‘It’s complicated’: U.S. history teachers still grapple with Vietnam War
Later this month, WHYY-TV will air Ken Burns and Lynn Novicks’ 10-part documentary on the Vietnam War. U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam in 1975. This story is part of WHYY’s series examining how, more than four decades later, the country is still processing this defining and divisive conflict.
"The Vietnam War" series premieres Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. on WHYY-TV.
Tom English taught his first course about the Vietnam War in 1986, 11 years after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.
He was living in Virginia at the time, teaching at the all-girls Foxcroft School. As part of the lesson plan, he took his students at the buttoned-down boarding school to a showing of Platoon, director Oliver Stone’s feverish portrayal of an Army unit at war with the Vietcong and itself.
"In those days, it was very recent," English recalled. "And the turmoil — the public turmoil — about the war was so very recent."
The father of one of the girls in his class had served as a surgeon in Vietnam, English remembered. More than a decade after his service, the father refused to divulge any details of his time in combat. That is, until his daughter took English’s class.
After his students saw Platoon and studied the conflict, the student’s father opened up. On a ride back to Foxcroft after a weekend at home, father and daughter spent three hours discussing his experience in Vietnam, "which he would only do because she had taken a class and seemed to have some understanding of the subject," English said. "Which made me very, very happy."
For English, teaching about Vietnam in those early days was a form of therapy. Classrooms provided the safety and perspective that students needed to process a conflict that could be difficult to discuss in other settings.
This fall, English begins his 41st and final year as a teacher. He still teaches Vietnam, now at the liberal-leaning George School in Newtown, Bucks County.
Today’s students, he said, have less interest in the war than they do in the anti-war movement. Four decades after Vietnam ended, English’s charges tend to identify with the counterculture spawned by war resistance.
English likes to play them the 1966 hit song "Ballad of the Green Berets" to remind them lots of people — including young people — supported the war.
"What I try to get across now is the deep division of the country," English said.