‘The Vietnam War: 1945-1975’

Many museums around the region have closed in response to the COVID-19/coronavirus threat. The National WWI Museum and Memorial is closed to the public through Friday, April 3, 2020.

National WWI Museum and Memorial Revisits Questions and Controversies in a Traveling Exhibit from the New-York Historical Society

2019/2020 marks the 50th anniversary of both the peak of American involvement in the Vietnam War and its turning point. A traveling exhibit at the National World War I Museum and Memorial makes recognition of both unescapable, although its scope is considerably broader.

“The Vietnam War: 1945-1975” was organized by the New-York Historical Society, and after a showing there and at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, it is making its last stop in Kansas City.

What might appear to be an odd fit for a museum dedicated to World War I is explained in a presentation prepared by the National WWI Museum at the entrance to the exhibit.

Senior curator Doran Cart cites the seldom recalled involvement of nearly 100,000 French Indochinese soldiers and workers who served on the Western front during World War I. From that experience, the Indochinese not only witnessed the military tactics the U.S. used in war, but also grasped the meaning of social justice.

Cart’s history points to the failed efforts on the part of Nguyen Sinh Cung — later known as Ho Chi Minh — then living in Paris, to persuade President Woodrow Wilson to honor his pledge to champion national self-determination as one of his Fourteen Points by ending French colonial rule over Indochina and beginning the process for Vietnam’s independence.

Fast forwarding, Cart also points out that in 1950, President Harry Truman authorized a “modest amount” of U.S. economic and military assistance for France in its struggle to retain control of its colonies in Southeast Asia and to contain communist expansion. By 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower increased U.S. support nearly 80 percent.

The NYHS exhibit picks up the story from 1945, the year when, following the end of Japanese occupation, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence, only to have French rule reestablished.

The story is told through more than 300 artifacts, photographs, artworks, documents, films and interactive digital media, some of which will no doubt trigger memories among those who “lived” the war, in one way or another; others will be new, having been discovered over the years but not widely publicized.

Dramatically helping to drive home the point of why we entered the war is a large domino map of Southeast Asia and images of the 1964 Presidential race with Lyndon Johnson assuming the role of peace candidate, followed by coverage of then President Johnson’s July 1965 televised explanation to the American people, “Why Vietnam?”

Also dramatically posed are three images representing the divisiveness of the war: an antiwar poster from the Students for a Democratic Society’s March on Washington on April 17, 1965; a Support Our Men in Vietnam poster from October 21, 1967; and an American soldier’s helmet worn in the Battle of Hamburger Hill in May 1969, bearing the message that caught the nation’s attention: “We are the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful.”

Why Vietnam?

The exhibit is as objective as possible, given the course of events and what we have learned about the conduct of the war over the past half-century. It explores themes of patriotism and duty, refraining from drawing any conclusions or pointing directly to any lessons learned, although it is doubtful that viewers will leave without their own lessons learned.

Sections of the exhibit focus on key questions and moments in the war such as Why Vietnam?, Who Fought This War?, The War on the Home Front, The Turning Point: 1968, Searching for an Exit and The Aftermath: 1973 and Beyond.

The presentation on the years 1945 to 1968 and the presidencies from Truman to Lyndon Johnson make clear the step-by-step process taken in the “fog of war” that sunk the U.S. further and further into the quagmire of Vietnam. Johnson in particular was trapped by a growing sense of a war that could neither be won nor abandoned without paying an unacceptable political price.

From 1968 — when the American armed presence in Vietnam totaled more than 536,000 — to 1975, we see the unraveling of U.S. involvement in the war, both on the battlefield and at home, and the steps taken to “bring the troops home.” What follows is coverage of the Paris Peace Accords, Vietnamization, U.S. evacuation of South Vietnam, and, ultimately, the fall of Saigon.

The visuals in the closing section are troubling to view. There are images of the Tet Offensive in 1968, including CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite’s coverage in which he pronounced the war unwinnable — this from the most highly regarded and trusted newsman in America.

There is a photo of the My Lai Massacre of 1968; Eddie Adams’ photo of a Vietnamese military officer shooting in the head a captured and bound Vietcong soldier in the midst of the Tet Offensive of 1968; a 1969 “Life Magazine” spread titled, “One Week’s Dead,” with photographs of some 242 Americans killed in action, “the average at that stage of the war”; and Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph of a 9-year-old girl running naked toward the camera after having been the victim of a napalm bombing made in error.

The final toll: More than 58,000 American soldiers, more than 5,000 international forces, an estimated 162,000 to 220,000 ARVN (South Vietnamese soldiers), between 820,000 and 1.1 million VC/NVA (Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers) and an untold number of dead Vietnamese civilians — as well as the price paid domestically by the U.S.

Interviewed by phone, Marci Reavan, New-York Historical Society’s vice president for history exhibits, listed the war as one of the signal events of the 20th century and noted that there are many takeaways from the exhibit. In particular, she pointed out that the war was the result of decisions made by the nation’s leaders and honored by the majority of Americans, until the end.

Until recently, the Vietnam War had slipped below the horizon of our public memory. Clearly the war remained one of the most controversial and least discussed events of the past half-century until the broadcast of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour documentary on the war, in 2017. But even then, the response was conflicted, as it continues to be, as seen in the comments left behind by visitors to the exhibit:

“This exhibit explained a time in history which was not taught in school. There are so many things I did not know and still need to learn.”

“I cried over what I saw and remembered. I followed my government and went into the U.S. military because I did not have the courage to be part of the dissent.”

“May God have mercy on all soldiers . . . for they have died for what they saw as right.”

“Why? Never again.”

If any progress has been made, it would be our honoring those who fought and died in the war — but not the war, itself — with the erection of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during the early 1980s. So, it is appropriate that from May 14 to May 25, the National World War I Museum and Memorial will host a free public showing of the AVTT (American Veterans Traveling Tribute) Traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial on its southeast lawn.

Note: This exhibit contains some graphic content and images that may not be appropriate for young children.

“The Vietnam War: 1945-1975” continues at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, 2 Memorial Dr., through May 31. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. For more information about the exhibit and related lectures at the museum, call 816.888.8100 or visit www.theworldwar.org.

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

  1. Carl Welte says:

    The young man pictured is not a Marine. He is US Army Private First Class Theodore F. Taylor Jr., from Chance, MD. He served in the 1ST Cavalry Division, and was killed in action February 11, 1966.

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