The Never-Ending Memories of the Vietnam War

Culture Watch
tags: Vietnam War, New York Historical Society

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at


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I was supposed to visit the new exhibit The Vietnam War: 1945 – 1975 at the New-York Historical Society in New York two weeks ago when it opened but could not make it. I arrived last weekend, Veterans Day weekend, and was stunned by the exhibit’s force and magnitude. That hit me as I walked up the steps to the museum. When I reached the top of the stairs there was a “tribute wall’ staring me in the face, filled with well over two hundred 3" by 5" sheets of yellow paper all with some sort of variation of “thanks for your service” scrawled on them in pencil by visitors. Then I turned right and walked into the lobby and in front of me was a huge television displaying a video show on the Vietnam War, with scenes from the battlefield, the Vietnam cities, North and South, and the strident, boisterous protests against the conflict back home here in the U.S. that filled the streets of countless cities.

It is a terrific history of a controversial war, one that just won’t go away for the men and women who fought in it and those back home who lived through it. For Vietnam and military vets, it is a painful reminder of an unpopular war that they could not win and a conflict that tore the nation apart. For men and women in the younger generation it is a history lesson, a brilliant history lesson, on a war many know very little about (most high school kids today probably think Khe Sanh is a rock band). For all of us, it is a reminder that while we Americans have experienced great triumphs in our history, we have experienced great tragedies, too, led by the foolhardy adventure in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia.

Thankfully, the exhibit reaches all the way back to the last days of World War II. The Japanese had been occupying Vietnam, formerly run by the French, since 1941. Ho Chi Minh and his rebel army fought the Japanese and then the French when they returned to power there. The museum is to be applauded for starting it then because most Americans think it commenced sometime in the mid 1960s. The U.S. began to bankroll the French army (we paid 80 percent of its costs). In 1954, the French were booted out by the rebels and the country was divided in two. Ho Chi Minh and his lieutenants began the long war that year, right at the time the U.S., post-Korea, was starting to warn everybody that the huge Russian/Chinese/North Korea Communist block was going to absorb everybody and everything in Vietnam and the rest of that region of the world. The domino theory was born and the slogan “if we don’t fight them there, we’ll have to tight them here."  Throughout the 1950s, the Eisenhower Administration aided the South Vietnamese military. They were followed by the Kennedy Administration, that did the same and began to send in troops as “advisors.” The CIA backed a coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Diem and his brother; they were assassinated. A new regime took over backed by the new Johnson Administration. LBJ upped the ante with a bankroll that would expand to over $32 billion and an army of nearly 500,000 Americans.

The American government started a massive draft at the same time that the North Vietnamese government was building the Ho Chi Minh trail, a 9,000 mile web of narrow jungle roadways, on which teenage girls on bicycles would transport supplies (one of the kid’s bikes is in the exhibit). The little girls would rebuild the trail after each American bombing of it.

You hear very little noise when you walk through the exhibit. No one talks very much. All is somber. One woman watching a TV video wept quietly. A man with thick brown rimmed glasses strode from one exhibit to another, sad looking, his right hand constantly holding up his chin. A man in a parka with a “Vietnam” cap on pointed out different pictures to his wife.

People walk from section to section. There is a section on the My Lai Massacre and another on Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. There is a large section on the election of 1968, in which Richard Nixon was elected over Hubert Humphrey a few months after Bobby Kennedy was killed. It focused on Vietnam as a powerful factor in the vote.

Three are heart breaking videos are in the exhibit. One is of the internationally famous “napalm girl,” 9 year-old Kim Phuc. Remember her? A photographer took a photo of her, naked, her clothes burned off by the napalm that took off much of her skin too. The picture caught her in the middle of a road with others, fleeing their village, that had been bombed by the South Vietnamese, their own army, believing it to be a Viet Cong stronghold, in June, 1972. The video has the photographer telling the story. It also shows her today, happy. Another video is of a mother, Mrs. Maria Jones of Charlottesville Va., trying to tell a reporter how she felt about the death of her son Anthony in Vietnam, making a herculean effort to hold back the tears.

“It [war] doesn’t go away, does it?" she says. “It’s on the radio and TV every day.”

Fred Smith, who worked with supplies in Vietnam and complained bitterly that they were disorganized, talked of his experiences and how, because of the supply mess, he later founded Federal Express. Tears in his eyes, the successful business mogul looks into the camera and says that everyday Americans should “just take some time to think about the GIs” in the war.

There is a video of a GI who talks years after the war and says that “we go home to racism, segregation and unemployment.”

There are jarring moments, too. I turned around there and stumbled into a low table that had been turned into a television monitor. Below me I saw bomb bay doors open and bombs, hundreds of them, drop on Cambodia below.

The men and women who put the exhibit together did a fine job of breaking the war down into these areas. There are sections on the different years of the war and, congruently, sections on the war in South Vietnam and the protests back home. One room has a huge cartoonish wall that traces the war and another that traces the turmoil back in the states. There is a section on the Viet Cong. There is one on the 1968 two-day Tet Offensive, in which the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army launched over 100 assaults on American bases, shaking up Americans back home. It was the turning point of the war.

There are areas on the bombing of Hanoi, the battles of Khe Sanh, Danang and Hamburger Hill. “Earth explodes, clods of dirt fall from the ceiling, shrapnel makes repulsive singing through the air,” wrote one reporter at Khe Sanh.

A Navy chaplain at Khe Sanh explained that his “services” were just a communion and a “two minute” sermon and then a lot of encouragement to the soldiers as bullets flew by overhead.

There is a media section that features that famous 1969 copy of Life magazine that carried the pictures and names of all 242 soldiers killed in the war that week.

There are numerous pieces of equipment from the war in the exhibit, including a jeep used in one battle, cots from a troop ship that carried the men to war. One had a girl in a bikini, “Vietnam Susie,” telling the troops “Welcome to Vietnam, GI.” Across the aisle from Susie was an actual knapsack, unbelievably large, that soldiers had to lug around.

I was thunderstruck by one large exhibit that showed how many young men actually fought in Vietnam. It was staggering. There were 27 million men of draft age in that era. Forty percent were drafted and 10 percent, or 2.5 million men, fought in Vietnam. That’s considerable.

Programs in the exhibit: Political pundit Lawrence O’Donnell will discuss the 1968 Presidential election and Vietnam at the museum on Nov. 29. Ken Burns will be there Jan. 10 with David Rubenstein to discuss his latest documentary on the Vietnam War. Historian Lien—Hang Nguyen will talk about the Tet offensive on March 5. On March 26, singer Judy Collins will be there to talk about Vietnam and the 1950s. The museum’s film festival will screen Coming Home, starring John Voight, on January 16 and Robert Altman’s movie MASH on March 2.

In the end, 58,000 American men and women lost their lives there, along with nearly 3 million Vietnamese. North and South.

The U.S. lost the war and the North Vietnamese, after a long 30-year struggle, won it.

I put my parka on, zipped it tight and went back outside. I thought about the exhibit some more. I felt very, very cold.

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