Bringing It All Back Home: The Vietnam War in Public History and Personal Memory

I was born in 1953, three months before the signing of the armistice that ended the Korean War. My uncle, a U.S. soldier stationed in the Philippines, came home to New York that summer, bearing souvenirs. Among them was an exquisite embroidered silk kimono. A bachelor at the time, my uncle gave the kimono to my mother, and a few years later she passed the garment on to me. For the rest of my childhood it remained my favorite article for playing “dress up” with my friends.

At that age, I could not have understood how that souvenir kimono might bear witness to cross-currents of global politics, including those that would soon lead to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Made of Chinese silk cut in the Japanese style, and bought by an American soldier stationed in the Philippines during the Korean War, the kimono told a story that looked back on a long and complex history and foreshadowed the polemical battles that would, during the Vietnam War era, take place in millions of American homes—including my own.

Today, in academic circles at least, our understanding of the Vietnam War is more complete, thanks to historians who have been working with newly accessible materials from around the world, including those declassified at the Cold War’s end, while taking advantage of the critical distance provided by the passage of time. These historians have explored hitherto unknown or under-examined connections between choices made as early as 1945 and later decisions by U.S. and Vietnamese leaders. They have thoroughly studied how the struggle between the world’s most powerful nations moved Vietnam to the center of global affairs during the Cold War. And they have lectured and written about the deep and wide-ranging public discourse of the time, which continues to inform debates today about America’s role on the world stage. Historians have also looked farther back in time, to place the mid-20th-century struggles of Vietnam within a much longer history of enmities and alliances in the region. If not fully explanatory, this history is richly descriptive of the centuries of invasion, occupation, and cultural exchange that the fabric, design, and provenance of my uncle’s Korean War souvenir signified.

Unfortunately, that expanded and nuanced history has not yet been told in the public setting of a major museum. That’s why the New-York Historical Society has organized the exhibition The Vietnam War 1945–1975 and its companion book: to introduce the broadest possible public to what historians have discovered and concluded about the causes, conduct, and consequences of the Vietnam War.

Part of the power of the exhibition is that it can dramatically present the voices of the many and varied historical actors. The voices heard throughout the galleries of New-York Historical’s Vietnam War show—presented through documents, artworks, artifacts, and audiovisual media—movingly express the experiences and insights of extraordinary individuals, highlighting the era’s wide-ranging and deeply profound public discourse.

Throughout the course of developing this exhibition, we repeatedly asked ourselves and our scholarly advisors what the Vietnam War might mean for our visitors, including the hundreds of thousands of individuals for whom the mid-20th century might as well be the ancient world. Our hope is that this project—developed in consultation with political and military historians, veteran servicemen and nurses, Southeast Asian refugees, anti- and pro-war activists, and civilian and military informants within Vietnam—will lead to productive thinking about issues that were debated during the war, and that still resonate today. Among these are issues of Americans’ responsibilities and duties as citizens; the meaning of patriotism, loyalty, and morality; and the authority of government. The Vietnam War tested American democracy, whose parameters sometimes expanded and sometimes contracted in response to bitter and tragic events. And yet the Vietnam War and its aftermath provide powerful testimony to the depth and resilience of the foundational aspects of American life—an important lesson at the present moment.

Telling the story of the Vietnam War has reopened a painful chapter for many of us at New-York Historical, reminding us of how the conflict pulled Americans in different directions and divided families across generations. My own family is a case in point. In 1966, my grandfather, a proud World War I veteran and father of the uncle who had served during the Korean War, gave me a poster of an American flag emblazoned with the motto “Support Our Boys in Vietnam.” When my parents found the poster taped to my bedroom wall, they furiously demanded that I take it down. My mother and father were among the Vietnam War’s earliest and most vehement opponents. In my large and otherwise close-knit family, they were alone in their views, right up to the end of the war.

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