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April 2000

Vietnam veteran flings his medal over temporary fence near steps of Congress.
Photo by Leonard Freed
Learning About the War and its Aftermath
compiled by Harold Jordan

April 30, 2000 marked the 25th anniversary of the end of the U.S. war in Southeast Asia. Decades later, this war remains a fixture looming over our national debates about war in general, its legitimacy and consequences. How we interpret the war in Southeast Asia is largely shaped by the needs of the present.

When is it legitimate for the U.S. to go to war? How should wars be fought? How should veterans be treated when they come home from war? Should a war that is seen as lost or unjust make the public less supportive of foreign intervention in the future? What are "war crimes" and why do people commit them? Who should be held accountable? Is the act of a deviant individual soldier the only type of "war crime?" Does dropping a bomb on human beings constitute a "war crime?" How should the war be taught to the post-Vietnam generation?

Fortunately, there are some good resources that can help you explore these issues.

resource of the month

Teaching the Vietnam War

curriculum The ABC's of the Vietnam War
Special Teachers' Issue of the Indochina Newsletter, Spring-Summer 2000. This 24-page resource provides an overview of the war, with maps, definitions of often used terms, excerpts from primary source materials, and a fact sheet on the human, environmental and economic costs of the war. Available (75 cents plus postage) from
Indochina Newsletter

2161 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02140
phone: 617/497-5273
curriculum The Lessons of the Vietnam War (1996)
The best and most comprehensive curriculum was developed by the Center for Social Studies Education, edited by Jerold M. Starr of West Virginia University. The core curriculum consists of three items: a Study Guide, twelve units, complete with historical narrative, original source materials and critical thinking questions; a Teacher Training Handbook, developed for professional development workshops; and an Annotated Resource Guide to teaching resources. Units cover a wide range of topics, including: the history and culture of Vietnam; U.S. involvement in the war; the legality of the war; who fought for the U.S.; how the war was conducted; war crimes; conflicts within the U.S.; women’s perspectives on the war; Vietnamese refugees; and the healing process.
The Center for Social Studies Education
901 Old Hickory Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15243
phone: 412/341-1967 fax: 412/341-6533

Historical Background

The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990, by Marilyn B. Young, New York: HarperCollins, 1991. This is perhaps the best single book on the Indochina Wars, covering both the history of the wars, debates and conflicts within the U.S. about the wars and their lasting impact. The book is an exceptionally well written attempt to answer basic questions such as "Why were we in Vietnam?" and "What was the impact of the war on U.S. society, including the soldiers who fought in it?" The book is an important piece of scholarship, yet it is accessible to a non-academic audience.

Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam, by George McT. Kahin, New York:1986, Anchor Books. There are many books covering the period of 1945-1966. For a basic understanding of the details of how the U.S. got involved in the war, one would be hard pressed to find a better starting point.

Vietnam and America: A Documentary History, Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn Young, and H. Bruce Franklin (eds.), NY: Grove, 1985. Outstanding collection of original documents about the history of U.S. involvement in the war.
The War at Home
book Aztlán and Viet Nam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War, George Mariscal (ed.), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Aztlán and Viet Nam is a remarkable anthology of Chicano and Chicana expressions about the U.S. war in Southeast Asia. The book contains poems, essays, speeches and a few posters from the Viet Nam Era as well as new historical and critical essays by the editor. The editor is a literature professor and a Viet Nam veteran.
film/video Hearts and Minds, directed by Peter Davis. MPI Media Group, 1975. One of the most compelling documentaries ever made about how a nation goes to war. This 1974 Academy Award-winning documentary examines the brutality of the war and its domestic sources and consequences.
book Winners and Losers: Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses and Ruins from the Vietnam War, by Gloria Emerson, New York: Random House, 1976. Powerful look at the human costs of the war. Unparalleled in its depth and insight. Emerson was a foreign correspondent covering the war for the New York Times from 1970 to 1972.
book Unwinding the Vietnam War: From War into Peace, Reece Williams (ed.) for the Washington Project for the Arts, Seattle, WA: The Real Comet Press, 1987. This anthology of poetry, interviews and essays is part of a series of programs, "War and Memory: In the Aftermath of Vietnam," that examines how art and culture can foster national reconciliation in the wake of divisions of the era.

War Crimes

The My Lai massacre is perhaps the best known "war crime" of the era. It is, however, far from being the only one. Indeed, what constitutes a "war crime" is at issue. Several resources intelligently explore the larger issues about "war crimes" and the My Lai massacre.

My Lai Remembered (also called Remember My Lai), directed by Kevin Sim; a documentary originally produced for England's Yorkshire Television. 1989. Broadcast in the U.S. by the Public Broadcasting System as a part of the Frontline series, WETA-TV, Boston, May 23, 1989. 60 minutes.

Four Hours in My Lai, Michael Bilton and Kevin Sims, NY: Viking/Penguin 1992. (Companion to the documentary, My Lai Remembered).

The film and companion book are a retrospective on the massacre of Vietnamese civilians carried out by U.S. Army soldiers on March 15, 1968. They contain interviews with soldiers who participated in or witnessed the massacre, those who later became aware of it, and Vietnamese residents of that community. They examine how this "war crime" came to light and what happened in the aftermath of the revelations. Intelligent, well researched, and moving. The film ends with the following reflection by a former soldier, Vernado Simpson, who had been one of the attackers:

"After they train you, they program you...War is not something where you shoot at me and I shoot at you and then we take a time out...War is war. It is killing in all types of ways. That’s why we don’t need another one."

Court TV’s Greatest Trials of all Times web site contains a section on the My Lai massacre. It is a comprehensive and informative collection of interviews, historical information, video clips, and documents pertaining to the incident and the trial. Especially recommended is the interview with Army veteran Ronald Ridenhour. http://www.courttv.com/greatesttrials/mylai/

U.S. Veterans

A Program for Vietnam Veterans...and Everyone Else Who Should Care, produced by WTTW/Chicago, 1985. 90 minutes. This film records a public forum held in Madison, Wisconsin in which veterans and their loved ones tell stories about involvement in the war and life at home through narrative, poetry and song.
WTTW/Channel 11
5400 N. St. Louis Ave. Chicago, IL 60625
phone: 773/509-5555


The Wages of War: When Americans Came Home – From Valley Forge to Vietnam, by Richard Severo and Lewis Milford, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990. Written by a prize-winning investigative journalist and a veterans advocate/attorney, the book examines the U.S. government’s treatment of veterans when they came home from war, from Revolutionary War times to the Vietnam Era. In the words of one reviewer, it is "one of those rare books that can change the way we think about our nation’s history."

The New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam Era, by Richard Moser, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996. Perhaps the best treatment of Vietnam veterans and GIs who turned against the war, who they were, and how their views developed.


MIA – Mythmaking in America, H. Bruce Franklin, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, expanded paperback edition, 1993. Explodes the myth that there are still large numbers of U.S. GIs being held captive in Vietnam. The book discusses the politics of the POW/MIA issue and impact of this myth on U.S. society.

Another Brother – The film tells the story of the life of Clarence Fitch (1948-1990), a Black Vietnam veteran, from childhood days in Jersey City to the Vietnam War and back. It shows how Fitch turned from warrior to an advocate for peace and justice. Directed by Tami Gold, 1998. 51 minutes. Read more about it. Available from Third World Newsreel


War Widows

Regret to Inform – An outstanding documentary that follows Barbara Sonneborn’s pilgrimage to the area in Vietnam where her GI husband, Jeff, had been killed 30 years earlier. The film is intelligent and passionate without being polemical. Complementing the film is an extensive web site, facilitator’s guide, and resource listings. A new organization, Windows of War Living Memorial, was inspired by the film. 86 minutes. 1999. Read more about it.

http://www.regrettoinform.org – for information about the film

http://www.pbs.org/pov/tvraceinitiative/when2000.html#regret – to download the facilitator’s guide

http://www.pbs.org/pov/regret/ – to access an interactive site maintained by the Public Broadcasting System with extensive background information about the film, a discussion section, and an on-line memorial (Letters From the Heart)

http://www.warwidows.org – to learn about the organization inspired by the film.


Learn More

Regret to Inform Resources
A resource listing developed in conjunction with the broadcast of Regret to Inform. It includes references to materials in the following areas: fiction (poems and books); nonfiction (historical, political and cultural issues); memoirs; materials for younger readers; web sites; videos; organizations; and a bibliography developed by the American Library Association.

A Call to Remember: Vietnam Peace 25th Anniversary Committee
This group has organized 25th anniversary commemorations. It maintains a web site with news updates, a sign-on statement on the lessons of the war, and a photo gallery. This effort provides a helpful antidote to conservative attempts to rewrite the history of the war.

The US-Indochina Project
A project of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development that works for the normalization of relations between the US and Vietnam and supports the work of non-governmental organizations assisting Vietnam with rebuilding in the aftermath of the war. Its newsletter, Interchange, reports on these efforts.

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