The Oakland Museum's ambitious new show documenting the Vietnam War era in California may take its title from Marvin Gaye's 1971 hit "What's Going On," but it's likely to be the refrain from "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" that will be running through visitors' heads when they leave the exhibit. Reproduced in an accompanying audio tour, Country Joe McDonald's lyrics not only capture the innocent and angry spirit of the early antiwar movement as it awakened in Berkeley (And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for?), they've taken on a new, ironic relevance in this election season.
The Vietnam War is back on the front pages. Once again, the country is fiercely divided over a president's handling of a prolonged and controversial war. One day after the Oakland show's opening, hundreds of thousands of protesters poured onto the streets of New York in the largest demonstration ever provoked by a national political convention.
Four years ago, when planning for this show got under way, 9/11 hadn't yet happened, much less the invasion of Iraq, or John Kerry's presidential bid. Still, its organizers were well aware that an exhibit on the Vietnam era could be controversial. As historian Charles Wollenberg, a coeditor of the show's catalogue, put it in an interview before the opening, "We haven't processed Vietnam into our history yet. It tore our society apart." The exhibitors defined their mission on a grand scale: to tell not one story but many stories, revealing multiple points of view through photographs, news footage, artifacts, and oral histories. "We didn't come to this with the idea that there was any single truth," Wollenberg said.
Even before the show's opening, a controversy flared over the depiction of the Vietnamese. Exhibit curators had taken a relatively nonpolitical view of the diaspora of Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians that took place after the fall of Saigon in 1975, when half of the refugees entering the United States settled in California. This approach ignored the fervent anticommunist sentiment that still characterizes large segments of that community. In response to community criticism, the museum added material to the show, but the controversy illustrates the conundrum facing exhibit organizers. How is it possible to give any more than glancing attention to the myriad stories generated in that fractious era? The exhibit seeks to highlight the lives of Vietnam-era conservatives as well as antiwar protesters, veterans as well as refugees.
Along with a more straightforward chronology of the war itself, the show juxtaposes opposing voices to dramatize how complex the issues were then (and are still today). As visitors progress through the displays listening to the recorded oral accounts, they will likely find a fresh perspective. Against a background of protest music from 1965, a woman recalls that when she was a college student at Berkeley, her brother was fighting in Vietnam and her father was a cop: "I wasn't gonna be sitting out there, burning flags and doing that crap, with a brother in Vietnam."
Individuals speak of how their lives were forever changed by the war. One woman gives a moving account of Valentine's Day 1967, when she was in sixth grade and was called from her classroom to the principal's office to be told that her teenage brother had been killed in action. A Vietnamese-American woman, who was the youngest baby flown out of Vietnam in Operation Babylift in 1975, translates a letter on display that was written by her mother. In the letter, the woman thanks the nuns at an orphanage for taking her newborn baby whom she could not care for. The pain in the grown daughter's voice echoes the grief of the mother she never knew. A young marine lieutenant recalls the disillusionment that followed his first combat mission in 1965: "We came under fire and we returned fire, and I remember one of the guys said, 'I think we got 'em,' and we proceeded into this farmhouse where we'd gotten fire from. And laying on the ground was an old man. Half his head was blown away."
Also offering rare glimpses into the past are such objects as cans of promotional "Gold Water" from the 1964 presidential campaign ("the right drink for the conservative taste") and signs and graffiti from the Oakland Army Base, the most active staging area for shipping American soldiers to Vietnam. Other, more obvious artifacts are in abundance, such as album covers from late-'60s bands such as Jefferson Airplane. The show devotes space to the development of identity politics, including the emergence of feminism and the Black Power and Chicano movements. It also documents Ronald Reagan's rise to power.
The accompanying audio tour is crucial to the viewer's appreciation of the show, but sadly, to get to often-riveting first-person accounts, patrons have to listen to a tedious summation of events relayed by an anonymous narrator. It's a shame the exhibit's curators didn't trust the real people who lived through this era to tell the story adequately. At times, the narration comes dangerously close to offering an "official" interpretation of the chaotic events it attempts to chronicle. (It's perhaps unsurprising that one story left out of the show is the development of alternative journalism, which grew out of a skeptical reaction to the mainstream media's coverage of the "facts" about the Vietnam War. The critique of so-called objective journalistic accounts of war is as valid today as ever.)
With so much material to cover, the editing process must have been a challenge. One museumgoer who said she lived through the era complained about the display on the Free Speech Movement because it failed to discuss the movement's origins in the protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in San Francisco. Arguably more problematic than the FSM display is a short video clip of Nixon's resignation speech, mixed in with other footage from the early 1970s. Here, spectators who didn't live through the Watergate era may get the false impression that Nixon's resignation was an outgrowth of his Vietnam policy.
Interestingly, the museum ended up using an excerpt from Kerry's famous testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971. According to curator Marcia Eymann, the decision to incorporate the quote, which appears on a wall plaque, came before Kerry announced his candidacy. Before the opening, a Bush supporter questioned why Eymann had not included a quote from the president as a young man. She responded, "If he had said anything significant at the time, I would have."
When the show does trust the original material, and its voices speak for themselves, it is compelling and memorable. Near the exit, for instance, there is a display case dedicated to letters and objects left at the Vietnam memorials in Washington and Sacramento. Here are notes from former soldiers written to their long-gone buddies as if what happened to them occurred, well, yesterday.
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