Vietnam Veterans of America
With the renewed public interest in all things Vietnam brought about by Ken Burns’ recent PBS documentary “The Vietnam War,” two new, ambitious exhibitions dedicated to the war are currently on display at somewhat atypical venues.
Remembering Vietnam: Twelve Critical Episodes in the Vietnam War
Washington, D.C., is a city of museums. The National Mall is flanked on both sides with the grand museums of the Smithsonian Institution housing famed collections of history, culture, and art. Just blocks away sit many others: the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Newseum, the National Building Museum, the Crime and Punishment Museum, the International Spy Museum—even a Postal Museum. There might even be a National Museum Museum.
So what could the National Archives—known mostly to tourists for the respectfully austere display of the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights in its cavernous Rotunda—contribute to this revitalized Vietnam War dialogue that other museums haven’t already?
At first blush, an exhibit comprised of records and documents sounds about as sterile and bookish as it comes. It certainly doesn’t have the allure of, say, seeing Dorothy’s red ruby slippers or touching an actual moon rock. But as one moves through the 3,000-square-foot exhibit in the Archives’ Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery, one comes to understand the enormous effect such seemingly benign items had on the events and consequences of the war.
The exhibit divides the war into twelve chronological episodes to provide a framework for understanding the crucial decisions that led to war, the events of the war itself, and its aftermath. Miriam Kleiman, Program Director for Public Affairs at the Archives, explained that the designers of the exhibition sought to address three critical questions about the Vietnam War in each section: How and why did the United States get involved? Why did the war last so long? And why was it so divisive among the American people?
One needn’t go farther than the exhibit’s first item to see the fateful way a single document can—or can fail to—alter the course of history: Ho Chi Minh’s 1946 unanswered telegram to then-President Harry Truman, pleading for American assistance in his fledgling struggle against the French.
The exhibition, the subject matter of which Kleiman points out is “modern by National Archives standards,” was two full years in the making. It came about in no small part due to the encouragement of the boss himself: Archivist of the United States David Ferriero, a former Navy hospital corpsman and Vietnam War veteran.
More than eighty original items from the National Archives are on display, including some newly declassified documents. The twelve sections trace the trajectory of American involvement in Vietnam through six presidential administrations—from its origins in the aftermath of World War II to the fall of Saigon in 1975. The displays are not limited to paper documents: Key artifacts, interactive displays, and even one architectural model (the CIA’s mock-up of the Hanoi Hilton) are also on display. Listening stations play audio recordings from the Archives, including President Eisenhower’s famous April 1954 “Domino Theory” press conference. One also can listen to recordings of three Presidents’ private White House discussions of the war. Interviews and historic film footage play in three mini-theaters within the exhibit.
Other highlights include the last typewritten page of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous March 1, 1968, “I shall not seek, and will not accept” speech with LBJ’s own handwritten correction changing “would” to “will”; the “Salted Peanuts” and “Fork in the Road” memos; doodles John F. Kennedy made during a White House discussion of the conflict; a hand-written “receipt” for American prisoner of war Robert White, dated April 1, 1973; several remarkably similar Viet Cong and U.S. propaganda posters; and Maya Lin’s original design submission for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
But perhaps the most thought-provoking of the exhibit’s items is also one of its most innocuous: Hung beside the original cable reporting the second attack on the U.S.S. Maddox is an ordinary-looking government broadsheet, replete with routing stamps and proofreader’s marks: the original draft version of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
It takes a moment for the magnitude of this document to sink in fully. This magazine’s arts editor, Marc Leepson, remarked that despite having written or spoken the words “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” hundreds of times in the course of his career as a writer and historian, not until he stood before the actual document itself could he fully appreciate the significance of this single sheet of paper—a document that set events in motion that altered the lives of millions, himself among them.
While there are plenty of excellent museums with display cases full of helmets and M-16s, the National Archives instead chose to assemble this exhibit of original, primary-source documents that well illustrate the decisions made by the architects of the Vietnam War and help untangle why the United States became involved in Southeast Asia.
The Vietnam War: 1945-1975
The New-York Historical Society,
New York, New York
Through April 22, 2018
Adults $21, Seniors $16 | website
Much like the National Archives in its mission, the New-York Historical Society serves first and foremost as a library and archive of historical documents and artifacts relating to the history of New York City. Founded in 1804, it is the oldest museum in the city, predating the Metropolitan Museum of Art by nearly seventy years. The collection has been housed at its present location at Central Park West since 1908.
Best known for its collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps and all of John James Audubon’s Birds of America watercolors, the Society is part museum, part library, and part education center. In recent years the Society has taken on a new role: serving as a host for naturalization ceremonies for new Americans conducted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.
The Society’s ambitious new exhibit, The Vietnam War: 1945-1975, occupies a 3,000-square-foot gallery—the same size as the Archives exhibit. But here the space is practically bursting with more than three hundred in-country photographs, documents, interpretive displays, digital media, artwork, and artifacts. Murals by contemporary artist Matt Huynh were specially commissioned for the exhibit as well.
Visitors get a taste of what is to come as they enter the dramatic, vaulted ceiling of the museum’s lobby with its Jeep from Tan Son Nhut Air Base for a centerpiece. Nearby, a lighted sign proclaims “Objects Tell Stories.”
The gallery spaces are visually compelling and dramatic. This exhibit is noticeably less regimented than the one at the National Archives. The curators seem to have let the objects on hand determine the direction of the exhibits, instead of forcing them into a chronology or narrative.
Such divergent topics as the Cold War, the draft, specific military campaigns, the rise of the antiwar movement, the evolving role of U.S. presidents, and erosion of support for the war at home are covered.
“Our goal when designing this exhibition was to provide not only a thematic analysis of the Vietnam War—its causes, progression, its impact—but also inspire a fuller, more diverse conversation about the war across generations,” explained Marci Reaven, the exhibits’s curator and the Society’s Vice President for History Exhibitions.
The displays range from multi-media installations profiling in-country events such as the Tet Offensive and 1970 Cambodia campaigns, to antiwar posters, to documents including draft cards, and a timely copy of The Pentagon Papers. Individual artifacts such as a Viet Cong bicycle, a Bullpup missile from an F-105 Thunderchief, and personal items left at The Wall in Washington, D.C., appear throughout. One gallery is dedicated to a display of G.I. Zippo art.
Perhaps most powerful of all the displays is the one built around the June 27, 1969, issue of Life magazine entitled, “The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll.” Reprints of the pages from that issue are presented edge to edge to form an accordion of portraits depicting the 242 American troops who died in the war the previous week.
Upon exiting the exhibit, visitors are invited to write or record their thoughts for posterity in a bank of guest books. “We’d like them to come to realize, as we did designing the exhibit, that wars are a product of many decisions that are made by governments and individuals and it’s important to look at those decisions, to pay attention to these decisions when they’re being made,” Reaven said.
For a review of the exhibition’s excellent 96-page companion book, see “Books in Review” in the September/October 2017 issue.
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