I never took modern history in high school, but from what we were taught in the junior years and from what friends who did take that subject told me, what we learned was an extremely watered down and pretty much propagandistically pro-West depiction. I can’t speak for the US education system, but I can only assume that US exceptionalism is a fundamental part of any history taught in school. There are a few examples one could use, but the Vietnam War is probably the most damning.
What little I learned in high school about the Vietnam War has since been discarded (and I must disclose that I can only speak from my experience – it was a few years ago now, and doesn’t account for individuals who may have gone above and beyond in their high school research; unlikely given many took it as an “easy” ride, from memory). I can’t even remember any of the details from those lessons, such as specific battles, other than that the US (along with Australia) with the South were the “good guys” (never explicitly said, but can easily be inferred as they were “our” side) and the Viet Cong, the North, were the “bad guys”. The war “started” in 1965 and “ended” in 1975 after public support for the war had disappeared and it became too costly for the US to maintain it.
The North, we are told, were the Communists – the global enemy backed primarily by Russia and China. The South were our allies, and the fact that the US invaded is never questioned beyond that – they just did, and they “lost” the war. The US, of course, did some questionable things, but reference to those and the effects they had on the land and the people are brushed over.
It wasn’t until much later, when I started taking an interest in history and politics, that it became obvious just how narrow the school system’s perspective really is. I’ll list some reasons as to why that is and suggestions to possibly counteract them below, but regardless of what limitations there may be, there must be an alternative to the butchering of the historical record we have now.
For starters, the JFK myth – which recently got another swing through the media on the anniversary of his assassination – (more relevant to the US) is considered essentially untouchable in mainstream circles. It is said that he planned to withdraw from Vietnam in 1964 (already we see holes in the narrative – wasn’t it 1965 when the War began?), a plan foiled by an assassination attempt. I admit, when I was younger, I loved the idea of conspiracy, and one video (I can’t recall which) portrayed JFK as the last “good” President, killed by the unnamed “new world order”. He knew too much and intended on exposing them, apparently.
Similarly, with Cuba, he was hailed as the hero that saved the world from destruction by handling the Cuban Missile Crisis. In all cases, JFK was not a saviour in any sense of the word, but was in fact quite an aggressive leader – like every US President. Regarding the Crisis, I was taught initially that Russia was trying to put nukes in Cuba, which was too close to the US for comfort. Minutes before tensions explode, in swoops JFK to save the world.
When taught this, there was never any context given as to the significance of Cuba, nor the US’ violent history with them dating back to the turn of the 19th Century when they removed Spain as the local imperialist power. Also left out was the existence of US nukes in Turkey, which made the USSR anxious – hence their moves to place their own near the US border for good measure. With this information, it’s still deemed appropriate to call JFK a hero – his actions removed the nukes from both regions, ensuring no tensions, right?
Noam Chomsky, in Rethinking Camelot (JFK’s hero nickname in US discourse), described it as the USSR having to accept major humiliation. Yes, they kept their nukes out of Cuba, and the US did remove theirs from Turkey – only to replace with, as already intended, with new and improved weapons. Whether JFK really did have any particular role in preventing all out war in the moment is a minor detail – he was by no means a dove. Swinging back to Vietnam, it is actually clear that he was quite the war hawk.
Before the War, and before JFK was assassinated or was even President, the French were the dominant foreign power in Vietnam – another fact I was unaware of until after high school. They were replaced quite quickly in the 1950’s by the US, who instigated a reign of State terror in the South through their client Government in the country. Before a war of aggression was ever launched against the North, the US was already committing atrocities and subduing the people with their own regime, similar to what they did in Korea almost immediately after WW2, with the Japanese being displaced as the dominant power.
Communism was never really a “threat” with any merit to it. The real threat was Vietnamese nationalism – that is, Vietnamese control over Vietnam, thus “losing Asia” – as Chomsky remarks, this implies that many in the US Government believed they had some claim of ownership over the region. Russia had virtually no influence or presence in Vietnam, and even China would’ve had minimal, if any, involvement. The real “enemy” were the people themselves, aligned strongly – increasingly so as the violence escalated – with the Viet Cong.
The Viet Cong is worthy of our distaste, with their acts of “terror” and the banner of communism behind them. The US, however, was righteous in their retaliation, their “counter-terror”. The devastation crashed down upon the land and the people, including the use of napalm, chemical weapons, and what were essentially concentration camps, were entirely justified, or at the very worst “unfortunate” errors or “aberrations”. It was Viet Cong aggression that forced the US to escalate the War, or so we are told.
The War, which lasted years beyond Kennedy’s assassination, would not have ended under his rule. It was Kennedy who had the US client regime in the South overthrown after it was obvious they wouldn’t achieve the victory the US was after. They were too busy trying to talk about neuralisation, making peace with the North and unifying the country. They – the Viet Cong, the people, and even the client regime – wanted the US presence gone. This was not acceptable, so the whole thing was overthrown, and direct US aggression took over from State sponsored terror.
After JFK was killed, Johnson and then Nixon only increased the violence and the death count, piling atrocities up that still affect Vietnam to this day. And all of it is forgotten in the West, with the incessant focus on veterans and a criminal, international sob story of “forgive and forget”. Obviously, this doesn’t mean expecting Vietnam to forgive us – no. The twisted expectation is Vietnam will plead for forgiveness for all the crimes they apparently committed against us.
The US withdrawal from Vietnam was considered a loss – the Viet Cong and communism prevailed against the might of the US. Or did it? The idea that the US lost of the Vietnam war only rings true if you consider ‘victory’ to be complete military domination. Vietnam – as well as Laos and Cambodia, which I never knew were involved, again, until after high school (I’d never even heard of Laos) – was utterly destroyed and barely able to function, let alone be the “domino” the US feared they would be for nationalism.
Vietnam continued to be bled out with sanctions and the constant accusations of their “crimes” against the US – which, essentially, was the crime of not submitting themselves to the tyranny of a global terrorist power. Today, they have still not necessarily recovered, and much of South East Asia is the breeding ground for cheap, extortionate, and slave labour, unable to break free of centuries of colonial oppression, even if “empire” is an outdated concept.
But that is not the narrative that I learned in high school. Now, in defence of the teachers and the education system, it cannot be expected that all of this can be taught, let alone having students understand the complexities of global politics and conflict. There are numerous limitations to how the curriculum can be taught and what can be included within it, and it would take an exceptional and unique teacher to be able to convey such concepts in a school setting. We obviously can’t call for the education system to ensure that students have complete knowledge of every conflict, every historic event and figure, every political move undertaken.
That being said, however, it is an injustice to history, the students, and the teachers to have such a whitewashed and brief version of events taught as fact to a complacent and bored classroom. To have students year after year get taught such a warped view, which many will likely never build upon in the future, only serves to consolidate the myths perpetuated by those who wish history to be wiped clean. That is not the fault of the students or even the teachers, but a failure in the approach to such subjects.
In English we were taught a lot about critical thinking and analysis, whether it be the study of a book or creating an argument to persuade an audience. In history – I did do Ancient History (for whatever reason, it was fun), and I assume it was the same in Modern History – there wasn’t much of that at all. There was an intense focus on research, producing large amounts of information and being able to convey it in a workbook or a presentation. It was brilliant in terms of research skills, but beyond that it was, in retrospect, lacking. The most interesting moment of it all was when there was an impromptu debate between me – researching King Harold II – and a friend of mine – who researched William the Conqueror.
For those unaware, Harold was the King of England defeated in the Battle of Hastings, when William invaded. To hear the story from William’s perspective, the throne had previously been promised to him by Harold should Edward the Confessor die. Something that Harold denied when the time came. Harold was crowned the next King, prompting the invasion. The Bayeux Tapestry and other sources corroborated William’s version of events, but if Edward had named a successor, then any other promise made would have been irrelevant.
The debate was this: did William, who claimed Harold had promised him the throne, or Harold, who was elected the new King by the Witan, denied William’s claim, and stated that Edward has name him the rightful successor, have the rightful claim to the throne?
The answer may never be known. Many sources, as mentioned, including the Bayeux Tapestry, corroborate William’s story, but the argument could be made that this is merely because he won the battle against Harold. The King also did have the “final say” regarding his successor, so if Harold’s claim that he was named on Edward’s deathbed were true, then it was his by right. This is impossible to confirm or deny, however, as Edward (if memory serves correctly) passed surrounded only by people close to him and Harold, so the chances of Harold making it all up cannot be dismissed.
Overall, I believe most of the class sided with William, which is entirely fair – it is history long since passed, and it is difficult to ascertain for sure how events really unfolded. But what is the purpose of this 11th Century diversion from Vietnam and the modern education system? The purpose was to show just how much more interesting history is when analysis and critical thinking is applied to it, as opposed to simply stating facts from books and websites. It was only a mock debate in one of our final lessons, but it was fun and actually made the class consider both sides of the argument.
Now, with modern history things are a little more set in stone – while not everything may be detailed exactly, we have very, very accurate depictions of the events of the last couple of centuries. Some may have disagreements here and there, but generally if you look, you can find an accurate and compelling record. But there is an added difficulty, which is an oversaturation of information, much of it which can be misleading or false. Instead of being fed facts and told to collate more, we should be fostering more critical thinking skills.
Again, it would not feasible to teach a comprehensive history of something as complex and vast as the Vietnam War, but there is much scope for making such topics more interesting and engaging for students by approaching it from a more critical standpoint. No, I am not going to advocate for teachers to foster hatred towards the US or the West – what I am advocating is a freer and more involved study of such events, where students are able to reach their own conclusions based on their own research. They should be encouraged to find sources from multiple perspectives, to find books and articles they can cite. At the end, they could all come together and share what they’ve learned, allowing them to discuss their findings and sort out any discrepancies.
Teachers and students won’t be bound to a set curriculum, and it gives both the opportunity to learn more from each other doing research and analysis. They don’t need to know everything about the War, but they will have engaged with it as a topic much more thoroughly and with interest, as opposed to simply absorbing information and instantly forgetting it the moment the unit is over. Out of everything I did in Ancient History, or even school in general, that debate still stands out, in retrospect, as one of the most interesting activities. It was completely freeform and allowed us all to discuss things in a critical way.
All history should be taught in a similar fashion, I feel. Teach the base, fundamental facts of the events, obviously, but the interpretations and research of these is something that we should all encourage people to engage with openly. It would restrict the idea of a curriculum writing its own version of history, which is inherently propagandistic, even if that’s not the explicit intent, and would equip students with much more comprehensive knowledge and skills.
I don’t claim to have all the answers to ‘fixing’ the education system, but there are many small ways we can adjust it to open up a creativity and inquisitiveness that generally appears to be lacking. The more freedom and expression students (and teachers) can have, the better their educational outcomes could become.
Liked this? Read Dark Emu: A Reflection (another piece where I talked about the lack of education on history)
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