Episode 59: The Graduate

This week, we bid a bittersweet farewell to ace student worker Maxine Philavong, who received her bachelor’s degree on May 9. We also talk with Humanities Institute Fellow Nu-Ahn Tran, an associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who tells us about her work with archival material that sheds new light on the Vietnam War. And we wrap up by revisiting a week of protest that convulsed the University in 1970.


Tom Breen: Hello everyone, and welcome to episode 59 of UConn, three 60 that’s the only podcast in the history of human civilization to cover the university of Connecticut from every conceivable angle. It’s a very special episode, a bittersweet episode, because it’s our final episode with Maxine Philavong, our colleague and esteemed friend.  Maxine, how are you doing?

Maxine Philavong: I’m feeling really sad today. I had a lot of fun on this podcast. I think I learned a lot from it too. Definitely taught me like what I wanted to do further in life and it’s bittersweet to be graduating too during this time. I have my graduation robes. I know the podcast people can’t see it, but graduation robes are hanging. I got it in the mail, two days before UConn canceled.

Julie Bartucca: Well, there should be a ceremony in the fall. We hope.

Maxine Philavong: I hope so. But now it’s going to be hanging for the next two week as I go through finals. It also cost $60. So I’m going to be wearing it for this whole week.

Julie Bartucca: Wear it while you eat your cereal in the morning. It’s like a real life inspiration board there.

Maxine Philavong: Yeah. It’s kinda sentimental to me right now. I’ve been feeling bittersweet about this. I don’t want to go, especially right now during this climate, but I’m, I’m hopeful for what’s going to happen next.

Julie Bartucca: [00:01:40] What were some of your favorite kind of moments and. Memories of UConn man to put your brain on the spot. I don’t think I can share those on the podcast.

Ken Best: Kind of like Julie’s stories.

Julie Bartucca: Yeah. You had a good time.

Maxine Philavong: I did have a fun time.

Julie Bartucca: Very nice. I’m grateful that we had you and we’re very sad that you’re leaving, but hopefully you won’t go too far and you can, you know, send us a critiques. Listeners should know that after this episode things are gonna go way downhill for us without Maxine. It’s going to get a lot worse.

Maxine Philavong: So who’ll be editing the podcast now?

Ken Best: We’ll figure it out.

Tom Breen: As, as a colleague, I’m glad to hear that the podcast was helpful to you and we know you’re going to do great things. We look forward to watching from the sidelines. Joining Maxine and I, are my colleagues, Julie Bartucca.

Julie Bartucca: Hello.

Ken Best: Behind the microphone.

Tom Breen: [00:02:50] The gang is all here for episode 59 and it’s an exciting episode. I would say it’s maybe a topical episode of historic interest. Not really sure how to go into that. Before we go into that, why don’t we talk about some interesting things that have been happening at UConn that are not related to the plague?

Julie Bartucca: [00:03:07] Yeah. Well, notice already this episode has been way less quarantine focused. We’re settling into our new normal, as it were. I just wanted to note that, you know, there are a ton of great stories still coming in on UConn Today about all the things. People in UConn Nation are doing to support, uh, all the response efforts. But there’s also a lot of kind of regular UConn stuff going on too. One headline that caught my eye today was that our German Studies program was ranked the number four program in the country by the Chronicle of Higher Ed that confers a bachelor’s degree in the German language literature and linguistics. We have our really cool partnership with Connecticut’s German partner state, which I didn’t know was a thing, but apparently we have a German partner state called Baden-Wuerttemberg. They have generally supported UConn students in the EUROTECH tech program where they get a dual degree in engineering and German studies, and then the Euro biz program where they get a dual degree in business and German studies, which is really neat. So congratulations to our German studies program. It was very cool. You can read about that on UConn today, along with other great stories, many of which are about the plague, but kind of a happy way. There was a neat story about a, a UConn Stamford student who is, uh, has his own fashion business and he’s been making a couple of hundred masks for people in the Stamford area at, like at a local nursing home in a hospital. And so neat things like that. Not all doom and gloom that’ll come in the fall. Really good work everybody’s doing, pulling together.

Tom Breen: Ken. You’ve got a story for us.

Ken Best:  It does have some historic relevance today, actually as we are recording. It was 50 years ago today that the Kent State shootings took place connected to the protests against the war in Vietnam, which was a divisive event in the history of the United States. Here I start to date myself, my freshman year in college, that spring, we went pass fail grades as many schools like UConn did all over the country that spring. And it’s come up as a reference point, not to bring it back to the pandemic, but because of the number of deaths in the United States has surpassed the casualties in war in Vietnam, uh, with the number of soldiers killed. So a lot of folks are having it brought back right now. We do have a professor, Nu-Ahn Tran, who is a historian. She is of Vietnamese-American heritage and she’s been studying this whole situation from the origins of the war, uh, back in the 1940s and 1950s. Most people look at that history as the United States trying to prevent the influence of communist rule on the South East Asian peninsula. It was a much more than that. And, uh, Professor Tran has been looking into this whole, uh, history using documents from the Vietnamese government, which were made available after the war was over after a certain amount of time passed. She has been writing a book and we had a very interesting discussion a couple of weeks ago. I asked her how she became interested in studying about the politics of South Vietnam.


Nu-Ahn Tran: [00:06:35] I grew up as Vietnamese-American in the United States. My parents grew up in South Vietnam and they talked a lot about South Vietnam when I was a kid. And one of the things that really struck me was that the way they talked about it was really different from the way I heard Americans talking about it, both my teachers in the classroom and in the popular media. So I was very interested in how to understand this from a Vietnamese perspective. Vietnamese people tend to think of themselves as the main characters in their story, just like everyone else in the world. And I wanted to understand this experience and how it would look if we looked at Vietnamese people as the main character.

[00:07:13] But what I really wanted to understand was what people meant by the word democracy. So if you go back to the scholarship, the contemporary scholarship are a lot of, is more journalism from the Fifties and Sixties this is one of the buzz words that people were using. Americans and Westerners in general were debating how democratic was this regime? Was it not very democratic? If it’s not democratic, what does that say about what are the implications for American foreign policy? I want to understand how Vietnamese people understood democracy and what they meant by it. It’s also informed by my own experience growing up with Vietnamese Americans who often seem to use the word democracy in very different ways.

[00:07:54] So I was interested in how these different political leaders and political factions in South Vietnam understood democracy, how they debated with each other about what democracy meant, and to understand how this was a word and a concept that has real meaning front for them and it wasn’t something just imposed from the outside.

Ken Best: [00:08:12] One of the things that’s interesting and new is the access that you have to the actual documents from that time period. And your thesis of what you describe as, uh, anti-communist nationalism. Could you explain that and what you’ve discovered?

Nu-Ahn Tran: If you read the dominant scholarship about Vietnam, it mainly argues that the anti-colonial nationalist movement against French colonialism led to communism, which led to what became the North Vietnamese state, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and eventually the postwar socialist Republic of Vietnam. But if you read the memoirs by Vietnamese from the RVN who are anticommunist, they’re going to give a very different narrative. For them, nationalism led to them naturally and I think it’s sort of predictable that people would feel this way, right?

[00:09:09] It’s not somehow earth shattering, but what’s interesting is to look at that narrative and how. It reflects a particular historical experience and particular political trends. So that’s how I arrived at this idea of anticommunist nationalism, that this is how many of these political leaders and groups thought of themselves.

Ken Best: [00:09:30] You have access to the archives that previously were not necessarily being used by those writing histories. What did you find in the archives that helped you to understand better what actually happened?

Nu-Ahn Tran: So there’s two things I would talk about. One is the archives in Saigon and one is the library. [00:09:49] What’s really helpful about the archives is it gives us internal documents, mostly within the office of the president, of Ngo Dihn Diem’s presidency, and what that really gives us access to is the thinking behind the policies that Ngo Dihn Diem implemented. So, for example, most of the scholarship up until the opening of the Vietnamese archives argued, based on American scholarship, Ngo Dihn Diem took certain actions often because the Americans told them too often because of outside influences, and one of the reasons why they said that was because they didn’t have access to documents that gave insight into the internal workings of the government. But when you find documents for the internal workings of government, what you realize is that Ngo Dihn Diem had a certain agenda.

[00:10:34] His advisors had certain agendas and the policies that they came up with often reflected that as much as any conversations they had with Americans

Ken Best: And just for those who may be listening who don’t know the process of research and using primary documentation rather than secondary documentation, much as in the presidential libraries here in the United States and in the Library of Congress, whether the original documents drafted and written by politicians and aides you’re getting the thought process in writing so that you can then better understand what was going on rather than just read a newspaper report about it.

Nu-Ahn Tran: One of the things I found very, very useful, and these are hard to find, but when you can find the very great are policy papers or position papers, papers has kind of lay out, here’s the policy we should adopt and here’s why.

[00:11:27] And those are really helpful because they give us insight into the policies that we know about because often these policies are implemented publicly, but the reasoning behind them is something that takes place behind closed doors and not, and then the Americans don’t necessarily have access to that entire thought process because in the American archives, we’ll have the ambassador spoke to one member of the cabinet today and this is what that person said. The ambassador talked to someone else two weeks later. So we get snapshots, but we don’t get this coherent picture. So that’s one thing that’s really useful about the archives. The main research library in Saigon ws the former National Library of South Vietnam. It houses probably the world’s largest collection of South Vietnamese periodicals and newspapers.

[00:12:14] And what’s really great about that is even though those are public, they’re not an inside picture. What’s great about that is that especially for the early period of Ngo Dihn Diem’s rule, there are different political groups which have their own newspapers so you can see a political debate taking place in public, which is something that you really don’t have access to from just American archives.

Ken Best: [00:12:35] Probably misunderstood by most people is the thinking that there was just one line of thinking in the creation of policy, rather than good debate among factions within a party or a government trying to do what happens in the Senate and the Congress here of both sides on opposite ends trying to come together in the middle.

Nu-Ahn Tran: [00:12:57] It was a little more authoritarian than that, but what’s interesting is that there are actually a range of ideas and opinions, and this is far richer and far more diverse than you would know from looking at American documents. I think one of the problems actually is that, in the 1954 to 1956 period, as far as I can tell, I think people in the American embassy are not paying very close attention to daily newspapers are published in Saigon.

Ken Best: In your proposal for the research that you’re doing, you sort of begin with the CIA officer who is newly arrived and doesn’t speak Vietnamese, doesn’t speak French very well. He’s sort of in a stranger in a strange land trying to figure out what the heck is going on and he’s there representing the United States government, trying to get information to be sent back so that the government can understand what’s actually happening. And as I recall, this is on the cusp of the end of the French involvement in the beginning of the American involvement, which was actually during the Eisenhower administration. You mentioned that you were looking at policy papers in the UC, the, the discussion and the arguments back and forth. What may have surprised you about what you saw, knowing what you knew before you were able to get into the archives?

Nu-Ahn Tran: I think one of the things that really surprised me was the thinking behind what became the plebiscite of an October, 1955 against chief of state Bao Dai, who was a former emperor. Now from the American documents and just from the scholarship, we know that Ngo Dihn Diem made a decision to carry out this plebiscite that was bred in order to overthrow the chief of state who had appointed him and to make himself the next leader. But what has never been clear to me is the thinking that went on behind that until now.

[00:14:51] Even scholars who use Vietnamese language sources often use public sources. So we know a lot about the message that the regime was trying to send with its get out the vote efforts or with this propaganda, but we don’t really know why they chose plebiscite versus versus any other way of trying to overthrow one person and installing another person. And what was really interesting to me was that the position paper argued that we need to start a constitutional process and we need to start it with a plebiscite on the head of state or the head of government rather than a constituent election for an assembly to write a constitution. So if you think about it, what’s really interesting is there are legal arguments. People will make our thinking about what this means in a larger picture and not thinking, well, we just want to overthrow this guy and install another person. The complexity of this thinking was something that I didn’t necessarily anticipate.

Ken Best: Scholars tend to focus on one time period or one figure in a historic context that provides a great insight into that particular area. But as you say, you’re covering a time period that leads up to a critical point in 1963 after the assassination of John Kennedy and the escalation of the war. Where were you continue to study? Will you just dig deeper into this time period or will you try to extend it to get further context for what happened before?

Nu-Ahn Tran: [00:16:21] I anticipate my next project will also be roughly about this time period, but it will examine it from a different perspective or a different aspect of it. So this book is about the relationship between different anticommunist nationalists and their debate over what the South Vietnamese government should look like. My next project will be about the relationship between anti-communists. I’m particularly interested in the government’s repression of communists in South Vietnam and anti-communism more generally in literature and art and politics.

Ken Best: What’s a bit different about this book project is that it wasn’t an extension of her graduate work as many books are when young scholars start writing. She started working on this when she got to UConn as a history professor, and she was a bit surprised at how long it took to do the work. When we spoke a few weeks ago, she was finalizing corrections to the manuscript and it is scheduled to come out next year, sometime in the spring or in the summer.

Julie Bartucca: [00:17:33] She was very engaging. That was a great interview.

Ken Best: It’s a very interesting historic moment that is still really affecting what goes on in this country many years later.

Tom Breen: That was very interesting. And what a perfect segue for Tom’s History Corner because as we record this, it is May 4th, which is the 50th anniversary as Ken noted of the Kent state shootings but there was also an outpouring of anger and protest around the country and the university of Connecticut. I got interested in this back in March when the University switched to online classes and announced there would not be a commencement ceremony, sorry, Maxine, because we did an episode on this. They in fact did not have ceremonies in 1911 and 14, but I at first assumed they didn’t have it in 1970 because a number of universities in other countries do not have graduation ceremonies in 1970 because of the outpouring of protest. However, it wasn’t the case that you’ve done as we’ll explore and does this Tom’s History Corner. On May 4th, 1970, the reaction was sort of, uh, immediate. There was a mass meeting on campus where a lot of student organizations, including the Student Senate, called for a student strike, meaning nobody would go to class.

[00:18:46] There was a national student strike that was being coordinated and then had the demands that the release of all political prisoners, the immediate withdrawal of us forces from Southeast Asia and the abolition of ROTC and all defense research on the university campus. It’s worth noting that UConn had very little influence over U.S. military policy in Southeast Asia or political prisoners, but still these were part of the demands and that night there was a candle lit rally that drew more than 3,000 people who began chanting: Shut it down! The next day, May 5th, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences faculty voted to suspend classes for the remainder of the semester and finals would only be on material that had been covered up to May 4th. Remember, this was back when the semester went into June, so there’s still actually a lot of class time. There was a rally for the strike on May 7th. That was the Thursday. More than 5,000 people gathered in the Student Union quad to hear speakers. Then after the rally, groups of demonstrators went through the classroom buildings, sort of disrupting any classes that were still being held.

[00:19:51] One such class was being taught by Professor Charles Waring, chemistry professor, whose name now adorns the Chemistry Building on campus right across from our office. Charles Waring was a very conservative member of the faculty. He was the faculty advisor for the Young Americans for Freedom, which was a very conservative group and he obviously refused to participate in the strike. A group of about two dozen demonstrators showed up in his classroom and started chanting slogans. He grabbed a beaker of an unknown chemical substance and brandished it at the students like he was going to throw it on them. They retreated and gathered more demonstrators.

[00:20:31] There were about 300 demonstrators who showed up at his lab. He had locked the doors and they were demanding that he come out. Then d dean of CLAS at the time, Kenneth Wilson, actually came and apparently diffused the whole situation. 

Julie Bartucca: Good job, Dean Wilson.

Tom Breen: [00:20:50] Graduation went on the following month, early June with a then record number of 3,600 people receiving degrees. So, uh, that was pretty much it. I do note that only a month later the incident maybe feelings had cooled a little bit because there was an ad the Daily Campus graduation edition. All the ad said, and It was type big type, it said: Riot, Insurrection, Love, Grades, Turmoil, Draft Pot. Solve your problems over delicious steak dinner at Bonanza Sirloin Pit in the Willimantic Shopping Plaza.

Julie Bartucca: Are you kidding?

Ken Best: [00:21:35] I must say Bonanza was the place to go throughout the state because we had one down in Bridgeport and that was where we had Sunday dinner because they didn’t serve Sunday dinner in the dining hall back then.

Julie Bartucca: Oh my gosh! I feel like that’s today when like Charmin tries to weigh in on like some, you know, big tragedy on Twitter and be like, just buy our toilet paper. That’s crazy. What happened to the classes that kept going? Like, did they have to stop like Warring’s class?

Tom Breen: Actually, um, some of the classes went on a schedule, but the administration endorsed that. Finals could only be on material. That was up to May

Julie Bartucca: So did, did students stopped going?

Tom Breen: [00:22:13] Not at all. The campus was divided, as was the country.  And of course this year, there’s a record number of people getting their diplomas, too. It’s all degrees graduate, undergraduate and professional students. 8,912. That’s the old History Corner.

[00:22:33] All right, well, on that happy note, that does it for this week, this installment of UConn, 360. Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed what you heard, you can follow us on Twitter at UConn Podcast. You can check out at main underscore old, which has some delightful old photos of UConn gone by. I’ll put up some photos of the protest in 1970.  Maxine, where can people follow you for the last time?

Maxine Philavong: You can follow me on Twitter @MaxinePhilavong, on LinkedIn on Instagram, but I’m on all social media. You can just type in my name and you can find me.

Julie Bartucca: I’m @JulieBartucca on Twitter. And Ken, you still haven’t gotten a TikTok up and running, which I forgot to tell you. I learned the Savage dance. I did it.

Maxine Philavong: I need to see it.

Julie Bartucca: If you promise not to send it to anyone else, I will send you.

Tom Breen: I think it needs to be on the UConn 360.

Julie Bartucca: Nope. I will send it to Maxine only. I sent it to my UConn friends because some of them were doing it as well. It was a really good workout. I spent like an hour practicing and took a lot of videos of myself, made a tick tock account just so I could do it.

Ken Best:  You can still find me at today.uconn.edu because Mr. Breen has been posting my writings faithfully as they managed to get in, one of which will be about the return of the regular, irregular programming at WHUS, UConn’s Sound Alternative and 91.7 FM, streaming online at WHUS.org, Saturdays three to six. Actually my old time slot from Bridgeport and the old days of WPKN same time, not same size station. However, I prerecorded here from the Wall of Sound Studio that only the folks on this Zoom can see right now, and that’s been going pretty well.

Tom Breen:  [00:25:22] Alright. Congrats to all the graduates and Maxine especially. We will miss you so much.