Pentagon’s Version of Vietnam War Raises Role of Museums in History

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Vietnam War

Image Source: tommy japan (1967, USA — Pentagon Peace Demonstration)

October 10, 2014; New York Times

The commission formed by the Pentagon to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war in Vietnam has reopened some deep rifts that formed as the war was fought. As reported in Friday’s New York Times, while the commission strives to “provide the American public with historically accurate materials” suitable for use in schools, that is not as easy a task as it might appear.

More than 500 scholars, veterans, and activists, including civil rights leader Julian Bond, Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the top-secret Pentagon Papers), Lawrence J. Korb (former assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan), Peter Yarrow (of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary), and Tom Hayden, have written to the Pentagon demanding the ability to correct the Pentagon’s version of history and include a place for the old antiwar activists in the anniversary events. Fredrik Logevall, a Cornell University professor whose book on Vietnam, Embers of War, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, said that the commission’s website lacked context and that the timeline “omits too many important developments, while including a significant number of dubious importance.”

Earlier this month, protestors demanded that New York City’s Metropolitan Opera cancel its scheduled performances of The Death of Klinghoffer, which depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of disabled Jewish passenger Leon Klinghoffer. In a video on the Met Opera’s website, director Tom Morris says he views The Death of Klinghoffer as an intellectual exercise. “It’s saying, ‘Let’s spend some time wrestling with the very difficult questions that arise from this very difficult conflict.’”

In a letter to the New York Times, Judea Pearl wrote:

“Choreographing a ‘nuanced’ operatic drama around criminal pathology is not an artistic prerogative, but a blatant betrayal of public trust. We do not stage ‘nuanced’ operas for rapists and child molesters, and we do not compose symphonies for penetrating the minds of ISIS executioners.”

In June, NPQ reported on museums struggling with how climate-related exhibits would and should include information about global warming. In a time of deep divisions in America, controversies like these can be expected to increase.—Marty Levine

  • Keenan Wellar

    In Canada the historical account of the bombing of Dresden was rewritten under similar circumstances This was disappointing and sad. It does not in my opinion take away from the sacrifice of veterans to acknowledge that actions taken under orders often result in loss of life that is rarely easily sanctioned as “the objective right thing to do” under the lens of historical scrutiny. We do no favours to anyone by cleansing the historical record and it is particularly incumbent upon our museums to struggle for objectivity and recognize in a transparent way that matters of war seldom yield moral clarity.