UK scholars filling void in Vietnamese history

The Vietnam War has been under historians’ microscope since its beginnings. Even so, a full accounting of the war is lacking, said Lien-Hang Nguyen, assistant history professor.

There are many detailed histories written on the war from Americans’ perspective but there are few examining the Vietnamese experience.

It’s a void Nguyen is trying to fill with her own scholarship.

Much of the scholarship on Vietnam to come out of UK is thanks to George C. Herring, Nguyen said.

Herring, a renowned scholar of the Vietnam War, focused on U.S. foreign relations during his time at UK, where he taught from 1969 until retiring two years ago. He has published a critically acclaimed history of the war, “America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975.”

“George Herring has trained I don’t know how many Vietnam scholars,” Nguyen said.

After Herring retired, Nguyen filled his role in the history department with her focus on the Vietnam War. There is no program designated to Vietnamese studies at UK. At one time, the school was, along with Cornell University, a center for Southeast Asian studies, Herring said in a speech last year.

UK also has graduated many distinguished Vietnam scholars like Robert K. Brigham, a history professor at Vassar College; Robert J. Topmiller, a history professor at Eastern Kentucky University; and Clarence R. Wyatt, history professor, chief planning officer and special assistant to the president at Centre College.

Nguyen has very personal reasons for wanting to improve the record of Vietnamese experience during the war.

When she was 5 months old, Nguyen’s family fled Saigon on April 29, 1975 – one day before the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong captured the city, ending the war.

Her father fought for the South Vietnamese during the 1960s and, if he stayed in the country, would likely have been sent to a re-education camp. But her parents never wanted to leave their home and waited as long as they could.

“They just loved their country,” Nguyen said. “That’s all they knew.”

Her family eventually settled in a suburb outside of Philadelphia after being sponsored by a Methodist Church. Life was difficult for her parents, trying to provide for nine children in a new country. Some of Nguyen’s neighbors lost sons and brothers during the war and her family had to deal with racism on top of everything else.

But all Nguyen’s siblings attended college. She went on to graduate school where she decided to dedicate her studies to the war her family fled.

Education about Vietnam and improved histories are needed now as much as ever, Nguyen said, especially given the parallels drawn to the Iraq War.

The Vietnam War is the only connection most students have to Vietnam, Nguyen said, and most learn about the war through popular movies and connections to Iraq, but neither of these sources can really teach the war.

An interest in the Vietnam War in younger generations shows how it “still lingers in our collective memory,” Nguyen said. But she said there is much more to learn from the Vietnam War experience than how it compares to Iraq.

“That’s not the only historical lesson I would hope a young person would take away,” Nguyen said.

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