Top of page

Collection items in foreground, historian speaking with two visitors in background, with wooden bookshelves against wall
Historian Ryan Reft speaking with two visitors at the Live! At the Library “The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien” pre-screening collection display, May 11, 2023. Photograph by Meg McAleer.

Vietnam: Staying in the Room and Holding the Conversation

Share this post:

This guest post is by Manuscript Division historian and military and diplomatic history specialist Meg McAleer.

I stayed in the kitchen every night until the shooting was over. I was ten years old in 1967, the same year the United States expanded its air and ground attacks in Vietnam’s nationalist civil war, and the explosive sound of gunfire opened most evening news broadcasts. We had only one television, thankfully not within earshot of the kitchen, which served as my refuge from the violence of the nightly news. The war continued for another six long years until 1973, when the last U.S. military units pulled out in September. Saigon fell two years later. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal.

Recently, as part of the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration’s “Welcome Home! A Nation Honors Our Vietnam Veterans and Their Families,” the Library’s Veterans History Project (VHP) held a film screening of “The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien,” a documentary about the author of the acclaimed Vietnam War short story collection, The Things They Carried (1990).[1]

As part of the event, VHP invited the Manuscript Division and other curatorial divisions to display items from their Vietnam-era collections. I and my fellow modern U.S. historian and Manuscript Division colleague Ryan Reft decided to concentrate on the war’s aftermath from 1973 to 1995.[2] I embraced the idea. After all, no shooting.

This approach dovetailed nicely with the documentary, which explores O’Brien’s postwar life as he continues to grapple with questions of war. It also had the potential to yield insights into how a sharply divided nation pursued reconciliation after 1973. Were there lessons for us today? Another concern lurked in the background as well. Were these topics still too raw for the Vietnam veterans and Gold Star families who would be attending the event?

As the display’s curators, the evening became more about listening than telling, more about conversation than presentation as veterans and Gold Star families viewed our selections and shared their stories. Perhaps this was the insight into national healing I sought—the power of conversation in a shared space.

The event took place in the Library’s historic Thomas Jefferson Building. Among the items we displayed were letters by President Gerald Ford and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara; Amex-Canada, a magazine published by American draft evaders in Canada; Julian Bond’s 1967 comic book on the African American experience in Vietnam, illustrated by T. G. Lewis; a captured National Liberation Front of South Vietnam diary from the Kien Hoa Province; a copy of “The Veterans Self-Help Guide on Agent Orange”; a Defense Intelligence Agency report on misleading MIA reports based on recovered dog tags; and journalist Anthony Lewis’s notes from his interview with Viet N. Dinh, chief legal and policy officer for Fox Corporation, on his family’s experience as Vietnamese refugees.[3]

A common theme ran through the display: the importance of metaphorically staying in the room, even when conversations are difficult—something my ten-year-old self was too young to know. Here are just three examples of what we displayed.

Three monochrome letters in collage
Letters from President Gerald R. Ford to Senator Robert Taft, Jr., September 28, 1974; Maya Lin to Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Inc., September 20, 1982; and Robert S. McNamara to Bill Clinton, November 23, 1992. See endnotes for full citations.

Amnesty 1.0: Earned Reentry. Letter from Gerald Ford to Robert Taft, September 28, 1974.

One year after the U.S. military withdrew from Vietnam and ten days after becoming president, Gerald Ford chose the International Ballroom of the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago to announce a conditional amnesty program for draft evaders and military deserters. His audience? The Veterans of Foreign Wars. There could not have been a tougher room to hold this conversation on forgiveness.

The VFW greeted the announcement with silence even after Ford reassured them that this would be an “earned reentry” through compulsory alternative service rather than a blanket pardon. Writing to Senator Robert Taft one month later, Ford held firm that the conditional amnesty program “was essential for the reconciliation of all of our people and the restoration of unity which has been torn too long by bitter divisiveness.”[4]

Crowd of visitors at Vietnam War Memorial, reaching to touch wall
Visitors at the wall, 1982, photographer unknown, Box 52, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Memorializing the 58,318. Tom Carhart’s “The Final Insult” from the Houston Chronicle, October 28, 1981, and Letter from Maya Lin to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, September 20, 1982.

Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs recognized the need for a memorial where the nation could remember and honor the more than 58,000 men and women who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. Twenty-one-year-old architectural student Maya Lin won the national design competition in 1981, which took place a mere six years after the fall of Saigon. Her spare rendering earned both widespread acclaim and angry criticism, the latter from some veterans who viewed her minimalist design as disrespectful, lacking a sense of humanity and patriotism.

A heated conversation between the critics and defenders of Lin’s design plays out in the Manuscript Division’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Records collection. Included was veteran Tom Carhart’s op-ed piece that labeled the proposed memorial design “a black gash of shame and sorrow.” Also present was Maya Lin’s letter objecting to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s compromise addition of three representational figures of soldiers and a flag pole. Lin argued that the add-ons made “the original work of art as no more than an architectural backdrop.”[5] The controversies surrounding its inception ultimately never defined the memorial. An unidentified photograph in the collection, possibly from the memorial’s 1982 dedication, captures the wall’s magnetic pull toward healing and reconciliation.

President-elect Bill Clinton greets the crowd after speaking on Main Street in Warrenton, Va., January 17, 1993, photographer Scott J. Ferrell. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Bill Clinton and the Draft. Letter from Robert McNamara to Bill Clinton, November 23, 1992.

Bill Clinton was elected U.S. president on November 3, 1992. The outcome seemed unlikely at the beginning of the year following the leak of a 1969 letter by Clinton to the University of Arkansas’s ROTC program director that revealed his efforts to avoid the draft. Clinton was the first U.S. president to come of age during the Vietnam War. His generation educated themselves about the war and the draft, assessed their options, talked to friends, examined their consciences, and made their decisions. The leaked letter touched off a contentious national discussion about patriotism and conscience, duty and dissent. Nevertheless, Clinton prevailed in the November presidential election. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara wrote a private letter to the president-elect later that month: “For me—and I believe for the nation as well—the Vietnam war finally ended the day you were elected President.”[6]

McNamara’s provocative statement begs questions. Had the nation reconciled by 1992? Had Americans done the hard work to stay in the room and hold the conversation? Or did the divisions of the Vietnam War era linger? Do we need to return to the room for more talking and listening? If we do, imagine the role libraries and archives could play.

 

Do you want more stories like this? Then subscribe to Unfolding History – it’s free!

[1] The Live! At the Library “The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien” event took place on May 11, 2023. In 2016, O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990) was included in the Library of Congress America Reads exhibition of books that shaped America.

[2] Special thanks to my co-curator Ryan Reft for collaborating on a display that I will continue to think about long into the future. This blog benefited from his editorial suggestions.

[3] Amex-Canada (Nov.-Dec. 1974), Box 223, Robert Taft, Jr., Papers; Julian Bond, Vietnam, illustrated by T. G. Lewis (1967), Box 122, James Forman Papers; Việt-Cộng (Mặt trận dân tộc giải phóng miền nam Việt Nam) diary and guidebook, 1962, Box 2, Malcolm Browne Papers; National Veterans Legal Services Program, “The Veterans Self-Help Guide on Agent Orange,” 1995-2000, Box 1768, Patsy T. Mink Papers; briefing paper, “’Dog Tag’ Reports,” 1992, Box 31, Malcolm Toon Papers; Viet N. Dinh interview notes, October 25 and November 15, 1993, Box 554, Anthony Lewis Papers. All collections located in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] Letter from President Gerald R. Ford to Senator Robert Taft, Jr., September 28, 1974, box 224, Robert Taft, Jr., Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[5] Tom Carhart, “The Final Insult,” Houston Chronicle, October 28, 1981, box 29, and letter from Maya Ying Lin to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Inc., September 20, 1982, box 33, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[6] Retained copy of a letter from Robert S. McNamara to Bill Clinton, November 23, 1992, box I:102, Robert S. McNamara Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Comments

  1. I (born in late 1961, myself) found this blog post to be good “food for thought” for the days before Independence Day of 2023.

    (I did not grow up with particularly-“leftist” parents, but I didn’t like the idea of the Vietnam War when I was a young boy, and my father had an aunt, cousin, and uncle-by-marriage who were stout pacifists (the parents through over half of the 20th century — and both World Wars).)

    I do hope that Americans will “listen” to each other.

    Best Wishes for July 4th.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.


Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.