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What Students Need to Know About the Vietnam War.

What Students Need to Know About the Vietnam War

By Ronald Spector

Reviewed by J. R. Bullington, Editor


The Wachman Center, an affiliate of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, sponsored the two-part "History Institute for Teachers on What Students Need to Know About America's Wars," in which distinguished historians lectured and provided concise information to help high school history teachers explain to their students the fundamental things they should know about America's wars, from the Revolution to today's war on terrorism. (For videofiles, texts of lectures, and classroom lessons, see: and

I've read most of the lectures, and I found them consistently interesting and well-balanced, bringing the latest historical research and analysis to a contemporary audience. Anyone who enjoys reading good history should find them worthwhile, and they will surely upgrade and enliven history classes across the land.

This lecture on the Vietnam War, by Ronald Spector, a professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University and Marine Corps Vietnam veteran, was especially interesting for me as a participant in that war (when I was a young Foreign Service Officer) and as someone who has been dismayed by how it is usually taught and written about by academics.

Prof. Spector's approach is non-polemic and balanced, and he identifies--correctly, in my view--the key elements of the war, with particular emphasis on the air war in North Vietnam and pacification (counterinsurgency operations) in the South. He also describes accurately the "GI experience," which is likely to be the most interesting part of the war for today's high school students, many of whom have heard stories about it from parents, grandparents, and other participants. His brief account of the war may be about as much as can be fit into a high school survey course.

I'm concerned, however, that there is nothing here to explain the war's context, deeply rooted in the Cold War, and its background in Vietnamese history. Without some comprehension of both, it's impossible to understand the war's origins or the reasons for America's involvement. A more comprehensive--and in my view more correct--account can be found in books such as Lewis Sorley's A Better War and Rufus Phillips' Why Vietnam Matters. (The latter is reviewed in American Diplomacy at: Nonetheless, Prof. Spector gives teachers a much better picture of the Vietnam War than most of them are likely to have learned in college.

While the Iraq War has been highly divisive for Americans, it's easy to forget that the Vietnam War was even more divisive, and left fractures in our body politic that are yet to heal. In teaching the coming generations about it, it's important to get the facts right and present a fair, well-reasoned perspective.
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Author:Bullington, J.R.
Publication:American Diplomacy
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 23, 2009
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