The fact that Vietnamese people refer to the infamous decade long “Vietnam War” as the “American War” never occurred to me until I was in Vietnam. It makes sense, of course, that a war causing so much destruction in Vietnam by Americans would be called the “American War.” The part that awed me was that throughout my secondary and undergraduate career I never learned all that much about the Vietnamese side of the war.
In all truthfulness, I barely recall talking about Asia in high school. Period. It was only in college when my eyes were opened to the Eastern world. However, even the college course catalog lacked Asian-based options. Sure, there were was “History of Modern China” or “East Asian religions.” But in my opinion, choices were bleak.
Don’t even let me get into my high-school courses. If I recall correctly while I was at Liberty High School there were absolutely no course offerings relating to Asia. And this is a huge public high school. A school with more students than my college. The core curriculum for history (my favorite subject) was all based upon American history. There were times we talked about Europe. Actually, my ninth grade history course primarily focused on European history. Specifically the culture of those same Europeans who eventually founded the US.
10th grade was then centered on Early US history: Native Americans, Pilgrims, later the Revolutionary War and then Civil War. Then the following year we learned all about the 20th century in the US. World War I, the roaring 20s, the Great Depression, WWII, levittown suburban growth, the counterculture, the Vietnam war, Nixon Watergate scandal and up to the Reagan presidency.
We did learn about the Vietnam War. But it was the American perspective. Of course we completely ignored the Korean War. Maybe gave it little attention. To this very day the Korean War is beyond me. Even in college I feel like my education on the Korean War was scant.
So, you can only imagine the shock I felt when I arrived in Vietnam. When I visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, the tunnels, toured the DMZ in Hue and then saw the prison where John McCain was held in Hanoi. Listening to the tour guides. Reading the pamphlets. Soon my friends and I said we were Canadian whenever meeting Vietnamese people. We were embarrassed.
I never even heard of Agent Orange until Vietnam. I mean, maybe I did one time long ago. But I do not recall. I do not recall being shown the deformities caused by chemicals that I saw at the War Remnants Museum.You know, I feel like I am a pretty knowledgeable person. The fact I did not know about Agent Orange is embarrassing. But is it my fault? Is it my fault I was only taught a one-sided perspective of the Vietnam War, or the “American War?”
No, it’s not. Younger generations cannot help what the elder choose to pass down or to omit. Yes, I could have been ambitious in high school. I could have looked to resources beyond the school-administered text book. Found an alternative history. Because there are two sides to every story. But like many sixteen year old girls I was preoccupied with getting my drivers license and being asked to homecoming. I didn’t look past the text book.
So where do I go from here? I plan to write a longer, more research-based article on US public high school instruction on the Vietnam war. Maybe even include what schools in Vietnam are teaching about the war. Perhaps I will look to the university level and see if anything changes when handling the Vietnam War. Or American War, if you live in Vietnam.
Photo Credit – Taken in Hue, Vietnam on a Demilitarized Zone tour. Photo courtesy of friend Katie Ida Halper