Understanding Vietnam (Online Version)

The website for my online version of Understanding Vietnam went live today. I asked each student to post something about themselves in the discussion forum. This is what I wrote to get the discussion started:

I first got interested in Vietnam in 1968 when I had to sign up with the Selective Service & became eligible for the draft. At that time, there was a system in place in which college students were given deferments from the draft, at least until they graduated. Since I went on to college in 1969, I had such a deferment. But the draft was changing, at least partly in response to protests about its unfairness. Young men, not going on to college – working class, often minority – were getting drafted & sent to fight in Vietnam while middle class kids like me got a pass. So in 1970 a lottery system was initiated: Each day of the year was pulled out of a hopper one at a time & the order recorded. If your birthday came out of the hopper early you got a low number that meant you would be chosen for the draft before someone with a higher number. No more student deferments. I remember very clearly sitting around my dorm room at the University of Washington in Seattle with several friends listening on the radio to Selective Service officials as they pulled numbers out of the bin. My roommate got number 26. I got 350. Since there was a new lottery each year & each crop of eighteen-year-olds became eligible in turn, my number virtually assured me that I would not be drafted.

We’ll talk more about the draft in the fifth & sixth weeks of the class – I mention it here, as I said, because it focused my attention on the war then raging in Vietnam. Even after I lucked out with a high number, I joined protests against the war. Over the course of the semester we will discuss the politics of the war in detail, so I’ll only say here that I believe those of us who were against the war got it right and those who supported the war got it wrong.

After the war wound down in 1973 - 1975, like most Americans, I mostly forgot about it. It wasn’t until the mid 1990s, in fact, that Vietnam came into focus for me again. I had an opportunity to spend a month there in 1996 on a study tour with several other academics. It is not an exaggeration to say I fell in love with the place. I went back for several visits in the early 1990s, then in 2000 – 2001 I spent a year living & working in Hanoi as a Fulbright Research Scholar. It was one of the most intense & important years of my life. I worked to learn a bit of the Vietnamese language – I’m hardly fluent – and to understand the relationship between my country & Vietnam, who had been such bitter enemies only three decades earlier. That experience is the basis of this course.


Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.