Vietnam Still

December 27, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: We can’t let go of it, or it can’t let go of us. Even all these years later, even after it has become a place rife with entrepreneurial activity, a trendy vacation spot for all manner of Americans, it is still for us Vietnam, the war without end.

We rewind the reel, erase the intervening decades, and we are right back there in those tumultuous days fighting and re- fighting that war as if it could come out differently, as if there weren’t all those haunting pictures and haunting memories, and that haunting memorial slashing across that ground in Washington.

Now, here in my home state, the Oakland Museum of California has mounted a major exhibition about Vietnam, specifically about this state during that time, the decade between 1965 and 1975 — to walk through it as a native is to pace through one’s own history. It’s like leafing through a personal album; so close still is it to the California marrow.

So many soldiers were trained here and shipped out of here, so many families left at home. The country’s major defense contractors were here. The whole business of war was big business in the golden state.

SINGING: We shall overcome…

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: So, too, of course, was the other side of the coin: The protests and peace marches and the arrests, while the voice of Joan Baez floated over the California campuses in those years, as we all tried to reckon with Vietnam. I know.

I was at the University of California at Santa Cruz just down the coast from here, in the late 1960s, early 1970s, and Vietnam dominated our thoughts and fears and arguments with more urgency than Homer or biochemistry.

And if it wrenched our colleges and universities, it also wrenched individual families. Send a kid to Vietnam; send a kid to Canada. The state was in effect a family itself, torn by its two sides– pro-war and anti-war, a microcosm, as it so often is, of the country as a whole; all of this the exhibition documents.

But California. in 2004 is not the California of the Vietnam War years, specifically, there are now almost half a million Vietnamese living here, almost all of whom emigrated from South Vietnam or were born here after the war was lost. Many of them have strong memories as well and were adamant over the four years of the exhibit’s planning, that their own views be represented.

SPOKESMAN: Thousands scrambled for a way out on April 30, 1975, a signal that a century of western influence in Vietnam is dead.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: They lobbied to include pictures from the fall of Saigon, artifacts from the reeducation camps where hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese were incarcerated after the war –. Operation Baby Lift, which brought over, 3000 babies and children to America, and they fought successfully to keep Ho Chi Minh’s picture out of the exhibit all together.

Is that right? Is that their right? That, of course, is the ultimate question. Whose truth, whose story, whose memories shall we honor or believe or enshrine in our museums? That is always the question, but one made a lot more dramatic and tension fill when the heart of the matter is a war like Vietnam where so many cling to so many truths and angers and injustices.

The argument I suppose is for as much inclusion as possible. Gov. Ronald Reagan and a draft card burner, war opponents and war proponents; soldiers off to fight the war and soldiers at home to protest the war; the South Vietnamese refugees and, yes, Ho Chi Minh.

What all this gives the lie to is the notion of closure which we still toss around and cling to. It is illusory, a child’s blanket for adult wounds. The Vietnam War is still vital and wounding, as this exhibit and the controversy about it makes very clear.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.