Richard Minear Reflects on Teaching History, Including Teaching Vietnamese History during the Vietnam War


Richard H. Minear is Professor of History emeritus, University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the author of Victors' Justice: The Tokyo War Crimes Trial (1971) and Dr. Seuss Goes to War (1999), and the editor of Through Japanese Eyes (4th edition 2007). He was a recipient of the University's Distinguished Teaching Award.

Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.




Dr. Minear grew up in Newton outside of Boston and his wife was born in Northampton.  He taught at Ohio State University from 1967 to 1970. “That was prime Vietnam time,” he said. “Columbus, Ohio is distinctly not New England. Ohio State is a huge school.” He also taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst from 1971 to 2008.

Dr. Minear graciously answered questions via phone about history, his career, teaching, and what he is doing now while in retirement.


Did your education in your early life prepare you to eventually pursue a career as a historian?

Yes and no. I didn’t set out just to learn languages, but in this neck of the woods, being competent in Japanese, Chinese, or Vietnamese for that matter is a prerequisite.

Did you think you would travel to so many continents and experience different cultures?

By then, I had lived in Germany for two or three years, I had lived in Sweden for six months. When I was an eight-year-old, I went to a Swedish school while my father was on sabbatical. This was 1958-59: my brother was on a Fulbright scholarship in Germany and I was in Heidelberg for my junior year. My parents were in Holland in that spring. European winters are god awful, with not much sunshine. That spring, because of my dad's interest, he took my brother and me on a week-tour, and we hit Istanbul, Palestine, then Israel on the Jordanian side – Palestine/Israel was my dad's turf – New Testament theology. Then we went to Rome on the way home back to Europe. I had had a lot of travel.

Which Japanese island have you been to the most?

There are four major islands in Japan. I spent most of my time on the main island. UMass has a sister university, Hokkaido University. I spent the summer and part of another year. My first three years were in Kyoto and a little time in Tokyo.

Is there a historical event that captivates you most?

I was born in 1938. I learned about World War II primarily after the fact. My first ‘political’ memory was of the atomic bomb while I was up in Vermont. I got on a boat on the lake and the sirens started going off and I remember a bonfire. That's part of my background in Japan and a natural focus or interest.

I was too young to serve in Korea and I used the educational deferment, which got me through 1968 by which time I was 30 and married. The accident of chronology kept me out of the military during Vietnam, and Vietnam had a major impact on everything that I did afterwards. Ohio State has a quarter system which means three ‘semesters’ each year. I was beginning to teach six courses that year and I quickly ran out of Japan courses. In the third semester of the quarter of the first year, which would have been spring of 1968, it dawned on me that there was no course on Vietnam at Ohio State.

Here was a major university without a course on Vietnam and the war, and I proposed a course. Even though I had never had a course on Vietnam, my Asia background gave me some kind of entree. I taught a course in spring of in 1968 and 1969 and 1970, and Vietnam had gotten very big. I had brought in guest lecturers. Ever since, it has had a major effect on my politics, on my thinking, both having watched it and having read materials on it. I taught about Vietnam at UMass throughout the seventies and it has had an effect on all of my teaching.

Was the effect related to how people perceived the Vietnam War or based on how you approached teaching and explaining about it?

It very quickly dawned on me that this was more than textbook stuff. I had students who had graduated from my class who are in the military. One of the faculty members at Ohio State who was also an ROTC instructor, he (and a colleague) gave a single lecture in my course. It later dawned on me that they were only free to give the Pentagon line. He went back to Vietnam in late spring 1968 and a couple weeks later was killed. Students were graduating from the course and then going to Vietnam, and student populations were wrapped up in the anti-war movement. That gives a sense of urgency, a certain seriousness to what you do in the classroom.

Growing up in the 1940s and 50s, my high school and college education I had was pretty straight-lined and celebratory to the American master narrative. My involvement with teaching about Vietnam and reading about Vietnam basically knocked me off that master narrative.

What influenced your interest in history?

It all looks different in retrospect than in prospect. A while ago, I looked back at my high school yearbook and several people had said, “You're going to make a great professor!” They were way ahead of me!

My background was liberal arts English, history, and language. I knew I didn't want to go into theology. I was a history major as an undergraduate, although it wasn't much of a major. I spent my junior year abroad in Heidelberg and we went to classes, but there was no attendance, no grading, and no exams. It was great for languages and for other purposes, and then came graduate school. I can remember Christmas time in 1960 after I graduated from college, and my family was in the living room. The question was, “What will Richie do next year?”

There wasn't any drive on my part or any consuming interest driving me to history, but once I got there, I was not sorry.

I had seen enough of German European history which is what my undergraduate major was mainly about, to realize that it was a pretty trampled, congested field and somebody had told me about two-year programs in Asian studies. Yale had one, Harvard had one, and Berkeley. It was only two years, what could go wrong? That's what got me into graduate school and into Japanese language.

How did the perspectives acquired through your education influence your career as a historian?

I think the steering was more from the outside world than the education itself. The education that I got made it possible for the things that happened, but I think it was more stuff outside of the classroom. Looking back to the post-Vietnam era, Vietnam happened, and it had a major impact on my teaching. That is from 1964 to 1966; I was in Japan as a Fulbright graduate student and by the time I got back, it was a much bigger topic in this country. I was in Japan from 1964 to 1966, and by the late 1960s the war was heating up.

One of the fortunate things for me, first at Ohio State, and here in Massachusetts, I was the only Japan historian, which meant except for rare occasions I wasn't team-teaching or preparing my students to take an advanced course in the subject with someone else. I had an unusual independence when it came to coverage.

One of the major problems in history teaching is the compulsion that we feel or that is actual. Teaching Japanese history includes that you cover Japan from A to Z, or to cover the United States A to Z or Germany. If there are others in your department who are likely to get those students the next year, if your teaching has to cover what other colleagues expect it to cover, then that is one thing; but I never faced that issue. That's extraordinary freedom. It has been important for me all the way through. The standard introductory courses are large, and you have discussion sections taught by graduate students. In the discussion sections, all the way through, I was able to do my own discussion sections, so I rarely taught more than 60 people in one course. It was a Monday and Wednesday lecture and a discussion. I led the discussion sections and got to know the students as a result. It was important for me, not for them, to know where they were coming from.

How different were students’ specialties when they came to your survey course?

Here at UMass, the Japan survey was open to everybody so the history majors were a small part of that. I didn't really register which students were history majors or engineering or the sciences. This had an impact on my sense of audience, so I could give them some kind of perspective. One of your questions has to do with pedagogy; what we ought to be teaching and how to teach it.

Every year I had one and often two Japan survey courses taught to people who would never have another Japan course and who came from all parts of the university. This kind of shaped my ideas about teaching. We often think of covering the field, and in my experience, we don't teach history, we talk about history. We should teach a habit of mind, not a list of facts. This may have changed since my student days, but I'm not sure. Students can take our courses without really getting a sense of what it means to think historically.

Nowadays, things are different. Back when I was studying Asia, there were a handful of Asian experts at a dozen major universities. Nowadays, the US has many Asian historians. It wasn't true back then.

The name I knew was Edwin O. Reischauer. He had got into the field and he was a major figure in the beginning of Japanese studies. Later, Kennedy had appointed him U.S. Ambassador to Japan. He was one of the names that attracted me to Harvard but as soon as I got there he left, and I left before he got back.

We rarely teach about the history of the field. We rarely teach about who the historians are, who Reischauer was. What were the American Japanists doing in the World War II era. I didn't have to cover more than six to eight people to cover the field. This was after Vietnam had shaped my thinking. World War II and patriotic fervor and Japan was the enemy. Hence, they had a certain take on Japan. Some of them had a negative experience of Japan, but certainly there was ‘an American nation spreading democracy’ and that was shared almost across the spectrum.

Part of this is teaching about the background of the field and part of it is more practical – in my syllabi, this is after I had gotten my feet on the ground, after teaching about Vietnam for a while – I gave biographical information on every author we encountered in the course, and I included myself. Date of birth, educational background. Every discussion session, once a week, started out with a quiz. The first question was, “Who is the author?” and another question likely was “When was this written?” and maybe a third question was, “Where was it published?” Was it Life magazine or was it the Harvard Journal? That kind of questioning.

It underlined for the students that a major, major part of history is analyzing sources. Who is this person and why are they saying these things about Vietnam and Japan in World War II? Who is his or her audience? The emphasis for me in teaching, yes, the subject was Japan, but the underlying goal throughout was to get people to read critically, to think critically, not just about the authors we read, but also about me. At the end of the course, say “OK, this was Professor Minear’s course, who is he and where is he coming from? Then factor that in.” How many history courses today have biographical data on the professor and everybody else?

And the continued emphasis in discussions, lectures: Who is this author? When did he write? Was it before the Tet Offensive or after? For what audience? It makes the students into players rather than audience members.

In your opinion, what is the purpose of history? Who are its intended consumers, and does the historian have a social responsibility?

I think for everyone, it’s different! With the audience, something we tend to forget is – in my case, I began graduate study as a 21-year-old, I think that’s true for many of the folks. The sense of the audience then is nonexistent and you are just trying to get through the next exam and get your Masters and decide whether to go on. But once you get past and into your thesis, your audience is the three or four guys – and they were all men back then – on your thesis committee. All of whom were academics and distinguished. I can remember thinking for a while in my thirties that my audience for my writing wasn’t anybody at UMass. My audience was 30 or 40 Japan experts like me, scattered around the country but limited to the ‘in-group’ of the real experts. I can remember thinking, at that stage, that maybe my audience was, in part, historians like me in Japan. If I was really good, they might learn something about Japan from what I had to say.

In my teaching and publishing, it gradually got me away from that kind of hyper-professional focus on specialists and into what was useful for non-experts, the students who I was teaching in my courses or the general readers. Each historian has a different path to follow and maybe everyone has different expectations and a different take on this.

My ‘5 minutes of fame’ was Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel, and soon after that came out, I gave a talk in Dr. Seuss’s hometown in California, at University of California, San Diego (UCSD). They had posters around the campus which had Dr. Seuss and my name on it. I knew one of the Japanists at UCSD. I bumped into him after the talk, and he said, “I saw this poster. I knew it wasn’t you because you were a Japan person.” The idea that a Japan person would write about Dr. Seuss didn’t compute, and yet that book got me on Good Morning America and All Things Considered. Part of teaching about writing got me into E.B. White, and I did an essay tracking the changes on the various editions of his book, The Elements of Style. The idea that a Japanist could do Dr. Seuss and E.B. White…

Back on Japan and speaking to the Japanese, my second book was Victors' Justice: The Tokyo War Crimes Trial. I was writing it in the middle of when the Vietnam War was happening, in anger. This was the Pacific counterpart of Nuremberg. When you look at the trial in retrospect, it was heavily a propaganda operation and it had a serious impact. In that sense, I’m here writing a counter piece on the trial that wasn’t exactly an exercise in justice. That gets translated into Japanese and it reinforces what the hard right in Japan was saying about the war, and about the Tokyo trial – that it was a put-up job. They are coming at it from a political position diametrically opposed to mine: the context makes a huge difference. They reacted, they loved the book. The Japanese have an expression, a proverb that if something is big news on Japan abroad, it tends to feed back into Japan. The Japanese press sits up and takes notice; I guess it’s much less so for the United States, partly because of size, reach, and influence. What other people say matters [in Japan].

I have done a lot of translations of Hiroshima survivor accounts and more recently translations of "ephemera" (pamphlets, wall posters) produced by Japan's left-wing activists. It’s fascinating how stuff that you do for one audience can be read very differently by another audience.

I think maximum clarity about your own politics, your own stance, your own commitments, and not simply clarity, but not hiding your politics can give your readers enough material, whether it’s a biographical squib on a syllabus or a translator’s introduction to a translation. That gives your audience some clue as to who you are and where you are coming from.

One of the first major translations I did was of a WW2 battleship epic, Requiem for Battleship Yamato. The battleship sailed out at the end of the war into the Okinawa campaign on essentially a suicide mission. What were they going to do with the battleship? They turned it into a floating platform that would maybe have some minor effect on the battle. Without air cover, it would be destroyed rapidly. One of the officers on Yamato survived, one of the three hundred or so crew members who had survived out of 3,332. He wrote his account. We tend to look down on military history, but it was a stunning, gruesome, yet gorgeous account of his own experience, of truth-seeking, and I showed a draft to my colleagues, a European historian, one of them a Canadian classicist. He said to me, “Any classicist (of whatever tradition) would appreciate Requiem for Battleship Yamato.”

No matter which classics (for example, if you're a classical scholar in the European tradition or the Indian tradition or the Chinese tradition), there’s horror on one hand and human nobility on the opposite, but also underlying human need, a common humanity. I think that’s part of what we owe to the public and to our kids, to get across with our work.

When I started teaching the Vietnam course, I very quickly found a classic Vietnamese poem, The Tale of Kieu, written before the French takeover of Vietnam. It’s beautiful, utterly unconnected to the war and yet. Kieu is a woman who undergoes great suffering, largely not of her own devising, and yet survives. The author is Vietnam's Shakespeare. I can remember one fellow here at UMass in the Vietnam course that had to read this, and this guy served in Vietnam. He came up after I had him write a paper, and he said, “I feel closer to Kieu than I ever felt with any Vietnamese.”

If you approach Japan, China, Vietnam, or Russia through classics and poetry, it becomes a little harder to accept unthinkingly what used to be in the textbooks and the press. What used to be in the newspapers and comics. I used to do a lecture on the Sergeant Rock comic book, Ali My, and it was a story of a U.S. operation in a war, and Ali My is an anagram for Mỹ Lai. A gruesome American massacre of Vietnamese civilians gets transmuted into a heroic battle.

How many of us grew up reading comics and war comics? Somebody needs to study videogames for their images. Who is the ‘other,’ who is the bad guy, how are they depicted, what are the gender dynamics? Videogames are having a far greater impact on our kids than any teacher in a classroom.

Who is our audience and what do we know about our audience? What de-programming needs to be in place? One of the major influences on my intellectual development was Orientalism by Edward Said. That book blew my mind! I was already coming off of Vietnam disillusioned. Said's book takes the entire tradition of European and American thinking about the Arab world and points out what a coherent, self-congratulating, and denigrating constellation that is. When the book came out, the Journal of Asian Studies commissioned essay reviews, and it came to three Asian experts: one from Japan, one from China, and one from India. I was the Japan person, and almost everything that Edward Said says about orientalism transposes beautifully onto the pre-war- and wartime American thinking about Japan.

You’re inside a tradition and you can’t see it as a tradition because it’s the world, but when somebody points out from outside the tradition or from a position from within, when somebody nails it so beautifully, you can say, a-ha. This is a world view. This is a coherent system, and we need to re-examine all of it.

There was true excitement there. What we ought to be doing in teaching is somehow start conveying that excitement, that possibility to the folks who are in classrooms. And then to say, OK, who is Edward Said? Where’s he coming from? And who am I – either I as a professor or as a student and where am I coming from? How does this all factor into how I read Edward Said and how I look at the America or the European hang-ups about Japan or the Orient. It’s a game of mirrors but it’s a deadly serious game of trying to be aware. Not simply of what the tradition is, from a matrix, what’s handed down, but also of myself and how I’m reacting and how I’m contributing in one way or another to the perpetuation or the challenge.

It’s only when you’re getting into it at that level or that order of operation, that you begin to see what a fascinating and difficult and impossible task we all have. But that’s where it goes back to syllabus – biographical sketches of all of the authors, and the dates when they’re writing, who is this person, when was she writing? Where was this published? We just don’t, for the most part, let most of our students, we don’t make them aware that there is this whole level of endeavor of thinking. How many times have you run into people who said, “I had history in high school and I hated it.” Don’t blame the teachers, they’re doing the best they can, given the constraints of SATs and covering the waterfront and all that.

Part of the problem is history is not exciting for most people because they don’t see it for what it is. They can get into a historical novel because in one way it comes alive, but when you read a book like Said’s Orientalism, all of a sudden, the whole board game shifts. The whole perspective gets challenged in ways that can only be useful.

Who writes history? By and large, of course, it’s the victors, but we don’t know who the victors are until much later. They cover stuff up. It has to be uncovered by oddballs like historians who don’t buy into the master narrative.

A story about Vietnam: when I was teaching the Vietnam course in the mid- to late 70s, it was a smaller class size. There was less interest after a while. There was a group of the class of maybe 40 kids and we got two-thirds of the way through, and I said, “OK, you’ve got some play here on the last several weeks, what topics would you like to cover?”

I listed several possibilities, including Mỹ Lai. After the class, one of the guys who had been sitting in the back all semester said, “Well, Professor, if you were going to cover Mỹ Lai, I’d be happy to answer questions.” He had been in Lt. Calley's platoon at My Lai. He did two class periods and took us through training. He had been through Vietnamese language training. Your jaw drops.


What have you been doing since your retirement?

I retired in 2008 and I was 69. Since then, I’ve published 3 or 4 book-length translations. I’ve kept some of that going and I’m doing a little bit now. I’m still living in Amherst, and I stopped teaching cold turkey and haven’t gone back to part-time teaching. It’s been 12, 13 years now since I gave a talk. For a while, with the Dr. Seuss book, I was giving talks on a regular basis but I did stop and I’ve been happily [retired].

Amherst is a neat pace to retire, it’s a beautiful fit. The city is close to the hills and the roads are good for biking. I do a 25-30-mile span when I go out. I hike in the hills; I bike north and south along the Connecticut. There’s an online journal, The Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, and my most recent stuff is there, including, I mentioned, a Japanese leftist pamphlet about a Japanese massacre of Chinese forced laborers in the summer of 1945. I’ve kept a toe–or two toes–in. I loved teaching while I was doing but I’m happy to not be doing it now.

I’ve always been active.

I have two sons and they are in their 50s but for a while, we did triathlons as a team. I swam, one of them biked, and one of them ran. If you did a great time you could qualify for the Iron Man. We weren’t in that category but it was fascinating just to see how fit some of the folks were.

For many students then and now, martial arts offers a way into Japanese culture. One of my students from 20 years ago, she sat in and took one of my courses. She's now a MMA practitioner, in the top ten in her weight category.

You take them where they are at, try to figure out where they are at, and what you can do that might be useful, not in terms of profession, but thinking about Japan, about life, about what it means to be human. Those folks are maybe less likely to doubt the basic humanity of the Vietnamese or Japanese. Martial arts practitioners—or fans of anime or Zen meditators—have an advantage. One toe in the door.

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