Our groundbreaking exhibition The Vietnam War: 1945–1975 is now in its fourth month on display. As its name implies, the exhibition begins the story of the Vietnam War at the end of World War II—but don’t be misled into thinking the exhibition ends when the troops were called home in 1975. It actually continues into the present day, not only chronicling the story of the tumultuous decades of the war but also helping to explain the war’s aftermath and legacy.
Showcasing more than 300 artifacts—including a Jeep used at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, a voting booth from the 1968 national election, and bunks from a ship that ferried troops to the war—as well as photographs, videos, and audio files, it is truly a multisensory exhibition. Visitors are immersed in the zeitgeist of the 1960s and ‘70s as they explore the divisive period in our history—a time that made Americans question what one’s role as a citizen actually entails.
Since the exhibition’s debut last October, hundreds of visitors of all ages and backgrounds have left their reactions, stories, and memories in our comment books. The war may be in the past, but it still raises important questions about duty, dissent, patriotism, citizenship, morality, public trust, and the use of military might. At the end of the exhibition, we offer some prompting questions, but visitors can (and do) write whatever comes to mind.
Each comment is transcribed and cataloged into the Museum’s collection and saved for posterity. We’ve compiled a sampling of some of the comments added to our collection so far.
“The Vietnam War was the soundtrack of my childhood…”
Some of the most thoughtful and stimulating comments have come from visitors who lived through the era. The stories we’ve received show that everyone, whether on the war front or home front, was affected by the war. In one comment, a veteran reflects on his time overseas and how it has influenced the way he views contemporary conflicts.
My lasting impression of my service in Vietnam was that I was not playing for a team that wanted to win. In the intervening years (and wars), I am glad to see more purpose in our undertakings—yet have seen that war is generally a quagmire irrespective of the initial considerations. We have all the incentives to find diplomatic and economic solutions to political problems. Jeff 69-70 USN.
Likewise, a former antiwar activist recounts how the war molded his political thinking for the rest of his life.
This is such a powerful exhibit—the pain & sadness caused by this war and the conflicts at home are palpable. As a student at Berkeley from 1969-1973, this episode of American history is indelibly etched in my memory—and shaped my political thinking irreversibly. I understood that there simply is no standing on the sidelines where peace, freedom, or equality are at risk. –B. Reder 10/24/17
I was born in 1954 in redneck upstate New York. My parents were Holocaust survivors and refugees to the USA. It was very confusing to me. I felt like I should support the government that gave my parents a home. But I also thought the war was wrong.
Another contributor’s memories of the era demonstrate that individuals, families, and whole communities alike were touched by the war.
I remember that day in 1964 when we were on the school bus and a teacher staggered on the bus and announced that one of our school friends had just lost her only brother in the war in Viet Nam. We were so very sad for our friend and her deceased eighteen year old big brother. I clearly recall the day I opened my mailbox and saw my brother’s “A1” draft notice. I was sick to my stomach and knew that he was going to war and die a most horrific death. I was ten years old.
“If you can’t visualize yourself fighting, then it shouldn’t be someone else’s war…”
At the end of the exhibition, we ask visitors to consider some of the ways that the Vietnam War still matters. One question addresses conscription and the major role it played during the Vietnam War: “What have we gained or lost by removing military service from the responsibilities of citizenship?” Many visitors responded that there is a sense of unity that comes from all citizens sharing the same experience, and others stated that military service should still be mandatory. One Vietnam War vet answered with a compromise.
We should have required national service that might include environmental protection projects, disaster relief assistance, construction of low income housing… and the military. Common background would unite the country in shared sacrifice, reduce whining & encourage all of us to think more about the welfare of all, as opposed to the welfare of one. –Stu Richel, New York City, Vietnam Vet (’69)
A second question asks: “What are our responsibilities to veterans and all others who suffer from U.S. wars?” Many responses focused on the need to better support American veterans, and one veteran extended the circle farther:
No matter what your politics are, veterans need to be respected and held in high regard—they put their lives on the line for you. Veterans don’t care if you are black, white, or purple—they fought to protect the freedom of American people. Bravo to the N-YHS for telling the story and educating the world about this war. In 2017, we must never forget what it means to be patriotic. Much love to my father, Robert Grempel, a Vietnam Veteran (82nd Airborne) who fought for this great country. Your daughter, Victoria Grempel (I love you, Dad)
For too long, Vietnam has been invisible, depriving all of us of the chance to understand why we made such a terrible blunder and then refused to acknowledge or correct it. I served in Vietnam as a Marine infantry scout and team leader in 1966 and ’67. Since 1995, I’ve been traveling to Vietnam every year to work with the government officials, veterans, and charities. Thank you, John Merson, author, “War Lessons”
The pen is mightier than the sword. Compromise has to be explored…
The exhibit really hits home about the tragedy of war, particularly when looking at the photo album of all of the brave young men who lost their lives, who will never be able to live their dreams and have families and enjoy all of the good things life brings us. It is enraging to think that politicians lied to the public about the war and caused the death of so many promising young people. Sometimes, unfortunately, war is necessary to defend democracy and lives must be lost, but it shouldn’t be done by deceit or ego.
As a military leader, I was told ‘when they stop complaining, that’s when you have to worry.’ It is human nature to dissent and when that is gone, that means the spirit has been crushed and the will to live or there is something nefarious about to happen. Dissent only happens when people feel safe enough to do so.
We asked visitors to consider the role of the media today: “Should journalists have the same freedom in war reporting that they had in Vietnam? Why or why not?” One visitor responded:
Journalists are the record keepers—the first drafters of history. Because of their bravery and sacrifice alongside of our soldiers, we are able to see the real, raw truth, even when it’s not a truth we as Americans want to sign our names to. We need to allow reporters freedom to do their noble and difficult work for the sake of democracy and—God willing—to teach us all to value the lives and souls of all who inhabit this planet.
All of these comments are part of a larger conversation about our nation’s history. Now more than half a century behind us, the Vietnam War is still relevant today. As one visitor noted, quoting the words of William Faulkner in his 1950 novel Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
To leave your thoughts on the war and our exhibition, we welcome you to visit The Vietnam War: 1945–1975, on view at the Museum through April 22, and share your reactions in our guest books.
—Lauren Squillante, Exhibits Intern