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California always has been a social laboratory and harbinger for the nation. What happens in the most populous (and diverse) state reverberates throughout the United States. No time was this more the case than during the late 1960s and early 1970s.... -Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson, Reagan: A Life in Letters, 2003
Marcia A. Eymann
In 1990 I arrived in California from the Midwest seeing the state for the first time. I had moved to California to take the job of curator of photography in the History Department of the Oakland Museum of California. As part of my orientation to the museum I was given a tour of our collections facility, located on the then-active Oakland Army Base. After passing through a military guard station, we entered the grounds of the base. As we drove to our destination, we passed countless structures, which reminded me of scenes from Hollywood World War II films with their classic 1940s military architecture. I have to admit a level of sheer pleasure as I imagined myself a part of one of these films, realizing that this base would not have looked much different in 1945 than it did in 1990. As we approached the collections facility, we parked in front of a set of padlocked wooden double doors, with a sign above it reading 22. Upon entering the building I was transported mentally to another movie (after all I was in California, the land of movies), this time the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, showing aisle after aisle of shelving units holding a wide range of museum objects. This was a huge cavernous building with sheet metal roofing above exposed, large wooden trusses that creaked and moaned to their own rhythm as we walked its bare concrete floor. It was cold and damp, more haunting than welcoming. As I toured down the artifact aisles, familiarizing myself with the range of the museum's collections, I could not help but notice the rather primitive signage attached to support beams and hanging from the trusses reading: "DO NOT LAY ON BED WITH FOOT GEAR ON," and "Thru This Door To Bay 4 Latrine," and finally "NO SMOKING IN BED." What was this building used for before us, I asked my colleague? She explained that during the Vietnam War troops would bunk overnight in this warehouse before being shipped overseas. "Wow, and they just left all of this stuff here?" I asked amazed. "Oh yeah, and there's more than just the signs. Check out the writing on the walls," she replied. So I did. Walking along the front wall of the building, I began reading graffiti left by soldiers in the 1960s and 1970s. Immediately what struck me was that the guys writing this were not just from California, but were from all across the country, and were literally recording their last stop, after what had been for many a cross-country journey before leaving for war. These soldiers used the walls mainly to record their names, where they were from, date of induction, and their "ETS" (estimated time of service), or in other words, when they would return. Below Tony Earl tells you where he is from and where he is going but not when he will be back:
"Tony Earl RVN [Republic of Vietnam] January 12, 1973, Indiana."
Others were poems demonstrating what was going through the minds of these young men and their attitudes about war:
"Bob was here with plenty to do, Be back from NAM in '72. Left this town in '71, won't come back till my time is done."
"if a man dies for his country, he is paying for something he will never collect."
Hundreds of markings covered the walls giving me another view of what California was all about. I came to the Golden State with many stereotypes already implanted in my mind. Now that image of a state, filled with hippies and antiwar protesters, beaches, and everything Hollywood, was being replaced by a new image, of a scared and sometimes angry young man on his way to war leaving his mark to confirm that he was there and would return. California was a gateway to the war for hundreds of young men from all across the nation. This cold impersonal army warehouse marked the soldier's last mainland stop on their journey to war. Their writings were the beginning of my journey in understanding a complex piece of California history, and the momentous role the state had played in events of the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1999 I was asked to produce a small adjunct exhibit concerning the Bay Area during the Vietnam War, to bring a California focus to the touring photographic exhibition, Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina. The museum would eventually back out of the traveling show, but in this process we realized that we had a great deal of information that merited a larger format display. A project team was formed to create an exhibition that would demonstrate California's significant role during the Vietnam era.
From the beginning everyone was aware of the sensitive nature of our topic. We understood that the topic meant working not only with living history but also with individuals for whom the wounds of war remained open. We soon discovered deeper scarring than anticipated. Thirty years was not enough time to heal. Many veterans of the era still carried trauma of the war, some bitter toward their service and treatment by the public and others continuing to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A number of veterans have felt and continue to feel that they had been stereotyped by the media as crazy or criminals. Like the veterans some Vietnamese Americans living in California and the nation remain angry and politically charged by the loss of their homes and country, but also by the way in which they have been marginalized and dismissed by American society as a whole. Since the end of American involvement in the war in 1973 Vietnamese have been making America, and in particular California, their home but they are generally excluded from historical narratives of the war, and like the veterans, find themselves stereotyped by media. In addition to Vietnamese we could not forget refugees from Cambodia and Laos including the Hmong who fought side by side with U.S. troops against the Vietcong and also now call California home. The range of individuals whose lives were impacted by war does not stop with veterans and refugees. Political activists, politicians, mothers, wives and the generation that has grown up since the end of the war continue to feel the effects of the Vietnam era.
This exhibition would be the first time a museum would do an in-depth historical study of how one region was changed by the Vietnam War. It provided an opportunity to look at the war from a myriad of perspectives that only exist in California and a new direction in interpreting a deeply contested and often stereotyped period in the history of the state. After discussions with scholars, veterans, former antiwar activists and Southeast Asian refugees, we decided to tell this story by allowing the voices of individuals who had lived through the time to present different perspectives and points of view. We believed that oral histories along with historical artifacts should be the interpretive thread of the exhibit, providing a range of experiences from the time demonstrating the complexity of the era. Music would play a similar role. The music in the 1960s and 1970s helped to shape peoples attitudes during the war and still serves as a trigger for memory and emotions that can transport people to another time and place.
From the beginning the approach to this exhibition was the reverse of what is traditionally done in historical writing and exhibitions. Normally in conducting a project of this nature, in-depth research would first be conducted from which broad ideas and concepts developed. In the case of California and the Vietnam War we began with a series of broad statements portraying the California experience as an exaggerated version of the national experience. Due to the state's deep investment in the military-industrial complex, its importance as a center for both protest politics and conservative activism, as well as the state's identity politics, media industries, and the presence of the largest Southeast Asian refugee population in the nation, California was at the vortex of the storm created by the Vietnam War. To test the validity of our ideas the team conducted multiple interviews and read as much scholarship related to the war and California as we could locate. From there we began researching and validating our themes, the first of which related back to the graffiti at the army base. We believed that California during the Vietnam War served as a point of entry and departure for most of the troops. We also explored California as a major player in the nation's "military-industrial complex." Validation came very quickly as I spoke to the official U.S. Army historian who told me that if you had been Army personnel unquestionably you would have processed through California on your way to the war or coming home from the battlefields. Indeed, between 1965 and 1968, 222,750 soldiers passed through just the Oakland Army Base alone en route to the Pacific. Indeed, the graffiti had led us in the right direction, but there was more. During the Vietnam War, the Oakland Army Base was also the largest military port complex in the world. During the first eight years of the war more than 37 million tons of cargo passed through the base to and from Vietnam.
From the military we were led to the private sector. By the end of 1967, to speed up the arrival of troops and deal with the volume of soldiers who were rotating in and out of the military on one-year tours, the U.S. military began contracting with charter airlines to fly soldiers to Vietnam rather than ship by boat. One of the largest contracts was awarded to World Airways, also based in Oakland. Along with troop transport, World Airways in 1968 started Rest and Relaxation (R&R) flights for battle-weary troops from Vietnam to San Francisco, Australia, and Japan. In addition, it held the contract for the delivery of Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, to Vietnam from Japan, where it was printed. It would become famous as the airline that flew the last flight out of Danang at the end of the war in 1975 and as the carrier of the first airlift of Vietnamese orphans to the United States that same year.
Many other California bases and companies participated in the war effort. Through our research we were learning of California's heavy investment in the nation's "military-industrial complex." By 1965 California was the leading recipient of defense dollars and had the largest number of military installations of any state.
The next phase of the project centered on the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). In a normal exhibition project of this size (6,000 square feet), one of the initial steps is to apply to the NEH for a planning grant. As part of this process, we placed our first conference call to our programs officer at the NEH. From earlier interviews we learned that people needed to tell their own stories of the time. So it was for our programs officer who described his experience as a marine, including his return flight from Vietnam. He knew he was home only when he finally caught sight of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The same conversation made clear that in order to receive an NEH grant we had to present a subject that was of national significance. It is easy to convince the NEH that events in Washington, D.C., or New York have national significance, but California was a much harder sell. In order to demonstrate California's importance, we argued that the tide of national events shifted in the 1960s, often moving from West to East. We had to move beyond the stereotype of California and the Bay Area, in particular, as only a bastion of liberalism and radical politics. We were going to have to break through the myth to understand the complexity of California life and politics.
To accomplish this goal we began an analysis of California history beginning in the 1950s. California in the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, more than any other state, represented the American dream come true. In Suburban Warriors, Lisa McGirr writes, "No state in the nation in the mid-twentieth century represented the promises of the United States more than California." The West and, in particular, California have always been perceived as a place where an individual can literally reinvent himself or herself. It is the land of personal expression, innovation, and experimentation, providing an escape from the traditions and structure of the rest of the country. It expanded the dreams of what life could be for all Americans. In a 1945 Life magazine article the author predicted that the "California way of life... may in time influence the pattern of life in America as a whole." This prediction was to prove itself true as the state was flooded with new residents and postwar economic prosperity. The state projected the image of an idealized way of life with sunny weather, sandy beaches, and a suburban lifestyle. Images of Hollywood and Disneyland, and the music of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean, became popular culture icons in the 1950s and 1960s. As the most suburbanized region in the world, California became the birthplace of national trends in fashion, music, film, and lifestyle.
by 1962 California was the most populous state in the nation and the home of a large percentage of the baby boom generation. Peaking in 1957, the baby boom continued until 1964, accounting for roughly one-third of the population at that time. In the 1960s seventeen-year-olds emerged as the largest single age group in America. They were quickly dubbed "the best and brightest," raised on patriotism, the promise of technology, and the fear of Communism and the bomb. They would swell California's educational system in the 1950s and in the 1960s pushing it to become a national model for higher education and Mecca for the youth culture of the era.
These same boomers, raised on the flag, apple pie, and duck-and-cover preparedness drills were infused with patriotism, hope for the future, and, paradoxically, social rebellion. The patriotism and optimism would carry a generation on an idealistic wave toward the New Frontiers promised by President John F. Kennedy. Home Before Morning, Lynda Van Devanter's 1983 biography, epitomizes this idealism when she writes, "I was part of a generation of Americans who were 'chosen' to change the world. We were sure of that." The rebellious side would lead to youthful activism focused against middle-American conformity. The Free Speech Movement on the University of California's Berkeley campus during the fall of 1964 epitomizes this rebellious activism.
Excerpted from WHAT'S GOING ON? Copyright © 2004 by Oakland Museum of California. Excerpted by permission.
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|Introduction : what's going on?||1|
|I||California and the Vietnam war : microcosm and magnification||13|
|II||Next stop - Silicon Valley : the cold war, Vietnam, and the making of the California economy||23|
|III||Ronald Reagan and the triumph of conservatism||43|
|IV||The war at home : California's struggle to stop the Vietnam war||59|
|V||The feminist revolution in California||83|
|VI||Long, hot California summers : the rise of black protest and black power||99|
|VII||Chicano and Chicana experiences of the war||113|
|VIII||"Back in the world" : Vietnam veterans, California, and the nation||129|
|IX||Memorializing Vietnam : transfiguring the living pasts||153|
|X||Vietnam legacy : the role of California||165|
|XI||Vietnamese diaspora and California||183|