An unvarnished account of the Vietnam War — from the Cold War domino theory that hooked the U.S. in the 1950s to a baby sweater left by a grieving mother at the Vietnam Memorial in 1990 — at the National World War I Museum doesn’t flinch from the brutality of the war and how it tore apart American society.
“This exhibit should help people think about what happened,” said Matt Naylor, CEO and president of the museum.
“It’s not a myopic view, but a balanced view that will examine the conflict from a variety of angles and will stimulate conversations around that.”
Kansas City is only one of three cities in the nation where “The Vietnam War: 1945-1975” exhibition will be shown. It was organized two years ago by the New-York Historical Society, and was exhibited in that city and Pittsburgh before coming here.
The exhibition blends interactive maps of the U.S. and Vietnam where visitors can learn about the war from different perspectives, and artifacts including a bicycle that ferried supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and hundreds of Zippo cigarette lighters issued to GIs.
There’s an early TV broadcast where a mother reflects on her son’s death in 1965, open copies of the famous Life magazine that published the faces of all 242 soldiers killed in combat during one week in 1969, and cockpit videos of the 1970 Cambodia bombing campaign.
It covers the heroics, both of the American soldiers and their South Vietnamese allies, as well as their opponents, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.
An entire wall display is dedicated to the chaotic events of 1968 that included riots in the U.S. and the game-changing Tet Offensive in Vietnam.
A fatalistic message on one of the lighters displayed at the entry to the exhibit, and also scrawled on a soldier’s helmet further in, sums it up.
“We the unwilling, led by the unqualified, to kill the unfortunate, die for the ungrateful,” the soldiers’ wrote.
Naylor said the exhibition is intended to prompt people to reflect on the conflict, both those who fought and those at home.
“Whether one served there or not, many people lived through it,” he said. “It was a powerful time in peoples’ memory.
“What we’ve seen is an emotional response,” Naylor said. “A museum should be a place that evokes emotional responses.”
Naylor said there’s a clear connection between World War I and the Vietnam War. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Vietnam was part of the French colony of Indochina.
During the First World War, almost 100,000 Vietnamese were brought to aid France, half as soldiers, the remainder laborers. What they learned about modern warfare and liberty returned with them.
When France tried to reassert control of Indochina after World War II and the Japanese occupation, the Vietnamese led by Ho Chi Minh began their fight for independence as Communists. The French reached out for American help, and the rest of the story is what's now on the walls of the World War I Museum.
"The Vietnam War: 1945-1975," through May 31, 2020 in the Wylie Gallery at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, 2 Memorial Drive, Kansas City, MO 64108; 816-888-8100.
Kevin Collison writes about downtown Kansas City for his website CityScene KC.