the South Vietnamese Army, however, have no such legacy, buried instead in family plots with no monuments in remembrance of their sacrifices. Vietnamese casualty figures, north and south, military and civilian, are estimated at 1,921,000 dead and also include some 3,200,000 wounded throughout Indochina to include Laos and Cambodia (Williams 1987, 7-8.). Although the fighting ended some fifteen years ago, casualty figures continue to mount.
In Phu Hiep village, three kilometers (1.88 miles) north of Hue City in Thua Thien province, one week prior to our visit, eleven injured Vietnamese were rushed to the emergency room of Hue Central Hospital when a 105-mm howitzer shell, dragged from the banks of the Perfume River (Sông Huong), exploded in their midst. A 15-year-old child was killed on the spot and a 16-year-old died in the hospital. As we walked through the wards we saw a 38-year-old woman with chest and gut wounds, and an 18-year-old boy with shrapnel in his legs; a 9-year-old boy with an open fracture of the tibia lay on a blood-stained cot.
In a separate incident some thirty kilometers (18.6 miles) west of Hue City, a mine exploded when two brothers, working in their garden, unearthed it with their hoe. Ho Dac Phu, age fifteen (born during the last year of the war), his right hand now a bloody stump wrapped in blood-stained bandages, his abdomen, left arm, and leg wounded from shrapnel, lay on a cot next to his brother, Ho Pac Danh, age fourteen (born after the war's end), now in danger of losing his left eye from shrapnel.
In the words of Nguyen Van Luong, the Thua Thien province representative to the National Assembly and former NLF (National Liberation Front) commander of the 808th and 814th Infantry Regiments of the Quang Tri region (wounded five times and still carrying U.S. shrapnel in his neck), casualties of war continue to climb from U.S. mines and shells, as well as from Agent Orange. Some 7 million shells, bombs, and mines have been found during clearing operations in Quang Binh and Quang Tri provinces, which straddle the old DMZ, and in Thua Thien province just to the south of Quang Tri (figure 1). Since the end of the war, he estimates, some four thousand people have been killed or wounded from such ordnance (interview with author, 26 June 1990). Dr. Pham Dong Nhai at Hue Central Hospital recalls that from the end of the war in 1975 through 1981, at least one casualty a day occurred from exploding ordnance in the region. Today he believes the figure stands at approximately one each month (seminar presentation, 1 July 1990).
The northern region of what was once I Corps has suffered much in the aftermath of thirty years of warfare, but especially during the last ten years of the U.S. war, 1965-1975. "You should have been here in 1976," Nguyen Van Luong said. "It was total destruction" (seminar presentation, 8 January 1987). In regard to Agent Orange, both Nguyen Van Luong and Pham Bao Diem, the President of the People's Committee of Thua Thien province (seminar presentation, 30 June 1990), estimate that some 150,000 hectares in Thua Thien alone were defoliated during the war and include some 90 percent of the forested regions. They also note the high incidence of liver diseases in children born in defoliated areas sprayed with dioxin, although no figures were available to support their contention.
Given the lingering effects of the war, how then do Vietnamese view the United States and its people? The official view, most prominently portrayed in museums devoted to the country's wars, is seen in the Revolutionary Museum in Hanoi and the War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC-formerly Saigon).
Devoted to extolling the virtues of the long struggle for national independence, the Revolutionary Museum contains a history of the country's wars against its enemies, with one room devoted to Toi Ac Cua De Quoc My O Viet Nam, U.S. Crimes in Vietnam. The exhibit contains what might be expected of Vietnamese perspectives on their struggle against the American enemy. Photographs chart the progression of the war: Ngo Dinh Diem with President Eisenhower, the Marines landing at Da Nang in 1965, and the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972. A diorama displays photos of General Westmoreland, the My Lai (Son My) massacre, American POWs in captivity, B-52s dropping bombs, and pieces of wreckage from B-52s shot down during the bombing- wreckage more prominently displayed at the Air Museum located on Duong Chien Thang B52, or B52 Victory Road. In my view, the exhibit reverts to the obscene in its display of the uniform, with name tag and pictures, of a captured U.S. Air Force pilot, and the uniform, also with name tag, of a soldier from the Army's Twenty-fifth Infantry Division.
At the War Crimes Museum, as it is popularly known in HCMC, which includes displays of the wars against the Chinese, the French, and the Americans, one building is entitled Toi Ac Cua My Doi Voi Nhan Dan Viet Nam or "American Crimes toward the Vietnamese People." As in the Revolutionary Museum, this exhibition contains a series of photographs and maps charting the chronology of U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam. A large map of U.S. units and their positions in April 1969 is located next to a large display of division patches of selected U.S. units, although several well-known combat units are entirely ignored, including the Army's First, Fourth, Ninth, and Twenty-fifth Infantry Divisions, the First and Third Marine Divisions, and the Third Marine Amphibious Force. The display includes the Chicago Sun-Times photo of a Vietnamese POW falling out of a U.S. helicopter, enlarged Life magazine photos by Ronald Haeberle, the Army photographer who revealed the Son My massacre, and enlarged photos of the victims of the bombings over what was once North Vietnam.
A second room is devoted to chemical warfare and includes maps of U.S. facilities in the States and the names of chemical companies and universities involved in the chemical weapons program. Maps also show chemical storage facilities in Vietnam and U.S. topographic maps display herbicide spray missions superimposed. Photos of deformed fetuses and deformed infants attributed to chemical warfare are prominently displayed as well, along with two deformed fetuses in glass jars.
During face-to-face meetings and discussions with Vietnamese government officials, the official view as portrayed in the country's museums is moderated by the practicalities of diplomatic encounters. In the words of Le Mai, the Vice-Foreign Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (seminar presentation, 25 June 1990):
It is the desire of the Vietnamese people to normalize relations with the U.S. It helps peace and stability in the region, and families who are separated, the people who are suffering. Normalization should come as soon as possible. Le Mai questions U.S. policy toward the Vietnamese government, particularly its refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam some fifteen years after its withdrawal. "We ask our American friends why the [present] U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Our American friends have told us that, in the case of Vietnam, don't talk about logic" (personal communication, 26 June 1990). The Vietnamese suggest that U.S. diplomatic policy toward Vietnam is motivated less by practicalities and logic than by the desire of some politicians and bureaucrats to punish Vietnam for the war they successfully waged against the United States.
Viewed in other terms, the ire of the Vietnamese, as expressed in museum exhibits for example, appears directed towards the United States government, which they differentiate from the people. "The Vietnamese have always distinguished between the American people and the American authorities," the Rector of Hue University Polytechnique, Hoang Duc Dat, told us three years ago (interview with author, 9 January 1987). According to one Western ambassador in Hanoi, the Vietnamese want to normalize relations with the United States very quickly. The hard-line U.S. policy is affecting the hard-liners here. The effect is devastating economically and is pushing Vietnam towards China.
He explains that "a lot of people in the [U.S.] government really haven't forgiven Vietnam for winning the war" (personal communication, 25 June 1990). Le Mai reiterates this concern: "We can recognize that there are bitter feelings amongst American families even though Vietnamese did not come to the U.S. to kill Americans." Yet "there are many Vietnamese families who have bitter feelings, who have [also] been victimized by the war" (seminar presentation, 27 June 1990). The Vietnamese with whom we spoke, and Vietnamese veterans in particular, although hardly ignoring the bitterness of the past, appear to look toward the future, the pursuit of friendship with their former enemies, and a mutual attempt to understand the war from both Vietnamese and U.S. perspectives. In the words of Phan Xuan Bien, a researcher with the Social Science Institute in Ho Chi Minh City, former soldier in the Command Center of Military Region 4, "during the war we were soldiers and it is a soldier's duty to fight. But the war has been over now for twenty years and there is no reason why we cannot become friends" (interview with author, 5 July 1990).
The Vietnamese educators with whom we spoke were in accord in their hope for future collaboration with U.S. educators to improve teaching about U.S. and Vietnamese history and culture, and about the U.S. War in Vietnam. How can we do this at the secondary level? we might ask, given the profound influence of the war upon U.S. society and the lingering questions that surround the absence of diplomatic relations between our two countries. "The war has not ended yet even though today we are sitting at the same table," emphasized Phan Minh Thao, a researcher with the Institute of Military History, veteran of wars against the French, Chinese, and Americans. "As those who fought the war, we understand the high value of peace and we must try to enhance the mutual understanding between our two nations" (interview with author, 5 July 1990).
If we are to embrace this vision and promote "the high value of peace" to "enhance the mutual understanding" of our two countries, we must restructure the social studies curriculum to teach more about countries such as Vietnam than simply the U.S. wars fought in those countries. During the height of the Vietnam War, John T. McAlister, Jr., and Paul Mus wrote clearly about this limited American view: "What has been repeatedly said about Viet Nam has been written almost exclusively from a very particular Western perspective" (1970, 5). Although we sought "to win the hearts and minds of the people," they contend that "virtually every American effort over the past decade has betrayed a fundamental ignorance of what does animate the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people and how their spirit can be won" (1970, 6).
Nguyen Ngoc Giao, the Rector of Ho Chi Minh University (formerly the University of Saigon) offers us a contemporary message: "Vietnam has a long history and you should teach more about Vietnam than just the Vietnam War" (seminar presentation, 6 July 1990). In curricular terms, the teaching of Vietnam should be located within the context of world cultures or world history courses as well as within survey courses on U.S. history where it is taught as the Vietnam War. At this juncture we should emphasize the culture and traditions of the Vietnamese (and the Cambodians, the Indonesians, the Iraqis-peoples who have heretofore appeared as unimportant in the larger scheme of world history) until these peoples become integral to U.S. geopolitical concerns. "We can no longer be content with writing only the history of victorious elites, or with detailing the subjugation of dominated ethnic groups," writes Eric R. Wolf in Europe and the People without History (1982, x). We "need to uncover the history of 'the people without history'-the active histories of 'primitives,' peasantries, laborers, immigrants, and besieged minorities."
"The spirit or mentality of the Vietnamese-the three-fourths of them who continue to lead lives rooted in the traditions of the village-is the essential untold story about Viet Nam," continue McAlister and Mus (1970, 6). "The reason for telling this story is...to emphasize that the participation of peasants in a revolution to create a modern state is the story of most of Asia in this century." If we are to negotiate successfully what Frances FitzGerald (1972, 6) called "this leap of perspective" to understand the intellectual distance between the United States and countries such as Vietnam, the curricular organization of the social studies must be restructured to emphasize positively the worth of learning about the Vietnamese from the perspective of Vietnamese history and culture, as well as learning about Vietnam through an understanding of the Vietnam War. The war in Vietnam has painfully bound our two countries together forever and it is time we look at the significance of such a union and the messages we, as educators, pass on to our youth through our own cultural tradition-those youth who may one day fight their own war.
Berman, David M. "Perspectives on the Teaching of Vietnam." The Social Studies 77, no. 4 (July/August 1986): 165-168.FitzGerald, Frances. Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.Hoang Duc Dat. Interview with author, Hue, Vietnam, 9 January 1990.Le Mai. Seminar presentation, Hanoi, Vietnam, 26 June 1990.______. Seminar presentation, Hanoi, Vietnam, 27 June 1990.McAlister, John T., Jr., and Paul Mus. The Vietnamese and Their Revolution. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.Nguyen Ngoc Giao. Seminar presentation, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 6 July 1990.Nguyen Ngoc Hung. Interview with author, Hanoi, Vietnam, 21 June 1990.Nguyen Van Luong. Seminar presentation, Hue, Vietnam, 8 January 1987.Interview with author, Hanoi, Vietnam, 26 June 1990.Pham Bao Diem. Seminar presentation, Hue, Vietnam, 30 June 1990.Pham Dong Nhai. Seminar presentation, Hue, Vietnam, 1 July 1990.Pham Xuan Bien. Interview with author, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 5 July 1990.Phan Minh Thao. Interview with author, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 5 July 1990.Williams, Reese. Unwinding the Vietnam War: From War to Peace. Seattle: Real Comet Press, 1987.Wolf, Eric R. Europe and the People without History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
David M. Berman is Assistant Professor of Education in the Department of Instruction and Learning at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15260.