Ron Milam, Hai Nguyen and Amber Batura help kick off "Vietnam '67."
Researchers working in Texas Tech University's Vietnam Center and Archive are sharing their work on a wider scale through a new weekly series in the New York Times.
The series, called "Vietnam '67," focuses on the year that changed the Vietnam War and America. A new installment is published every Tuesday.
"As the leading research institution for Vietnam War scholarship in the world through our world-renowned Vietnam Center and Archive, I was honored that the New York Times recognized us and sought me out to write the first Tuesday article," said Ron Milam, interim executive director of Texas Tech's new Institute for Peace and Conflict (IPAC) and an associate professor in the Department of History. "I also told them about the many graduate students here who are working on exciting projects."
Milam said the 50th anniversary of that year coincided perfectly with plans already underway at the university.
"IPAC had already planned a conference for April 28-29 here in Lubbock entitled " 1967: The Search for Peace' when I was approached by the New York Times," he said. "So I mentioned our project and the perfect timing for my article, and some proposed other participants from Texas Tech."
"Our graduate students studying the Vietnam War – on all sides – are the next generation of Vietnam War scholars, and I am very proud of them and the recognition they have received from the New York Times," Milam said. "Hai Nguyen from Vietnam and Amber Batura from Ozona, Texas, represent many of our other students doing incredible work."
Milam, a Vietnam veteran and author of the book "Not a Gentleman's War: An Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War," wrote the article, "1967: The Era of Big Battles in Vietnam."
"It was America's military plan to force the enemy into multi-divisional battles that would put an end to the war," Milam said. "It did not work in that the North Vietnamese leaders knew that such battles would be won by the Americans and decimate their troop strength. Instead, they chose to fight on their own terms and to resist large scale confrontations."
Hai Nguyen, a doctoral student in history, grew up in Vietnam and learned about the Vietnam War in school. But because he understood that what he has learned might be propaganda, he came to the United States to find war stories from both sides, the Vietnamese and the Americans.
Texas Tech appealed to him because the Vietnam Center and Archive houses official reports and communications along with the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong soldiers' diaries and letters gathered from the battlefield by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
Using firsthand accounts found in these documents, Nguyen was able to find and interview some of the participants. Some of the results are shared in his article, "As the Earth Shook, They Stood Firm," including the stories of a young South Vietnamese woman and her Viet Cong comrades who fought against the Americans. More than 40 years after the war ended, they shared with Nguyen the difficulties they faced but also the humanity they felt toward the American soldiers.
"I found out a story that's quite different from the party propaganda or institutional history in Vietnam," he said. "I think the oral history and captured documents provide a new perspective on the Vietnam War, and not only the Vietnamese end. There are new stories, what I call the " new past' of the war. I focus on the humanity perspective, the hidden memories from eyewitness combatants. I want to know the personal motivations, the personal experience. It's an incredible story."
Under the direction of Milam, Justin Hart, Laura Calkins and Gretchen Adams, Nguyen focuses on individual histories hidden within the organic memories of combatants in the Vietnam War to provide perspective on how personal and collective memory may conflict or be compatible, as well as how they may be used to shape or even reshape the stories of history.
"To me, the Vietnam War never ends in Vietnam or the U.S. because the memories of these soldiers are much more than an agency of personal remembrance," he said. "Rather, they are a force that inspires the history of the war and informs us today about the motivations, challenges, and perceptions for all wars in all eras."
Batura, a doctoral student in history, had a roundabout journey to studying the Vietnam War. While studying gender and women's history for her master's degree, she began to research Playboy Bunnies, the women who worked as waitresses in its clubs in the 1960s. Because she was studying the same time period as the Vietnam War, she tried the Vietnam Center and Archive to find materials on her topic. To her surprise, she found hundreds of search results.
"I am fascinated with ideas about gender, sexuality and cultural influences and how those impact our daily lives," she said. "As I studied more about the Vietnam War, I was touched by stories of the soldiers and interested in the idea that when we speak of soldiers, we typically don't explore or talk about how the same cultural influences we experience as civilians impact their lives as soldiers. Are those experiences different in a wartime environment? I wanted to explore why Playboy was so popular among these troops. Was it just because of the nudity? That didn't explain why other magazines that depicted far more graphic nudity weren't more popular then."
Her article, "How Playboy Explains Vietnam," shows that the magazine conveyed to American soldiers the changes in social and sexual norms happening in the United States. The articles shared the latest news in lifestyles, entertainment and technology to keep the soldiers aware of life back home. Later, the magazine included hard-hitting features on important social, cultural and political issues including feminism, abortion, gay rights, race and more – news the soldiers wouldn't have gotten from other sources, as Batura pointed out. And with advice columns, soldiers were even able to correspond with the magazine.
Carie Nguyen, whose article will be published this summer, is writing about American soldiers' attitudes toward their allies, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
Batura said she feels incredibly proud to have her article published in the New York Times.
"I am a first-generation college student; not only am I the first person able to attend college in my family, but I am very close to obtaining my doctorate. I am from a pretty small town in West Texas and have worked for most of my life to reach this goal," she explained. "Seeing my name in the New York Times, seeing my research there, felt like a major milestone and a major blessing. I am so fortunate to be where I am and so thankful for the many people who have supported me to get here. Seeing that article just reminds me where I started from and how much hard work can pay off."
She also notes that her research is just one example of a changing trend in Vietnam War research. It's a trend she expects to be highly beneficial for Texas Tech.
"The field is expanding so much to include more studies on how war impacts society, how society and culture impact war, and on the idea of peace, which has long been understood as just the absence of war, I think," Batura said. "IPAC will provide a forum in which interested scholars can communicate their ideas, bringing people from different fields together, to discuss the impact war and peace has on our daily lives. For the Vietnam War in particular, I think this is an important shift in the scholarship since this war has had such a lasting impact and legacy on our national memory and identity."
Milam said he's glad the New York Times readers now have the opportunity to see the quality work being produced by Texas Tech's Vietnam War scholars. It's a sentiment Hai Nguyen echoed.
"I think all the Vietnam War scholars right now and in the future will want to come to Texas Tech," Nguyen said. "They want to get the Vietnam War material from the Vietnam Archives and they want to discuss with scholars. Ron Milam and the IPAC have laid a foundation for a young generation of Vietnam War scholars. I think the IPAC will continue to be the best research institution on the Vietnam War."