Society of American Archivists article "Remembering Vietnam, 50 Years After"
More than 50 years after the United States committed combat troops to the war in Vietnam, and more than 40 years since the war ended, the complexity of the conflict is still being unraveled.
The 50th anniversary of the height of America’s war in Vietnam in 1967–68 inspired us at the National Archives to mark that milestone with a major exhibit in Washington, DC, and companion exhibits and programs in Presidential libraries across the country.
As a veteran of the Vietnam War, commemorating this anniversary was important to me, personally. Young Americans who are now the same age as many who served in Vietnam—in their late teens and early 20s—have little knowledge of the war. Yet historians continue to make discoveries in National Archives’ records that provide insight into this critical period.
To highlight the resources available at the National Archives, we’ve also developed a Vietnam War research portal (https://www.archives.gov/vietnam). The National Archives has a wealth of records and information documenting the U.S. experience in the Vietnam conflict, including textual and electronic records, photographs, motion pictures, and audio recordings.
The portal creates a central space for all National Archives resources and content related to the Vietnam War for use by researchers, students and educators, museum goers, veterans, and those curious about the conflict. We’re also asking “citizen archivists” to add to those resources by transcribing captions and tagging features in photographs of Marine Corps activities in Vietnam.
The exhibit in Washington, “Remembering Vietnam,” draws on National Archives records from all parts of our agency—federal civilian and military records, still photography and motion pictures, sound recordings, artifacts, and electronic records—to reexamine major events and turning points in the war. “Remembering Vietnam” looks at 12 episodes in the war to addresses three critical questions about the Vietnam War: Why did the United States get involved? Why did the war last so long? Why was it so controversial?
To provide multiple perspectives in the exhibit, we interviewed American and Vietnamese veterans and civilians who experienced one or more of the 12 critical episodes. The interviews, illustrated with historic film footage from our holdings, appear in theater spaces in the exhibit and can be viewed online at www.archives.gov/exhibits/currently-on-exhibit-remembering-vietnam.
We also created a traveling exhibit of photographs taken by military photographers called “Picturing Nam.” It opened at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and will travel to museums in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana.
The six Presidents whose administrations spanned U.S. involvement in Vietnam are all represented in our Presidential libraries. Those libraries contributed heavily to “Remembering Vietnam” and to a social media campaign leading up to the Veterans Day opening of “Remembering Vietnam.” During the week before the opening, we invited our Twitter and Instagram audiences to share Vietnam War documents and artifacts and tell their stories, and many individuals and cultural institutions joined in.
The emphasis on the stories of the war’s participants—a vital part of the “Remembering Vietnam” exhibit—continues through other programs. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Library is going directly to the source by hosting workshops on oral histories and memoir writing to capture the wartime memories of Kansans, both at home and abroad. Three Medal of Honor recipients shared their stories at the George W. Bush Library at an event connected with the simulcast of a conversation with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about their 10-part documentary The Vietnam War. Burns and Novick were in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, but audiences in eight Presidential libraries shared the broadcast.
In the coming year and beyond we will be inviting the public to come to our locations across the country and join us online for additional panel discussions, author lectures, films, educator webinars, and special events.
For so long, the Vietnam War was not a topic of conversation. This anniversary offers an opportunity to share our memories, examine the records, and attempt to answer questions that have remained unanswered for five decades.