The Lessons of the Vietnam War

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Grade Level: 9 – 12

This material was prepared by the Center for Social Studies Education. Through its teacher/veteran partnership program, the center promotes more and better teaching of the Vietnam War, its lessons and legacies. Founded in 1984, CSSE seeks to do this by developing educational resources and training teachers and veterans to use them effectively.

The learning objectives of CSSE’s materials are to teach students how to ( 1 ) think critically about U.S. national interests in relation to international affairs; (2) reason ethically about difficult choices involved in war; and (3) develop an understanding of people from other social backgrounds and cultures.

With permission from CSSE, we have adapted a few lessons for teachers to download for use in the classroom. We encourage teachers to contact the Center for Social Studies Education for information about their centerpiece curriculum unit, Lessons of the Vietnam War, and their other publications.

Teacher Introduction

The U.S. war in Vietnam was the longest and second most costly in U.S. history. More than two million Americans were sent to fight. More than 58,000 were killed, more than 300,000 wounded, and almost 14,000 completely disabled. According to the U.S. Veteran’s Administration, up to 800,000 Vietnam veterans have been diagnosed as having “significant” to “severe” problems of readjustment. The war cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and these costs will continue for decades in the form of veterans’ benefits and interest on past loans.

In Vietnam today over two million dead are mourned. Four million were wounded and ten million displaced from their homes. More than five million acres of forest and croplands were laid waste by 18 million gallons of poisonous chemical herbicides. The present government has not been able to develop the economy to meet the needs of its people.

Public opinion polls over the years consistently show that two of three Americans judge the Vietnam War to have been a “mistake.” Unfortunately, few claim to know what the U.S. should have done differently. Over half do not have “a clear idea” what the war was about; a third can’t even remember which side we supported. The problem is even worse for American youth — future citizens and leaders — who have no experience of the war and little or no knowledge of it.

Many knowledgeable adults cannot talk to youth about the war. They served in Vietnam and memories of that experience still are too painful.

The schools, entrusted with passing on our heritage, have all but ignored Vietnam. Coverage in the standard textbooks ranges from a few paragraphs to a few pages. Perhaps the most common objection to teaching the war is that it is “controversial.” We cannot allow educators to censor a subject for being controversial in a nation that has gone to war in the name of freedom. Moreover, such deliberate ignorance of America’s longest war constitutes a grave disservice to the men and women who were sacrificed there. We owe them and ourselves the whole truth about our national experience.

The Vietnam War was passionately debated precisely because it raised fundamental questions about what we as a nation stand for in the world. To censor such controversy is to tell our students that they will not learn in school what people care most about in life. To be sure, controversy can be fueled by extremist propaganda. In a democracy, however, the best defense is to give our youth the strength of mind and character to defend themselves.

The Vietnam War is important not only because of its prominent place in U.S. history, but because Vietnam is a clear case of the emerging pattern of modern warfare. Within weeks of the historic developments signaling the end of the Cold War, spokespersons for the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force announced new missions to combat “instability” in Third World “trouble spots” though “low-intensity conflict” (e.g., guerrilla warfare, counterinsurgency, pacification, etc.), rapid deployment forces (e.g., the invasion of Panama), and surprise bombing raids (e.g., Libya). Months later, half a million U.S. troops were preparing for battle in the Persian Gulf.

For several years, each new U.S. military intervention has been held up against the standard of Vietnam. In 1985, Secretary of State George Shultz said that Vietnam was an appropriate “analogy” for Reagan administration policy in Central America: “Our goals in Central America are like those we had in Vietnam: democracy, economic progress and security against aggression. Broken promises. Communist dictatorship. Refugees. Widened Soviet influence, this time near our very borders. Here is your parallel between Vietnam and Central America.” Many in Congress disagreed profoundly with Shultz’s claims.

Since all Americans, from the President down to the common people, agree that our nation cannot afford another Vietnam War, it clearly is time we examined that experience critically to learn what might be of value in making foreign policy decisions today.

Adapted Activities

    • Teaching about the Culture of Vietnam

Readings and Activities: The People, Views of Life, Veneration of the Ancestors

    • Interviewing Vietnam Veterans

Preparing an In-Class Q&A; Presentation

    • Oral History Project

Interviewing Vietnam Veterans: Student Instructions

    • Critical Thinking Lesson

Readings and Activities: Compare and Contrast the American Revolution and the Vietnam War
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