by David Chamberlain, Kennett High School, North Conway, NH, 2009
The Vietnam War was America’s longest and arguably most divisive conflict. Many of America’s most prominent public intellectuals, particularly those on the ideological left, expressed concern and even repugnance for the direction of American foreign policy in Southeast Asia. Curiously, John Steinbeck, the noted author who expressed support and admiration for progressive causes at home such as the New Deal and civil rights legislation, was supportive, even hawkish, in his support of American involvement in Vietnam.
In order for students to gain an understanding of the complexity and diversity of opinion which characterized the public discourse over the Vietnam War, the class will consider the writings of three prominent voices of the period: John Steinbeck, Senator William Fulbright, and Martin Luther King. Although this lesson is specifically designed for an American History class, with minor modification it could easily be used in American Literature classes.
Students will need to read closely the seven selections enumerated below in the materials section. Students in advanced and college preparatory courses will require roughly one week to read the pieces, annotate them appropriately, and formulate questions for discussion. After the conclusion of the reading period, students will engage in a dialogic discussion of the readings. Dialogic discussion puts the students and their thoughts and questions at the center of the experience. The readings are sufficiently rich and controversial to stimulate a wide ranging and profound discussion. The role of the teacher in this type of discussion is similar to that of a professor in a seminar class. The teacher should seek clarification of specific points, organize the discussion so that all participants have the opportunity to participate, and galvanize the class if discussion falters or if the conversation fails to achieve the desired level of depth and sophistication. While this type of activity is designed to allow a space for student centered discourse, it is often helpful for teachers to provide a framework through a set of guiding or essential questions. I have provided a list of five such questions below. These can either be assigned for consideration during the reading period or the teacher can use them to nudge the conversation forward during the class discussion itself.
All students will need copies of the following five pieces by John Steinbeck: "Vietnam: No Front, No Rear", "Action in the Delta", "Terrorism", "Puff the Magic Dragon", and "An Open Letter to Poet Yevtushshenko". All of these pieces are available conveniently in a one volume collection of Steinbeck’s writings entitled America and Americans. Students will also need copies of Senator William Fulbright’s "On the Arrogance of Power" and Martin Luther King’s "Beyond Vietnam".
Questions to provoke and shape discussion
- Steinbeck was the only one of the three authors to have visited Vietnam and observed events on the ground with his own eyes. Do you think that this direct experience colored his perspective and if so how? Does it make him a more reliable analyst and observer?
- Confirm, refute, or modify the following proposition: Steinbeck excels at describing the tactical details of the conflict and the battlefield experience of combatants but shows little awareness for Vietnam’s historical experience prior to American interventionism.
- Compare and contrast Steinbeck’s and Fulbright’s thoughts on the efficacy of American weaponry and technology. In particular, compare Fulbright’s use of the Chinese proverb "In shallow waters dragons become the sport of shrimps" with the perspective shown in Steinbeck’s essay "Puff the Magic Dragon".
- King’s opposition to the Vietnam War is informed by his dissatisfaction with the entrenched racism that still existed in the United States in 1967. How does King use the prism of race to understand American foreign policy? How does race factor into Steinbeck’s understanding of the conflict?
- King, Fulbright, and Steinbeck all implicitly grapple with the issue of the agency of the Vietnamese people or to state it in another way all of the authors express opinions on the ability of the Vietnamese people to make decisions for themselves. How does each writer explore this question and who do you think has the most compelling argument?