tv American Artifacts American Artifacts - Remembering Vietnam CSPAN3 November 12, 2017 10:00pm-10:30pm EST
>> you can watch this and other american history programs on our website where all of our video is archived. c-span.org/history. >> "remembering vietnam" is a national archives exhibit featuring the documents and artifacts organized into 12 episodes of the war that was raging in southeast asia 50 years ago. up next on american artifacts, an interview with the archivist of the united states followed by a tour with curator alice kamps. this is just under half an hour. >> as an archivist, what was the reason for the vietnam exhibit? >> the commemoration of the anniversary of the war it self and national archives, the keeper of the country, commemorates high points, low points in our history with major exhibits.
this one was particularly important to me since i am a vietnam vet and i want to war that is still so controversial, that we have the opportunity to tell the story from the records. >> has there ever been any sort of expose on the vietnam war before in the past? >> no, it is safe to say that in the past the subject was avoided as it has been in most museums and museums across the country. it is just recently that there's a level of comfort in telling those stories. >> do you think that experience of the archives being avoided is reflective of how vietnam over the 50 years has been received? >> it is a subject that no one talked about. it is as if it never happened. it is not often covered in a
k-12 history class. stop at world war ii and touch on korea but usually never gets to it. >> your exhibit, is the archives exhibit, breaks it down into a 12 chapter more episodes. tell us the reasoning and what you hope people will learn as they go through the different stages. >> it is a big story that goes to the truman administration and even before. chunking it up and putting that into perspective to give people chance to reflect on each period that we cover in the exhibit. there is a lot of information to deal with and a lot of kind of personal reflection necessary as you go through the exhibit. i am convinced that people cannot do this in a quick 20-minute visit which is the , average attention span of folks
doing exhibits these days. it is an exhibit that people will have to come back to. >> what do you hope people take away from it? >> a better sense of what happened and that they feel challenged to answer questions themselves about what was the reason, what did we get out of this, what impact did it have on peter approaches to -- future approaches to conflicts, those kinds of questions. >> you told us you are a vietnam vet, what was that experience like? what did you learn from this exhibit that you did not know before? >> i was a hospital corpsman assigned to marine division and then aboard a hospital ship. our information during that time, during my year in vietnam, was very limited.
we had a little information about what was going on in the conflict. and this exhibit has, for me, filled in some of the gaps of my own knowledge. >> what was the most unexpected thing you learned helping to put this together? >> it was a confirmation of my assumption that the national archives had records that could tell the story in a way that no other institution could tell the story. >> the exhibit was curated by alice kamps and tell us about your curator. >> alice is a wonderfully creative, innovative historically perceptive individual who i got to work with closely when i first arrived on a blockbuster exhibit
where we told the story of the government's role in the foods you can and cannot eat. she is a person who works closely with archivists who mind the records and then put them together creatively in a way that tell the story and she is -- she has done it again in this exhibit. >> we talked to our visitors before we planned the exhibit and asked them what do they want to know about the vietnam war? they said almost to a person, why was the united states involved? we still have really basic questions. and i hope by going through these 12 critical episodes, they will have a better understanding of what happened and why. >> alice kamps, this is a war that probably a lot of americans do not realize covers many presidencies. how many, exactly? >> that is true. our early involvement started with president truman during the
french indochina war. our exhibit covers five different presidents. >> the first item we will see is a memo from franklin delano roosevelt. let's walk over, take a look, and tell us about that. >> absolutely. prior to and during the world war ii, france was rolling then on. -- was ruling vietnam. and they had colonized it and divided into three different sections. during world war ii, the japanese came in and pushed the french out eventually. f.d.r. is talking in this memo to the secretary of state about what he believes should happen to vietnam after world war ii. he opposes a french return to vietnam. it is quite clear in this memo because he says, "france has milked it for 100 years and the people of indochina deserve better than that." f.d.r. passes away before the end
of world war ii and when truman comes in, he does not feel as strongly about a french return to vietnam. this photograph was given to harry truman by general charles de gaulle during the visit to washington, d.c. and it was during this is it truman told him he would not oppose a french return to vietnam. >> this photograph is 1945 and does the u.s. have any interest in vietnam at this time? >> not in particular. their interest is more in supporting france after world war ii as a bulwark against communism. there was great concern about communism spreading. the feeling was we need to support france and france felt like it needed to return to indochina as they called it and rule there again. >> this was early in the truman administration. let's go next to the eisenhower
administration. this exhibit is broken into 12 different chapters and we are seeing some of the highlights, obviously. how long did it take you to assemble all of the archived documents and collect everything you needed and put it together? >> it took over two years, and i had a lot of help. i invited several, almost two dozen, prominent historians to suggest documents they thought were revealing about u.s. involvement in southeast asia. >> we move next to a document about a letter to president eisenhower. >> this is an important point in the story. it is 1954, and the country of vietnam has been divided by the geneva accord into north and south. there's a communist government ruling in the north and president eisenhower believes that the loss of vietnam to communism would be disastrous. he wants to help this fledgling
south vietnamese government establish itself. the leader or emerging leader at that time was not president yet and would later become president -- it is spelled with a "d." he was a catholic. there is a percentage of people, a minority, but there was a percentage of people in vietnam who were catholic. he has strong nationalist credentials. >> the letter from eisenhower, what sort of sense does that give us about where the united states is in supporting vietnam? is there any indication that we are committing any sort of monetary support, military support? >> yes. well, the document we have is a press release regarding the letter that president eisenhower sent. this is after vietnam had been partitioned by the geneva accords. eisenhower felt very strongly
that losing vietnam to communism would be a disaster. he is in this letter pledging american support, committing significant monetary support at this time. this is the decision that sets the united states on a course of involvement in vietnam for 20 years. >> this is i want to 1954. move forward to early in president kennedy's administration and notes from a meeting about vietnam. let's take a look at that. we move to the kennedy administration at the exhibit, episode three, kennedy doubles down. what does it mean? >> kennedy is interesting on vietnam because he understood perhaps better than any other american president how difficult it would be to try to defeat the communists there. he visited vietnam as a young man and also as a senator and
studied the area. but he kind of paradoxically, he doubles down by dedicating a lot of u.s. support for vietnam both financially and military. he sent thousands of advisors to assist. he sent thousands of advisors to assist a south vietnamese army. >> one of the items in this part of the exhibit is a set of meeting notes from a national security meeting on november 15, 1961. >> it was interesting at this national security council meeting, kennedy said he could make a rather strong case against intervening in an area 10,000 miles away against 16,000 guerillas with a native army had00,000 where millions been spent four years with no success. he is arguing against advisors who are already pushing him to bring in troops. you can see he has written written guerrilla war,
two-front war, and by that i assume he means north vietnam and south vietnam where the insurgency is starting to pick up. >> kennedy was getting advice from a number of military officials, from robert mcnamara, was he getting conflicting advice? >> i am not sure he was getting conflicting advice but his own knowledge of vietnam and the difficulty the french had are what i think is having him push back against the advice he is getting. >> president kennedy's advisers, mcnamara and maxwell, a month before he would be assassinated, at this point in his administration, as he is getting ready for election the next year what is his , thinking on vietnam and the status of our effort in vietnam? >> i think he felt the united states needed a win in the war against communism.
there had been the bay of pigs defeat and the erection of the berlin wall. he said he thought that vietnam was the place where the united states could take a stand. >> president kennedy was assassinated in november of 1963, and lyndon johnson takes over. we will move to the johnson administration. part of that stage was set before he was reelected in with 1964 the gulf of tonkin incident. you're going to show us a cable, a document regarding the uss maddox. tell us about this. thehis cable is about second tonkin gulf attack. there was one on august 2. it is the august 4 that this cable refers to. maddox was the american
ship believed to have been under torpedo attack by the north vietnamese. in the first cable, he said they tremendous torpedo attack. in the second table he is , expressing doubt about that and said the weather effects on radar and overeager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. secretary robert mcnamara did not report the captain's doubts to the president. so the president and others , believed there had been a second attack. and it was after the second attack that the tonkin gulf resolution was passed which gave president johnson almost unlimited war powers. >> your exhibit has the actual document, the gulf of tonkin, resolution as introduced in the senate august 5, 1964.
was this unanimously accepted by congress? was it unanimously passed? >> it was accepted almost unanimously. there were two who voted against it, senator morris and senator gruening. and we have the tally sheet. you can see that as well. uses au.s. senate still similar tally sheet read that is -- the u.s. senate still uses a similar tally sheet. that is the actual tally sheet from the vote on the resolution. and in the center, a picture of president johnson signing the resolution in the east room on august 10, 1964. assembling the exhibits, any reason why the president made such a prominent display of signing that resolution? >> i don't really know the answer to that question. i imagine that when you are putting the country on a war footing, you would certainly
want the entire country to support the effort. i did want to point out that it is interesting that even though it appeared to be a near unanimous passage of this bill, only two voted against it in the senate, and it was unanimous in the there were senators and congresspeople who harbored serious doubts about the wisdom of going to war with vietnam. ultimately, he would send united states troops to vietnam in march of 1965. this did open the door for that. this is another major turning point. >> the gulf of tonkin resolution, the president signs it. that sets up his ability to send more troops in the coming years and years and let us take a look at the next episode.
america goes to war. we will look at a couple of documents here. this is what you have described or what has been described as the fork in the road memo from george bundy. who was he? >> george bundy was one of president johnson's, probably his most important advisor, national security adviser. johnson had inherited both mcgeorge bundy and robert mcnamara from the kennedy administration and decided to keep them on. he was perhaps in awe of their intelligence and education and they had very, very strong opinions which they communicated to president johnson. to give you a little bit of background of what is going on at this time, it is january 1965, johnson has just been elected in his own right by a landslide.
he had a huge victory. but the situation in vietnam is deteriorating. course in 1963, just before president kennedy's assassination, president thiem was assassinated and there was a succession of rulers in south vietnam. it was pretty much chaos. the communist insurgency is building up and they are starting to win more. and basically, bundy and mcnamara are saying, we're at a fork in the road. memo talks about two options. one of the options is to pursue a negotiated settlement, which they both knew johnson was not going to go for, and the other was to fully commit the united states to war and to send troops. >> in part of the memo george
bundy writes, he says you should know that dean rusk does not agree. things are going badly and the situation is unraveling in vietnam. the president is faced with this fork in the road moment. what happened shortly after 1965, what does he do about troop levels? >> it is then that he authorizes operation rolling thunder which is a result of airstrikes against north vietnam. and when he did that, he send -- andt he also sent when he did that, he also sent ground troops to guard the base. that opened the door to american ground troops coming in. >> we're talking early 1965? >> that's right. march 1965 when the first ground troops came in later, we few years had over 400,000 troops in vietnam. >> this is a white house memo. how long would typically these be in the archives?
>> we generally get documents about 30 years after the federal agencies that generated them are finished with them. but these are presidential documents so they would have been in the johnson library quite a bit longer than that. >> in a case like this where they would have been in the johnson library or other presidential libraries are those , documents on loan or are some of them permanent here in the archives? >> that is a great question. the presidential libraries are part of the national archives, so they are already national archives documents but they live at the johnson library. the johnson library has loaned them to us for this exhibition. >> i want you to show us some personal documents. we will go to 1967. what is the mood of the country regarding the war? >> the country is starting to protest.
more and more people are joining the protest movement. they have been seeing scenes of the war on their television sets. this is the first war where they are getting a direct view of the combat and the destruction and people are very, very upset by it. >> in this exhibit, we see a couple of things. tell us about this letter. flex there is a series of letters in the johnson library from a couple whose son was killed in vietnam. and they are really difficult to read as a mother of a son, for me, these letters more than others that caused me to really kind of breakdown and feel what they must have been feeling. in this letter, she is writing to president johnson and she has just buried her son.
she is angry and she wants to know, what did he die for and why are you prosecuting this war? we also have a response letter from president johnson to the couple. and i find this also very poignant because i feel like you can see his struggle to find the right words in these crossed out and rewording of the letter. >> the issue of letters to soldiers is still a very current issue in 2017. was it difficult to select the best written letter or letters to represent this sort of issue? >> i think there was something in this photograph of russell, who has this beautiful, open, innocent smile that kind of pulled at my heartstrings and
made this one really a vivid story for me. >> he was 20 years old when he died? >> that is correct. let me read a little bit of the letter to you. "dear mr. johnson, not long ago, i wrote to you objecting to our son's short military training period prior to being flown to vietnam. in fact he was fighting when many south vietnamese were not what myed this on husband had seen on his visit last fall. yesterday, we buried our son. he was hurt so badly we were not able to see him, but we do have a photograph my husband took while he was with him. and i am sending you a copy. now i will read a little bit from johnson's response.
nixon had a plan to end the war and he campaigned on bringing the war to an honorable end. >> tell us about this memo from 1968 from hr haldeman. who was he? >> probably nixon's closest aide. the memo says a couple of things of interest. keep annam is working on south vietnam. to the fact that johnson had been engaged with vietnam, hoping to enter into peace talks. and at the same time, anna chennault, a campaign aide, was speaking to the south vietnamese president about these talks and
people believed that she was encouraging him to wait until after the election. these notes were brought to public attention by historian jack pharrell as part of a biography he published in 2017. we are seeing that documents are still being declassified and discovered by historians and we are 50 years later, we are learning new things about the war. >> how are historians able to gain access to these new things declassified? >> national archives records including records of the presidential libraries are open to the public and you can come into one of our research rooms and request the documents and you can go through the files and make your own discoveries. >> we have only touched on a few brief documents and part of the exhibit. what are some of the other highlights we have not shown that you think people would look at? >> there are over 80 original
records in the exhibition. most of them have never been displayed before. there is everything from a miniature model of the hanoi hilton that the cia built when they were planning a rescue mission to north , vietnamese and south vietnamese propaganda posters. in addition to the records, we have produced films where we have interviewed people we -- people who have experienced these 12 episodes and they talk about their first -- firsthand experience and it is a wonderful way to view the war from different perspectives. >> it has been portrayed as an exciting adventure, and heroic moment, and it is none of those things. i wish people understood better -- and had a better understanding of what it does to people who participate in it. >> i would like them to remember what it was like during the war,
the destruction, the killing, the violence and -- and think about what it is now. at peace. that was my feeling when the war ended. i did not care who won or lost. i only cared that the war ended and vietnam now experienced peace. weekend, werans day look back with 48 hours of coverage. we are showing archival footage and is person accounts from protesters. antiwar
tv, allamerican history weekend, every weekend, only on cspan3. >> our vietnam war coverage continues. now, a conversation recorded earlier with historians. professor lien-hang nguyen, looking back to 1960 seven, was it still possible at that point for the u.s. to win the war in vietnam? prof. nguyen: no. it was not a war for the united states to win or lose. by 1967, it was not in the cards. mark lawrence, take us to the end of 1967. in 1960l elections eight, what is on the horizon for lyndon johnson? prof lawrence: