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The Vietnam War: 1945-1975 at the New-York Historical Society

October 5, 2017 - by Troy Segal
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The decades-long conflict known as the Vietnam War was a daily fact of American life for so long, and divided the country so bitterly, it seems incredible that over half a century has passed since our major military involvement in it beganand that two generations have come of age since it ended. It is to those generations that the New-York Historical Society’s sweeping, artifacts-laden exhibition The Vietnam War: 1945-1975 is directed, though those who lived through the era will find plenty to engage them too, in a panoply of photos, art, documents, film clips, and objects great and small.

Vietnam 1945-1975 New-York Historical Society

Men of the 173rd Airborne Brigade on a search and destroy patrol after receiving supplies, 1966. National Archives at College Park, MD.

Like the recent Ken Burns documentary, the exhibit takes a chronological approach to the war; it’s particularly effective in depicting the post-World War II fears about the spread of Communismfor example, showing a map with dominoes representing nations to illustrate the contemporary Domino Theory (i.e., if the Communists gain control of one country, others will fall to them like dominoes), the U.S. rationale for intervening in Asia. The Vietnam War then moves methodically through the years, succinctly describing American military escalation, the anti-war movement at home, the gradual troop withdrawal, and eventual cease-fire, with a coda on the post-American-exit aftermath. Along the way are sections focused on topics like how the draft worked (40% of eligible young men were actually called up; of those, 10% went to Vietnam), and press coverage of the war (including a yard-tall stack of the infamous Pentagon Papers, Department of Defense documents leaked to the New York Times and The Washington Post).

Running from the Cold War days to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the show gives good narrative. But this is essentially an exhibit of things, the story told through a variety of objects and memorabilia, often displayed to emphasize disparity and division. An army-issued jungle fatigue shirt stands next to a denim jacket adorned with anti-war buttons. A detailed, colorfully lacquered engraving celebrating pro-North Vietnam forces hangs opposite a crude South Vietnamese propaganda poster decrying Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong as “partners in crime.” A modest bicycle laden with burlap bagsthe type used to ferry weapons and supplies from North to South Vietnamfaces down an Air Force “Bull Pup” missile; a draft card is displayed next to a New Yorker cartoon on the marital deferment. Around the corner from a hospital stretcher kitted out with an IV bag sits a voting booth used in New York on Election Day, 1968.

june 15 1967

Credit: American infantrymen crowd into a mud-filled bomb crater and look up at tall jungle trees seeking out Viet Cong snipers firing at them during a battle in Phuoc Vinh, north-northeast of Saigon in Vietnam's War Zone D, June 15, 1967. Henri Huet / Associated Press.

And throughout the show run columns bearing facsimiles of movie posters, book jackets, and magazine, record album, and comic book covers: emblems of the hits and bestsellers of the times; completely unrelated at first, they gradually begin to reflect the war, paralleling Vietnam’s growing presence in pop culture.

vietnam helmet hamburger hill

Helmet cover from Hamburger Hill. Courtesy of Salvador L. Gonzalez, 101st Airborne Division, 3rd Brigade, 1/506th Light Infantry, D Company, 1969. Veteran Sal Gonzalez wore this helmet liner at the meat-grinder battle dubbed “Hamburger Hill.” In May 1969, scores of Americans died or were wounded in repeated assaults up heavily defended Ap Bia Mountain.

The tone throughout is educational, earnest, even-handed. The New-York Historical Society has gone to great lengths to make the show interactive: you can pick up a 70-lb. rucksack just like the average GI carried, listen to ‘60s rock songs, or touch sections of two interactive murals for more background on the home and war fronts in 1966-67. Though there are some searing images, such as AP photographer Nick Ut’s famous picture of a naked girl fleeing a napalm bombing, there’s little that’s gruesome or extremely graphic.

In fact, this exhibit about an ugly war paradoxically opens with a pretty picture: Homeland (2013) by Vietnamese artist Dinh Thi Tham Poong, a gold, blue, and brown watercolor on handmade paper, depicting a rural scene. An apt metaphor, perhaps, for a contradiction-laden, endlessly controversial conflictone that belongs to a faraway time now, yet seems distressingly familiar today.

The Vietnam War: 1945-1975 runs through April 22, 2018. For more information, visit nyhistory.org.

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