The Vietnam War indelibly marked recent history. But many Americans who lived through the war – not to mention those born after – remain minimally informed about basic facts about the conflict.
The Heinz History Center aims to change that with “The Vietnam War: 1945-1975.” It’s the Center’s expanded version of a New-York Historical Society show that debuted in 2017. But if the exhibit brings the war home – with a trove of personal artifacts owned by Pittsburghers who served – it also takes a longer and wider view of the conflict than is typical, says lead curator Samuel Black.
For one, note that the exhibit’s title dates the start of the conflict to 1945, when Vietnam was still struggling for independence from its colonizer, France.
“We wanted to discuss the political situation in Vietnam before the American involvement in terms of troops on the ground and actual campaign of war,” says Black.
Though still two decades away from sending combat troops, the U.S. aided France’s failed attempt to hang on to Vietnam. With North Vietnamese forces backed by the Soviet Union and China, Vietnam became a Cold War battleground, with a succession of American presidents convinced Vietnam was a “domino” whose fall would forfeit the rest of Southeast Asia to Communism as well.
Alongside this big picture, “The Vietnam War” revisits the conflict through a series of objects from room-sized to pocket-sized. The biggest is a UH-1H “Huey” helicopter that U.S. forces used to transport troops and evacuate the wounded; it's 20 feet long, with a wingspan of 48 feet. There’s also a Vietnam-era jeep mounted with an M-60 machine gun, on loan from a local collector.
About half the exhibit consists of material curated by the History Center, says Black. The museum’s call for objects also turned up material from George Kniss, a local man who served as an Air Force photographer starting in 1963; a glass case displays Kniss' camera, hat and hand-written journal. There’s a replica hooch – combat-troop lodgings – with artifacts from local veterans including John Clark, and photographs and more from Dr. Robert Pacek, a New Kensington physician who served as a surgeon in a medical unit. Richard Narushoff, a Duquesne University graduate and Air Force navigator on B-52 bombers, contributed items including his flight helmet.
Other materials were supplied by Pittsburgh women who served, like Rose Gantner, who did two tours as volunteer support staff; Pat Tucker, a high-ranking Red Cross official; and Donna Giordanni, whom History Center curator Emily Ruby says was the first American woman to be an air-traffic controller in Vietnam.
The pocket-sized relics include a wall full of locally made, custom-engraved Zippo lighters used by servicemen.
The exhibit also explores the politics of war in the U.S., from President Lyndon Johnson’s 1967 escalation of the draft to the anti-war movement and the 1968 presidential campaign. The division between backers of the war and its opponents was heightened by the still-new media of television.
“Vietnam is really the first war considered a televised war,” says Black. “Every night on the nightly news, there were reports on the Vietnam War. You were able to sit in front of your television and watch warfare as it happened, in a sense.”
The History Center suggests that experience by recreating a period living room, complete with an old-school black-and-white console television playing news programming from the period.
The news reports helped turned public opinion from mostly pro-war to mostly anti-war, especially after the North Vietnamese carried out the 1968 Tet Offensive. Casualties began to mount, and the Johnson administration was no longer able to sell the narrative that the U.S. was winning. Print media also played a role: The exhibit highlights the June 1969 issue of Life magazine that ran photos of all 242 U.S. soldiers who had died in a single week.
Video installations include contemporaneous interviews with families who lost loved ones in the war, in 1965 and 1970, and who discuss how it affected their feelings about the conflict. Other artifacts include the giant “Stop the War” banner two brothers hung at Three Rivers Stadium on the Pirates opening day in 1972.
The exhibit is capped by a partial life-sized replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which lists the names of all 752 Western Pennsylvanians killed in action. (An inset video monitor plays oral histories from veterans and anti-war activists.)
“The Vietnam War” mostly takes a U.S.-based perspective. But Black says that he hopes the exhibit corrects another misconception about the war, one involving our sense of how many lives the war took.
“We focus a lot on the 58,000 Americans [killed in action], and rightfully so, but to look at the number of Vietnamese who were killed during the war, nearly two million people, that’s a lot for any nation to undergo,” Black says. Nearly half of those Vietnamese casualties, he adds, were civilians.
The exhibit’s five-month run will have guest speakers, including: Vietnam veteran and former Pittsburgh Steeler Rocky Bleier; Lynn Novick, who co-directed 2017’s PBS series “The Vietnam War” with Ken Burns; and novelist Lan Cao. There’s also a Vietnam War-themed film series and a monthly “Vietnam Voices” series, with guests from the military, the Vietnamese community, and the home front.
For veterans and active-duty military, the exhibit’s entire run features discount pricing: half-price every day, and free on selected dates including opening day, the three-day Memorial Day weekend, and July 4.