Our exhibit commemorating the Vietnam War closed last week after a 15-month run in our Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery. We used the records in our holdings as well as interviews with historians, American and Vietnamese military and civilians to describe twelve critical episodes in the Vietnam War from Truman Sides with France (1946-53) to the Fall of Saigon in 1975.
The title of the exhibit comes from an important book by the Vietnamese-American writer, Viet Thanh Nguyen—Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War—in which he reminds us that wars are fought twice, once on the battlefield and once in memory.
That message was clearly reinforced in 15 months of programming supporting the exhibit, thousands of tourists visiting the exhibit, Wounded Warrior visits, Honor Flight participants, school groups, family groups, Vietnam Veterans and their families.
In the Gallery, we provided an opportunity for visitors to reflect on what they had seen and heard and leave us their thoughts:
“We are a family of Vietnamese refugees, here because of the war.”
“My dad lost his leg and got mean after the war.”
“When I was a young girl, I remember my mother baking cookies, packing them and sending them to my uncle in Vietnam.”
“My dad died of Agent Orange.”
“My father served from 69-70. My whole childhood and his entire adult life was marked by personal, emotional and medical trauma from his service. Let us never repeat that.”
“My grandpa is MIA from the Vietnam War and it harshly affected my grandmother.”
“My mom, along with her 3 siblings and her parents, fled Vietnam 2 days before the Fall of Saigon.”
As a Vietnam Vet, this was an important 15 months to me personally. I often wandered into the exhibit to see who was there, how they were interacting and reacting to the materials we had chosen, and listened in to the hushed conversations—parents explaining to their children, Vietnam Vets comparing notes, lots of tears on every visit.
We were lucky to have the North Carolina Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association with us twice—with three choppers from the war sited on our Constitution Avenue lawn. They drew the curious and the informed. They shared their stories and reminded those of us who returned how lucky we were.
I am forever grateful to our exhibit curator, Alice Kamps, and a dedicated and creative exhibits and programming staff for executing such a quality experience and commemoration. And to our National Archives Foundation for their financial and spiritual support!
Early on the morning after the exhibit closed and just before deinstallation began, I had my last walk through. It was a powerfully emotional experience, as it was during my first walk through before the exhibit opened. Proud of what we accomplished!