In the spring of 1970, when the violent protests at Kent State University over the Vietnam War erupted, I was a freshman in college. I tried to piece together why we got into fighting this poor nation half a world away based on the constant reports of casualties and atrocities and the flood of dissent. Could it be that our government was truly misleading us? Or maybe I was missing something important, like the opening scenes of a movie that others understood?
Robert Freeman, social studies teacher at Los Altos High School, recently wrote “The Vietnam War” (Kendall Lane Publishers, 2013), which has filled in my understanding of this great tragedy. He breaks the war’s history into five stages spanning the French colonial period in the 1940s to the fall of Saigon in 1975. He analyzes how U.S. motivations changed over this period and how political failures at home intertwined with failures in the war strategy to produce the first war America lost. The final chapter describes how Vietnam allowed our nation to lose its moral stature in the world.
“The Vietnam War” is part of Freeman’s “The Best One-Hour History” series on key turning points in Western civilization. The books are available at Amazon.com for the cost of a latte and are meant to be read in one sitting in print or e-book format. In addition to “The Vietnam War,” the series includes “World War I,” “The French Revolution,” “The Protestant Reformation,” “The Renaissance” and “The Scientific Revolution.”
Freeman hit his mark in reaching people like me, who want to better understand the history behind current world problems but can’t commit to a lengthy book. His clear and compelling writing gave me the insight I was hoping for into U.S. foreign policy.
Freeman got the idea for the series after finding that his Advanced Placement History students were not engaging with the textbook. To grab their interest, he started writing summaries on important periods in history. His classes moved up to the top of the nation with their AP test scores, and parents requested copies of the summaries for their own reading.
The series, like the summaries, are heavy on analysis. Rather than overwhelming the reader with dates and names, Freeman takes a big-picture perspective that reveals his training in economics. Before teaching, Freeman was an international marketing executive. He earned a master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University.
The second volume, “World War I,” riveted me from the start: “The impact of World War I was so great, it is considered by many historians as the most significant event of the last thousand years.” Yet, I confess, I never understood the significance of the murder of the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, at the hand of a 19-year-old Balkan nationalist. How did it draw, within a few short weeks, Germany, England, France, Russia, their colonies and much of the rest of the world into war?
With the aid of a simple map, Freeman explains how the assassination set off a fire keg of alliances and nationalist yearnings that stretched from Europe to the Middle East. He effectively outlines how the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, along with the Austro-Hungarian, Romanov and Hohenzollern empires led to the inauguration of communism, 11 new countries, a proliferation of oppressive dictatorships, the elevation of the U.S. to a position of pre-eminent world power, the 1990s wars in Serbia and Croatia, and more. And he does it in 50 very readable pages.
After that small investment in time and money, I am reading the international news with a deeper interest. I feel that I have finally learned the backstory to many of the tensions in Asia, the Middle East and Africa that have dominated my adult life.
Next, I plan to read “The Protestant Reformation” – the change in philosophy that set the seeds for the modern era, with the posting of the 97 Theses on a church door on Halloween in 1517. I can’t wait.
Terese Tricamo is a longtime Los Altos resident.