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Vietnam makes campus comeback - still divisive after all these years

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 10, 1987


NOT since the fateful lightning of four terrible Civil War years has there been as divisive an American venture as the Vietnam war. Vietnam divided families, generations, political parties, college campuses. It shattered the popular consensus, following World War II, that the United States always steered the right and virtuous course. Statesman George Kennan called it ``the most disastrous undertaking in our entire 200-year history.''

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When Saigon fell in 1975, Vietnam fell from public view. American leaders bade it good riddance.

But the Vietnam war is resurfacing. Recent films such as ``Platoon,'' ``Full Metal Jacket,'' and ``Hamburger Hill'' are matched on TV by the series ``Tour of Duty.''

But it's on campus - the original seedbed of antiwar protest - that Vietnam is having its biggest comeback. The war - and the 1960s - are hot new research topics in history and American-studies departments. Courses on Vietnam have jumped from two dozen in 1985 to about 420 today. Political science classes, when dealing with Middle East and Central America policy, often dwell on the Vietnam war for days.

Laura Crosby, a 1987 Harvard grad, says Vietnam came up ``again and again'' in government studies. ``My senior thesis was on Cambodian refugees. There, it's clear the aftermath of the war goes on. We pretend it's over. But it's not.''

The new focus of study is causing debate in colleges, and especially in high schools. Most scholars agree that an understanding of the Vietnam experience is critical to an understanding of America today - and in the future. But, like the perennial question about teaching values in schools, the question about the Vietnam war is ``Whose version do you teach?'' The disagreements that marked America's involvement in Vietnam are resurfacing along with the war:

Was the war a mistake? Was the policy of ``containment'' wrong? Or have events in Southeast Asia proved the domino theory correct?

``There's a cottage industry called `the lessons of Vietnam,''' says former Johnson White House official Ben Wattenberg, ``and so you get both hawk lessons and `progressive' lessons in schools.''

War-year liberals and conservatives alike are concerned about how a new generation - most of whom were in diapers during the Tet offensive, and who are often described as ``ahistorical'' - will interpret Vietnam.

``People trying to control the future are also going to try to control the past,'' says Peter Braestrup, editor of the Wilson Quarterly, and author of ``Big Story,'' on Tet.

Writers like David Halberstam tend to represent the classic liberal view on campus: that the war was a tragic flaw in the American character, a result of an ``arrogance of power'' soon to be matched by an ``arrogance of affluence'' that has allowed the US auto industry to be outwitted and eclipsed by Japanese companies.

A classic conservative view may be summed up by US Education Secretary William Bennett, who said in 1986 that if the history of Vietnam were taught properly, students would not oppose American intervention in Central America.

Because of the war's complex origins, history has not produced a consensus view on it. Teachers and scholars look into the well of Vietnam - and see their own reflections. Myths beget myths. Cal Ellis, a Fulbright scholar who studied and lived in Saigon from 1967 to 1975, says, ``After eight years, I finally decided you could take any position on the war and argue it coherently.''

Take, for example, public support of the war: Stanley Karnow, an author whose ``Vietnam'' is a leading college text (and the basis for the 1983 PBS television series), argues that majority support ended in the fall of '67. Mr. Wattenberg, however, says polls show that the majority supported all ``seven long years'' of the war.

Hindsight also conflicts. A 1982 Gallup poll found that 72 percent of the American people felt ``the Vietnam war was more than a mistake; it was fundamentally wrong and immoral.''

At the same time, a 1979 Louis Harris poll showed that more than 90 percent of Vietnam veterans were glad they served and would serve again if asked.

(The poll also found, contrary to popular ideas, that the public does not harbor grudges against Vietnam veterans, or see them as dispossessed drifters. Just the opposite: On a ``respect'' scale of 1 to 10, the public rated draft evaders 3.3; protesters, 5.0; TV newsmen, 6.1; medics, 7.9; and combat veterans, 9.8.)

Walter Capps, whose course on the impact of Vietnam is the most popular at the University of California, Santa Barbara (1,400 students sign up for 900 spots), and who has conscientious objectors discuss Vietnam with veterans, says the purpose of his class is not to decide whether the US should have been in Vietnam.