New generation dissects Vietnam War Students see conflict as something they need to know about.

November 30, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Lis Brown remembers when the draft notice came in the mail. It was December 1966. "We were terrified," she recalled. "We associated Vietnam with death."

Three decades have passed since Brown was a newlywed and her husband, Tony, left to enter the Marines. Now, as a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Colorado at Boulder, she plans to use her memories and those of other wives of Vietnam xTC veterans in her dissertation, which will look at the Vietnam War through the eyes of the women who were left behind.

Brown is part of what some academics are calling the "second wave" of scholarship on the war. While the first wave looked largely at the foreign policy and military aspects of Vietnam, today's students are exploring its ramifications in areas ranging from popular culture to contemporary politics.

Indeed, the conflict, which retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the commander of American forces in Vietnam, called "the most unpopular war we have ever fought," is attracting larger numbers of students than ever.

According to figures compiled by CMG Information Services of Wilmington, Mass., which compiles and sells faculty lists to book publishers and other companies, the number of college faculty members teaching history courses on the Vietnam era has more than doubled during the past decade.

In 1986, the CMG data show, 157 faculty members were teaching the history of the war era. This year, 351 college teachers planned to delve into the period.

The courses are in high demand. At Harvard University last spring, the second most popular history course was "America and Vietnam."

At Colorado State University, John Pratt, an English professor, has turned away students from his course on the literature of the Vietnam war, which relies on a handful of the more than 700 novels that have been written on the topic.

At the University of California at Santa Cruz, students can take a course called "From Hanoi to Hollywood: the Vietnam War on Film." Geoffrey Dunn, who teaches the course, said it was the most popular social science course offering during last summer's session.

At Northern Virginia Community College in Manassas, "The American Experience in Vietnam" is "extremely popular," said Sheri David, a history professor. "I can't not teach it," she added.

An increasing number of graduate students are studying the war as well. University Microforms International, which publishes doctoral dissertations, says that it published 37 dissertations written last year on various aspects of the Vietnam War, up from 14 in 1980.

Similarly, 28 books with Vietnam in their titles were published in 1980. Last year, according to Books in Print, that number rose to 140.

Academics point to several reasons for the increasing interest in the war.

Lloyd Gardener, a professor of history at Rutgers University who has written extensively on Vietnam, said new research materials are becoming available domestically and abroad. For instance, the federal government is declassifying many documents that are shedding new light on the war.

In addition, "There is a sense among today's students that the 1960s are something that we have to know about," he said. "And the Vietnam War was an integral part of the '60s."

The war in Vietnam, Gardener added, "was a watershed in American history in the same way that World War II was a watershed. World War II established us as a great power. And Vietnam shattered that idea."

Statistics reveal some of the damage: Almost 58,000 American soldiers were killed in the conflict, which cost American taxpayers an estimated $167 billion.

The war ensnared two presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, and the anti-war movement spawned some of the worst civil unrest in American history, including that on college campuses.

Nearly 25 years after the last American combat soldier left Vietnam, the effects of the war are still being felt, affecting issues ranging from Bill Clinton's early presidential aspirations to the decision on whether to use American troops in Bosnia.

"It still grips us," said George Herring, a history professor at the University of Kentucky, "in our distrust of government and our anxiety about interventions abroad."

Lis Brown, 56, who worked as a secretary in the Denver public school system after raising her children, decided to study the war shortly after her husband died in 1993.

Tony Brown, who served as an air navigator in the Marines for six months in Vietnam, died of Hodgkin's disease -- a form of cancer that his wife believes may have been caused by exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange, which was used in Vietnam.

Brown, who has two grown sons, said she chose her dissertation subject as a way to grieve for and honor her husband. But she added that Vietnam is "a great historical topic."

"It's so dramatic," she said. "It's something that people our age and our kids want to understand and want to know about."

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