How much impact the current exhibit at the New York Historical Society, The Vietnam War 1945-1975, has on attendees depends, I think, very much on the age of those viewing the display. For those, like myself, who were in college in the late 1960's and early 1970's the exhibit is a powerful reminder of the tumult that gripped the nation during those years, one that cannot fail to rekindle the anger the war once evoked.
There are not a great many artifacts on view here, and those that are shown are of the simplest - among them a bicycle once used by the North Vietnamese to transport supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail and an American soldier's helmet pierced in several places by bullets from an AK-47. For the most part, the viewer follows a series of large wall-mounted placards placed in chronological order that detail the history of the conflict (technically, it was never a war as Congress never declared it such) interspersed with archived clips from televised newscasts. In contrast to the recent World War I exhibit at the Met Museum, there isn't a single major artwork to be found, although there are a few poignant pieces created by Vietnamese artists. For this reason, the show may seem overly dry and even pedantic to those who weren't born when America became involved in Southeast Asia. For those who saw the original broadcasts, however, the sight of Walter Cronkite, then the most authoritative figure in American journalism, calling the situation a hopeless stalemate or of Lyndon Johnson announcing the immediate escalation of American troop strength through a higher draft call will have the same chilling effect they possessed a half century ago. Perhaps the most moving of these clips is that of a mother discussing the death of her son five weeks after he arrived in Vietnam to begin his tour of duty. The woman is calm and collected, but that only makes it all the more obvious how hard she's struggling not to give way to her emotions.
It was, of course, the bugaboo of Communism that led to American involvement in Vietnam. The war was actually begun, however, by the French as an attempt to reclaim the old colonies in Southeast Asia that had been occupied by the Japanese in World War II. The amount of assistance rendered by the US, including the gift of two aircraft carriers, to aid the French in their bid to reintroduce colonialism is staggering. It was all useless, though, and the French were decisively defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The rout of the French should have served as a warning to the US, but its lessons were blithely disregarded by successive administrations. Instead, as relentlessly chronicled at the exhibit, the US made one disastrous decision after another as it became increasingly entangled in the Vietnamese politics until the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 became a pretext for outright military intervention.
The real turning point in Vietnam was the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive in 1968. Although a great deal of space is devoted to this campaign, the exhibit fails to indicate how blindsided and shocked the American public was by the surprise attack. For years, Americans had been assured that Vietnam was a limited conflict, little more than a police action, in which the overwhelming power of American military might made it only a matter of time until the North Vietnamese were defeated and any lingering resistance mopped up. The Tet Offensive gave the lie to this assessment and revealed it to be little more than crude propaganda. As the American public learned they had been systematically lied to regarding North Vietnamese strength of purpose and military ability, the antiwar movement grew dramatically stronger, and the accompanying outrage brought down the Johnson presidency. Although America would eventually claim several months later to have won the battle, this was where the war was finally lost.
To its credit, the exhibit does not shy away from examining the split in American public opinion engendered by the war. The growth of the antiwar movement from May 12, 1964 when twelve men burned their draft cards in New York is carefully documented. Posters, buttons and news articles trace the growing anger that led to the first march, organized by SDS, in Washington on April 17, 1964 to the nationwide October 15, 1969 moratorium. Attention is given not only to such major political developments as Daniel Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 but also to manifestations in popular culture, such as Marvin Gaye's hit song "What's Going On" from that same year. The backlash against protesters by the establishment and by middle class blue collar workers is also discussed.
In the end, the Vietnam War was a turning point for America. Never again would its citizens implicitly trust the word of any elected official. American ideals, accepted fervently for generations, were shown to be hollow promises based in racial inequality and in intolerance for the beliefs of others. The country has never been the same again. In a very real sense, the Vietnam War marked the end of America's greatness and the beginning of its decline.
The exhibit continues through April 22, 2018.