PBS in the Classroom

Why Should We Teach Our Students About the Vietnam War?

  • SHARE:

The Background and Consequences

Within most social studies classes throughout America, students learn about the horrors of WWI and WWII.  From trench warfare, machine guns, and mustard gas to Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust and the atomic bomb, our students learn the causes and consequences of war.  Unfortunately, usually due to time constraints, lessons about the Vietnam War are often not fully addressed by educators.

Every war has a unique story, and within each war’s story, there are thousands of other stories. Most of us with a relative who  fought in WWII have heard their accounts. However, most Vietnam vets were made to feel as though they should not share their stories. American society was rough on our servicemen and women when they came home. Vietnam vets were made to feel as though they had let our country down, as opposed to WWII vets who returned home as conquering heroes. Facing numerous difficulties, returning Vietnam vets were spit on, called “druggies” and “baby killers.” They were looked down upon by many in society and not given the psychological support they needed. Many retreated within themselves and never told their story.


The War Hits Home

As a child during the 1960s, I spent many dinners with my family watching CBS’ Walter Cronkite report the evening news and the events occurring both in Vietnam and stateside. Every evening, we listened to the report of those American soldiers who were declared to be either killed or missing in action. A local organization sold silver metal Prisoner of War (P.O.W.) bracelets.  I wore mine every day for over five years. My family had a personal interest in the war as my Uncle Gary, my Mother’s brother, was a helicopter pilot for the U.S. Army. As the war progressed, my family was informed that while flying on a mission, he had been shot and was gravely wounded.  Fortunately, after an extensive operation, my Uncle survived. After spending 18 months in the Denver VA hospital, he was released. This personal connection led me to a lifelong quest for more knowledge about the war and an unwavering appreciation of our Vietnam vets.


The Vietnam War Within the Classroom

Today, our students may have relatives who fought or were nurses or doctors during the Vietnam War. But our students do not truly have the knowledge or understanding of the war or its veterans. It is imperative that this generation of young people comprehend the many facets of the Vietnam War because the lessons learned are numerous and valuable. The war risked American lives for military and political objectives that most people never really understood. In addition, it damaged the United States economy and its overall reputation as an example of democratic principles. There are a variety of ways to teach about the war. Within my course, students read primary source articles, poems, and first-hand accounts written by combat vets, medics, field reporters, and more. They watch PBS documentaries and then actively engage in meaningful Socratic discussions. Furthermore, guest speakers comprised of combat veterans, as well as protestors against the war, talk openly and frankly to the students. This event leads to an even deeper understanding of the issues surrounding the war. In addition, deliberate lectures, short-answer essays, and having students write in-depth prose are all effective forms of instruction that lead students towards analyzing important aspects of the war, its aftermath and consequences.  

Instilling a Deeper Understanding

Thankfully, many Americans’ opinions have evolved regarding our Vietnam vets. Through time and subsequent military engagements overseas, society’s view has become more knowledgeable, positive and supportive. Hopefully, through continued meaningful curriculum and effective instruction, educators can aid in this endeavor. The effects of the Vietnam War are still prevalent today and our students would benefit from having a deeper understanding. Our students and our Vietnam veterans deserve no less.

Looking for Vietnam War resources for your classroom? Visit PBS LearningMedia's new collection, Teaching the Vietnam War, including resources from Ken Burns & Lynn Novick's new film THE VIETNAM WAR.

Susan Sittenauer is in her 33rd year of teaching U.S. History and Civil and Criminal Rights at Seaman High School in Topeka, KS. Sittenauer is a 2014 Lowell Milken Fellow and in 2013 was named the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Kansas History Teacher of the Year. She is a member of the Kansas iCivics committee, the Topeka Youth Court Advisory Council, the Unsung Hero Kansas Curriculum Committee, and has worked with over 3000 students as part of the National History Day program.She is one of 20 teachers nationwide to participate in the “Founders Footsteps” program sponsored by the Bill of Rights Institute and 30 teachers nationwide to participate in the Street Law U.S. Supreme Court Summer Institute.

Susan Sittenauer

Susan Sittenauer High School Social Studies Teacher

Join the PBS Teachers Community

Stay up to date on the latest blog posts, content, tools, and more from PBS Education!