Historians, Policymakers Reflect on American Experience in Southeast Asia, 1946-1975

Posted by Lindsay Krasnoff
October 1, 2010

About the Author: Lindsay Krasnoff serves as a Historian in the State Department's Office of the Historian.

The first day of our conference was a long one -- 12 hours of events and programs -- yet eventful. Secretary Clinton opened the conference, reminding us that, "people do not easily shake off the weight of history." The concept of history -- what it is, the different ways that one may reflect on it, and how history can be used in the realm of diplomacy and international affairs -- was one of the central themes addressed by each of our speakers, scholars, and panelists. Throughout the day, we were reminded of how much the history of the period of American involvement in Southeast Asia, from 1946 through 1975, marked and shaped the United States in a multitude of ways -- and how much this history is still with us today.

History through the eyes of those who participated in it was the prevalent theme for the first half of the day. Dr. Kissinger and Ambassador Holbrooke told the audience about their experiences conducting U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, while two scholars from Vietnam, Ambassador Tran Van Tung and Dr. Nguyen Manh Ha, exposed us to "The View from Hanoi." However, it is also important to think about how one can use history, as the several of the senior scholars of the field reminded us yesterday afternoon. How can historians make history more accessible, and how can policymakers better use history to help inform them when making present-day policy decisions were two important questions raised for reflection.

Those who participated in the evening's media roundtable forced the audience to look at the history of the Vietnam War through yet a different lens. In sharing their experiences of covering the war, from both Vietnam and Washington, DC, William Beecher and Morley Safer gave us a better perspective of what went on behind the scenes of the media's coverage of the war and U.S. policy at the time. Moderator Marvin Kalb not only shared his experiences, but directed the discussion over a range of topics that included how the panelists felt their coverage impacted U.S. policy. Edith Lederer provided countless examples of what it was like to be a female reporter in Vietnam covering the war and the various obstacles she encountered, while Barry Zorthian explained what it was like to be on the other side of the divide while he served as the U.S. Minister Counselor for Information and Director of the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office in Vietnam.

Ambassador Negroponte began our second day by asking us how we wish to teach the Vietnam War to our students, and to reconsider some of the popular myths that surround this period in our history. The four academic panels today investigated how the United States interacted with its allies, how force and diplomacy were used during the Vietnam War, and what can be learned from the history of the counterinsurgency and reconstruction programs in Vietnam. The final panel of the conference brought the entire experience back home to the United States, with a look at the reaction of Americans to the U.S. intervention in Vietnam.



Susan C.
Florida, USA
October 1, 2010

Susan C. in Florida writes:

@Lindsay...I would be interested in what are the myths surrounding this period in our history?! I know for sure that our involvement in the Vietnam "conflict" tore our country apart, and changed a generation's view of our government, our military, and our policies toward other nations. My Dad so trusted our country and would not, and could not, believe that our government would lie to us or do anything other than the most "honorable" thing. For my generation Vietnam changed that view forever. That is not a myth and no revision of history will change that!

Sinan .
October 1, 2010

Sinan O. in Turkey writes:

Hello Office of the Historian, thanks. I listened you now. see you.
Sinan O.

John P.
October 1, 2010

John P. in Greece writes:

That’s why I love our DipNote. It raises questions and produces New Millennium philosophy. So, I ask, Why “history” only, and not “future” too?

Both of them are not sciences, right?
You cannot have the same results during the same experiments.
So, both, are not sciences!

However, in schools, colleges and universities, all around the world, we teach “history”, but we don not teach “future”.

According to my opinion, in order to start teaching “future” we have to “abandon” some of the history. Or at least some of our nationalistic ego.

“future 101” has to do with teaching the collaboration of different people: FUTURE, that can make our lives better, all of which is sometimes difficult for plenty of us to understand on the ground that we have to withdraw some of the “history 104”, because it does not work anymore, destroying future.

I am not saying that we have to forget what happened, but, we must be historically sober, planning our best future.

New Mexico, USA
October 4, 2010

Eric in New Mexico writes:

@John P. in Greece, and Linsey Krasnoff,

It's all relative when yesterday's tommorrow is the now.

But then we have Dipnote, which makes a historian's job a piece of cake since the State dept now has a running diary it keeps on the dept.'s nightstand waiting for a 4:00am revelation to be posted by the sunrise of a new day.

Personally I think Sec. PJ Crowley, as the Dept.'s pre-eminant spokesman-person (sic) should perhaps consider doing a weekly bi-line on the blog...if I may be so bold as to suggest he might call it, "the seventh inning stretch" in accordance with the common tradition of baseball and diplomacy that it is dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future-and that it ain't over till the fat lady sings...or maybe that's more beholden to comic opera, but here in this weekly heretical "hot off the cuff" weekly reminicence...he may freely engage with the public on all topics hypothetical, and the accepted caveat is always in play that no official policy statement be implied in simply responding to the great "what if?".

Soley intended for the futherance of ideas and a good time had by all who dare to speculate.

Thus I hope he'd find the title suggestion appropriately suitable for such a social experiment.

Practical reason for this is not just because I think PJ should get to cut loose on some relative philosophical levels in relation to international affairs (more than his job already entails), but that it humanizes our government in a way that official doctrine and policy just can't.

My government engages with a lot worse than hypotheticals on the world stage, yet get a public servant to try and answer one and it's worse than trying to get an Iranian leader to come to the table and negotiate.

So the only answer is to give the man a chance to create a space he can step outside his "official capacity" and host "the war of ideas".

See, take the millenium goals for instance...did they or didn't they...when the goals were first debated and approved in the UNGA, accept as a hypothetical that the international community could conciously reverse engineer dysfunctional human behavior and end millenia of rampant poverty and subvert the Four Nobel Truths (suffering, the causes of suffering, the process of suffering, and the end of suffering)?

And if the hypothetical had not been entertainained at all?

Moot point, que no?

The "art of the possible" is possible because hypotheticly speaking, it is how the great "what if?" is honored.

And perhaps only a historian would appreciate such twisted logic and call it useful to percieving what was.. that is to be now and then, and possibly later, but I just call it perspective. (chuckle)

There can never be a failure of imagination within the "seventh inning stretch" because folks will be looking for that bright pearl in all the hullabaloo.

A place to kick around the philosophical concepts the underpinnings of policy are based upon and the derivitives thereof, intended and unintended concequence alike, and a healthy debate.

Take the rampant speculation surounding the latest UBL tape in that he may have gone searching for the meaning of life, and suddenly found something called empathy for the flood victims of Pakistan.

Or is it merely crocodile tears...?

More like a desperate bid for credibility.

( subjective hypothetical example of a hypothetical stretch of any sane imagination in regards to insane people's behavior)

Who says you can't read the minds of madmen anyway? It's simply an excercise in probability theory, and a little observation.

Ok, so to convince PJ he'll never forgive me for this suggestion, I'll be bolder still and suggest that the first question posed on the first installment of the "seventh inning stretch" be; "How many Taliban does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"


Or perhaps something of some weight to it like an old question of mine long gone unanswered in full;

"When battleships give way to sailboats, how does the world realize its true self?"

(offered here again specificly now as a Koan of many applications, gifted to the Chinese and Japanese leadership to help resolve their current differences)

See, hypotheticals change mindsets, and thusly change the world.


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