This summer I tackled two very contentious topics in Cold War history: the El Salvador Civil War and the Vietnam War. For lack of a better term, I dove headfirst into the madness of both wars. While I was researching these conflicts, I was also surveying the Protest Voices series in the Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Therefore, my research involved unearthing historical truths concerning each part of the world and their ties to communism, class struggle, Cold War politics, nationalism, Russian influence, the Catholic Church, the Red Scare, and geopolitics. I must say, it was a very daunting task.
After reviewing countless sources, I arrived at some conclusions.
- This country, prior to 1979, was over twenty years into a bitter conflict between anti-government groups and their violent suppressors. Peaceful transitions of power were exceptionally rare in El Salvador, and many different groups were vying for short-term ownership of the government (1).
- With the fall of Nicaragua to communism in 1979, the United States watched with very nervous eyes on the rising political tension and growth of communist groups in El Salvador.
- The United States viewed El Salvador in a way similar to Vietnam as the linchpin holding back communism in its respective area (2).
- Changes in presidency from Carter to Reagan brought changes in the United States’ policy towards El Salvador: the former viewed as a more human rights based, while Reagan held a firmer opposition to communism (with some exceptions obviously, such as George H.W. Bush’s visit to the country in 1983) (3).
- Technically, communism was on the rise in El Salvador during the civil war, but it was not linked to Russia except for one group of the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN), and they were the least militant at the start of the war. However, rather than fighting to link up with Russia and the Iron Curtain, the FMLN desired an end to corrupt government rule (4).
- Most complex of all were the interactions between the combating forces (government or FMLN) and the non-combating groups such as international aid workers, the missionaries from the Catholic Church, and the common Salvadoran people. It was not uncommon for any of these groups to fall under the accusation of being a communist, and the cost was often one’s life (5).
- There a few conflicting viewpoints when it comes to this war: it was to fight the spread of communism, it was a war of imperialism imposed by the United States after the French had left, or it was a war where the United States fought to improve the war-battered economy of France and Europe as a whole by helping them maintain control of Indochina (6). The last point is a bit conflated and spans the first decade of the United States’ indirect military involvement.
- Both countries have a hard time coming to terms with the war. Popular Vietnamese accounts of “The American War” are largely one-sided because of the government’s influence on shaping the narrative as one bent on Vietnamese nationalism and unification after imperialism (7). Very little if anything is said about North Vietnamese protesters or opposition to communism (8). The United States’ interpretation is either slightly more nuanced or repressed. A large part of both of these phenomena is the plethora of anti-war protest the U.S. experienced during the Vietnam War. As Ken Burns pointed out, the Vietnam War is not an easy subject to discuss among Americans (9).
- Similar to El Salvador, communists fought for their version of a better Vietnam. In the case of Vietnam, their fight was particularly dire because they did not want to succumb to outside aggressors after just they threw off the chains of French imperialism. Thus, a sense of nationalism was contained within a communist struggle.
I came to these conclusions through careful research and study of both wars, and by no means are these the definitive takes on both wars. Personally, I wished that I spent more time looking at the Vietnam War because although both wars were complex, in Vietnam there were many more actors in the conflicts – Viet Cong, United States military, North and South Vietnam, and for a time the French. Therefore, I encourage you all to pursue more research and I recommend some of the sources about the Viet Cong listed in this website.
Simultaneous to my background research this summer, I began arranging secondary social studies teaching materials. In my construction of these materials, I combined sources on background knowledge with audio clips made from interviews from the Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. My biggest challenge was finding the intersection between ease of use by educators, perceived interest to students, coherent themes, and alignment to Ohio Department of Education Standards. I encourage you to check out some of my work, and that of previous research assistants, on History Speaks. I believe the clips and lesson plans I produced this summer will aid educators who want to immerse their students in the voices of the actors of history, and therefore I am very proud of my work.
Have a great school year!
(1) Christopher M. White, The History of El Salvador, (Westport: Greenwood, 2008), XVII-XXI.
(2) Our Hidden History, “El Salvador: Revolution or Death (1980),” Youtube, Published February 26, 2016. Accessed May 15, 2018.
(3) John Solomon, “George H.W. Bush — Revisited: The Bush Americans didn’t know but now celebrate,” The Center for Public Integrity. Updated May 19, 2014; “Barbara Bush Foreign Trip Files
(Bush Vice Presidential Records),” National Archives: George Bush Presidential Library. Processed March 2014, 3.
(4) Erik Ching, Stories of Civil War in El Salvador: A Battle Over Memory, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 38-9, 45.
(5) “Rob Reidy interview, 27 July 2016” (2016). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 750007.
https://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/crohc000/771; Raymond Bonner, “MASSACRE OF HUNDREDS REPORTED IN SALVADOR VILLAGE,” The New York Times, Printed January 27, 1982. Accessed online via archives June 8, 2018.
(6) Andrew J. Rotter, “The Causes of the Vietnam War,” Modern American Poetry, Accessed August 8, 2018. From The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Ed. John Whiteclay Chambers II. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Oxford UP
(7) Elisabeth Rosen, “Saigon Anniversary: How Young Vietnamese View the Vietnam War,” The Atlantic, April 30, 2015.
(8) Elisabeth Rosen, “Saigon Anniversary: How Young Vietnamese View the Vietnam War,” The Atlantic, April 30, 2015.
(9) ReasonTV, “Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Vietnam War Is the Key to Understanding America,” Youtube, Published September 13, 2017. Accessed July 25, 2018.