Becoming an author, lecturer and authority on the Vietnam War was never anything George Herring set out to do.
Timing, circumstances and the 1965 start of his teaching career as a history professor at Ohio University changed that.
"I started teaching about the time Lyndon Johnson was escalating our involvement," Herring said, "and not a day went by, not a class went by, that the war in Vietnam was not a significant topic."
Herring will be the featured presenter tonight at the McCracken County Public Library's Evenings Upstairs program, co-sponsored by the Kentucky Humanities Council and the Friends of the McCracken County Public Library.
A specialist in the history of U.S. foreign relations, Herring's writing has focused on Vietnam and includes "America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975," now in its fourth edition.
"I try to explain why this war in particular has caused such grief and why it still lingers 50 years later," Herring said of his 40-minute presentation tonight. He says there have been many "lessons learned" perspectives offered in the past 50 years, but he dismisses most of them as being overly simplistic.
"I tend to poke holes in politically motivated or slanted 'explanations' of the lessons that we can learn," Herring said. He said after years of reading, writing and speaking on the topic, a single lesson stands out.
"The one lesson that seems most relevant today is 'know your enemy' and don't assume you know how they'll respond," he said.
It was in 1973, four years after Herring had moved from Ohio University to the University of Kentucky, that he taught his first class dedicated to the war.
"As the war was beginning to wind down, my first class on Vietnam had veterans and anti-war demonstrators, and even a couple of veterans who were anti-war protesters," Herring said.
As of April 1975, the war really was history, and Herring spent the next four years writing his book.
"I assumed that would be the end of it," he said. "It's not something I set out to do in my career, it just happened."
He said every time the U.S. considers sending troops to an area, Vietnam is used as a reference.
"A prevalent idea from the '30s and Germany was 'Look at what happens if you don't deal with things early?'" That is often juxtaposed against the long, drawn out involvement the U.S. had in Vietnam.
"Whether it was Central America in the '80s, the Balkans in the '90s or Iraq after that, Vietnam is always referenced," Herring said.
Herring has visited Vietnam numerous times, most recently in 2003. A 1997 trip with Robert McNamara, former secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, involved meetings with former North Vietnamese leaders. Herring said he discovered then that the U.S. had not realized the North Vietnamese commitment to their goal of unifying the country by force.
"LBJ used to assume he could just get people in a room and could use his powers of persuasion to get agreement," Herring said. "Sound familiar?" he asked rhetorically.
Herring retired in 2005 at the University of Kentucky and is alumni professor of history emeritus.
"Both the good and bad thing about being an academic," he said, "is after you retire you continue to do what you've always done, just at a slower pace."