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Materials in Action

Vietnam War Resources at the Briscoe Center

Marine inductees, South Carolina, 1971. Eddie Adams Photographic Archive.Marine inductees, South Carolina, 1971. Eddie Adams Photographic Archive.

Fifty years ago, the number of American troops in Vietnam passed the half-million mark. The buildup had been swift, with the first combat troops being committed in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson. From there, numbers quickly swelled, reaching a peak of 543,000 by 1969. By then Johnson was back in Texas, and President Richard Nixon was looking to wind down the war.

Hostilities in Vietnam had begun to ratchet up during the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower in the mid-1950s. About 3,000 military advisers sent by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 represented the first boots on the ground en masse. The war ended in 1975 while Gerald Ford was in the White House. By then Washington's three-decade involvement in Vietnam had outlasted four presidencies and raised profound questions about the nature of American power and policy — questions that remain salient today.

Line of people waiting for helicopter to leave Saigon, 1975. Dirck Halstead Photographic Archive.Line of people waiting for helicopter to leave Saigon, 1975. Dirck Halstead Photographic Archive.

Currently airing on PBS, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's 18-hour documentary series The Vietnam War uses collections and scholarship from all over the world. Researchers spent six years combing through archival collections — including those based at the Briscoe Center. The Washington Post called the use of archival material "critical to the series." As Burns and Novick's team discovered, the Briscoe Center is rich in resources for studying the war — particularly its collection strengths in news media history, congressional and political history, and photojournalism.

News Media History

Cronkite reporting in Vietnam, 1968. Walter Cronkite Papers. Cronkite reporting in Vietnam, 1968. Walter Cronkite Papers. Cronkite's Vietnam notebook, 1968. Walter Cronkite Papers.

The Briscoe Center's collections include the papers of CBS News correspondents Walter Cronkite, Morley Safer and Bruce Morton, as well as many producers including Jay McMullen and Joseph Wershba. They illuminate how news media reports from the field played a major role in shaping the American public's perception of the war.

For example, the Morley Safer papers document Safer's time serving as head of the CBS Saigon bureau. During one reporting mission in 1965, his helicopter was shot down. He went on to attract the attention of the nation (and the outrage of the White House) with a report on Cam Ne, a village near the port of Da Nang, that was burned to the ground by Marines trying to flush out Viet Cong fighters who had been sniping at them.

Morley Safer reporting from Vietnam, 1965. Morley Safer Papers. Letter from Walter Cronkite to Morley Safer, 1965. Morley Safer Papers. Photo of Marine torching village, 1965. Morley Safer Papers.

"This is what the war in Vietnam is all about," Safer reported from Cam Ne, against a backdrop of smoke, fire, weeping women and scared children. "The Viet Cong were long gone. The action wounded three women, killed one baby, wounded one Marine and netted four old men as prisoners. Today's operation is the frustration of Vietnam in miniature."


L-R: Photojournalists Dirck Halstead and David Hume Kennerly in Vietnam, 1972. David Hume Kennerly Photo Archive.L-R: Photojournalists Dirck Halstead and David Hume Kennerly in Vietnam, 1972. David Hume Kennerly Photo Archive.

Burns and Novick's team did extensive research in the center's photojournalism collections. The documentary used numerous images from the Dirck Halstead, Steve Northup and Eddie Adams photographic archives. Adams, who in 1969 won a Pulitzer Prize for his "Saigon Execution" photograph, was also the subject of the Briscoe Center's recent publication Bigger Than the Frame,which presents a selection of his finest work. Alyssa Adams and Anne Tucker, both of whose work was crucial to the publication of BiggerThan the Frame, will take part in a panel discussion at the Texas Book Festival on Sunday, November 5, 2017, at noon.

Contact sheet for Voucher for expenses while on assignment for the Associated Press in Saigon, June 1968. Eddie Adams Photographic Archive. Letter from President Richard Nixon to Eddie Adams, 1969. Eddie Adams Photographic Archive.

The Matthew Naythons, Dick Swanson and David Hume Kennerly photographic archives are also rich in Vietnam-related materials. Photojournalists in the 1960s and '70s forever transformed how Americans perceive the stark reality of war. Together, these collections represent an unmatched visual history of the war that is available to scholars and students on campus, as well as veterans and other members of the public who wish to visit the center.

Congressional and Political Collections:

The papers of congressmen and presidential advisors illuminate the myriad political aspects of the war. Rich in correspondence, policy statements, confidential dossiers, photographs, constituent newsletters and media reports, they document the widespread initial support for the military buildup in Vietnam, as well as increasing concern and calls for withdrawal as the war stretched on.

President Johnson and advisor Harry McPherson, undated. Harry McPherson Papers. Memo advising President Johnson not to address bombing halt in speech, 1968. Harry McPherson Papers. Harry McPherson Papers.

Collections include the papers of Senator Ralph Yarborough, U.S. representatives Jack Brooks and Henry B. Gonzalez, and the papers of Harry McPherson, who was a special adviser to President Johnson. McPherson played a significant role in one of the war's pivotal moments. He drafted the speech Johnson gave on March 31, 1968, announcing a halt in the bombing in North Vietnam and that Johnson would not run for re-election.

Oral Histories:

FBI memo regarding John Kerry's activities, 1972. Home to War/Vietnam Veterans Archive.
FBI memo regarding John Kerry's activities, 1972. Home to War/Vietnam Veterans Archive.

After the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam in 1973 and the fall of Saigon in 1975, America entered a postwar period of painful readjustment. The fighting had killed and wounded more than 200,000 American soldiers and many times that number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. Notwithstanding the vast damage and destruction wreaked on the people of Vietnam, the war dealt a cruel blow to America's progressive psyche, clouding out the earlier achievements of the decade (such as the civil and voting rights acts) and enervating Johnson's domestic agenda.

Returning Vietnam veterans carried physical and emotional wounds, yet the public tended to ignore them. Many of their stories were eventually captured by journalists and documentarians, who have since donated their collections to the Briscoe Center. They include the Home to War/Vietnam Veterans Archive, which contains hundreds of tape and video recordings, as well as more than 20,000 pages of transcribed interviews, and the archives of John Giannini's 30-year project documenting Vietnam veterans on film. The Vietnamese Immigrants Oral History Collection consists of 49 oral history interviews from people who immigrated to the Texas Gulf Coast from Vietnam after the war.

A War Remembered

The Briscoe Center's newest publication, A War Remembered, is available now. It recounts the LBJ Presidential Library's 2016 Vietnam War Summit, an intensive three-day conference that brought together policymakers, scholars, reporters, photographers, musicians and veterans to commemorate and discuss the war. Written by Mark Updegrove, A War Remembered features photographs and documentation from the Vietnam War Summit, but also includes a number of historical images from both the LBJ Library and the Briscoe Center, offering a diverse perspective on the conflict.

According to UT history professor Mark Atwood Lawrence, author of Vietnam: A Concise International History, "These are boom times for historians of the Vietnam War." Indeed, the war is in what one might call its "anniversary moment" — 2014 was the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin incident; 2015 was the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon; next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive.

Many still ponder the enormous sacrifice of human lives on all sides, the devastation of cities and of the countryside, the deep political and cultural divides over the war that tore at American society, and the physical and psychological scars that remained in the war's aftermath. It is still difficult for many to understand what happened and why. Documentaries, symposia and scholarship — when rooted in the raw materials of historical evidence persevered at places like the Briscoe Center — enable us to better make sense of it all.

Children play on tank, Vietnam 1985. Dirck Halstead Photographic Archive.Children play on tank, Vietnam 1985. Dirck Halstead Photographic Archive.