On the Missing History at New York’s Warship Intrepid Museum

Historians in the News
tags: museums, military history, Vietnam War, James Loewen

James W. Loewen is the bestselling and award-winning author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, Lies Across America, Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus, Sundown Towns, and Lies My Teacher Told Me: Young Readers’ Edition. He has won the American Book Award, the Oliver Cromwell Cox Award for Distinguished Anti-Racist Scholarship, the Spirit of America Award from the National Council for the Social Studies, and the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award. Loewen is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont and lives in Washington, DC.

The aircraft carrier USS Intrepid is probably the largest object on display in any museum in America. After seeing extended duty in World War II and Vietnam, it’s now serving another tour as the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum on the west side of Manhattan. The Intrepid is a feel-good museum that would rather exhibit anything but the realities of war. Since war isn’t a feel-good subject, Intrepid can’t say much about even “The Good War,” World War II. And since the Vietnam War isn’t a feel-good war, Intrepid simply ignored it in 1999, when I was there. Since I have not revisited, I shall retain the present tense, but I invite visitors to let me know if it has improved.

The Intrepid Museum avoids giving visitors more than the briefest glimpse of the reality of the Second World War. Its brochure describes Intrepid as “the battle-scarred veteran of World War II,” but it isn’t any longer. The Navy repaired all World War II damage decades ago. Intrepid also imitates the practice of Time-Life’s series on World War II, which Paul Fussell derides for its reluctance to show a dead American. The closest the museum comes are two photographs in one corner, several feet above viewers’ heads. The first shows sailors cleaning up damage from an air attack and removing a dead crewman whose body is not fully visible. An adjacent photograph shows a dozen clean white body bags, awaiting burial at sea. The “Self-Guided Visit” material Intrepid distributes to schoolchildren omits even these glimpses of death.

No wonder every visitor in the dozens of photographs in its advertising brochure is smiling. Everyone looks entertained. No one looks thoughtful. The Intrepid Museum has not given them a thing to think about.

Intrepid served three tours in Vietnam from 1966 through 1968, winning “best ship in fleet” on its third tour, but no display in the museum covers the Vietnam War or the ship’s involvement in it. This is a grotesque misrepresentation, not least because Intrepid no longer is a World War II aircraft carrier; between World War II and Vietnam, the ship was rebuilt, and her entire configuration is now that of a Vietnam-era carrier.

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