Of all the gaps in high school students’ knowledge, their ignorance of the Vietnam War is perhaps the most astonishing. On average, history textbooks devote the same amount of space to the Vietnam War and the War of 1812—even though Vietnam lasted twice as long, profoundly changed the U.S. in ways that are still apparent today, and happened far more recently.
For the next two chapters, Loewen will discuss history textbooks’ accounts of recent historical events, such as the Vietnam War. Even though textbooks should probably devote a lot of space to Vietnam, they omit most of the relevant information.
Consider the way that textbooks portray the My Lai Massacre, one of the most infamous events of the Vietnam War, during which American soldiers murdered unarmed Vietnamese women and children. To the extent that textbooks mention the massacre, they treat it as an isolated incident—despite the considerable evidence that My Lai is indicative of “crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at al levels of command.” Furthermore, textbooks almost never quote from the opponents of Vietnamese intervention, including Martin Luther King, Jr.—indeed, the only people whom textbooks regularly quote on Vietnam are Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, two of the architects of the war.
One of the most insidious myths about Vietnam, Loewen argues, is that it was a chaotic, confused operation, in which soldiers couldn’t tell the difference between enemy combatants and innocent civilians. But the evidence of My Lai and the testimony of many soldiers suggests that, in fact, American soldiers and generals knew exactly what they were doing when they murdered women and children—the “fog of war” myth is just an alibi for war crimes. Loewen also notes that textbooks omit any discussion of the massive antiwar movement in America, even though it played a decisive role in the era’s history.
To engage with Vietnam, history textbooks need to ask at least six basic questions: 1) Why did the U.S. fight in Vietnam?; 2) What was the war like before and after the U.S. entered it?; 3) How did the war change America?; 4) What did the antiwar movement claim about Vietnam, and why did it become strong in the U.S.?; 5) Why did the U.S. lose the Vietnam War?; 6) What lessons should we learn from Vietnam? As it stands, most history textbooks fail to provide adequate answers for any of these questions.
It’s characteristic of Loewen’s book that he poses these six questions, but doesn’t answer them (he only begins to answer the first one)—he’s not writing an American history textbook; he’s suggesting how history textbooks should be written. The open-ended questions that Loewen poses here seem entirely uncontroversial—and thus, it seems particularly outrageous that ordinary American history textbooks don’t answer them.
With regard to the first question, some argue that the U.S. intervened in Vietnam to secure its access to the country’s valuable natural resources. Others argue that the federal government didn’t want to be accused to “losing Vietnam” to Communism. Similarly, others claim that the government intervened in Vietnam to prevent Communism from spreading throughout Asia and threatening the future of democracy. Still others insist that America intervened in order to strengthen its own business interests. Amazingly, most textbooks fail to give any sense of the controversy surrounding the roots of the Vietnam War, and a few fail to give any specific reason for American involvement in Vietnam whatsoever. America escalated its military support in Vietnam after a supposed naval conflict in the Gulf of Tonkin. Despite the fact that the “conflict” was almost immediately shown to be the result of sonar malfunctions, rather than actual Vietnamese aggression, and despite the fact that the American government presented the Gulf of Tonkin as evidence of Vietnamese aggression long after it knew about the sonar malfunctions, textbooks continue to list the Gulf of Tonkin as the most immediate “cause” of America’s involvement in Vietnam.
Loewen argues that history textbooks should give a sense for the healthy debate among historians on the causes of the Vietnam War, and also the role of business interests, political ideology, and anticommunism in the war. Yet instead of offering a nuanced explanation for the causes of the Vietnam War, most history textbooks offer little to no explanation whatsoever. Equally outrageous, textbooks sometimes repeat the old story that the Vietnam War “began” after a Vietnamese ship on the Gulf of Tonkin fired on American troops—a story that was proven false decades ago, and which the U.S. government knew to be false from almost the very beginning. In no sense was the Gulf of Tonkin the “cause” of the Vietnam War—America had sent troops and military advisers to Vietnam for many years prior to Tonkin.
Because students don’t fully understand Vietnam, they can’t understand the parallels between Vietnam and more recent American military interventions—for example, the war in Iraq. To participate fully in the debate about foreign intervention, new generations of students must learn about Vietnam; however, by and large, their history textbooks don’t offer the truth about Vietnam at all.
It’s crucial to understand the failure of Vietnam in order to see the dangers of an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy. For example, during the War in Iraq in the 2000s, journalists and politicians frequently compared Iraq to Vietnam. But today’s students can’t really understand the comparison, because they don’t know much about the Vietnam War.