Vietnam and the American Experience
The Vietnam War is different things to
different people. For some Americans
it conjures images of anti-war protests, draft
dodgers, and M.I.A.s. Others speak about the
“lessons” of Vietnam. For others it is a distant
war in the distant past.
Whatever it may represent to Americans
today, the Vietnam War is an important part
of U.S. history. The Vietnam War changed
politics, culture, and the United States itself.
Hollywood has made movies about it. Musicians,
poets, and scholars have all tried to
understand and describe what happened.
The effects of the war have been far-reaching.
The Vietnam War was even an issue
during the 2004 campaign for the U.S. presidency.
The United States is what it is today in
part because of the American experience of the
Vietnam War. But Americans understand and
remember the American experience in Vietnam
in different ways.
“No event in American history is more
misunderstood than the Vietnam
—former President Richard M. Nixon
The first step to understanding the Vietnam
War is to examine how and why the U.S.
government became deeply involved in a complex
and costly war halfway across the globe.
This reading uses selections from speeches,
articles, political cartoons, songs, and
memoranda to trace events from before Americans
became involved in Southeast Asia until
the last military personnel left Vietnam. The
documents were written by the major participants
in the decision-making process. These
primary sources are the raw material that
historians work with when they write history.
As you read, focus not only on the ideas
expressed, but also on the words and phrases
chosen to express them. As you study these
documents, ask yourself what are the values
and perceptions behind these opinions and
what are the implications of the recommendations.
In the next pages, you will follow the path
of U.S. decision-makers as the drama of the
Vietnam War unfolded. You will be given the
information that they had at the time and you
will be asked to view the world from the perspective
of their values and objectives. With
your classmates, you will analyze the situation
in Vietnam at several key junctures and will
explore the policy choices decision-makers
considered. Like an earlier generation of U.S.
decision-makers, you, too, will be asked to recommend
what role the United States should
play in Southeast Asia during the 1960s. You
will have an opportunity to reenact debates
and to consider questions and lessons from the
period that still influence policy-makers today.