James Reckner: Vietnam War project in cowboy country

... The Vietnam Project [at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas] is the brainchild of a remarkable academic entrepreneur named James Reckner, who, decades ago, served two tours of duty in Vietnam, advising the South Vietnamese Army in riverine warfare.

Reckner's academic specialty is Theodore Roosevelt and the development of American naval power, but he started the Vietnam Project in 1989 when he began teaching a course on the Vietnam War and discovered that the university possessed very little material on it.

He gathered a band of local veterans, and the archive was born. The first documents in the collection were a bundle of letters, the envelopes still caked with the mud of Khe Sanh, that a Lubbock resident, Dan Siewart, sent to his mother.

"At that point, the whole archive sat in my hand," Reckner recalls. Now there are some 20 million pages of documents, including a 12,000-volume library, some 500 oral histories of former American soldiers who saw duty in Vietnam, and thousands of carefully catalogued boxes of other things, from North Vietnamese propaganda materials, to American after-battle reports, to comic books showing public attitudes toward the war.

Reckner is particularly proud of what he deems to be his inclusive approach to the Vietnam War, and he has numerous examples. Former South Vietnamese officials and current North Vietnamese generals have met each other at his twice-annual conferences, during which last year there were presentations by both the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (the group that opposed John Kerry's presidential candidacy) and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

William Westmoreland, who commanded American troops in Vietnam, has spoken here, and so has Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press.

Reckner is also proud of the several hundred scholarships sponsored by the Vietnam Project that enabled poor Vietnamese and Cambodian youths to go to college in their home countries. He brings young American groups to Vietnam even as Texas Tech has become one of the chief places where Vietnamese students study in the United States.

And yet, clearly, what he feels as the unwelcoming attitude of some of his colleagues in the history department saddens Reckner - and makes him angry.

"I've attracted $10 million in donations for the Vietnam Project, and the history department does its best to ignore its existence," he said....

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