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The War In the Classroom

By Tom Lee

Professors with noon classes at Harvard get used to empty seats and irritable students. Most undergraduates rarely make it to breakfast here, which means that by 11:30, hunger begins to rival academic curiosity. Animal appetites often prevail, so that the weak begin trickling out around 11:50, hoping to beat the rush at lunch. Students with 12:00 classes either desert outright or file glumly into their classrooms and slump deeply in their chairs, glaring at the professor as if to say, "This lecture had better be good."

But on Tuesdays and Thursdays in recent springs, the mood at noon has been pleasanter in History 1821. The students who fill Sever 11's rows of splintering seats still aren't happy about being late for lunch, and they grouse about this and other gossip so that often they don't notice when a tall, trim man with closely-cropped red hair slips in shortly afternoon, and works his way to the front. His freckles and bright eyes make him seem younger than 37, and his subdued demeanor seems more appropriate to a new grad student than to the nation's leading historian of Vietnam. So the students continue talking as he erases the board--careful not to touch the now sacred directions of an exam long ago, which commanded students to "Do Problem 2a only." Finally, he turns, still unnoticed, and faces his audience.

Then he begins speaking into the conversational hum. The students see him at last, hush each other, and sit quietly. Many break into soft smiles as he begins an anecdote reflecting American ignorance of Cambodian customs, and laugh out loud at the end. They remember why they signed on for a semester of late lunches. Their lecturer is Alexander B. Woodside, Young Professor of Sino-Vietnamese History, and his course is "The History of Modern Vietnam."

Like many Harvard courses, Woodside's lectures have acquired a one-word name--"Vietnam." It means that History 1821 is the place to learn Vietnamese history, to start making sense out of an insane war. Since 1969, undergraduates, Nieman Fellows, and visitors to the University have flocked to Woodside's low-key lectures, which draw eloquence more from his careful preparation than his quiet delivery. The listeners leave as Woodside fans, and praise him to their friends, so that since 1969, Woodside's reputation has been steadily swelling.

Woodside would rather ignore the cult that has grown up around him and his course. He is gratified by the affectionate respect of his mentor, John K. Fairbank '29, Higginson Professor of History, and the admiration of students like Dan Swanson '74, a former president of The Crimson who once wrote, "This University should belong to people like Professor Woodside." But Woodside is vaguely uncomfortable with such prominence. He'd rather just work quietly at Harvard, not dominate it.

Woodside is not a media-star, and he fears that his reputation will overshadow and inhibit Vietnamese studies by discouraging challenges of his views. As the Thieu regime crumbled this April, he patiently answered dozens of phone calls from journalists who wanted his analysis, but he did nothing to exploit the flurry of attention. Instead, he has continued his studies of East Asian history, quietly and steadily, as oblivious to political timeliness as he was in 1963, when he "discovered" Vietnam.

Just as he claims his fame is the result of fortuitous circumstances, Woodside explains that he arrived at Vietnamese studies accidentally, "through the back door." He came to Harvard for graduate studies in Asian history in 1960 with only one semester of a Chinese history course behind him from his undergraduate days at the University of Toronto. There, he majored in "conventional Western history," and planned to go to law school until he happened to briefly sample Asian history. Before that course, Woodside had had no contact with Asian culture--he couldn't speak the languages, and he knew little about anything between Marco Polo and Mao Tse-tung. Suddenly, new worlds opened for him.

"It was a shock to my Western values," Woodside recalls. "I was forced to confront a totally different civilization for the first time, and I found it very stimulating." He found some encouragement to study China in the Cold War tensions between China and the United States that also affected relations between China and his native Canada. But mostly, he was drawn to Asian studies by scholarly exhilaration with the unknown. "It's very exciting to be thoroughly interested in a subject and have it dominate your thoughts and concerns all the time," he says. "It is one of the best things that can happen to you." His father, a professor of Greek and Roman history at the University of Toronto, realized that Woodside had found his niche. ("My mother was a little more skeptical," he recalls.) With their blessings, he set off for Harvard to study these exotic lands under Fairbank.

Woodside had a lot of ground to make up. For starters, he had to learn Chinese and other languages, none of which came naturally. They're hell," he says blundy. So as late as 1963, Woodside had only a casual, non-scholarly interest in Vietnam, where Ngo Dinh Diem seemed firmly entrenched despite rumblings of dissent among Buddhist monks.

But Woodside was casting about for a paper topic that spring for a seminar on traditional Chinese foreign policy, and chanced across an interesting problem--the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in the early 1400s.

"When I started studying this, I had no idea of what had happened," Woodside recalls. "I knew China had invaded Vietnam in 1406, but I didn't know what the outcome was."

His research turned up a record of events that seemed startlingly familiar. "The Chinese tried to colonize Vietnam, and they got thrown out," he says, still amazed. "The Vietnamese launched a guerilla war, and got rid of the Chinese by 1427. The consequences of this Vietnam war from the point of view of the Chinese were disastrous. They had inflation, and a high desertion rate from their army in Vietnam. There was a very painful debate in Peking in the 1420s on how to get out of Vietnam. Two groups appeared in the Peking court. One group wanted to get out at all costs, another wanted to stay in. The group that wanted to stay in was composed of generals and court eunuchs. When the emperor that launched the invasion died in 1424, it enabled the people to try and get out, and they finally did, in 1427."

The parallels with French and later American involvement in Vietnam grew more obvious to Woodside as the years went by. But in 1963, he was impressed not by the implications of early U.S. involvement in Indochina, but by the character of the Vietnamese people. "How could they throw the Chinese out?" he says. "Obviously, the Vietnamese were very tough. Obviously they had a civilization of their own which they cared about."

Woodside got a chance to see that civilization and others that he had been studying for the first time in 1965, when he began a two-year tour of Asia--the only time he has actually been there. He spent several months in Hong Kong. Tokyo, and Saigon, but the real high point of his trip was a three-week tour of China. Woodside was startled by the diversity of life there--something that periodicals never fully conveyed to the scholar studying Asia from a distance.

While in Saigon, Woodside observed aspects of the war and began Vietnamese friendships that complicated his uncertainties about American involvement. His initial interest in Vietnam was, of course, scholarly, not political, but he had been troubled since 1963 by parallels between Vietnam and China in the late 1940s. While in Saigon, he witnessed massive student demonstrations against the Saigon government and the United States. Still, his misgivings did not blossom into full opposition to the war. One reason was the ambivalence of his Vietnamese friends--"intellectuals who feared repression if Communists took over, even though they hated the Saigon regime."

However, by 1967 Woodside found that neutrality on the war had become "utterly impossible." When he returned to Harvard that year and began his thesis, he started demonstrating and speaking at teach-ins. He joined the faculty as an instructor in the fall of 1968, just when the peace movement was gaining momentum. The next spring, he offered the first sessions of "Vietnam."

Woodside was aware that new academic subjects face special prejudices, especially when they are closely related to controversial current events. He tried to tread a thin line between academic respectability and ideological honesty by going beyond the immediate events of the war to their context in Vietnamese culture.

"I tried to make it an introduction to a specific Asian civilization," he says. "I tried not to duck any of the issues raised by the war, but I wanted the students to appreciate these issues in the context of Vietnamese civilization and Vietnamese culture, the way the Vietnamese themselves appreciate these issues."

Woodside divided the course into three sections: pre-colonial Vietnam, the French colonial period, and then, the war. He found that his students, most of whom were drawn to the course out of antiwar sentiments, were receptive to his efforts to teach the war's cultural context. "My only regret is that so little of Vietnamese culture has been translated into English," Woodside says. "That makes it very hard to get the Vietnamese experience across."

His own sentiments on the war are clear, and he has fought it since 1967 in the best way he knows--educating Americans. Still, he has carefully guarded against letting his politics color his academic work. "I think it would be wrong to be a propagandist," he explains. "In this case, I think the facts are very eloquent. In any case, I think it's the function of an educator to let people judge for themselves. I don't think you can pre-fabricate a judgment. It will be damaging to your point of view. On the other hand, I don't think one should ever conceal one's opinion. One should try to be honest, but not be a stifling propagandist."

Some faculty members apparently felt that such objectivity was impossible with Vietnam, and although Woodside says he has been conscious only of the support of several professors--in particular, Fairbank, John Womack Jr. '59, Ernest R. May, and H. Stuart Hughes--his appointment to a tenured position last spring reportedly ran into strenuous opposition from faculty members who did not consider Vietnamese history a serious enough field. At the executive session, Fairbank--who chuckles, calls the story "gossip," and declines to confirm or deny it--reportedly stood, told his colleagues that Vietnamese history was important and that Woodside was the best in the country will it, and said that if Woodside was denied tenure, he himself would leave the University. Fairbank let the room, and Woodside was awarded tenure.

Characteristically, Woodside only recently learned of this story, and seemed both personally flattered at Fairbank's praise and disappointed that there had been opposition to the Vietnamese studies he himself represents. "But the point is, got tenure," he says, adding that he has enjoyed Harvard, and was pleased to stay on.

Nevertheless, it is unclear how long he will remain here. He is taking a sabbatical next year to teach at Vancouver, and sometime after that, he says he may return to Canada, which he still considers home. "I feel badly about not having done anything for my own country," he says. "I have no plans now, but it is true that the Canadian government paid for some of my training here in the early 1960s. There are obligations."

* * *

As Saigon prepared to surrender, the last lecture of "Vietnam" for 1975 was ending. Woodside facing an even larger crowd than usual, drew smile with his mixing of Eastern and Western images--"A grand Confucian funeral makes a Hollywood funeral seem emotionally modest," he explained a one point. As 1:00 drew near, he skipped some points, and began speaking faster. When the bells of Memorial Church started ringing, he still has more to say.

But Woodside cut himself short. "I know it's sort of banal to end by calling for more learning," he apologized, but he went on to do just that, asserting that Vietnamese studies are still primitive, but that studying Vietnam's history, and the history of American involvement there, still has a purpose. "Confucius said that one must look for faults to emphasize goodness," he explained.

He paused, and then added softly, "So maybe there can be some hope for us in the future."

The applause descended upon him in waves, surging for long minutes. Woodside turned his back, and began blindly erasing the blackboard in sweeps that seemed meant only to hide his embarrassment. Finally, he turned back, and gestured awkwardly, thanking his students and asking them to stop.

Then he stood there for another few minutes as students filed out for their late lunches. Several came down to the front--some to shake his hand, but most to ask him questions

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