Burt Batten
Wake Forest University

VIETNAM: A BRIEF WEB SITE REVIEW

     The Vietnam War marked one the most dismal episodes in recent American history. From 1954 to 1975, the United States government sought to prevent communist expansion into Southeast Asia. Initially, it offered only financial support to aid the French in their efforts to retain political hegemony over their former colony of Vietnam. Following the failure of the French military to crush the uprising of nationalists groups seeking independence, the United States ultimately took upon itself the cause of defending South Vietnam. In the longest war in which the US ever participated, it was mired in a conflict that promised no chance of victory. Coupled with this dilemma, the war raised growing frustrations among many groups of Americans. Soldiers disliked fighting in a land where the boundaries between friend and foe appeared invisible. Active citizens on the home front opposed the war they felt bureaucratic politicians initiated to serve their own ends. All together, the bitter experience of this struggle created a lasting legacy in the historical memory of the nation. Today, the Vietnam War is remembered through a variety of mediums. One of the most popular forms of preserving this experience is through the use of computer technology like the World Wide Web.

     The Vietnam War Internet Project, operated out of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library at the University of Texas at Austin, holds one of the most comprehensive web sites on the war and its related topics. Managed by the staff of the Johnson Library, this site developed in 1994 as an offshoot of the newsgroup alt.war.vietnam. The purpose of the site is to provide an arena for open discussion among individuals interested in learning about the Vietnam War. Scholars specializing in the history of the war and dedicated enthusiasts comprise the site’s authorship. From this group are chosen moderators who evaluate all materials submitted to the site for viewing. Currently, there are seven moderators of the site including Edwin E. Moise, a noted Vietnam expert who teaches at Clemson University.

     The site consists of a variety of articles, primary materials, images, and bibliographies. From its main menu the site branches off into thirteen separate pages that provide general information about the newsgroup, links to other web resources, and multitudes of primary sources, including photographs, personal accounts, and government documents related to the war. At times, authors of articles posted on the site fail to provide citations for the sources of their work. This fact, however, does not handicap the remainder of the web site, which holds extensive lists of secondary sources and suggested readings on topics ranging from Agent Orange to the My Lai Massacre.

     In general, browsers of this site will find it to be informative and relatively easy to use. It shows no biased view towards any particular opinions regarding the war and its effects upon Americans. Instead, it emphasizes that "no one TRUTH" exists about the conflict. Such a statement reflects the balance that students, scholars, and enthusiasts—the targeted audience for this site—will likely find. It presents information rather than interprets it. Through its clear, simple design readers can easily select the topics that they wish to explore as if choosing items from a menu. The only drawbacks result from the abundance of information that browsers will find themselves examining. This task can prove daunting and, at times, tedious. Certain portions of the site appear repetitious, namely, the bibliographic and suggested reading sections. Accessing the many links listed on the site is only recommended when a viewer has enough time to take on the task.

     Currently, this site is undergoing construction while several portions of its text are redesigned. As a postscript to the viewer, the authors of the site politely explain that at times certain materials may be temporarily inaccessible. An excellent site for general information and sources on the Vietnam War already, this site will only become better following these improvements.

     The Vietnam War History Page provides an excellent contrast to the site managed by the Johnson Presidential Library. Designed by a college student at Virginia Tech as a part of a history course on the Vietnam War during the summer of 1995, this site is much more basic and far less comprehensive. Yet, considering that its author created it at a time when college students around the country were just beginning to learn html language, the protocol necessary to design web pages, this site is respectable. Currently, another student matriculating through Virginia Tech maintains the page.

     Like the Vietnam War Internet Project this web site seeks to provide a series of resources that individuals exploring the World Wide Web can utilize to learn more about the history of the war. Rather than present his own interpretation concerning Vietnam, the author of the site takes his work from a much more general approach. In explaining the purpose of his site, he states that "[b]y linking to the documents of the time, historians can see what each side felt the war was about, why it went the way it did, and what lessons came out of it." Consequently, his site consists of a number of links to sources illustrating the wide spectrum of views that existed during the war. Links include sites for veterans from both the American and Vietnamese forces, members of the counter culture, government leaders, prisoner of war groups, and personal accounts from soldiers and civilians.

     Aesthetically, the design of this web site is not very appealing. While the author makes good use of images and pictures on his main pages, the dark background and small red lettering of his text proves difficult to read. This site’s simple organization is easy to follow and lends itself well to its probable target audience among college students. Serious problems exist in this site though. Originally completed in 1995, it now faces obsolescence. Many of the links included in the web page have since changed or been removed. The individual listed as currently maintaining the site desperately needs to correct these errors. Of the approximately forty links listed over a third cannot be accessed today. Moreover, the arrangement of these links appears haphazard and meaningless. The author could improve his site by grouping links under topical headings such as "views from Vietnamese participants," "views from Americans," and "general information on Vietnam." Also, offering brief one or two sentence descriptions of what each link contains would prove far more helpful to a browser than just reading a general title.

     For all its apparent flaws the Vietnam History Page could be updated and improved. Based on the rapid development of web page design, it could be expanded or its appearance changed. Designed by a college student in the middle of summer school, it represents the exciting promise that the World Wide Web holds for the future just as much as the mammoth site maintained by the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library. A computer in a school library or even in a home can access each site. Learning about the Vietnam War through the Internet is only the beginning. The opportunity for such rapid command of knowledge presents a remarkable tool for individual use; unfortunately, such wonderful innovations can be easily abused. Web pages on historical topics face the same dilemmas of textbooks and scholarly monographs. Often, they are either too specific or too general. They provide too much information or too little. They stress too much of a particular interpretation or none at all. These inconsistencies, coupled with a widespread ignorance among individuals—especially students who are unwilling to question the validity of sources of information because they are so rarely taught how to—create a learning and credibility gap concerning the value and use of Internet resources that will take time to disappear.