Review Of The Oakland Museum's California In The Vietnam Era Exhibit

Originally Published September 3, 2004 in the Berkeley Daily Planet Newspaper, Berkeley, California

For those who lived through those times, there is a point in the meandering hallways of the Oakland Museum’s “California And The Vietnam Era” exhibit that observation and objectivity give way to experience, and the roped and plyboard partitions morph into corridors of your own mind.

That point, for me, came shortly after sitting in the listening room, where I heard the audiotape of the young woman explaining being called into the principal’s office in the middle of the school day. She wondered what trouble she’d gotten into. Instead, she was told that her brother had died in combat.

From there the floor space broadened out into a broad promenade of exhibit cases of the events of 1968, one wall blaring out, on three screens, in rolling succession, television newsclips of that year. Over and over, the screen flickered past the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, police officers pointing to the spot where an assassin’s bullet took Martin Luther King’s life. Then to Bobby Kennedy speaking from the podium of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, moments later lying mortally wounded on the basement floor. The axis of the deaths of three men—the perfect metaphor for those times. Two deaths of leaders watched over and again by millions—the cause of street riots and monumental shifts in presidential politics—one of a soldier-brother noticed only by family, classmates, and friends. Each of them, in their own way, irretrievably altering and shaping our destinies.

I stood in that axis for 15 minutes or more, oblivious to the other museum patrons flowing quietly around me, and for those 15 minutes I was 20 years old again, and the whole world was on fire.

“What’s Going On? California And The Vietnam Era” is an ingeniously-devised, 7,000-square-foot walking tour of 50 years of the most tumultuous times in the nation’s largest state. It is generally accepted that in those days, California was both the birthplace and the center of many of the major national social movements of those times—both on the left and the right—and the fiery battleground upon which those movements had some of their most bitter clashes. Here, after all, began both Richard Nixon’s political career and the Reagan Revolution, as well as the Free Speech Movement, the Black Panther Party, and many of the major anti-Vietnam War actions.

Interspersing artifact exhibits with audio and video clips, the Oakland Museum exhibit takes no position on these events, but allows us to live through them either again or for the first time, using both broad and subtle brush to paint across an era that began with the Cold War, anti-Communist mid-1950s, continuing through the Southeast Asian immigrant experiences of today.

The museum’s brochure boasts that the exhibit “includes more than 500 historical artifacts, photographs, and documents interwoven with film clips, music, and oral histories, many contributed from veterans and former refugees.” It seems like much more.

A placard at the “Baby Boomer” station, which begins the exhibit, announces that the generation that came of age during the years of the Vietnam War “grew up in a time of great affluence and innovation. They were the first generation to be raised with television and their toys reflect the ethics and fears of their times.”

And so there are the modest, unsexual, anatomically incorrect dolls for the little girls alongside the traditional toy cowboy pistol and holster for the boys, sliding gradually into the guided missile model and the atomic space ray. Further on is a ‘50s era school desk—complete with an inkwell depression that was long obsolete by those times—a banner photo above depicting how—idiotically—we were taught to duck under those desks in the event of nuclear attack.

At the Free Speech Movement station there is another huge photo, a familiar one of FSM leader Mario Savio marching through Sproul Gate followed by thousands. Beside it is a 1964 Oakland Tribune with a headline reading “Hundreds of UC Sit-Ins Jailed.” The headline is in red, as if the conservative Knowlands, then-owners of the Tribune, were making the less-than-subtle point that the “red” Communist menace was swarming into Berkeley.

Further on, in a separate section, there is evidence of its entrenchment: an incongruous-looking red-covered pocket book of “Five Articles By Chairman Mao Tse-Tung,” and a veteran radical of those times does not even have to read the placard to know that this was the infamous “little red book” that members of the Black Panther Party sold to students on the UC Berkeley campus in order to help finance the revolution.

But before that, an exhibit case looms with a Goldwater For President poster, and a program from an event I had forgotten—the 1964 Republican National Convention where Barry Goldwater declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” tolling what political observers announced at the time was the death knell of American conservatism. And yes, once more, we were that naive.

But the heart of the exhibit, and easily its most poignant pieces, is the soldiers’ stories—physical evidence of the thousands upon thousands who passed through the doors of the Oakland Induction Center on their way to troop ships to take them to the war. Preserved are panels from the induction center’s walls, as well as white-canvas squares from the bunk berths of the ships themselves, where soldiers inked their messages: “Malibu Rules,” “Army Sucks,” “California—Land Of The Free—Home Of The Cool.”

A notation from the 337th Signal Co. R/R, with checks behind destination points: Ft. Bragg, Oakland, Okinawa, Viet Nam. A reprisal of the World War II Kilroy cartoon, with the notation “Bob Was Here With Plenty To Do, Be Back From Nam In ‘72.” Was he? A 1967 letter from a soldier to Hells Angel founder Sonny Barger: “I wish you and the rest of the Hells Angels could come over here too because I would have a lot more confidence fighting with you, than I would if I had to fight along side a protester.” A cigarette lighter, professionally engraved: “Tay Ninh 67-68, If I Die In Vietnam, Bury Me On My Stomach, So The Army Can Kiss My Ass.” How many of these men now walk among us? How many of them never will again?

Expected, of course, is the long section on anti-Vietnam War protests. The protest movement, after all, had its heart in California, and particularly in the East Bay. And so there are buttons and posters and flyers—even the actual peace-symbol highlighted guitar on which, presumably, Country Joe McDonald strummed his “I Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die Rag.”

But a pleasant surprise is how the exhibit carries the Vietnam era on into the period of Southeast Asian immigration. Cloth money bags, hand-crafted spoons and metal combs, quaintly-colored homespun clothing, Vietnamese language newspapers, Cambodian and Laotian passports, boat people belongings blending into a 2002 political poster for Madison Nguyen for the McKinley School District Board of Education, the first Vietnamese-American elected to public office in Northern California. History unfolding before our eyes.

At the end of the exhibit, the museum has placed note cards for comment, and many of them have already been hung as a continuing expansion of the exhibit itself. “Why Haven’t We Learned The Lessons From Vietnam?”, “I saw photos of my bro.-in-law in Viet Nam. Thanks.”, “Did we have to give all that space to Ronald Reagan?!”, “In memory of all our men that gave their lives. Cisco. Hells Angels Oakland M/C.”

And, finally, a simple memorial notation: “Claiborne L. Shaw. My uncle. Shandle Shaw.” Stapled to the card, from the exhibit brochure itself, is a picture of Claiborne Shaw, a young African-American soldier, helmeted, drinking from a canteen. In the exhibit book, he sits under a sign that reads “Oakland, Calif., 11,000 mi.” and an arrow pointing east.

We leave the exhibit ourselves, mindful that so many never left Vietnam, and walk out into an Oakland summer sun, carrying all the tapped memories with us.