When the Pentagon announced its plans for the nation’s official commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, historians and old-time activists feared the worst. The Pentagon commemoration office, which Congress authorized at a cost of up to $65 million, put up a website in which the war was portrayed as one of “valor” and “honor”—a picture unrecognizable to many Americans, including both veterans and antiwar activists. The general in charge, Claude Kicklighter, promised that the official commemoration would include “educational materials, a Pentagon exhibit, traveling exhibits, symposiums, oral history projects, and much more.” In response, Tom Hayden and a new group, the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee, launched a petition last September declaring that “this official program should include viewpoints, speakers, and educational materials that represent a full and fair reflection of the issues which divided our country during the war.” Almost 1,500 people signed, including many prominent historians. (I was one of them.)
Now the Pentagon has abandoned its plans to develop educational and classroom materials. After meeting with Hayden and five other leaders of the committee in January, a Pentagon official declared in a March 19 e-mail that the Defense Department was shifting its mission from “education and history” to the much more limited one of thanking and honoring Vietnam veterans “for their service and sacrifice.” The official also pledged that the much-criticized “Interactive Timeline” on the Pentagon’s website would be replaced, and asked the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee to suggest historians who could help with an independent review of the revised version.
The problems with the timeline had been featured in a page-one story in The New York Times, which described the challenge being organized by Hayden and the peace commemoration committee and the criticisms of the Pentagon project from “leading Vietnam historians.” The timeline featured Medal of Honor winners but didn’t mention the 1971 Senate committee testimony of John Kerry, then a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who posed one of the most devastating questions of the era: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” The Times noted that the timeline gave “scant attention” to “the years of violent protests and anguished debate at home.”
And there were the other issues. Historian Stanley Kutler—who died on April 7, and who is best known for suing to get the Nixon White House tapes released—asked last November in The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin: “Will the Pentagon acknowledge the mistakes of American presidents and generals who for seven years steadily increased our commitment to more than 500,000 troops, the largest army raised since World War II? Will it recognize the growing public protests against the war, with increasing criticism in Congress, until eventually it was willing to cut off funding for the war, an unprecedented step which pointedly rejected the validity of the war?” And finally, “What will the Pentagon say to Vietnam veterans who actively criticized, questioned, and opposed the war, then and now?” One more problem: The website’s fact sheet listed the total American deaths, 58,253—but it didn’t mention the number of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians killed, commonly estimated at 3 million to 4 million.
The Pentagon’s change of plans is “good,” Hayden told me. “The threat of a false narrative will always be there, but we don’t need to fight an overpowering antagonist on the battlefield of memory if we can help it. If they focus on honoring vets, that would allow us to preserve and develop the legacy of the peace movement and the lessons for today.”