History Jim Mamer Vietnam War

Missing Links in Textbook History: The Roots of the American War in Vietnam

Jim Mamer continues his series deconstructing the flaws in American history taught in high school classrooms, this time tackling the Vietnam War.
UH-1D helicopters in Vietnam 1966. James K. F. Dung, SFC, Photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Jim Mamer / Original to ScheerPost

By 1966, my last year of high school, I had developed a habit of going to a library to get away from family and friends and to be alone. I would wander around, pick up a few books that might be interesting and then find a place to sit and read. That is how I came across Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy

Fall was a war correspondent, historian, and expert on Indochina. This book is a military history mostly focused on conflict between the French and the Vietnamese nationalists, but ending with the Americans at war in Vietnam. By the time I found it, Vietnam was everywhere in the news, and there were more than 250,000 American troops in the country.

That day I read only a few chapters including, near the end, the chapter titled “The Second Indochina War.” Those chapters convinced me that virtually everything done by the United States in Indochina was a continuation of French imperialism and it was more than enough to make me skeptical of everything about the war reported in the news. 

During my first year of college, I bought a used copy of “Street Without Joy.” I finished it and continued to read as much as I could on the rapidly expanding war. In 1979, four years after the war ended, I began teaching high school American history. When I saw how the textbook presented the war, I was stunned by what was missing and misrepresented. I supplemented as best as I could by providing additional readings.

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In my previous ScheerPost article on textbook missing links, I revisited how the Cold War has been described by various professional historians and in high school textbooks. I found that what is presented in the texts is a one-dimensional view of a decades-long conflict in which fault is attributed to actions of the Soviet Union. And I concluded that a one-dimensional description of the Cold War might be remedied by providing alternative interpretations.

Textbook treatment of the Vietnam War, however, is more complex. While the history is again presented from a one-dimensional point of view and would be more accurate if other perspectives were added, I’m not sure that would be enough. 

What I found most troubling is the absence of any quoted material from what came to be  called the Pentagon Papers, a formerly top-secret Department of Defense study commissioned in 1967 by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who reportedly was struggling with a mounting sense of frustration over the war. 

Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked on the study, and his colleague, Anthony Russo, secretly copied the 7,000-page report. It was after Ellsberg released it in 1971 to the New York Times that the documents became known as the Pentagon Papers. Importantly, the authenticity of these primary source documents is not debatable.

Early editions contained some redactions, but the complete report is now available without most of them. It can be used by any publisher of any textbook to explain American actions in Indochina from World War II to May of 1968. One would think most publishers would make effective use of this information, but they do not. It can also be used by any teacher willing to do a simple search online.

Obviously, the reason this material is avoided reflects how high school textbooks differ from other books. The audience for most books is composed of readers; while the primary audience for textbook publishers is composed of members of state and local boards of education and other groups who can influence content including, district-parent curriculum committees, think tanks like The Manhattan Institute, and even protestors who have disrupted school board meetings. All of them influence what books are “acceptable” for classroom use. 

When they can, publishers avoid historic events that might be considered controversial or might attract opposition. As a result, they omit important, sometimes essential, information. We all pay the price.

This explains why none of the textbooks I examined use extensive quotes from the Pentagon Papers. But because their existence is widely known, acknowledging them is unavoidable. In general, textbooks mention their existence without actually using the documents to explain or clarify the war. Here are two examples.

The Americans,” published 28 years after the Pentagon Papers were released, says the following: “The 7,000-page document…revealed among other things that the government drew up plans for entering the war even as President Lyndon Johnson promised that he would not send American troops to Vietnam. Furthermore, the papers showed that there was never any plan to end the war as long as the North Vietnamese persisted.”

History Alive! Pursuing American Ideals,” published 48  years after the Pentagon Papers were released, reports that:  [The] study revealed how previous administrations had deceived Congress and the public about Vietnam. Nixon feared that the document’s release might lead to further investigation of his own policies and secret actions in Vietnam. Government lawyers secured a temporary restraining order to halt publication of the Pentagon papers, and their appeal for a permanent injunction went to the Supreme Court in the case of ‘New York Times Co. v. United States.’ On June 30, 1971, the Court ruled 6-3 against the government and in favor of free speech.”

Both of these textbooks devote more than 30 pages to the Vietnam War, only a few pages short of what each devotes to World War II. That is a lot of space in a high school text, but unfortunately, more pages do not mean better history.

Before and during World War II

The introduction in “History Alive” is devoted to the Vietnam War Memorial, and the text suggests that many “younger visitors” wonder why a list of more than 58,000 names on the Wall has such a strong impact on “older visitors.” I cannot help but think that the confusion of some “younger visitors” has to do with their textbooks. 

On the second page it mentions that Vietnam had a 2000-year history of resisting foreign rule but nothing much is said about who the Vietnamese were resisting until it is reported that “From the 1880s to WWII Vietnam was part of French Indochina.”  The next paragraph jumps to the end of WWII and Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Viet MInh, the Vietnamese nationalist movement. “On September 2, 1945, the day that Japan formally surrendered to the Allies, Vietnam declared its independence in a speech delivered by Ho Chi Minh. In what seemed like an appeal for US support, his address opened with phrasing from the [American] Declaration of Independence…”

This suggestion that Ho had quoted from the American Declaration “in what seemed like an appeal for US support…” was made possible only by ignoring the history that lay behind Ho’s words. Throughout the war, the Viet Minh worked with the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in aiding in the fight against Japan and by rescuing downed American pilots. In fact, in this fight Ho Chi Minh had become OSS agent “Lucius.” 

By the time the first Americans arrived in Hanoi on Aug. 22, 1945 to help prepare for the formal Japanese surrender, the Viet Minh were in control of the north. The man in charge of the American Mission to Hanoi was Capt. Archimedes Patti. And on Sept. 2, Patti and his team watched as Ho Chi Minh read Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence before a large crowd. 

Knowing this background would have made it clear to students that Ho’s use of the American Declaration of Independence was a reflection of an existing relationship and a common respect for the ideals expressed, more than it was “an appeal for US support.”

After WWII 

History Alive” correctly states that “France refused to accept Vietnamese independence and worked to eliminate the Viet Minh” adding that “In November 1946, French warships opened fire on the port city of Haiphong killing some 6,000 Vietnamese civilians.” Nevertheless, the text concludes the section by stating that, “Although Truman suspected the French might be fighting to preserve their empire, he chose to see their efforts as a noble battle against communism instead.” A “noble battle” indeed. 

The Americans,” on the other hand, simply ignores the entire history of Vietnamese nationalism and suggests that “America’s involvement in Vietnam began in 1950.” 

As a result of starting American intervention in 1950 a number of inconvenient facts are ignored. The students do not learn about Vietnam’s history of nationalist struggle or about the working relationship between the Viet Minh and the OSS. And they never even hear about Ho’s reference to the American Declaration of Independence in his 1945 speech. 

On the first page of this section in “The Americans,” there is the deliberately misleading statement that, “As Vietnam’s independence effort came under Communist influence, the United States grew increasingly concerned about the small country’s future.” 

Here is why that is misleading: In 1941 the Viet Minh was formed in China by Ho Chi Minh who had been an active communist since the 1920s. In addition, the Vietnamese independence movement had been dominated by communists from the start, but since the Viet Minh operated as a national front, it was, by definition, open to persons of various political positions.

Making matters more confusing, “The Americans” reaches the extraordinary conclusion that “While Ho Chi Minh promoted his cause as one of independence, the United States now saw their one-time ally as a Communist aggressor.” How the leader of an anti-colonial movement can be considered the “aggressor” is not explained.

1954 to 1956

The first well-known use of what became known as the Domino Theory was President Eisenhower’s justification of American support for French efforts to recolonize Vietnam in 1954. The president suggested that what he actually feared was a chain reaction. “You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.”

Soon after Eisenhower’s domino speech the French were finally defeated in Dien Bien Phu and the United States began to take a more active military role. Both textbooks report that the final act in the French war against Vietnam was a peace conference in Geneva, Switzerland

At the start of negotiations, the Viet Minh demanded that France leave; while the French wanted to maintain control in the south. “History Alive” correctly reports that because both China and the USSR feared “antagonizing” the Americans, they pressured the Viet Minh to compromise and temporarily split Vietnam into two sections to be unified in national elections to be held in 1956.

“History Alive” then reports that as France withdrew, “the Americans moved in believing that they could form a strong noncommunist state in the south.” Then in 1955, according to the same text, the United States simply put the pro-U.S. anti-communist, Ngo Dinh Diem, into power. 

“The Americans,” avoids any mention of an U.S. role in forming a new government in the south. The first time Ngo Dinh Diem is mentioned, he is president of South Vietnam.

In reality, the process of undermining the Geneva agreement was more complicated and more important for student understanding. Historian Marilyn Young reports that in the south, “…assured of American support, Diem reminded Hanoi that his government had never subscribed to the election plan and had no intentions of abiding by it.” 

The south did, however, schedule an election for 1955 and in that election voters could “recognize Ngo Dinh Diem as the Chief of State … or they could refuse to support that proposition.” Police agents went door to door explaining the unpleasant consequences which failure to vote would be likely to entail. Diem claimed 98.2% of the vote.

In the north Ho Chi Minh and the Lao Dong (Workers Party) continued economic and social transformation at least partly in preparation for the 1956 elections. Land reform and industrial development were the main priorities and both proceeded through a series of successes and failures. 

Making use of the Pentagon Papers, Howard Zinn offers a short and useful account of that time period, “The United States moved quickly to prevent the unification and to establish South Vietnam as an American sphere. It set up in Saigon as head of the government a former Vietnamese official named Ngo Dinh Diem, who had recently been living in New Jersey, and encouraged him not to hold the scheduled elections for unification. As the Pentagon papers put it: ‘South Vietnam was essentially the creation of the United States.'”

Both high school texts admit that Ho Chi Minh was favored to win if an honest election were to be held in 1956. But only one text, “The Americans,” implies a reason for his support when it reluctantly reports that Ho Chi Minh had won popular support in the North “by breaking up large estates and redistributing land to peasants” and that “his years of fighting the Japanese and French had made him a national hero.”

So much for the U.S. commitment to the Atlantic Charter’s pledge in 1941 to respect the right of “all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.”

1963 to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964

For a variety of reasons, Diem was unable to control the guerrilla opposition posed by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. He quickly became a problem for the United States, but neither textbook explains much. “The Americans” simply states that, “On November 1, 1963, a U.S.- supported military coup toppled Diem’s regime.” And without elaboration, “History Alive” states that Diem had failed as a leader and that the U.S. had, “… tacitly approved a coup…”

In Zinn, again making use of the Pentagon Papers, the extent of the American role in the coup is clear. He writes that some South Vietnamese generals, in touch with the CIA’s Lucien Conein, began plotting to overthrow Diem. “Conein met secretly with American Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, who was enthusiastically for the coup.”

Zinn also reports that the Pentagon Papers contain Ambassador Lodge’s report to Kennedy’s assistant, McGeorge Bundy: “I have personally approved each meeting between General Tran Van Don and Conein who has carried out my orders in each instance explicitly.” Then, it is reported, Lodge spent the weekend with Diem at a seaside resort. 

On Nov. 1, 1963, the generals attacked the presidential palace, Diem phoned Ambassador Lodge for help, and Lodge replied: “I have heard the shooting, but I am not acquainted with all the facts.” Lodge also suggests that Diem phone him if he could do anything for his “physical safety” (Pentagon Papers). 

Diem was arrested and assassinated the following day.. Three weeks later, Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon Johnson became president. Fearing being called weak; Johnson begins planning to escalate the conflict in Vietnam after the election.

Zinn reports that “In early August 1964, President Johnson used a murky set of events in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam, to launch full scale war on Vietnam. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told the American public there was an attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on American destroyers.”They falsely characterized it as an “unprovoked” attack, which was exposed in 1985 by Los Angeles Times journalist Robert Scheer.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was passed by Congress on Aug. 10, 1964, was used by President Johnson as the basis for massive escalation of the war. Unavoidably, both textbooks admit that the specific incident (dated Aug. 4) upon which the resolution was based never occurred and was never honestly described by administration officials. 

Perhaps more significant is the fact that a resolution that would allow massive escalation was outlined months before the alleged incident. Only “History Alive” unenthusiastically implies that Johnson, in advance, had devised plans to escalate. 

President Johnson’s advanced planning is described clearly in the Pentagon Papers: 

“U.S. policy remained virtually unchanged during this period [mid-1964] although significant planning steps were accomplished to permit the U.S. to exercise military pressures against NVN should it appear desirable (and politically feasible) to do so. Thanks to such planning, the Tonkin Gulf incidents of Aug. 2-4, 1964 were answered by tit-for-tat reprisal raids with considerable dispatch. The cost was minimal in terms of world opinion and communist reaction. Moreover, President Johnson used the Tonkin Gulf incidents as the springboard to a broad endorsement by the Congress of his leadership and relative freedom of action.”

Again, all of this is available for use by publishers. And the inclusion, parenthetically, of “politically feasible” could have provided a starting point for getting students to understand how political considerations alter the timing of controversial decisions.

The Domino Theory and Monolithic Communism 

In addition to the problems created by textbook narratives that misinform and mislead mostly, but not exclusively, by omission, the publishers make matters worse by the ubiquitous use of unexamined explanations for American actions. The most significant are assertions that countries can be reduced to inanimate dominoes prone to mechanical chain reactions and the illusion that communism, at that time, was monolithic.

According to “History Alive” the domino theory “was a key rationale for increasing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.” Such a statement is common in textbooks, but I don’t want to imply this was an invention of President Eisenhower. In the context of justifying American policy in Indochina it had been used earlier, for example, in a report signed by Dean Rusk in 1951 when he was Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. 

Rusk explained what he called the “domino thesis” like this: “It is generally acknowledged that if Indochina were to fall . . . Burma and Thailand would follow suit almost immediately. Thereafter, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Indonesia, India, and the others to remain outside the Soviet-dominated Asian Bloc. Therefore, the Department’s policy in Indochina takes on particular importance for, in a sense, it is the keystone of our policy in the rest of Southeast Asia.”

This form of “logic” is based on what is called the fallacy of the slippery slope in which one action is objected to on the grounds that once it is taken it will lead to additional actions until some undesirable consequence results. When used in debating international politics, or advocating war, it is at best, a refusal to take into account the character of individual nations.

Calling for a need to “stop the spread of communism” always depended on acceptance of the idea that communism was monolithic. During the Cold War, including during the American war in Vietnam, it meant that Communist parties in any country were “agents of Moscow.” It was a major element in the Red Scare. It bolstered Truman’s pledge, in the Truman Doctrine, that the United States would help any nation “resist communism.” And it excused Eisenhower’s signing of a bill to criminalize membership in a Communist party.

From the beginning, notions of monolithic communism and domino theories depended on ignoring reality, and the consequences of simplifying history in order to avoid controversy are very real. Students in the past deserved something better. Right now, we all deserve something better.

Of all the books to emerge from our very long war in Vietnam, none are better than Ron Kovic’s memoir, “Born on The Fourth of July.” Near the end of the book, written in 1974, Kovic writes about his younger self in the third person. He writes about what he thought 22 years earlier, before Jan. 20, 1968 when he was shot and left paralyzed from the chest down:

“He remembered how difficult it had been when he had first come to the war to tell the villagers from the enemy, and sometimes it seemed easier to hate all of them, but he had always tried very much hard not to. He wished he could be sure that they understood that he and the men were there because they were trying to help all of them save their country from the Communists.”

It is vital that we Americans understand that Ron Kovic is just one of millions of survivors permanently affected by our long war in Vietnam. It is equally essential that we remember that there are millions more who did not survive. 

High school textbooks fail to effectively remind students of these grueling facts, all of which are undeniably important in understanding the costs of war. As you will see below, the various estimates of casualties often end in zeros. When more than 6 million tons of bombs are dropped on a country, there is no way to know the exact number of victims. That fact alone should give us nightmares. 

Estimates of deaths related to the Vietnam war from 1955 to 1975 vary wildly. These seem most reliable: 

* 2 million civilians were killed on both sides 

* 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters were killed. 

* 200,000 to 250,000 South Vietnamese  soldiers were killed (U.S. military estimate.) 

* Names of more than 58,300 U.S. military forces killed or missing in action are inscribed on The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.    

* An estimated 150,000 to  500,000 civilians and combatants in Cambodia were killed by U.S.bombing.

* Deaths in Laos due to the war are still not available.

* 42,000 people have been killed since the end of war in 1975 from unexploded ordnance left behind (Vietnamese government estimate).

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Jim Mamer
Jim Mamer

Jim Mamer is a retired high school teacher.  He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow for study of United States History at Stanford University in 1984. He served as History/Social Science department chair for 20 years and was a mentor teacher in both Modern American History and Student Assessment. In 1992 he was named a Social Science/History Teacher of the Year by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).

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