The nation's first museum dedicated to the Vietnam War opens on Sunday after a three-year struggle over radically different views held by veterans and historians.
A committee organizing the Vietnam Era Educational Center spent most of the past year rewriting every word of the museum's text panels, and arguing about the role of the media, the legitimacy of the antiwar movement and whether the war could have been won."We found ourselves between the two extremes, between those who believe that the war was profoundly immoral . . . and those who believe that the failure to pursue the war to military victory was evidence of moral failure, that the peace movement sold the nation down the drain," said committee member Michael Shafer, a Rutgers University professor.
Last year, the committee rejected text that was criticized as too unfavorable to veterans, with too much antiwar footage and emphasis of soldiers' drug use. Just before the museum's opening, text on prisoners of war was rewritten to eliminate language that Shafer said suggested a government conspiracy to hide evidence of MIAs and POWs.
The end result is a "thought-provoking and fair, balanced story," said Kelly Watts, executive director of the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation.
"There was no effort to try and whitewash anything," said veteran Anthony Dellanno, who sat on the committee.
He added, however, that veterans "are not going to be embarrassed about taking their children there."
Some historians who reviewed the text said the center gave a skewed view of the antiwar movement with passages focusing on violent protests like the 1968 riot in Chicago instead of the thousands of people who showed nonviolent opposition by not going to work or school for a day.
"The antiwar movement was the largest social movement in the country's history," said Mitchell K. Hall, a Vietnam scholar at Central Michigan University. The exhibit "overemphasizes the militant fringe wing and de-emphasizes the moderate mainstream," he said.
The $3.8 million center, primarily financed by a 1995 donation from Atlantic City casinos, sits a few hundred yards from a 2-year-old veterans memorial bearing the names of 1,553 state residents killed or missing in action in Vietnam.
Displays include letters between soldiers and their families, and videotaped testimony by some veterans.
A timeline depicts milestones in the war and ends with passages on its legacy, including post-traumatic stress disorder, the effects of Agent Orange and the myth of the Vietnam veteran as "a dangerously violent, substance-abusing, stressed-out failure."