In 1965, Johnson escalated the war by officially dispatching U.S. combat troops to Vietnam. There are sections of wall from the Oakland Army Base with antiwar graffiti as well as the peace sign necklace one soldier wore during his entire tour of duty. News clips capture the president predicting victory. Combat photos show the toll the conflict took on both sides. Bob Hope's golf club and military fatigues from a USO tour fill one display case. Draft cards and induction notices fill another.
One gallery features a section of a DC-8 in which visitors can sit and listen to oral histories of troops who flew east in such planes and refugees who flew west a decade later. The Oakland-based World Airways was one of the biggest charter operators hired by the Pentagon to fly troops across the Pacific. In 1975, when the war ended, the airline flew the last flight out of Vietnam as well as Operation Babylift, a photo of which provides one of the exhibition's most memorable images: row upon row of war orphans nestled in cardboard boxes belted into seats.
Echoes of the era
Although the war ended in 1975, the aftereffects continued. California became home to the largest population of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the United States. Today Orange County has more Vietnamese than any other place outside Vietnam. A locker from Hamilton Air Force Base, where refugees were processed, is covered with messages left for loved ones who might someday arrive. "Your father has been waiting for you forever," one man wrote.
A vitrine documents the long journeys taken by Vietnamese who fought on the losing side. Nguyen Tan Duoc, for example, spent nine years in a Vietnamese reeducation camp before finding his way to Thai and Philippine refugee camps and, ultimately, to California. The clothes he arrived with are on display, including a T-shirt that says "Refugee processing center."
Hollywood, which avoided the war while it was going on, scripted and rescripted the American experience in Vietnam. Movie posters depict both the heroism and the tragedy of the conflict. Rambo action figures let children refight the war and change the ending. An MIA-POW trivia game reminds players of those who didn't return.
But while the war's aftermath changed the face of many communities in Southern California, the political movement nurtured in Orange County eventually changed the face of American politics, with Reagan winning the White House in 1980. The president's smiling face beams from an oversized campaign button on a cowboy hat worn to the GOP convention that year.
As big and as inclusive as the exhibition seems, curator Eymann says the war's impact on California was so profound that no single show could start to capture its totality.
"This isn't the finite version of the war," Eymann says. "We hope it provokes more scholarship. In 7,000 square feet we're trying to tell the story of a state. It's a multilevel story. There are thousands of stories left untold."