GRINNELL COLLEGE
Department of History

Fall Term 1999

The United States and Vietnam

Professor Tom Hietala
Carnegie 405, 269-3304
hietalat@grinnell.edu

Office Hours: Tues., Thurs., 9-10, 2:15-3:00
Wed., 9-11:30
(other times by appointment or accident)

The intervention of the United States in Vietnam often resembles the twisted tale of Alice in Wonderland. Words assume multiple and often contradictory meanings; the dimensions of the American problem in Indochina expand to grotesque proportions when they were supposed to shrink to manageable size. Americans looked in the Vietnamese mirror and saw a strange reflection of themselves. The American military, one officer proudly declared, had to destroy a city to save it. This seminar addresses the perplexing question of why the United States intervened in Vietnam, but the course is not limited to American policy from the siege at Dienbienphu in 1954 to the surrender of Saigon in 1975. To approach the war in that way would be to repeat one of the fundamental errors that led six different administrations from Truman's to Ford's to miscalculate the dynamics of indigenous developments in Southeast Asia and how the United States should respond to them. American intervention in Indochina is only part of a complex story; Vietnamese sources provide indispensable insights into the conflict that help make the turmoil and tragedy of Vietnam comprehensible. Texts for the course include North Vietnamese and Viet Cong materials as well as American and anti-Communist South Vietnamese viewpoints. Moreover, primary as well as secondary sources allow students to analyze, interpret, and conceptualize the war from their own perspectives. In addition, a term paper on a topic of one's choosing complements the course readings. Politicians and film directors continue to interpret the war and the "lessons" to be derived from it, but those perspectives too often reflect the biases of the observers rather than a rigorous understanding of the complexity of Vietnam and the American intervention there. President Ronald Reagan, for example, spoke at the Vietnam War memorial in 1988 and called the war "a lesson in living love." More ambivalent and more astute, Lieutenant Robert Salerni wrote to his family from Nui Ba Den in 1969, "This is a war of contrasts in a land of contrasts."

TEXTS

  • David Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire, revised edition (1988 [1964])
  • Robert J. McMahon, ed., Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, second edition (1990)
  • Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam Wars (1991)
  • Paul Hendrickson, The Living and the Dead (1996)
  • Robert McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam(1996)
  • Truong Nhu Tang, A Viet Cong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and its Aftermath (1985)
  • Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1990)
  • Ron Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July (1976)
  • Bernard Edelman, ed., Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (1985)
  • Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried (1990)
  • W. D. Ehrhart, Passing Time: Memoir of a Vietnam Veteran Against the War (1989)

Recommended supplementary texts:

  • George Herring, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, second edition, 1986
  • James Harrison, The Endless War: Vietnam's Struggle for Independence, 1989
  • Jeffrey Race, War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province (1972)
  • Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, revised edition, 1991
  • Gareth Porter, Vietnam: A History in Documents, 1981
  • James Gibson, The Perfect War: The War We Couldn't Lose and How We Did (1986)

TOPICS AND ASSIGNMENTS

I. CONTAINMENT AND COUNTERINSURGENCY: THE ORIGINS OF AMERICAN INVOLVEMENT

"Unfortunately, the majority of natives stoutly maintain that Ho Chi Minh is the man, and the only one, who represents them and they will oppose the putting forward of any other candidate as the creation of but another puppet and the erecting of a smoke screen for France's real intentions." (Consul Charles Reed, Saigon, to Secretary of State Dean Acheson, 1947)

"Question whether Ho as much nationalist as Commie is irrelevant. All Stalinists in colonial areas are nationalists." (Dean Acheson, 1949)

"For the United States to support France in this attempt will cost us our standing and prestige in all of Southeast Asia. A lot of that prestige went down the drain with Chiang Kai-shek; the rest of it will go down with the Bao Dai regime if we support it. ... It is never too late to change a mistaken policy, particularly when the policy involves the kind of damage that our adherence to the Generalissimo brought us. Why get our fingers burned twice?" (Raymond Fosdick, State Department adviser, 1949)

"But the Vietnamese lack the ability to conduct a war by themselves or govern themselves. If the French withdrew, Indochina would become Communist-dominated within a month. The United States as a leader of the free world cannot afford further retreat in Asia." (Vice President Richard Nixon, 1954)

Thursday, August 26:

Tuesday, August 31:

Thursday, September 2:

Course introduction

Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire

Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1-104; McMahon, Major Problems, 1-29

Tuesday, September 7: McMahon, Major Problems, 30-242

II. ESCALATION: INTO THE BIG MUDDY

"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." (President John F. Kennedy, 1961)

"For the security of South Vietnam remains vital to United States security. For this reason, we adhere to the overriding objective of denying this country to Communism and of suppressing the Viet Cong insurgency as promptly as possible. ... We believe the U.S. part of the task can be completed by the end of 1965, the terminal date which we are taking as the time objective of our counterinsurgency programs." (McNamara-Taylor Report, 1963)

"Let no one think for a moment that retreat from Vietnam would bring an end to conflict. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another. The central lesson of our time is that the appetite of aggression is never satisfied. To withdraw from one battlefield means only to prepare for the next." (President Lyndon Johnson, 1965)

"So long as our forces are restricted to advising and assisting the South Vietnamese, the struggle will remain a civil war between Asian peoples. Once we deploy substantial numbers of troops in combat it will become a war between the U.S. and a large part of the population of South Vietnam, organized and directed from North Vietnam and backed by the resources of both Moscow and Peiping. ... Once we suffer large casualties, we will have started a well-nigh irreversible process. Our involvement will be so great that we cannot -- without national humiliation -- stop short of achieving our complete objectives. Of the two possibilities I think humiliation would be more likely than the achievement of our objectives -- even after we have paid terrible costs." (Undersecretary of State George Ball, Memo for President Johnson, 1965)

Thursday, September 9: Young, The Vietnam Wars, 105-231; McMahon, Major Problems, 243-281
   

Tuesday, September 14:

Thursday, September 16:

Tuesday, September 21:

Thursday, September 23:

Hendrickson, The Living and The Dead, 7-240

Hendrickson, The Living and the Dead, 241-380

McNamara, In Retrospect, 3-143

McNamara, In Retrospect, 145-335

III.
THE ELUSIVE "ENEMY": THE POLITICS OF WAR

"Our Party educated the army to develop the fine nature of a revolutionary army to increase the political supremacy in order to make good our weakness in equipment. Hence our army succeeded, with inferior arms, in defeating the enemy [France in 1954] who was many times stronger in weapons. It has become an extremely fine tradition of our army -- to vanquish modern weapons with an heroic spirit." (General Vo Nguyen Giap, 1961)

"Only the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam headed by Mr. Ho Chi Minh led the national resistance against the French and brought it to victory. As for Ngo Dinh Diem, he was living in America in those years, getting fat on good food. He was not even in Vietnam, so how could he have been in the resistance?" (Mrs. Nguyen Thi Dinh, 1968)

"[T]he war we were fighting in South Vietnam we saw at that point [in 1964] chiefly as a political struggle with a subordinate military dimension. Our strategy was to achieve a political revolution. To this end, armed violence was a means, but the political front was primary. If the Americans were to intervene in force, the scale of violence would increase geometrically." (Truong Nhu Tang, 1985)

"I saw cruelty and brutality that I didn't expect to see from our own people against the villagers. It took me a while in country to realize why it was happening. In this type of fighting it was almost impossible to know who the enemy was at any one time. Children were suspect, women were suspect. Frequently the ARVNs themselves were on two payrolls. Their army was heavily infiltrated with Viet Cong or people who were politically ambivalent, who could change sides as easily as changing clothes." (Medic Douglas Anderson, 1981)

Tuesday, September 28:

Thursday, September 30:

Tuesday, October 5:

Thursday, October 7:

McMahon, Major Problems, 282-336, 337-388

Truong Nhu Tang, A Viet Cong Memoir

Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, ix-164

Hayslip, 165-368

IV. THE WAR AND VIETNAMIZATION: NEITHER PEACE NOR HONOR

"This country is no gain that I can see, Dad. We're fighting, dying, for a people who resent our being over here." (Sergeant Phillip Woodall, 1968)

"I can order an immediate, precipitate withdrawal of all Americans from Vietnam without regard to the effects of that action. Or we can persist in our search for a just peace through a negotiated settlement if possible, or through continued implementation of our plan for Vietnami-zation if necessary -- a plan in which we will withdraw all of our forces from Vietnam on a schedule in accordance with our program, as the South Vietnamese become strong enough to defend their own freedom." (President Richard Nixon, 1969)

"The politics behind all the monkey business around here is insane. This gradual withdrawal is going to cause more damage than good. As there become less and less GIs over here, it means that the guys still here will have to depend on the ARVNs. I would not want to have to depend on an ARVN for anything." (George Ewing, Jr., Dak To, South Vietnam, 1969)

Tuesday, October 12: McMahon, Major Problems, 389-421, 422-465; Young, The Vietnam Wars, 232-299; McMahon, Major Problems, 563-607

V. THE WAR AT HOME: DOMESTIC DISSENT, PUBLIC OPINION, AND THE MEDIA

"Ain't no Viet Cong ever called me 'nigger'!" (Stokely Carmichael, 1967)

"Out on the streets I couldn't tell the Vietnam veterans from the rock and roll veterans. The Sixties had made so many casualties, its war and its music had run power off the same circuit for so long they didn't even have to fuse. The war primed you for lame years while rock and roll turned more lurid and dangerous than bullfighting, rock stars started falling like second lieutenants; ecstasy and death and (of course and for sure) life, but it didn't seem so then. What I'd thought of as two obsessions were really only one. ... Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we've all been there." (Michael Herr, Dispatches, 1968)

"The war in Vietnam is an amphetamine trip, a reflection of the spiritual disease that has gripped this country and distorted every principle on which it was built. This generation must make a choice between the total rejection of the country and the decision to regain a spiritual balance. I believe there is still something inherent in the fibre of America worth saving ... . The criminal patriotism of today demands the corruption of every citizen, and now we pay the consequences -- not only in the jungles of Asia, but in the materialist ravaged cities of America. Now we are the lost patrol who chase their chartered souls like old whores following tired armies." (Phil Ochs, 1967)

LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT/ MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR/ HEY, HEY, LBJ, HOW MANY KIDS DID YOU KILL TODAY?/ NIXON'S FATHER SHOULD HAVE PULLED OUT/ DRAFT BEER, NOT BOYS/ KILL A COMMIE FOR CHRIST (bumper stickers, posters, slogans, and chants from the Vietnam War era)

Thursday, October 14: Ehrhart, Passing Time; McMahon, Major Problems, 466-519, 520-562 (paper prospectus due on October 15)

[FALL BREAK: October 16-24]

VI. THE WARRIORS' WAR: "THEY WATCHED TOO MANY JOHN WAYNE MOVIES"

"The whole experience is so different from anything you think it is going to be. You watch John Wayne movies -- and it just wasn't the case. Not at Khe Sanh, anyway." (James Hebron, 1981)

"The Marines are taking a fierce beating over here. They don't have enough men. We must have more men, at least twice as many, or we are going to get the piss kicked out of us this winter when the rains come." (Captain Rodney Chastant, 1967)

Tuesday, October 26:

Thursday, October 28:

Tuesday, November 2:

Edelman, Dear America, 1-209

Edelman, Dear America, 211-330

O'Brien, The Things They Carried

VII. "LESSONS" OF THE PAST: INTERPRETING THE WAR

" ... who can doubt that the cause for which our men fought was just?" (President Ronald Reagan, 1988)

"Our participation in Vietnam was right, albeit poorly conducted. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the collapse of South Vietnam, we have witnessed the mass exodus of the boat people, and we have seen Vietnam's economy deteriorate to a point where it is the poorest major nation in the world today. We fought to spare the South Vietnamese the inevitable consequences of economic failure inherent in a Marxist dictatorship as well as to protect their right of independence and right to self-determination. Our loss was their loss." (President George Bush, 1989)

"Neither John Wayne nor Ronald Reagan ever fought a war." (Horace Coleman, 1989)

"I am sure to this day that if the middle and upper classes had gone to Vietnam, their mothers and fathers (the politicians and businessmen) would have ended that war a hell of a lot sooner; in fact, politicians' sons, if not politicians themselves, should be sent to every war first." (Oliver Stone, 1989)

Thursday, November 4: McMahon, Major Problems, 608-647

VIII. FROM STUDENT TO SCHOLAR: REPORTS ON WORK IN PROGRESS

"How do I know what I think until I read what I've written?" (E.M. Forster)

"The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book." (Samuel Johnson)

Tuesday, November 9:

Thursday, November 11:

Tuesday, November 16:

Thursday, November 18:

Tuesday, November 23:

Thursday, November 25:

Tuesday, November 30:

Thursday, December 2:

no class -- research in progress

no class (office hours for consultation on papers)

no class

no class (extra office hours)

Students' reports (10-minute oral presentations)

no class

Students' reports

no class

   
MONDAY, DECEMBER 6: FINAL PAPERS (12-15 PAGES) DUE BY 5:00
   

Tuesday, December 7:

Thursday, December 9:

Final Reports

Final Reports

(We may need to schedule an additional class meeting during this final week so all students in the seminar can present their work.)

Students in the seminar should assume the primary responsibility for class discussions. Timely reading of assignments is essential for several reasons: to prepare for class, to assist in formulating a paper topic, to provide a general context for the specific research project. In addition to the term paper, students will do two oral presentations on their research. The deadline of December 6 for the final paper is firm; late papers will suffer a grade penalty and forfeit the right to instructor commentary. Do not underestimate the time and effort needed to complete a paper of this scope.