What American textbooks say about Vietnam, and about Americans’ attitudes toward war


This blog examines what a country’s textbooks can tell us about their attitude towards war, and in particular how coverage of the Vietnam war has changed over time in American textbooks. It is part of a series of blogs on this site published to encourage debates around a new GEM Report Policy Paper: Between the Lines, which looks at the content of textbooks and how it reflects some of the key concepts in Target 4.7 in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

By Richard Lachmann, Professor of Sociology, University at Albany

Textbooks are opportunities for governments to instill patriotic values in school children. Such values are especially important if a government wants its citizens to support future wars. Governments that seek to convince their soldiers to fight, kill and die in wars need to present past wars as glorious and honorable and minimize the wartime suffering of the country’s soldiers. However, textbooks, deliberately or inadvertently, can also open space for ‘critical pedagogy’ that undercuts militarism by presenting the human costs of war for soldiers and civilians.

Textbooks are especially influential in shaping US students’ opinions on war. This is because American high school teachers, unlike their counterparts in Europe and Asia, are not trained in history, having majored in education or social science disciplines, like sociology or psychology. Thus, the decisions made by US textbook authors and publishers are decisive in determining what students learn about America’s wars.

Publishers in the US, as elsewhere, want to sell as many books as possible and therefore seek to avoid offending the often-conservative state and local school boards that select textbooks. This leads to fairly bland volumes that say little about controversial topics like the Vietnam War, or that muddle any contentious message with multiple points of view. Nevertheless, even as publishers try to evade controversy, textbook authors, as they select words and images, make editorial choices that shape how students view specific wars and influence their stance toward the military and war in general.

The ‘hidden curriculum’ in US history textbooks:  the impersonal approach to the Vietnam war

NYHQ2008-0145The Vietnam War has been America’s most contentious foreign war. It was the one war the United States unambiguously lost, and it provoked a level of domestic opposition greater than any other US foreign war. (The Civil War provoked great opposition, even within the North, but it did not involve a foreign enemy.)  For those reasons, textbook depictions of the Vietnam War provide a good insight into critical views of war, and shines the light on those who opposed a war while it was going on.

With a graduate student Lacy Mitchell, I examined U.S. high school social studies textbooks published between 1970 and 2009. I found that in the early 1970s, during the last years of the Vietnam War and its immediate aftermath, descriptions of the war were mainly impersonal and presented the actions of American soldiers in neutral terms.

For example, textbooks paid little attention to the experiences of individual American soldiers. Instead the chapters on Vietnam mention the numbers of casualties without evaluating the worth or costs of soldiers’ sacrifices; accounts of battles such as the Gulf of Tonkin or Khe Sanh present events and outcomes without presenting soldiers actions as either glorious or hellish.

In essence, textbooks showed American actors in Vietnam as the United States, or its armed forces as a collectivity rather than as individuals who fought in the wars. The dominance of this impersonal approach to Vietnam, and to the other U.S. wars discussed in textbooks, supports the view that textbooks offer a ‘hidden curriculum’ of militarism and nationalism. However, this approach has changed since the 1970s.

1990s onward: US textbooks portray the reality of the war on the ground.

Decade by decade, the Vietnam War has been presented in increasingly negative terms. In our inventory of textbook items (paragraphs, photographs, student exercises) the percentage that presented the Vietnam War as glorious fell from 5% in 1970 to close to 0% in the 1990s, and it has remained at zero in subsequent decades. The share of items that present the war as hellish rose from 15% in 1970 to 33% in 2009. All the negative portrayals show the horror of the war through the personal experiences of American soldiers and focus on their deaths and suffering.

Photos of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam have also become increasingly graphic. In the 1960s and 1970s, photos show helicopters over Vietnamese terrain with no humans present and fully intact U.S. soldiers. Beginning in the 1980s, textbooks include more and more photos of booby traps designed to mangle the bodies of soldiers, bloody and bandaged soldiers, soldiers crying alone with captions describing their mourning of lost comrades, and disabled veterans. Soldiers are quoted directly describing their own suffering and trauma.

Vietnam also stands out from textbooks’ approach to other American wars in that coverage of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and veterans’ issues became a key theme after the opening of the Memorial in 1982. Textbooks occasionally have photos of memorials for other wars but do not discuss them in the chapters on those wars.

It is important to emphasize that, despite these changes, U.S. textbooks still have almost nothing to say about the suffering and deaths of Vietnamese soldiers or civilians. Students who read U.S. textbooks can come away thinking that only Americans suffer in war. Similarly, Japanese textbooks ignore Japan’s World War II atrocities while German textbooks give great attention Nazi war crimes and genocide. Textbooks that mention the My Lai massacre (and that is the only reference to Vietnamese civilian deaths in most of the textbooks) present it as an isolated incident. The focus on Americans’ pain also allows textbooks to avoid any discussion of American responsibility and guilt for the war. Antiwar protests are noted in the textbooks, but no attention is given to the content of the protesters’ criticisms.

It may be that American textbooks’ increasing focus on the suffering of individual soldiers in the Vietnam war is a reflection of a growing ‘world culture’ that values individual persons above the nation or governments. However, although it was present, we found much less focus on soldiers’ suffering in textbook discussions of World War II, suggesting that the Vietnam coverage was in part a response to a unique military defeat. Nevertheless, the highly negative portrayal of Vietnam, and the increasing focus on American soldiers’ suffering in other wars, reflect and may contribute to a growing intolerance, at least in the United States and other wealthy nations, towards casualties of a nation’s own soldiers.

There is a need for future research to see how textbook depictions of war interact with those in news reports, movies, and other media to shape public support for future wars.

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1 Response to What American textbooks say about Vietnam, and about Americans’ attitudes toward war

  1. H. Abadzi says:

    Very good and unusual thoughts about textbooks. Dealing with controversial issues is controversial in itself.
    The analysis has missed the fact that the Vitenam war included a draft of all males. Shortly thereafter the draft was abolished, and the US army became ‘professional.” This means that no scions of prominent families are at risk any longer. Soldiers come from lower-income strata and are dispensable. And if soldiers died in the recent wars, well, they knew the risks before signing up. Politicians are more likely to send soldiers to war knowing that they come from families that have little if any influence.


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