Teaching Diverse Perspectives on the Vietnam War

On Veterans Day 2021, SPICE Director Gary Mukai reflects on some lesser-known stories of Vietnam War veterans.
an image of five men at the beach and an image of a man standing Charley Trujillo (second from right) in Vietnam, 1970, and at San Jose Vietnam War Memorial, 2021; 1970 photo courtesy Charley Trujillo

On Veterans Day last week, I was reflective of my relatives and friends who are veterans of U.S. wars. My parents were migrant farmworkers and sharecroppers before and after World War II and several of my relatives are veterans of World War II. I also grew up as a farmworker, and most of my co-workers were migrant laborers from Mexico contracted through the Bracero Program. The Bracero Program was a 22-year initiative started in 1942 that allowed the United States to recruit temporary guest workers from Mexico. The laborers, called braceros, or individuals who work with their arms, were mostly concentrated in California. I attended school with many children of braceros.

Several of my classmates and family friends—including some children of my bracero co-workers—served in the Vietnam War, referred to by Vietnamese as the American War. A family friend, John Nishimura, died of wounds on April 4, 1968 sustained from hostile gunfire that left him as a quadriplegic on December 10, 1967 in the central highlands province of Kontum, Vietnam. Like other Asian Americans who served in Vietnam, he faced race-related challenges during his service. This topic is covered in the PBS series, Asian Americans, for which SPICE’s Waka Brown developed a teacher’s guide.

During my freshman year at U.C. Berkeley, 1972–73, I witnessed anti-Vietnam War protests and took a course in Chicano Studies (now Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies). Because of my childhood, I felt more Mexican than Japanese in many ways. In the Chicano Studies course, I recall a lecture on Chicano veterans of U.S. wars. The informal learning (observing the protests) and formal learning in Chicano Studies marked the first time in my life that I had been introduced to perspectives on the Vietnam War that were not included in my high school U.S. history textbook.

After graduating in 1976, I entered a teaching credential program at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education that was called the Black-Asian-Chicano Urban Program or BAC-UP. One of the students was Charley Trujillo, a recent graduate of U.C Berkeley who majored in Chicano Studies. I felt a closeness to him because of my upbringing, and also recall how much I appreciated what we would now call “global perspectives” that he shared. We completed BAC-UP in 1977 and I went to teach in Japan and lost touch with him.

In 2014, while planning for a SPICE event that honored braceros with Dr. Ignacio Ornelas, the grandson of a bracero, Ornelas asked to introduce me to his friend, Charley Trujillo, and I immediately recalled Charley Trujillo from BAC-UP and wondered if he was the same person. I looked up his name online and was pleasantly surprised that he was the same person whom I had last seen 37 years prior. During our reunion, I learned from Trujillo that he had become a novelist, editor, publisher, and filmmaker. He is very well known for his book and documentary, Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam. While in BAC-UP, I didn’t know that he was a disabled Vietnam War veteran and that his father was a veteran of World War II. After hearing about his experiences in Vietnam, the global perspectives that he shared during BAC-UP became even more poignant. I also recalled how he sometimes challenged our professors—something that I could not do—on topics related to the “master narrative” of U.S. history.

Prior to my reunion with Trujillo, my former colleagues, Dr. Rennie Moon and Dr. Kenneth Koo, developed a SPICE curriculum unit, Legacies of the Vietnam War, which I encourage high school teachers to use as a supplement to the information about the Vietnam War in their U.S. history textbooks. The five lessons in the curriculum unit are described below. Someday, I would like to add Trujillo’s documentary as the foundation for a sixth lesson.

  • Lesson One examines the political and economic aftermath of the Vietnam War. Students learn about the political situation following the war, Vietnamese emigrants known as the “boat people,” and post-war economic development.
  • Lesson Two examines the impact of warfare on human health and the natural environment. Students learn about tools of warfare, including Agent Orange and landmines, and their harmful consequences on the ecosystem as well as on generations of civilians and veterans.
  • Lesson Three combines a number of neglected and hidden themes in the Vietnamese war literature, including the experience of Vietnamese Amerasians and the involvement of non-U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam.
  • Lesson Four gives voice to different categories of Vietnamese who have migrated abroad in the decades following the war: Vietnamese Americans, the Montagnards, and Vietnamese brides in Korea.
  • Lesson Five investigates the idea of history as competing narratives. Students examine three representations of the Vietnam War—the war as depicted in American history textbooks, the war as exhibited at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, and the war as represented in an effort to build a monument to the U.S.–South Vietnam alliance by the Vietnamese American community in Wichita, Kansas.

Trujillo and I are in periodic touch and he continues to expand my perspectives on the Vietnam War and its legacies by sharing his riveting and heartbreaking yet inspiring story. Most recently, we met at the San Jose Vietnam War Memorial. He is in the midst of producing a film based on his book, Dogs From Illusion, a Vietnam War novel on the Chicano war experience. Ornelas, a social studies (including ethnic studies) teacher at Willow Glen High School in San Jose, is currently enrolled in the Principal Leadership Institute at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. It’s very gratifying to know that Ornelas, Trujillo, and I share similar cultural histories that are not usually included in U.S. history textbooks at the high school level, and also share similar academic experiences that were only made possible by those who came before us. I am eternally grateful to Trujillo, Nishimura, and other veterans who sacrificed so much to make our lives better. I feel that it is essential for us as teachers to include their unique perspectives in the teaching of U.S. history.

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