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The War We Never Saw

'Remembering Vietnam,' a major exhibition at the National Archives

War We Never Saw - Soldiers marching through a rice paddy in Vietnam

National Archives

Members of Company B, 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment (Wolfhounds), cross a stream approximately 9.3 miles southeast of Nui Ba Den during search-and-clear operations.

A half-century after the peak of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, there are still insights to be gained and emotions to be triggered by documents and images that few have seen.

That’s the premise behind a major exhibition at the National Archives in Washington called “Remembering Vietnam,” from Nov. 10 through January 2019, in the building housing America’s most cherished artifacts.

“There were some records we found that historians have been excited to see,” says Alice Kamps, a curator at the Archives who designed the exhibit, cosponsored by AARP.

Among the finds: audio recordings that show American presidents wrestling with critical war decisions and propaganda showing that North Vietnam used its own version of body counts to buttress public support.

Kamps also points to a little-known draft of a letter written by President Lyndon Johnson to the family of a soldier killed in Vietnam. “Looking at the lines he has crossed out and the wording changes, you can feel that he really struggled over what to say,” she says.

The exhibit also shows the best of rarely seen images taken by military combat photographers that became government property.

The Archives show comes at a time when people are finally ready to reevaluate the war with an open mind, Kamps says. “Many Americans didn’t want to take a close look in the years right after the war,” she says. “After that, popular culture—movies and television—shaped our views in ways that weren’t always accurate. So people are still asking, ‘What happened? Why were we there?’ ”

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