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Vietnam Moves To The Classroom

October 08, 1988|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

Many of them were born in 1968, the year the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong staged the Tet offensive and the year a beleaguered President Lyndon B. Johnson chose not to seek reelection.

By the time they were toddling through the "terrible 2s" in 1970, President Richard M. Nixon ordered U.S. and South Vietnamese troops to eliminate North Vietnamese supply centers in Cambodia, and the Ohio National Guard killed four students during a demonstration at Kent State University.

They were watching "Sesame Street" in 1973 when the evening news announced that the United States, North and South Vietnam and the Viet Cong had signed a cease-fire agreement and the last U.S. ground troops left Vietnam.

And they were mastering phonics in 1975 when newspaper headlines around the world proclaimed that South Vietnam had surrendered to North Vietnam.

As college students in 1988, they have seen "Platoon" at the movies and watched "Tour of Duty" on TV. They have read about Vietnam veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and they have seen news clips of the 58,156 names etched into the black granite Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. They may even have talked to a relative who served his own tour of duty in Vietnam or a neighbor who marched against the war.

But, just as with many of those old enough to remember once-familiar names like Da Nang, Chu Lai and Cam Ranh Bay, the Vietnam War remains a puzzle to the generation born during the peak of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.

Now the same age as their '60s counterparts who were forced to march off to the rice paddies of South Vietnam, many of the students are eager to learn more about the nation's longest and most controversial war.

At Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa this fall, 45 students--most of them 19 and 20 years old--signed up for History 109 to try to piece together the Vietnam puzzle.

History professor David DiLeo's new three-unit class is titled simply, "The Vietnam War."

At the start of a recent class meeting, DiLeo's students were asked to describe what comes to mind when they think of the Vietnam War.

"My dad," Kevin Phillips, 26, said quietly. "My dad was killed in Vietnam."

"The Vietnam War was a very traumatic experience for me," said Kim Pham, 20, a Vietnamese refugee. "What comes to mind, to me, is a whole people--a whole nation--destroyed by a foreign force, and that foreign force is communism."

"It's a mystery to me," Debbie Barnes, 20, said about the war, "and I kind of wonder what would have happened if we were not there: What would have happened to Vietnam if America didn't even go?"

"The main reason I took this course is I can remember seeing Vietnam on TV when I was real small, and it was never touched on in any schooling," said Drew Traulsen, 21.

Twenty-three years after Johnson sent the first U.S. ground combat forces to Vietnam and 13 years after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War is still a touchy subject for many Americans.

But the red-hot emotions that erupted on college campuses during the '60s and early '70s have cooled.

And classrooms are benefiting.

"The country is now at the time where the Vietnam War is not such a visceral issue, and we're able to teach it better than a few years ago," said Marilyn Harran, director of Chapman College's freshman seminar program, which focuses on issues of war and peace and includes an examination of the Vietnam War.

DiLeo, who also teaches history at San Clemente High School, agreed:

"My senior colleagues who were teaching this subject in the 1960s and '70s had a very difficult time with it because as soon as you expressed an opinion on the subject of Vietnam, what did you do? You sort of categorized yourself as a hawk or a dove.

"At the secondary-school level and the university level, this was the divisive issue of the day. Professors would, if at all possible--unless they were historians viewing the 20th Century--leave it out. It would be almost as if you were asked your personal opinion about a very delicate subject."

As DiLeo's new course illustrates, the subject of Vietnam is not only no longer being left out of classroom discussions, in many cases it is the focus of entire classes.

Nationwide, about 300 courses dealing specifically with the Vietnam War are being offered at colleges and universities, according to the Indo-China Institute at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. In fact, the most popular class at UC Santa Barbara is religious-studies professor Walter Capp's four-unit course on the Vietnam War. The highly publicized course won't be offered again until the winter quarter, but last fall nearly 2,000 students signed up for the class, which includes testimony from Vietnam veterans.

"Nowadays you can expect an increase (in the number of courses) every year," said Nguyen Manh Hung, director of the Indo-China Institute, which serves as a clearinghouse for information on the Vietnam era and conducts and promotes research on Indochinese affairs and the Vietnam era.

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