When Chris and I started divvying up research tasks, my inclination was to focus on Vietnam and the War on Terror. This much is surprising – despite my being reasonably cognizant for 9/11 and the subsequent military actions those events sparked, I know less about the War on Terror than any of the conflicts we’re studying. Of course, my knowledge of Vietnam is only marginally greater.
Nevertheless, having touched briefly on Bethel’s involvement in WWII for a class project this past interim (from which, incidentally, the title for this current project derives), I wanted to rectify my ignorance of the latter 20th century’s wars and explore a new area of research. Moreover, the Vietnam era – one which saw the rise of new domestic political ideologies and an increasing distrust of authority – is closely related to my own interest in Soviet history and American political radicalism. Placing life in a small Midwestern Christian college into the broader context of the emergence of the New Left is sure to yield striking results.
Interlude: The Early Cold War
Before I get to Vietnam however, I’ll pause briefly to consider how a post-WWII Bethel reacted to the emerging Cold War. How did Bethel students and faculty understand the Soviet Union, China, and Communism as those entities were increasingly viewed as existential enemies of the United States? More broadly, the Baptist General Conference – Bethel’s parent denomination – continued to maintain foreign missions in Burma and the Soviet Union during this period. How were those efforts impacted by the Cold War?
The Vietnam War
While the Vietnam War conjures images of sit-ins and teach-ins, violent protests, and mass student organization across America’s colleges and universities, it’s harder to imagine such activities took place at Bethel. Some key questions to answer here:
- Did support for the war at Bethel change as it went on?
- How strong was the anti-war movement on campus?
- How did Bethel students respond to the draft — any draft-dodging or conscientious objection?
- How did Bethel compare with other evangelical campuses in these respects?
While I suspect support for the Johnson and Nixon administration’s policies ran higher at Bethel than, for example, the University of Minnesota, I’m nevertheless interested to find out how deep that support really ran. And as a recent Bethel history graduate noted in her senior thesis on Bethel and the Vietnam War, it’s unwise to view support – or opposition – to the war in a monolithic fashion.
Interlude: The Late Cold War
Before addressing the War on Terror, I’ll consider one of the lasting effects of the Cold War: the global proliferation of nuclear weapons. From the atomic scares of the 1950s to the “New Cold War” tensions of the early 1980s, how did the people of Bethel cope with the possibility of thermonuclear war?
The War on Terror
Addressing the War on Terror (WOT) is perhaps conceptually my most difficult task for a couple of reasons. First, the war isn’t over. Although President Obama recently announced that U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan – the first of the two major land wars pursued as part of the WOT – would be drawn to a close by the end of 2016, the move isn’t one calculated to lessen the United States’ commitment to the WOT generally. Indeed, even more recently, the president outlined a shift from large-scale interventions towards a more diffuse set of tactics to deal with global terrorism. However these specific policies shift with the winds of political exigency, one thing is clear: the War on Terror remains a key piece of U.S. foreign policy.
Second, recent history is always more difficult to do – and do well – than older history. Patterns are harder to identify and choosing which will be important over the long-run is fraught with hazards. At the same time, recent history has its advantages. Oral history is uniquely possible and primary sources in general (particularly in a digital era) are abundant. I’m particularly excited to explore the possibilities of oral history – both formal and informal – as a way to enrich this section of the project. Among the questions I’d like to answer are:
- How did the Bethel community experience and respond to 9/11?
- How was the run-up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq debated on campus?
- Was Bethel affected by the Patriot Act?
- And as with Vietnam, did support for the “war on terror” change as it went on?
And while Bethel’s undergraduate College of Arts and Sciences requires students to affirm a Christian commitment, the Graduate School is open to those of all faiths. As such, I’m curious to know how Bethel’s Muslim students experienced post-9/11 life at the school and whether anti-Islamic sentiment appeared at Bethel.