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California's Vietnam War

September 03, 2004|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to The Times

OAKLAND — Several years ago the Oakland Museum of California was scheduled to host a traveling exhibition about photographers who died in Vietnam. So curator Marcia Eymann began to work on a companion show about the war's effect on the state. The photography show never made it to Oakland.

But Eymann was so impressed by what she learned about the repercussions of the Vietnam War on California that the museum decided to make that the subject of a full-blown presentation.

The result is "What's Going On? -- California and the Vietnam Era," which opened Saturday and runs through Feb. 27.

The exhibition is a sprawling, 7,000-square-foot tour across decades of California life, from the frightening days of the Cold War to the unsettled present -- although the focus is on the decade from President Lyndon B. Johnson's escalation of the war in 1965 to its end in 1975. Featuring more than 500 artifacts -- photographs, letters, film clips, music, oral histories, clothing -- the show charts the influence of a faraway conflict on everything from politics to children's toys.

"The impact of the Vietnam War on California was huge, and in turn what happened to the rest of the country was huge," says Dennis M. Power, executive director of the Oakland Museum. "People don't know that."

The war reshaped California in ways both large and small. One of every four dollars spent on defense went to the state, where the military-industrial complex was a pillar of the economy. Most troops headed to Vietnam departed from California, and a decade later refugees from the war arrived here to build new lives. Northern California was a hotbed of antiwar politics and counterculture, while Southern California provided the suburban foot soldiers for the New Right who helped propel Ronald Reagan to the governor's office -- and eventually the White House. Military contracts spurred Silicon Valley innovation, and the war provided themes for Hollywood movies as different as "Coming Home" and "Rambo."

None of this was obvious to Eymann when she moved to California from the Midwest in 1990 to become a curator at the museum. She visited the Oakland Army Base, where the museum warehoused part of its collection, to survey the institution's holdings. The base, it turned out, had been the largest military port complex in the world during the Vietnam War; more than 222,000 soldiers from all over the country passed through in just a three-year period. Many of them inscribed graffiti on the base buildings that greeted Eymann two decades later, like the fossil record of some distant era.

Today the words are as haunting as ever.

"If a man dies for his country," one soldier wrote, "he is paying for something he will never collect."

"I came to the Golden State with many stereotypes already implanted in my mind," Eymann writes in the show's catalog, "What's Going On?" (UC Press). "Now that image of a state filled with hippies and antiwar protesters, with endless beaches and everything Hollywood, was being replaced by a new image, of scared and sometimes angry young men on their way 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 the events of the 1960s and 1970s."

The show opens with a gallery devoted to the Cold War in the 1950s ("Nation on Edge," the gallery is labeled). The U.S. seemed locked into a potentially endless contest with the Soviet Union. It was an age of bomb shelters and duck-and-cover drills in school, and stopping the spread of communism was America's overriding geostrategic priority -- even in a remote corner of Southeast Asia called Vietnam. One photo in the exhibition shows a family in El Monte packing up the trunk of their car. Only the person in the hard hat with an official seal gives a clue that it was a civil defense evacuation practice, not a vacation trip.

Political fallout

Then comes the birth of grassroots activism in the 1960s: both the famous radicalism of Northern California and the less remembered but equally momentous conservative movement in Southern California. There are pamphlets from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and photos of campus tumult as well as the polka-dot sundress of an Orange County housewife who held coffees for Barry Goldwater ("A choice not an echo" says a seat cushion promoting his campaign). The conservative Republican lost the 1964 presidential race to Johnson, but in 1966 California's energized conservatives put Reagan into the governor's office, ending the liberal reign of Edmund G. "Pat" Brown. "Why not an actor?" asks a Reagan bumper sticker. "Had a clown for 8 years!"

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