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History's Headlines: New exhibit looks back at legacy of Vietnam War

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Apr 18 2014 09:01:57 PM CDT
Updated On: Apr 21 2014 06:38:22 PM CDT

History's Headlines: Vietnam War exhibit

Jill Youngken, curator of the Lehigh County Historical Society’s Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, remembers being in the 5th grade in the 1960s when the Vietnam War first began to make an impression on her.

Then it suddenly seemed to explode as the late 60s became the 1970s. “There was Kent State and it was horrible. It seemed like we were attacking ourselves,” she recalls with a slight shiver in her voice.

One thing that really bothered Youngken from the beginning was the way soldiers who fought the war were treated, as if the war had somehow been their fault. “Some people were just driven crazy by the whole thing,” she says. “They were calling the servicemen ‘baby killers just because they were doing their duty to defend their country. The whole thing was so irrational.”

It was at least in part to answer these charges and bring some healing that Youngken, working with LCHS executive director Joseph Garrera, decided it was time to do a special exhibit about the war. It began on March 22nd and will run until September 28th.

“It is 50 years since the war really started to heat up,” says Youngken, referring to the Gulf of Tonkin attacks by North Vietnamese P.T. boats on U.S. destroyers in August of 1964, which led Congress to grant President Johnson the authority to expand the war.

What most Americans did not know, and would not know until the Pentagon Papers were published in 1970, is that since February of 1964, under Operation Code 34A, the U.S. had covertly been engaged in attacks on North Vietnam to get that government to reign in the Vietcong in South Vietnam.

“As hard as it is to imagine, many of the men who fought there are now in their late 60s to early 70s. We thought it was important to get local veterans side of the story now,” Youngken says.

In order to do this, the LCHS has begun recording the memories of veteran for a special program that will place them in the Library of Congress. Veterans who wish to set up an interview are requested to call Youngken at 610-435-1054 to set up an appointment. 

Although she has not gotten a large response, Youngken has noted that it is diverse. “One veteran, for example, talked about how he went off, really supportive of the war,” she says. “But when he came back he was so opposed to it, he protested against it. Today he views all wars as a stupid way to settle an argument and has taken part in protests of other wars.”

The majority of those Youngken has talked to seemed to be just wanting to forget. “We had one vet who came in with his wife,” she says, “as he began to tell his story she was amazed and said she had never heard him talk about the war and now she understood him better.”

The story of the war is told in a variety of ways in the exhibit. There are displays that feature letters and other documents from a local man who was killed in 1968.  Another case contains what might be called “the war of the buttons.”

On one side are the pro-war buttons, badges and bumper stickers. On the other side are the anti-war buttons, badges and bumper stickers. Each offers examples of why Vietnam is regarded as the most divisive conflict in American history since the Civil War. Among the most famous shows a cartoon drawing of President Lyndon Johnson showing a scar on his stomach that resembles a map of Vietnam.

The Vietnam War remains one of the most argued-over conflicts in U.S. history. In 1963, after hearing two of his advisors recently returned from Vietnam argue opposite sides of the state of the war, President John F. Kennedy remarked sarcastically, “You two did go to the same country, didn’t you?”

The exhibit takes a view that presents the facts without attempting to come to a, “who was right, who was wrong” decision. It is placed in the context of the Cold War relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union following World War II.

One group of policymakers argued that the U.S. leadership at the time looked at Vietnam as an extension of the Cold War and the idea that Communists wanted to spread their ideology around the world. Vietnam was a domino whose fall would lead to unstoppable totalitarian control.

Others claimed that Vietnam had nothing to do with a larger Cold War conflict but that it was a nationalist struggle that began with a colonial war against France by Vietnamese who wanted their own country. By the U.S. getting in the middle of the conflict, they were taking sides in a civil war.

Since Americans are still arguing over the exact causes of our own Civil War 150 years later, Vietnam will probably not be something settled anytime soon. The LCHS exhibit explains this by showing some of the major events of the conflict and the battles and strategy of the generals on both sides.

In that it offers a good general overview. “We are thrilled by the number of school groups who have toured it,” says Garrera. “At a time when history is sometimes overlooked we think the exhibit is making a contribution.”

Perhaps the most moving part of the exhibit contains 125 wall panels on the second floor of the museum. It offers the names and the birth and death dates of the Lehigh and Northampton County men who died during the Vietnam War. “It was not an easy thing to put together but we thought it was the least we could do to honor them,” concludes Youngken.