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Guide to Vietnam War Resources

by Scott Kaufman
Francis Marion University
Florence, South Carolina

Mining Resources
As a professor who teaches classes in U.S. foreign policy and twentieth-century American military history, I have had the fortune, or misfortune, to teach as part of my course rotation a class on the Vietnam War. I say misfortune because trying to keep up with the literature, Web sites, and documentaries on the Vietnam War is virtually impossible. Just go to any local bookstore or the Web, and you are certain to be overwhelmed.

Over the years, though, I have been able to find books and multimedia sources that have worked well in my class. Additionally, I have developed a particular writing assignment that the students really enjoy. By sharing my thoughts and experiences, I hope I can help AP teachers and fellow college instructors who want to teach their students about this controversial conflict.

Overviews and Introductions
For a general overview of America and the war, I prefer George Herring's America's Longest War. However, it is a fairly long book (over 360 pages), and its level of detail is likely more than AP students and college freshmen could handle without substantial direction from the teacher. A text that might work better in an AP or freshman-level college survey class is The Tragedy of Vietnam, by Patrick J. Hearden. It is a significantly shorter (less than 200 pages), easier-to-read work that does a good job of covering the major issues.

Educators might also want to take a look at Robert J. McMahon's Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War. This reader is divided into several chapters, each of which focuses on a particular issue: the origins of Vietnamese nationalism, the waging of the war, the view from North and South Vietnam, the legacy of the war, etc. Each chapter presents the student with both primary and secondary materials related to the topic at hand. I have found it a useful source with which to develop discussions with the class. It is a large book -- over 600 pages -- so it is possible that instructors may prefer to use portions of it rather than the whole thing.

Literature and Primary Sources
There are numerous biographies, novels, and even plays that teachers could assign to give students an in-depth idea of what it was like to be in Vietnam or America during the war. One of those I have used is Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War. In this memoir, the author describes how he went to Vietnam expecting a quick, easy victory, but left 16 months later with his idealism shattered. How I Got That Story, a short play by Amlin Gray, depicts a reporter who goes to Vietnam and becomes both shocked and engrossed by what he witnesses. Lynda Van Devanter provides insight into the life of a wartime nurse in Home Before Morning. My students have especially liked Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, a historical novel by a Vietnam vet. The Things They Carried is wonderfully written, infused with symbolism, and gives the reader a real sense of what soldiers faced in Vietnam. Any of these books would work well in a general U.S. survey, both in high school or college.

Video, Multimedia, and Online Resources
One advantage of teaching the Vietnam War over many previous American conflicts is the availability of video footage. There are several videos I would recommend. By far the best video series on the war is Vietnam: A Television History. Another I like is In the Year of the Pig. Produced by an antiwar activist, it uses both contemporary film and interviews to tell the story of the war. Bloods of 'Nam is an excellent documentary on African Americans during the conflict. Making Sense of the Sixties, a terrific six-part PBS series on the 1960s, has some material on the war and the antiwar movement. While I do not use Hollywood movies as much as documentaries, those educators who want to use movies have numerous options, including The Green Berets, Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, We Were Soldiers, and others.

In addition to books and movies, teachers might want to incorporate music and TV shows to explain how the war affected America. Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, and Joan Baez are only just a few of the many singers/groups who spoke out on the war. Laugh In and even Star Trek provide insights into America's view of the conflict. In my Vietnam War course, I give an entire lecture on Star Trek and the war, using several episodes to describe how Star Trek demonstrated Americans' shift from supporting to opposing the war.

Multimedia sources on the war are possibly even more numerous than books. Personally, I feel the best Web site is Texas Tech's Vietnam Project. Texas Tech has amassed an archive of nearly 700,000 pages of material, as well as oral histories and numerous pictures. The American Experience has a nice Web page based upon the 13-part PBS series Vietnam: A Television History. On this site, one can find transcripts from the series, an overview of the major players in the war, a timeline of the conflict, and a variety of maps. Teachers can order a kit from the Web site Vietnam: Echoes from the Wall, aimed primarily at educators, to help them with teaching about the war.

Student Assignments
Aside from in-class exams, I require my students to write a paper on the war. There are, as with any class, a variety of options. For instance, a student might write a research paper on a battle, on the role played by women or minorities in the war, on the antiwar movement, or on some other aspect of the conflict. Another possibility is a book review, be it of a book assigned in class or not. A more intriguing -- and more demanding -- idea would be a comparative book review. For instance, The Green Berets, which came out in 1965, is much more optimistic in tone than Rumor of War or The Things They Carried. Students might try to explain why that difference in attitude exists.

The assignment I have developed involves oral history. Because it ended only a generation ago, the Vietnam War offers ample opportunity for using oral history. In this assignment, I have my students interview someone who lived during the war -- a veteran, an antiwar activist, or just someone who remembers the war years -- and then compare and contrast what their interviewee said with what the students have learned in class. I believe this assignment is particularly useful for two reasons. First, the students learn about the war years from someone who lived at that time. Second, by comparing and contrasting the interviewee's comments with what they learned in class, students have to engage in analysis; in the process, they learn the benefits and difficulties of using oral history. This assignment is very popular among the students, and I have even received compliments from veterans, as they were able to tell the younger generation about what they experienced.

With the current war in Iraq and the analogies being drawn between Vietnam and the Iraq war, there is no doubt that America's longest war will remain for years to come part of the American psyche. I hope my thoughts will help other educators teach their students about this pivotal conflict.

Scott Kaufman is an assistant professor of history at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina, where he teaches courses in U.S. foreign policy and twentieth-century U.S. military history, including a class on the Vietnam War.

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