By the time the Vietnam War ended in 1975, it was already one of the most fraught and controversial conflicts in American history. It can be a difficult war to understand for historians of all ages—the many dimensions of the war lead to a lot of questions. Where does the Vietnam War fit into both a 2,000-year history of Vietnamese resistance against foreign invaders and the 20th-century Cold War? How did a war with a small country 8,000 miles away come to impact American politics? What was it about the war that prompted tens of thousands of Americans to protest and march on Washington?
In this month’s Reading into History Family Book Club read Vietnam: A History of the War, author Russell Freedman grapples with all of these questions and more in his comprehensive overview of this complicated subject. Join us this Sunday, January 14, to discuss this amazing book. Readers will also have the opportunity to learn more about the topic from our special guest Barbara Chiminello, a veteran of the Vietnam War. Chiminello served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam as a nurse for two tours in Nha Trang and Pleiku. After a discussion with Ms. Chiminello, we’ll visit our exhbition The Vietnam War: 1945-1975, where readers will learn more about the homefront and the war front.
We sat down with Ms. Chiminello to inspire everyone to attend this weekend’s meeting. As you read our interview, think of questions you would like to ask her at our meeting this weekend. We’ll see you this Sunday!
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: Russell Freedman starts his book Vietnam: A History of the War with the background of Vietnamese history. He notes that most Americans did not know anything about Vietnamese history when the war started. As a matter of fact, he asserts that “not many Americans could find Vietnam on a map.” What did you know about Vietnam before you arrived?
Barbara Chiminello: What did I know about Vietnam before I arrived? Very little. I knew that our country was in “conflict” against a country in Southeast Asia. I was told we were there as advisors and that because of the domino effect of Communism spreading in that area, we needed to bring democracy to that area and to protect the South Vietnamese people. I came from a military, patriotic family and I believed in our government and the decisions of our leaders.
DCHM: Did that perception of Vietnam change when you got there?
Barbara Chiminello: Definitely. From the beginning of my tour in Vietnam, I knew that we had been deceived. We were not just in an “advisory” capacity; we were there for the long term—and it was a useless, awful situation. Being an ER nurse in the Central Highlands, I was in a position to see young boys dying needlessly for a useless cause. I had to hide this fact from my family when I brought my 23-year-old brother’s body home. I didn’t want them to know that our Tommy died for naught.
DCHM: Freedman writes about both the war in Vietnam and the reception to the war in the United States. He writes: “By the end of 1967, according to polls, a majority of Americans believed that the Vietnam War was a mistake.” What was your experience as a veteran returning from an unpopular war?
Barbara Chiminello: No one would talk about it…including my family and friends. I felt that it was so uncomfortable for people in my life to discuss it. For years I kept quiet about any discussion regarding my Vietnam two tours. It was difficult since I had lost my brother during my first tour—I had pent up grief for years. To this day, very few of my friends know that I am a VN veteran.
DCHM: At the end of the book, Freedman asks a very complicated question: “Can nations learn from their wars?” Based on your experience as a veteran, how would you answer his question?
Barbara Chiminello: Definitely. But, unfortunately, they don’t. Circumstances—like economics, military career advancements, and other—are such that our leaders feel that war is the only answer. My husband (who also a Vietnam veteran) and I went to the Mall with thousands of other people to protest President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. We knew it was the wrong move that it would end up like Vietnam as a quagmire. And our worst nightmare came true.
DCHM: What do you think is the most important thing for kids today to know about the Vietnam War?
Barbara Chiminello: Watch the PBS documentary series The Vietnam War by Ken Burn and Lynn Novick, which tells of the carnage not only for the Americans but for the Vietnamese. They should be informed and ask the question, “why did this happen”?
Join us all weekend for special programs honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Day. See our full list of programs. All weekend long, including Monday, kids 17 and under receive free Museum Admission!
— Caitlin O’Keefe, DiMenna Children’s History Museum