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Department of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Social Sciences

Choate Rosemary Hall

Wallingford, Connecticut

History 423AD

The United States In Vietnam

Winter 2009–2010 term

Hypertext Course Syllabus

Goals of the Course
Course Policies and Grading
Texts and Course Materials
Program and Workload
Schedule of Meetings and Assignments
Mr. Ned Gallagher
Memorial House #114, 697-2340
Johnson Athletic Center #105, 697-2418
preferred e-mail:

"The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal--
well meaning but without understanding."
- Justice Louis Brandeis

Goals of History 423

This course constitutes a thorough study of the institutions that comprise the United States government. We will analyze the creation and workings of the component branches of the federal government via two distinct academic disciplines: history and political science. At the completion of this course, students should understand the fundamental elements--both in theory and in practice--of the three branches of the federal government, and how each relates to the others, to the states, and to the people.

In addition there will be considerable instruction in the skills needed by all historians, political scientists, and indeed citizens: how to read, how to analyze, and how to express one's self. Specifically, we hope to develop the general intellectual skills of:

The course is designed with these aims in mind to be a coöperative learning experience in appreciating and understanding the rich tapestry of American political life. Needless to say, no such understanding can be taught by someone else; it can only be learned for oneself.

This course explores the history of the American involvement in what we call "the Vietnam War." That expression is ill-suited to describe the multiple wars in Southeast Asia within the past half-century: the Vietminh's war against American-financed French forces (1945–1954); North Vietnam's war against the armies of Saigon and the United States (1965–1975); and a united Vietnam's armed conflicts with the Khmer Rouge of Kampuchea--a.k.a. Cambodia--and the Chinese (intermittently in the 1970s and 1980s). History 423 focuses on the first two of the three.

By the end of the term, students should have (1) learned the central events, persons, places, and chronology of America's involvement in Indochina; and (2) had an opportunity to collect facts and dispel myths and propaganda so as to determine for themselves whether the event was (a) as President Reagan has said, "A noble cause;" (b) as many others would argue, the greatest tragedy in American history since the Civil War; or (c) as Mr. Generous somewhat more scatologically calls it, "the punji stake" of American history.

Along the way, you should learn something about the following:

• American foreign policy in general;

• the group dynamics of high-level decision-making;

• moral dilemmas faced under pressure by good and not-so-good men and women;

• the alleged deceit that took place at the highest levels of American government;

• the potential role to be played by an informed citizenry in this Republic;

• Vietnamese history and culture, and how it was misunderstood by American policy-makers;

• what to look for in primary documentary sources;

• the skills of analytical and persuasive writing.

You also might be inclined to admire those rare and valuable men and women, among them some Choate alumni, who are willing to stick their necks out and say, "This is a bad idea," when most others are just going along.

Course Policies and Grading

A summary of course policies and grading standards can be found online by clicking here.

Reading Materials

These texts for the course--available at the school bookstore--should be purchased by all students immediately:

• Philip Caputo, A Rumor Of War (New York: Holt, 1977) ISBN 0-8050-4695-X. [hereinafter referred to as "Caputo"]

• Frances FitzGerald, Fire In The Lake: The Vietnamese And The Americans In Vietnam (New York: Back Bay Books, 1972) ISBN 0-316-15919-0. [hereinafter referred to as "FitzGerald"]

• Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Penguin, 1983) ISBN 0-14-026547-3. [hereinafter referred to as "Karnow"]

Used copies of all of the above should be available for purchase. Excerpts from the following works will be used in photocopy form:

• David Halberstam, The Best And The Brightest (New York: Random House, 1972). [hereinafter referred to as "Halberstam"]

• Neil Sheehan et al., The Pentagon Papers (New York: Bantam, 1971). In scholarship, this is commonly referred to as the "New York Times edition." [hereinafter referred to as "PP"]

We'll read none of these works in their entirety, but you should want to finish all of them on your own. There will be other things put on reserve for your use from time to time.

Program and Workload

This course will be orthodox in its presentation. That is, in general you'll read something before class, and in class we'll discuss what you read. You'll also write one demanding--although short--paper and take two period tests and a final exam.

Every effort has been made to keep daily assignments manageable. Many worthwhile readings were abbreviated or scrapped from the syllabus altogether. It's important, therefore, that you commit yourself to keep up with what is included among the assignments below; you'll be expected to complete your homework before each class. Read through the entire syllabus now and decide whether or not you want to invest the effort necessary to learn about the subject matter this term; if not, then DROP THIS COURSE NOW! If, on the other hand, you decide to make the commitment to meet the expectations of the course, then welcome aboard!

Schedule of Meetings and Assignments

What follows on the next pages is what we'll try to cover during the term. It may be adjusted from time to time for any number of reasons. The homework for the next class is always the next assignment unless you are told differently. You'll find each entry on the schedule below contains some instructive questions and ideas you should consider in preparing for class; get into the habit reading the syllabus carefully each night as you begin your homework.

1. "Stand And Unfold Yourself."

No assignment. Syllabus, map, and other course materials to be distributed in class. Look over these handouts carefully, paying special attention to the syllabus entries below; you must decide to commit yourself to this schedule or take advantage of the opportunity to drop the course now.

2. Overview I: Intervention.

Read Iver Peterson, "The Long War in Vietnam," The New York Times (May 1, 1975), available online. There are pictures accompanying the original article, which you can see in the microfilm edition in the library. Read through the first three sections very carefully, and then skim the rest of it. This article will be the one coherent overview of what happened in Vietnam which we'll read. We'll read it twice during the course. Work hard to follow the narrative: the two wars between 1945 and 1975, the creation of the RVN, American military intervention, Tet, and the U.S. withdrawal. Learn some of the people, too: Viets Ho, Diem, Ky, Thieu, Giap, and Americans Johnson, Rusk, McNamara, Westmoreland, etc.

3. The Vietnamese I: A Legacy of Resistance.

Read FitzGerald, pp. 32–47. Of all the works about Vietnam, FitzGerald's was the first to present effectively things from the viewpoint of the Southeast Asians. This monograph won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize when published; it is the one that right-wing revisionists most certainly shoot at, so you should work hard to test its credibility. Note and be able to describe the subtle relationship between the Chinese and the Vietnamese. Is there anything similar in American history? How did the Viets maintain their separate nationality? Note the distinctions among the Thais, Khmers, and Viets. And yet how did American policy-makers see those people? Relate this to Vietnamese geography: what impact did the civil war between the Trinh and the Nguyen have on the later American experience? Study the map you received with the syllabus for a map quiz to be administered in class #4; you'll find this a helpful incentive to learn the geography of Southeast Asia as well as an easy way to bolster your class average. Learn also the three administrative divisions of Vietnam made by the French--Cochinchina, Annam, and Tonkin--as indicated on the map on page 123 of Karnow.

4. The Vietnamese II: The White Man's Burden?

Read Karnow, pp. 121 (bottom)–138. The text here should give you some idea of why it is that, no matter how ill-educated or unsophisticated, the Vietnamese learned to hate Westerners. Never forget what you learn here: be able to apply it to 1959 Cuba, 1979 Iran, and 1979 Nicaragua in relation to America's influence and perhaps to Palestine 1948– , Ulster 1969– , and other places similarly overrun by "superior" foreigners. Also, ask your teacher to give you a number between 1 and 4, to be used later in the term to determine divergent reading assignments. Write down the number inside your class notebook and in all of your textbooks so you never forget it. Map quiz in class.

5. French Colonialism.

Read FitzGerald, pp. 47–71. Pay attention to the similarities drawn by the author between the French and the American experiences. Why were they so alike? What effect did the French have on Vietnamese politics, culture, and society? What caused the rise of the two sects? Can you see that similar conditions led to the rise of the Vietminh? What was the one crucial difference between the Vietminh and the sects?

6. The Fall of China.

Read Halberstam, pp. 136–150. What really happened to cause the fall--or liberation if you prefer--of China? What was the general American perception? What did people like Ludden, Davies, Service, and Lattimore do that got them into trouble? How did McCarthy succeed for so long? What was his impact on U.S. foreign policy? More importantly, what was his impact on the Foreign Service? Most importantly, what was his impact on the Democratic Party?

7. The First Indochina War.

Read Karnow, pp. 648–649 (through ". . . been no Watergate.'") and PP, pp. ix–xxv and 1–25. What are "the Pentagon Papers"? Who wrote them? What is their general thrust? This collection is now out of print--what might this tell you? Note that a Choate alumnus--Hedrick Smith, then of the Times--was instrumental in the original reportage in 1971. What basic idea motivated American policy-makers in the 1950s? What was the U.S. reaction to the 1954 Geneva Accords? Can you explain why? What did the U.S. do about the treaty? Were there disagreements within the U.S. government? Period test in class #10.

8. Review I.

No reading assignment. Here is a well-deserved opportunity to catch your breath, collect your thoughts, and ask questions before the test later this week. Do be sure to keep on top of the reading assignments; at the pace we are going, if you fall behind now, you'll have loads of trouble catching up later.

9. Dienbienphu.

Read Halberstam, pp. 169–180; Karnow, pp. 209–214. Study again the geography of Vietnam and the general chronology, so that you understand the time and the physical context of Dienbienphu, one of the great decisive battles in modern history. Then study the battle itself, to learn what role military tactics, cultural biases, and sheer racism played in this event. What errors did the French make at Dienbienphu? If you had been the French commander, what would you have done? Analyze the Eisenhower method of decision-making. Would you support it or not? Try to make your judgment on this question thinking not of the outcome in this incident, but whether the method would likely work in general. Note especially the role of General Ridgway and the leaders of Congress. Do not forget Eisenhower's approach later when we see the Johnson team at work.

10. Period Test #1.

Covering all the material studied so far. I will be available for optional Q&A review session during 9:00 p.m. break in the Mem House common room the night before.

• • • Holiday Vacation • • •

11–12. A Rumor of War I.

At this point in the course, we'll spend a few days discussing an important work of literature: Philip Caputo's Vietnam memoir A Rumor of War. We'll compare Caputo's ground-level account of the war with the official analyses we'll study later on. Also consider parallels in other literary and cinematic works dealing with the Vietnam War. Hopefully you got a healthy head start on reading the book during vacation. For these two classes, the first after break, we will focus on the Prologue and Part I: "The Splendid Little War," pp. xii–142. We'll come back to this work two more times in the weeks ahead.

13. America's Mandarin I.

Read FitzGerald, pp. 72–85 (through ". . . that Diem had performed."). By now you should easily be able to say why it was that many Americans thought so highly of Diem. Analyze his background and personal traits. Where did he get his support? In class, remind your teacher to distribute the Sheehan excerpt for class #13.

14. America's Mandarin II.

Read FitzGerald, pp. 85–107. Of what relationship to this history was the old American doctrine of "manifest destiny"? Analyze Diem as an administrator, as a political philosopher, and as a reformer. Give some thought to the vignettes of RVN officials on p. 133. How can Americans help such a regime? Give considerable thought to Ho's critique on p. 134. There is a clue there to the reasons for his ultimate victory, but all too many Americans think it too simple to be believed.

15. Insurrection.

Read PP, pp. 67–78, plus doc. 15, pp. 54–57 (top). Where did the "Viet Cong" rebellion originate? Was the official U.S. explanation for its creation correct? If there were errors in the official view, how do you account for them? You might begin making a list of some of the important abbreviations you encounter: DRV, NLF, ARVN, etc. (Hint: They make lovely test questions.)

16. Camelot's Round Table.

Read Halberstam, pp. 14–49. Be able to identify Bowles, the Bundy brothers, McNamara, Rostow, and Rusk. What were the political considerations that helped shape JFK's selection of these men? Understand the split in the Democratic Party over foreign policy. What personal attitudes did JFK's men have in common? What personal flaws did they have?

17. Lessons of Cuba.

Read Halberstam, pp. 82–98. If you need to, read a few pages in one of the U.S. history textbooks on reserve about the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Some people can't tell them apart, but you must. What lessons did the Kennedy Administration learn from the Bay of Pigs disaster? What lessons did it ignore? Bowles was a Choate alumnus; how do you like his performance here? Analyze his diary entry on p. 88. Why were so few of his colleagues concerned with such matters? Kennedy and Stevenson were also Choaties; how do you like their performances?

18. A Rumor of War II.

By this class you should have finished Part II: "The Officer in Charge of the Dead," pp. 143–197.

19. JFK and Indochina.

Read Karnow, pp. 264–285. What was Kennedy's contribution? What political factors informed his decisions? What diplomatic factors? Is there evidence that the official view of the VC was awry? Should the policy-makers have seen that evidence? Why didn't they if it existed and you can see it? If it didn't exist, why was the intelligence in the field so blind? Why didn't JFK follow in Vietnam his own attitudes about Laos?

20. America's Mandarin III.

Read FitzGerald, pp. 113–137 (beginning with "The most desired..."). The pages omitted between the last assignment and this one describe how Confucian Vietnamese society reflects the family structure, wherein a person's role is determined at birth--father, son, sister, etc.--and then remains the same forever. Notice carefully the metaphor of the "stepfather" and its impact on society. Compare the Caravelliste incident and Diem's response to it with the doctrine of counterinsurgency. Do the same for the U.S. aid program. Carefully study the Strategic Hamlet program: why did it work in Malaya, but not in Vietnam? Why was the revolt of the bonzes the final straw?

21. America's Mandarin IV.

Read Karnow, pp. 297–302 and 311–327. The picture on p. 286 is particularly instructive. Could the U.S. have controlled Diem better? Could the U.S. have removed him bloodlessly? What is the significance of the Kennedy-Lodge relationship? What was the connection between the Buddhist uprising and the November 1963 coup? What role did the U.S. government play in the coup? Are you surprised by the conduct of the U.S.? Is it consistent with the conduct of American policies in recent years? Was Bobby Kennedy's suggestion ever taken seriously?

22. The NLF I.

Read FitzGerald, pp. 138–157. Do not repeat the error FitzGerald says many Americans made of obscuring the "nature of the [NLF] accomplishment." What was that accomplishment? On p. 177, "Had they understood it . . . as was the case" bears remembering, and maybe even memorizing. In that sentence may be the entire theme of this great tragedy. In past readings you have seen how out-of-step with Vietnamese culture the French, Diem, and the Americans were. You should see here and in the readings to come how closely integrated with it the NLF truly was. Can you give a general statement of that integration? Was the NLF communist? From whence did the Front come, and from whence did it derive its strength? The RVN land reform is only one of the the "damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" policies [hereinafter "diyd"]. Why was it so?

23. The NLF II.

Read FitzGerald, pp. 157–164, 169–196 (begin the latter segment with "The solution of the Viet Minh..."). This is the longest reading assignment you'll have in the course, so bear down and it'll be done before you realize it. See the quote on p. 160: diyd? Why? How about the draft law? Diyd? What was the essential difference between the ARVN troops and those of the NLF? Diyd? Be alert for other diyd items. Give this remark some thought: "The lackeys of the war-mongering capitalist imperialists violate Marxist dialectalism, and suffer the outrage of the proletariat as a result." Does a sentence like that make more sense to you after the analysis on pp. 171–172? Does the history of Vietnam since the fall of Saigon in 1975 prove or disprove FitzGerald's analysis on pp. 172–175? Current right-wingers say the latter. Use your answer to explain the takeover of Ich Thien, and the organization of the NLF in general.

24. The NLF III.

Read FitzGerald, pp. 197–227. Can you relate khiem thao to an experience your classmates might be familiar with? Was it sincere or just a "snow job"? Recall Ho on p. 107. Of what training value was khiem thao? Of what military value? Of what social value? Why were so many Americans surprised that Marxism-Leninism took root in the jungles of Vietnam? And yet, what are the several reasons that it did? Why were the American policy-makers unable to understand? What should today's American policy-makers learn from this experience? Don't overlook Diem's great public relations victory in the footnote on p. 220.

25. One Night in the Gulf of Tonkin I.

Read PP, pp. 234–270. Why was this article the first one published by the Times? Study the Bundy scenario; what effect did it have on policy-makers? Were there disagreements within the U.S. government? Was the Tonkin Gulf incident planned by the U.S.? What do you think was the motive of the DRV Navy? How could LBJ succeed in misleading so many people? Test at #27, below.

26. One Night in the Gulf of Tonkin II.

Read Karnow, pp. 382–392. Begin reading at "He turned the Maddox toward the sea. . ." Pay close attention to the technical aspects of the Tonkin Gulf incident, and then to the morale aspects. Imagine being Alvarez! Continue your thinking about the "Bum of the Month Club," and also about the types of Americans that were working in positions of power in Vietnam.

27. Period Test #2.

Covering all the material studied so far in the course, with emphasis on the work done since you took the first period test. Ask your teacher about the exam format.

28. Research.

NO CLASS MEETING. Use this time to research the projects below, as assigned. Your paper is due at the beginning of class meeting #29. Be sure to allot time for editing, revising, and proofreading your own work; careless mechanics will be penalized heavily.

29. Paper.

You are to submit a paper of no more than two pages in length (which means front and back of a single sheet if handwritten, or the fronts of two sheets if typed) that empirically argues a significant historical point about the topic you've been assigned. A third page must be an annotated bibliography.

In these papers, do not fall into the trap of accepting certain historical myths that have been perpetuated in the media. You must consult the best possible sources and make a serious effort to distinguish truth from myth. If two or more students are assigned the same topic, you may discuss things with each other, but if you get help from a colleague, you must give credit in the annotated bibliography. You must not exploit another student, but must go into consultation as evenly prepared as possible. In any case, you must stop talking with others from the moment your pen first hits the paper.

The topics:

a) The effect of the Vietnam War on America's youth, 1965–1975.
b) The effect of the Vietnam War on the Democratic Party, 1965–1975.

c) The effect of the Vietnam War on the Republican Party, 1965–1975.

d) The effect of the Vietnam War on the civil rights movement.

e) The effect of the Vietnam War on the veterans who came home from fighting it.

f) What happened to the women whose husbands were prisoners-of-war?

g) What happened at My Lai in March 1968?


30. Overview II: Escalation and Denouement.

Re-read Peterson, "The Long War." This is the second time you've read this article (same as #2). Do it again in its entirety, but this time skim the first three sections, and then read the rest with intensity. Pay particular attention to the history of the peace talks and the Nixon policies. This will be a useful point for review before the test, as well as a preview of things to come. Bring your questions to class.

31. The China Factor.

Read Karnow, pp. 343–363. Consider the geopolitics of the American involvement in Southeast Asia: what signals were sent to Moscow and Beijing? How did the U.S.S.R. and China respond? What kind of people was the U.S. supporting in Vietnam, anyway? But what kind of people were we sending to Vietnam to make decisions over the kind of people to support? Why might this period in South Vietnam's history be referred to as "bums of the month"? What was the nature of the DRV support for the NLF? Keep this question and your answer in mind when we get to FitzGerald, who does not agree with Karnow.

32. Rolling Thunder.

Read PP, pp. 307–344, and p. 499. What is so startling about the first paragraph on p. 307? What was the American hope behind the bombing strategy? From what did such an expectation and analysis derive? The document on p. 499 actually applies to a later decision, but it may be instructive here anyway, since its author helped shape this decision, too. Can you distinguish between tactical and strategic use of air power? Were there disagreements within the U.S. government? Who took what side?

33. The Yanks.

Read Karnow, pp. 411–412, 431–441. What was the purpose of the ground forces? What does your answer tell you about Rostow's air war thesis? Why did the air war continue? What was the point of all the secrecy and dishonesty in 1965? (You might see the Peterson article for an answer.) Were there disagreements within the U.S. government? Who took what side?

34. Search & Destroy.

Read Karnow, pp. 456–462 (from "Without an ideology..." to "... and get away with it.'") and 471–487 (from "In North Vietnam, meanwhile..."). To what awakening did Washington finally come? What was the goal of search and destroy? What do you suppose it really accomplished? If air power had failed originally, why did the U.S. go back to it? If ground power was failing, why did the U.S. increase it? Compare the training and deployment of American troops with that of their enemy; what were the principal failures of the military in waging the war?

35. A Rumor of War III.

By this point, you should have finished Part III: "In Death's Grey Land" and Epilogue, pp. 199–328. Ask in class for your "evens" and "odds" assignment.

36. Tet.

All read Karnow, 536–547; evens then read 558–565, while odds read 574–581 (from "Johnson had no intention . . ."); all study the pictures before the chapter. What happened during Tet 1968? What was the official American analysis? Was it true? Was it to the point? What were the political consequences of Tet? Why did the Clifford group and the Wise Men succeed in reversing American policy where no one had before? Be sure to distinguish between those two groups, as to membership and as to proposal and result. And yet, how long did it take before we finally got out of Vietnam?

37. King Richard and Prince Henry.

Read Karnow, pp. 594–616 (top). Do what you can to learn about the character and attitudes of Nixon. He enjoys a positive reputation as a foreign policy maker; do you think he deserves it? Besides the lofty reputation Kissinger also enjoys, he additionally won a Nobel Peace Prize for his Vietnam diplomacy; do you think he deserved it?

38. The Financial Cost.

Read Halberstam, pp. 732–741. It is generally acknowledged that the military expenditures of 1940–1945 were what cured the Great Depression. Do you know why? If so, you will easily see how the massive expenditures for the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1972 brought on the economic dislocation that America struggled with through the early 1980s.

39. Final Examination.

Covering everything studied in the course. The format will be similar to that of the term's period tests, in that it will force you to deal with the broad themes of the American involvement in Vietnam and to demonstrate your mastery of the material through reference to specific historical data.