On May 8th, 1957, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem was greeted by President Dwight Eisenhower (along with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles) at Washington National Airport at the beginning of an official state visit for President Diem. This seemingly ordinary photo is noteworthy because it captures the complexity of the Cold War and the contested territory of Southeast Asia, and embracing that chaotic feeling is a main reason why I love the humanities.
There is much to teach about in this photo. Why would Eisenhower personally greet Diem at the airport, something he only did on one other occasion (and is almost never done by sitting U.S. presidents for heads of state)? Why is the year 1957 important? What does the United States think of Vietnam at this time? How is this photo potentially problematic? There are contrasts on many levels when dissecting this photo, and it can launch exploration in so many directions.
The photo encapsulates a conversation that I had with Vietnam historian Pierre Asselin after a talk he presented to our NEH summer seminar at the National Humanities Center. While we were discussing the challenges of teaching the Cold War to students, Professor Asselin noted, “if you study the Cold War correctly, you should be more confused as you go along, and that’s a great feeling!” This last line resonated with me, and reiterated my belief that it is important for students to understand different perspectives, sometimes without finding an answer to the question that was posed, but understanding the complexity and nuance of that question. This process is where real learning takes place, and it is important to teach students to embrace this chaos (and even to seek it out) in their own learning. Challenging our initial impressions of a source and digging deeper speaks to the lifelong value of the humanities.