Vietnam seminar challenges students and professors

by Michele K. Jones
Published in Infinite Wisdom, Fall 2000.

What do a former spy, a self-proclaimed draft dodger, a Vietnamese-American student, an Army ROTC cadet, the son of a veteran, the daughter of protesters, and a handful of students curious about one of the most tumultuous periods in American history all have in common? They are part of the honors seminar on Vietnam being held this fall at UWF.

Ten students and two instructors gather each Monday and Wednesday in an open-discussion class to explore the complex web of causes, effects and events that shaped an often-debated and emotional period in American history.

The class is led by Dr. Jack Salmon of the government department and Dr. Sam Mathews of psychology. The two instructors bring to the class a wide range of experiences concerning the Vietnam era. Dr. Salmon, who has spent substantial time in Asia, including China, Japan, and Vietnam, is also a veteran of the peace movement and anti-war protests of the 1960’s and 70’s. Dr. Mathews is a Vietnam veteran who spent his tour of duty as a “spook” with Army intelligence. Together, they hope to provide the students with perspective on many of the issues that arose during this period of history.

“I’ve never approached my experiences as a Vietnam vet from an academic point of view,” said Mathews. “I also thought a personalized view of the war would be interesting for the students.”

As a generation born after the fall of Saigon in 1975, many students were motivated to take the honors class because they realized they knew very little about the war in Vietnam. Most know people who were involved, but have never learned about the time period in any history classes. Various impressions picked up from movies and parents’ stories fueled curiosity.

“Being that both my parents survived the war and I know nothing about the Vietnam War, I wanted to better educate myself.” said senior Oanh Kim Bui.

In the month since classes began, the students have already gained a new outlook on the Vietnam War. By studying the history of the country and the events that led to the war, the class has come to understand why the conflict was so controversial. Many previously held ideas have changed, particularly on the issue of the complicated role that the US played in fighting the North Vietnamese and attempting to shape the South Vietnamese government and military.

As one student said, “ I used to think we were the good guys. Now, I’m not so sure anyone was.”

As the semester progresses, students will explore both the conflict in Vietnam and the events that occurred at home during the time period. Additionally, the class will discuss the psychological, emotional, and moral aspects of the war and will learn about the perspective of the Vietnamese people.

Late in the term, the class will welcome guest speakers Diane Carlson Evans, a Vietnam veteran who was instrumental in establishing a Women’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Todd Gitlin, former president of the Students for a Democratic Society, who was a war protest leader and is now a sociology professor.

The students and instructors are both enjoying the open discussion format of the class and each person hopes to take away a better understanding of a pivotal point in the 20th century that turned the US upside down and cost the lives of 60,000 people.

As student Meagan Robison said, “ I guess the real question and answer everyone is looking for is ‘Why?’”