The purpose of this unit is to present an alternative method of teaching students about the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Rather than concentrate on a historical study of the war, we have decided to discuss the war from a moral and ethical point of view. In doing so there are five major objectives.
First, we hope to make the students aware that there are distinctions between legitimate force and violence. The teaching of peace and aggression is vital for schools in a democratic society. If young people are to be responsible citizens of their nation, then they should have some understanding of the problems besetting their world. As teachers we cannot dodge these issues of decision making and participation if the student is to exercise his or her moral responsibilities. An attempt will be made to show that understanding peace, aggression and responsibility is the only solution to human progress and moral development. Aggression in everyday life has to be minimized and eliminated on a personal level before the student can have an impact on a national level. Students will examine aspects of human aggression and realize that there are other responses to conflicts besides aggression and avoidance.
Second, we hope to give the students an awareness of the morality of war. Are all wars just or is there such a thing as an unjust war? What must be realized is that the reasons for war as well as the way in which the war was fought must both be examined.
The third objective is to motivate the students to think about the problems of obedience to authority, survival, moral responsibility and dissent. If an effort is not made to develop an awareness in recognizing dangerous and immoral assumptions, then it can lead to serious undesirable consequences. Obedience to authority without questioning its morality can lead to destructive and violent acts. Students should be taught the importance of logical reasoning. Such a skill will give the student a valuable tool to question leaders as to their motives and their moral responsibilities. It will also give individuals the courage to question immoral acts and refuse to be a participant in anything that is immoral. The student should hopefully acquire the capacity to meet unexpected challenges and should be able to make informed value judgments. These objectives will prepare the student to go on learning for a lifetime.
The fourth objective is to give students an understanding that all people (including leaders) are complex, and that this complexity is a result of many different factors which in turn affects the role they play as well as their behavior.
The fifth objective is to reinforce the necessary skills for a student of history; the ability to determine fact from opinion, the ability to understand new vocabulary words, the ability to evaluate alternatives, the ability to participate in decision making, and the ability to achieve the tools for critical thinking.
In addressing the first objective-the distinction between following questions or discussion to the class. What is aggression? When is it justifiable to use force in order to achieve stability and peace? Students would be given worksheets on aggression which would list various situations and elements to consider when making judgments about aggression. (See the sample lesson plan) Some examples of aggressive acts would be: a bird eats a worm, two lions fight for leadership of the pack, the execution of a prisoner by the person who pulls the switch or turns on the gas etc. The elements the student would have to consider when deciding whether or not these are aggressive acts are listed on the sample lesson plan. The situations should be discussed with the class. The purpose of this worksheet is to expose the students to different kinds of aggression. It should show the students that they may not be aware that certain behavior may be regarded by others with whom they interact as aggressive. This in turn should help them to understand why conflicts arise. Discussion should bring about or intensify sensitivity to some degree. It will also improve communicative skills during the discussions as to why they believe some acts are aggressive and others are not.
To illustrate that there are other alternatives other than aggression as a solution to resolve a situation or gain their point, the students can be given choices in how to avoid an aggressive situation. Humor may be one of the alternatives. A question that may be addressed is—Do you think that a problem solved through humor is more likely to stay solved than one where force is part of the solution? Explain your answer. Students would be asked to suggest as many ways as they can by which problems can be resolved without resort to force. After a discussion students would be asked to investigate a situation in the 1960’s where aggression was used, evaluate the situation, and suggest how the situation or problem could have been resolved peacefully and with long lasting effect. A good example would be the Kent State tragedy as can be seen in the sample lesson plan.
In examining the second objective on the morality of the Vietnam War, Michael Walzer’s
Just and Unjust Wars
is an excellent source to be used as a base. He states: “The morality of war is divided into two parts. War is always judged twice, first with reference to the reasons states have for fighting, secondly with reference to the means they adopt. The first kind of judgment is adjectival in character: we say that a particular war is just or unjust. The second is adverbial: we say that the war is being fought justly or unjustly.” With Walzer’s twofold definition the teacher should discuss the reasons for the war in Vietnam as well as the “justifications” for American involvement and the unconventional way in which the war was fought. Pertinent information on the war can be found in the appendix. This would also be a good time to use the sample lesson on important dates in the Vietnam War.
At this time the students should address such questions as: Is war inevitable? When does a nation legitimately intervene? Are there any moral responsibilities a soldier has while engaged in combat? What are the rights of civilians in war? Is guerilla warfare morally right or wrong? What is the difference between a terrorist and a guerilla? Should guerillas be entitled to prisoner of war status when captured? Should reprisal or revenge be justified as a means to bringing an end to war? What is considered a war crime? Was the American war in Vietnam a justified or unjustified intervention? Was the Vietnam War fought in a just manner? Should self-preservation in the face of an enemy be an excuse for an immoral act?
There are differences of opinion on most of these questions. On the question of legitimate intervention, Michael Walzer offers three situations where it would be acceptable. First in the case of secession or civil war. Second, if the country is invaded by foreign armies. Third, if human rights are being violated as in a massacre or enslavement.
It is at this point that the teacher should relay the following information about the nature of war. Mankind has always known war. From the beginning of time man has fought against man. People joined together have found relative peace with each other under some kind of custom or law, but they have always waged war with strangers. Even today, with the planet’s very existence at stake, there is little recourse when nations disagree. Fear and distrust are prevalent. The strong still crush the weak. The “haves” stubbornly defend the status quo. The fear of the atomic bomb hangs over everyone’s head. Peace seems to be a distant dream. Many nations also face serious domestic unrest. While law and government appear to be war’s best prevention, they are not an absolute guarantee of peace. People sometimes rise against their established governments to wage hideous war until one side finally triumphs and either a new order is established (often as unjust as the old) or the insurgents are brutally crushed.
Thus, there are two kinds of war; those between organized societies, and those within an organized society. The second while not as common as the first, is usually the most frightful—it is here that you might encounter fighting between brothers.
If people can live in peace, then why can’t nations? Why must there be war? Why have many wars been glorified? These are questions the teacher may use to begin a discussion on the nature of war. One of the strongest things about war is its appeal to the imagination, despite its atrocity. The songs, the flag waving, the sounds of trumpets, the rolling drums and marching feet have stirred men’s blood for centuries. The teacher may at this point ask the students how many war movies they have seen? Why do you think these movies about war were made? What is it about these movies that compel people to spend their money seeing men kill other men and nations destroying other nations. Oh, the “glory” of war: Why is it that a nation’s history seems to revolve around its battles and triumphs? Does a nation’s heritage revolve around its heroes? Why does a nation never forget the man who says, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! or “I only regret that I have one life to live for my country.”
Even the most avid opponents of war can understand the intensity of the war experience. Nothing can compare with the comradeships forged under fire, with the exhilarating sense of purpose when people work together for a “just” cause. The powers of war’s enchantment can be seen when veterans who have faced the most terrible horrors of war can later look back with nostalgia on their war years.
But what about the Vietnam War? Why hasn’t this war been glorified? Where were all the trumpets, flags and songs; the marching bands when this war was being fought? Where was all the exhilaration when our “boys” were finally brought home? Where are all the heroes? Why was all so silent when the war was finally over. These are all good questions for discussion.
The Vietnam War was such a different and unconventional war. There were no Normandies or Gettysburg’s. There were no epic clashes that decided the fates of armies and nations. The war was mostly a matter of enduring weeks of expectant waiting, and, random viscous manhunts through jungles and swamps where snipers and booby traps were waiting. The tedium was occasionally relieved by a large scale search and destroy operation, but the “exhilaration” of riding the lead helicopter into a landing zone was usually followed by more of the same hot walking, with the mud sucking on boots and the sun beating on helmets, while invisible enemies shot from distant tree lines. The rare instances when the VC chose to fight a set piece battle provided the only “excitement” of contact. Weeks of bottled tensions would be released in a few minutes of violence-grenades exploding and the rapid burst of automatic rifles.
It is at this time that the teacher might want to use selections from the book
Everything We Had
by Al Santoli. By reading the different personal accounts of 33 veterans of the Vietnam War, the students might better understand the reality of fighting in such an unconventional war. It is also a good opportunity for the students to familiarize themselves with a primary source. As Al Santoli states in his preface: “It must always be remembered that the Vietnam War was a human ordeal and not an abstract heroic adventure as might be understood by Hollywood or a politician’s speechwriter . . . In our book we hope you will see what we saw, do what we did, feel what we felt.”
In dealing with the third objective-problems of obedience, moral responsibility, survival and dissent, the Vietnam War may be successfully used to illustrate all. Any or all of the following lesson plans would be appropriate to use at this time; You Are In the Army???, Dissent, Civil Disobedience.
In order to illustrate the variety of reactions to the American involvement in the Vietnam War, the following information may be used. The United States participation in the Vietnam War became one of the most divisive foreign policy issues in United States history. Americans disagreed on both the objectives and the strategies of U.S. involvement. The war became increasingly unpopular as casualties increased and chances for victory appeared to decrease.
The basic premise that communism should be opposed in Vietnam was not questioned; it was firm U.S. policy to oppose communism everywhere. Some Americans believed that U.S. participation was necessary to stop communist aggression and to maintain U.S. honor and prestige. Paramount was the domino theory, that if one nation fell to communism, another and another would inevitably follow like a set of dominoes. The National Security Council believed that the loss of one single country in Southeast Asia would ultimately lead to the fall of Southeast Asia and then to India and Japan and finally endanger the stability and security of Europe.
Other Americans believed that the conflict in Vietnam was a Civil War in which the United States should not be involved. They felt U.S. security was not threatened and the U.S. should not attempt to be a world policeman. Still other Americans felt that the U.S. armed forces were supporting a corrupt, undemocratic government in South Vietnam and that the war was drawing money away from vital U.S. domestic programs. Then there were those Americans who opposed the war because it resulted in hundreds of thousands of military and civilian casualties and left large areas of Vietnam in ruin.
Some military experts argued for more military involvement stating that North Vietnam would only surrender if the war was carried to North Vietnam by bombing or other means. Others disagreed and wanted more emphasis on counterguerilla methods in South Vietnam. Still others feared U.S. bombing would bring China into the war.
As the war dragged on year after year with no end in sight, opposition began to increase in the United States. The opposition was slow in developing; at first many people felt that the government knew what it was doing and it seemed that many people who opposed the war in the beginning were the same sorts who would have cheered Chamberlain after Munich. But when the American atrocity at My Lai was revealed many other Americans began to feel that something was wrong, especially since the newspapers gave the impression that this was one atrocity of many. United States officials on the other hand insisted that American atrocities were amazingly few, while Viet Cong cruelty abounded. They maintained that the press was totally disinterested in Communist atrocities.
Many American newspapers began to give the impression that the war had degenerated into one of American soldiers against civilians; that it featured ruthless destruction of hamlets and villages. More and more Americans, therefore, began to believe that the war contained the same basic fallacy as the Phillipine insurrection some 65 years earlier—that the only way of liberating a country was to destroy it. They began to wonder why the massive military machine was in that tiny place some 10,000 miles away where the majority of people never heard of Marx or Lenin and were merely struggling to feed their children.
In 1967 Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara wrote “ . . . a feeling is widely and strongly held that the ‘Establishment’ is out of its mind. The feeling is that we are trying to impose some U.S. image on distant people we can not understand . . . and that we are carrying the thing to absurd lengths.”
By the beginning of the 1970’s it was generally believed that some serious mistakes had been made, that the course which the U.S. government had pursued was failing to accomplish its goals. Anger and frustration grew as many Americans began to feel that the government was unresponsive to their views. Dissension increased bordering in some areas on revolution. More and more Americans began to demand an immediate end to the war.
In April, 1970 with the invasion of Cambodia many people felt that Nixon was widening the war. Antiwar protests broke out on hundreds of college campuses in the United States. At Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of demonstrators killing four students and wounding nine others. They thought they had been fired upon by the demonstrators, but this was later proved to be false.
Tensions mounted in the United States as Nixon silently vowed not to be the first President to lose a war. But how does a nation extricate itself from a mistake especially after the investment of so many years, so much money and the loss of so many lives? Nixon decided to pursue a gradual withdrawal from Vietnam.
An analysis of the Vietnam War will require a perspective of many more years. However, one fact remains incontestable whether history will find the war justifiable or not, the American people gradually lost all heart for it. Mounting dissension at home gradually undermined America’s position at the bargaining table, leading the enemy to believe that he would triumph in any event. The result however viewed is one of great disappointment for the United States.
The tide of time and events can work for people. This does not mean forgetting the lessons of the past, but rather continually adjusting them to conditions of the present. It would be a tragedy if we substitute “No More Vietnam” for “No More Munich” or lost sight of the fact that communism has dangerous expansionist aspects or forget the vital lessons of World War II that weakness invites aggression. Maybe the lesson of Vietnam should be. “No More Easy Slogans.”
In introducing the fourth objective on the complexity of people and their roles, it is suggested that you begin the lesson with the following questions: How many persons are you? You should get answers such as “I am a brother/ sister.” “I am a son/daughter.” “I am a citizen of the U.S.” “I am a dancer/singer/football player.” (or any other activity they take seriously. The discussion should illustrate that people are complex personalities, and it is this complexity that affects their behavior which in turn affects the various roles they play. If students through discussions realize their various roles, they may be able to understand why there are conflicts in their roles as students, citizens, sons, brothers and friends etc. It may give them some insights as to who they really are. Perhaps they could avoid conflicts and re-examine their behavior without resorting to aggressive acts. Students would be asked: Do any of your roles conflict with each other? and Is relating to others who have different values or ideas of behavior difficult? The students would have to discuss their reasons. It should be pointed out that the soldiers in Vietnam, the protesters against the war, and political leaders were also many persons in one. They were not only activists, but they played various roles that may have colored their outlook and actions. Another question that may be discussed is—How did they play so varied a role and not see the enormous moral conflict of their actions as participants in planned or unplanned destruction? When does a soldier disobey a military command issued by his commanding officer? These questions would lead to activities and discussion on moral responsibility vs. traditional military behavior.
To understand the actions of people and their leaders in the 60’s one may ask the student on what moral basis did people make their decisions in regard to the course of action taken to obtain or achieve their objectives. Possible questions that could be asked are: Do leaders put the whole nation’s interest before their own political or economic interests? Do you think all leaders are concerned about history’s judgments just as we are concerned about our friend’s or family’s judgments of us as individuals? Are the judgments we make of events at the time they happen usually correct? Why does a judgment of an event or a person often change with the passage of time? Students would be asked if they could cite some examples which have been changed by the passage of time. Can they identify the factors which caused the change in judgments (such as additional evidence, cooling passions, research by objective scholars, etc.)? Comparing newspaper articles that were published during the sixties and articles that were published in the eighties on the same subject would be helpful in answering the questions posed in regard to the changes in the passage of time. Interviewing people who were participants in the various causes during the sixties and how they feel about their participation now would also be a valuable tool as well as a good primary source in determining change with the passage of time.
Speakers of opposing views would be invited to address the students about their experiences in the sixties, hopefully discussing what factors helped to shape them into the person they were in the sixties. Such a resource would offer students the opportunity to question firsthand and receive answers which should give them a more personal feeling and an awareness of the times.
The last objective to be discussed is that which deals with skills that all students of history should successfully complete. At the beginning of this unit students should be given a map of Southeast Asia and be able to identify those key places that became newsworthy during the Vietnam War. A sample lesson on map skills is provided for this purpose. Students should also be given an assignment on determining fact from opinion. So much has been written about the Vietnam War that is opinion, it is necessary for the student to be able to separate the two. Films, filmstrips, records of speeches and propaganda materials would be viewed, listened to and explored to give the student various experiences of prejudice and the psychology of mass persuasion. The students hopefully will be aware of propaganda techniques, exploding stereotypes and myths.
The list of new vocabulary terms should be distributed to the students. There is a sample lesson plan offered for this reason. The teacher may then give the student a word like aggression and ask them to list the first word or adjective that comes to their mind when they see or hear this word. After that, exercise answers should be exchanged with the rest of the class. Here they would come to realize that the word aggression means different things to different people. This is one example where communication may block a solution because different people have a different concept of the same word.
The next skill students should be able to perform successfully is to be able to distinguish primary sources from secondary sources. It is hoped that once they can distinguish one from the other, they will realize the advantages of using primary sources for a supply of information. It is suggested that the teacher use selected passages from
Everything We Had
as examples of primary sources.
The ability to evaluate alternatives is another important skill that students should be able to master. It is suggested that the lesson plan “You’re in the Army Now” be used at this time. This lesson offers student the opportunity to have experience in decision making as well as evaluating alternatives. Luring the 1960’s young men facing the draft had to make some very important decisions. By putting the students in their “shoes” (role playing), they should be able to get a feel for the importance of having to make such a decision as well as becoming aware of the consequences of the various alternatives.
The last skill that will be developed under this objective is the ability to think critically. Students need much practice in critical thinking. All too often they are just anxious for the “right answer”. By presenting them with dilemmas they will be forced to do some analytical thinking. The sample lesson on “Civil Disobedience” is offered for this purpose.