The Vietnam War: 1945–1975, On View October 4, 2017 – April 22, 2018
One of the major turning points of the 20th century, the Vietnam War will be the subject of an unprecedented exhibition presented by the New-York Historical Society from October 4, 2017 – April 22, 2018. Bringing the hotly contested history of this struggle into the realm of public display as never before, the exhibition will offer a chronological and thematic narrative of the conflict from 1945 through 1975 as told through more than 300 artifacts, photographs, artworks, documents, and interactive digital media.
Objects on display will range from a Jeep used at Tan Son Nhut Air Base to a copy of the Pentagon Papers; from posters and bumper stickers both opposing and supporting the U.S. war effort to personal items left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC; from indelible news photographs (such as Eddie Adams’ Execution) to specially commissioned murals by contemporary artist Matt Huynh. While no gallery exhibition can provide a comprehensive, global perspective on this vast subject, the materials brought together in The Vietnam War: 1945–1975 will comprise a sweeping and immersive narrative, exploring, from a primarily American viewpoint, how this pivotal struggle was experienced both on the war front and on the home front. The Vietnam War: 1945–1975 was curated by Marci Reaven, New-York Historical Society vice president for history exhibitions.
“The Vietnam War: 1945–1975 signals a new ambition for the New-York Historical Society, which is to include in our exhibition program histories that are not only difficult but also as yet unresolved,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president, and CEO of New-York Historical. “This monumental exhibit challenges received wisdom about the origins and consequences of the War, relying on sources only recently made available to scholars as well as first person accounts of those who fought. As the exhibition shows, the War continues to provoke debate and discussion today and to dominate much of our thinking about military conduct and policy. The Vietnam War was the longest armed conflict of the 20th century, and today—more than 40 years after it ended―it continues to influence both public policy and personal convictions. We are grateful for the opportunity to offer the public a chance to better understand events and protagonists of the 20th century that reverberate well into the 21st.”
The Vietnam War: 1945–1975 sets the scene for the coming conflict through a display in an introductory gallery, where texts and materials about the onset of the Cold War document how the U.S. and its allies began to maneuver against the Communist bloc in regional confrontations after World War II while avoiding head-on engagement between the nuclear powers. Objects on view include a series of oil paintings by Chesley Bonestell imagining the destruction of New York City by Soviet atomic bombs and a newsreel from 1950 making the case for U.S. military action in Korea.
The exhibition then takes up the story of Vietnam by recalling the successful struggle of the Communist-nationalist coalition Viet Minh to force France to abandon its claim to Vietnam, then part of the French colony known as Indochina. Archival footage from a CBS News broadcast illustrates the “domino theory” put forward by the Eisenhower administration in support of its desire to halt the spread of Communism in Asia, a mindset which contributed to the partitioning of Vietnam into North and South. Among the objects representing the experiences of the North Vietnamese and southern insurgents are a 1962 painting by the Hanoi-based artist Tran Huu Chat and a bicycle of the sort used by North Vietnamese forces for transport of arms along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Also on view is a scale model of the USS Maddox, one of the destroyers involved in the Gulf of Tonkin encounter with North Vietnamese forces in August 1964, which gave the Johnson Administration grounds for seeking Congressional authorization to increase U.S. military operations without a declaration of war.
On July 28, 1965, President Johnson spoke to the nation on TV to explain that it was up to America to protect South Vietnam and fight communism in Asia and that to be driven from the field would imperil U.S. power, security, and credibility. He also announced a dramatic escalation in the military draft.
Objects on view, like an original draft card, and displays will address various responses to the draft, which affected all men between the ages of 18 and 26. Archival footage of Johnson’s address announcing the doubling of the draft will be shown. Artifacts, such as graffiti created by soldiers on their canvas berths, from the troopship General Walker, which ferried draftees during the three-week voyage to Vietnam, will demonstrate the personal side of soldiers as they headed toward war.
With this escalation of U.S. military involvement, the exhibition moves into a section that examines the conduct of the war and its repercussions both in the field and among American civilians. Two large, illustrated murals by noted artist and illustrator Matt Huynh, titled War Front and Home Front, depict key aspects of the years 1966 and 1967. War Front depicts the four combat zones in South Vietnam to show differing types of combat and highlight significant moments and battlegrounds. Home Front illustrates activity in the United States, including the Spring Mobilization, the largest antiwar demonstration to that date in American history, in which hundreds of thousands marched through midtown Manhattan on April 15, 1967.
The mural also shows a pro-war demonstration from May 1967 and other scenes of the war’s impact on national life. Interactive kiosks placed next to both murals bring them to life, allowing visitors to explore the events depicted through videos and photographs. Notable objects displayed in this section include a poster of a woman fighter in support of the southern insurgents, recreated by Tran Thi Van; helmets worn by U.S. and South Vietnamese government soldiers, dog tags, military patches, and field implements; letters from soldiers to their loved ones back home; a condolence letter on the death of a son; period magazines; posters and buttons both demanding an end to the war and urging support for the military effort; and a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s April 1967 speech against the war.
The third major section of the exhibition focuses on the turning point of the early 1968 Tet Offensive when Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces called into question optimistic U.S. assessments of the progress of the war by attacking targets in more than 100 cities and towns across South Vietnam. Using archival film and photos, an animation, contemporary media publications, documents, and quotations, the display establishes the chronology of the Tet Offensive, its coverage by the news media (including photographs from the Vietnam News Agency of VC and NVA activities), and the offensive’s impact on discourse about the war. The human cost of the Tet Offensive and other battles is also documented through objects including surgical scissors, forceps, an Army Nurse Corps pin, and photographs of civilian refugees from Hue. The ensuing political turmoil of the 1968 presidential election, in which America’s social, political, and racial divisions boiled to the surface, is addressed by a commanding photo montage that also hosts interactive components providing information about the presidential candidates. Audio elements include a Nixon campaign commercial and a NBC report from the violent streets outside the Democratic convention in August 1968.
Searching for an Exit surveys the final years of the Vietnam War: why the time period was so contentious and divisive and how the war finally came to end. Although antiwar convictions intensified and grew more widespread as the new Nixon administration took charge—as witnessed by materials from the nationwide October 1969 Vietnam Moratorium—President Nixon also enjoyed strong popular support. Among the objects on view are buttons with slogans such as “America Love It or Leave It” and “Free Lt. Calley Now,” a photograph of the so-called “hard-hat” pro-war counter-demonstrators in New York City and one of the POW bracelets distributed to raise awareness of the fate of U.S. military personnel held captive in North Vietnam. Other key objects on display include a copy of the Pentagon Papers, published to explosive effect in June 1971; copies of popular magazines, with headlines including “Starting to Go Home”; a helmet liner from Hamburger Hill; and a slideshow of artworks made by Vietnam War veterans. Original films, including one featuring an interview with FedEx founder Frederick Smith discussing how his experience as a Marine influenced the creation of the global courier service, will be screened in the gallery.
The exhibition concludes with a section reflecting on the aftermath of the war, including the construction and dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Maya Lin. Among the items in this final section are a bomblet from a U.S. cluster bomb, a celebrated Hugh Van Es photograph of the evacuation from Saigon onto an Air America helicopter in April 1975, and a variety of objects that have been left in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, including a baby sweater, baseball glove and ball, a mini bottle of whisky, playing cards, and letters addressed to the deceased.
A wide range of public programs, screenings, guided tours, and family programs will add insight into the events recounted in The Vietnam War: 1945–1975. The public life of Robert Kennedy is explored by Larry Tye and David Nasaw on October 3. Historian David Armitage surveys various civil wars that have been waged in history, including Vietnam, on October 19. The presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon and their impact on the conflict will be discussed by scholars William E. Leuchtenburg, Fredrik Logevall, and Douglas Brinkley on November 18. Political pundit Lawrence O’Donnell dives into the 1968 election on November 29.
The untold story of influential covert operative Edward Lansdale will be examined by author Max Boot with David H. Petraeus on January 9. Filmmaker Ken Burns joins David M. Rubenstein to discuss his latest documentary The Vietnam War on January 10. Historian Lien-Hang Nguyen looks at the Tet Offensive through the lens of 50 years later on March 5. Singer-songwriter Judy Collins sits down with Harold Holzer for an intimate conversation about the culture in the 1960s on March 13.
The Bernard and Irene Schwartz Classic Film Series this season, offered during Pay-as-you-wish Friday evenings, includes the French Indochina-set Red Dust (1932) on November 17; Coming Home (1978) starring Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, and Bruce Dern on January 16; and Robert Altman’s black comedy MASH (1970) on March 2. A walking tour of war memorials on October 14 and gallery tours with the exhibition’s curator will also take place.
Families are encouraged to pick up a copy of The Vietnam War: 1945–1975 Family Guide as they enter the exhibition to help structure and enrich their experience. The family guide helps interpret the exhibition through interesting activities, directs families to the most important and kid-friendly content, and guides discussion about this difficult historical era. Throughout the exhibition’s run, special Living History programs will take place on select Saturdays and Sundays focusing on life on the home and war fronts. During Martin Luther King Jr. Day Weekend, families can learn about Dr. King’s groundbreaking speech, Beyond Vietnam, and meet speech organizer Reverend Richard Fernandez. On January 14, middle school readers can discuss Vietnam: A History of the War by Russell Freedman as part of Reading into History Book Club, and on February 3, Steve Sheinkin, acclaimed author of National Book Award Finalist Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War will talk with Robert Ellsberg who, at age 13, helped his father photocopy the Pentagon Papers in order to leak them to the public.
Special Programming On Veteran Day Weekend 2017
Admission to the Museum will be free for all visitors on Veterans Day, Saturday, November 11, thanks to AT&T. Throughout Veterans Day weekend, New-York Historical pays tribute to the men and women who have served in the Armed Forces with special programs. On Friday, November 10, the off-Broadway production of Cry Havoc! will be performed for one night only. The one man show, written and performed by Stephan Wolfert, recounts Wolfert’s own experiences of military service, weaving his personal narrative with lines from some of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches. The free performance will be followed by a conversation with veterans from Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars. On Sunday, November 12, veterans and members of Voices from War will read their short stories, written to help cope with their experiences in combat; the free reading will be followed by a conversation with the veterans. Historical re-enactors will also be on-site at the Museum all three days, and family friendly activities and scavenger hunts will help young visitors learn more about the importance of Veterans Day. Author Thanhha Lai will join the Reading into History Book Club on November 12 to discuss her book Inside Out & Back Again, about a ten-year-old girl forced to flee Saigon with her family during the war.
Major support for The Vietnam War: 1945–1975 provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor, the Achelis and Bodman Foundation, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Educational and public programming made possible by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Additional support for the exhibition is provided in honor of Gunner’s Mates Simpson, Wicks, and Von Essen, once of the USS Hornet, by James Grant, Bridgewater Associates, Amherst Pierpont, Harlan Batrus, Stifel, Karen and Paul Isaac, and the Southern 7 Chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization.
Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. WNET is a media sponsor.
The companion book The Vietnam War: 1945–1975, published by D Giles Limited, will be available in the fall at the NYHistory Store and online.