What does the television show China Beach have to do with a Presidential Library?

I apologize for title fatigue!

I have an interesting debate in my head when I decide to post on something that I already know is primarily an American topic of interest. This is one of those occasions. I couldn’t even think of an interesting title to give you a chance to “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”

I remember being a little surprised to learn from my international friends that the topic of the Vietnam War isn’t a well-known reference.

I don’t know why this would surprise me. The War, or Conflict as it was euphemistically termed at the time, was a central focus of my young awareness primarily because it was the first war to be heavily televised here in America, but long before the 24-hour global news cycle.

Of the period, Edward R. Murrow said, “Anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.”.

Over several years I’ve read half a dozen good books attempting to synthesize what I remember and what I’d forgotten, what I know and don’t know, and a gazillion complexities about a conflict that lasted fourteen years. My knowledge base is still on the puny side.

But I will always gravitate to the stories that come from that era. A  well told story always adds bits and pieces to that small store of knowledge.

So I was delighted when Aimee called to tell me she happened to catch a segment on Good Morning America featuring a reunion of the cast from one of our favorite television shows of long ago, China Beach.

China Beach premiered only 13 years following the fall of Saigon and was the first television series to explore the psychological repercussions of the controversial and polarizing Vietnam War. And we were hooked.

Airing between 1988-1991, the 62 emotion-packed episodes were patterned after a book written by former U.S. Army Nurse Lynda Van Devanter, exploring the war from a primarily female-centric view in an evacuation hospital setting.

Aimee is purchasing the newly released first season of the episodes so we can share an emotion-packed China Beach viewing frenzy.

However, not all stories that catch my attention are fictionalized for entertainment purposes.

In early September I read an article reporting that nearly 50 years after his plane was shot down over Cambodia in 1964, the remains of Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods were identified and returned to his family. Fifty years!

At one time 1,350 Americans were listed as Prisoner of War or Missing in Action.

For more than 40 years I have held on to two little matchbooks I brought home from a POW/MIA rally in the late 1960s.

POW Matchbooks

One hometown boy from San Gabriel, John Heber Nasmyth, Jr.,  was captured in 1966 and released in 1973 during Operation Homecoming.  I went to more than one rally, so I don’t know when I obtained the matchbooks, but they were liberally distributed as reminders not to forget the missing.

With my interest in this era it was compelling for me to make my way to a special exhibit at  the Nixon Presidential Library.  I invited my blogging buddy, Rosie, to accompany me to ” An All American Homecoming,”  and we spent several hours absorbing all we could from this exhibit and other parts of the Library devoted to the Vietnam War.

Burst of Joy

This Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, Burst of Joy, was taken by AP photographer Slava Veder on March 17, 1973 at California’s Travis Air Force Base. The photo depicts the homecoming of U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm being reunited with his family after spending more than five years in a North Vietnam prison. There were only 20 POWs on that particular plane, but more than 400 family members turned up for the homecoming.

Then on May 24, 1973, most of the returned POW’s traveled to Washington to be honored by the White House at a gala dinner hosted by the President and Mrs. Nixon–the largest dinner party ever held at the White House before or since.

The White House itself wasn’t large enough to accommodate the huge party of guests, so the event was held outdoors, with the 1,300 people under tents on the South Lawn.

The Nixon Library has a permanent display of artifacts from the POW camps, including items the prisoners smuggled between themselves under threat of grave danger, to continue to communicate during extended years of solitary confinement.

There is a triumph of human spirit that sings out from the museum cases as decades later we gawk at a handmade pipe, a tin cup used to tap an improvised communication code, and a young man’s book of language translation put together to help fellow prisoners. These items are part of a permanent display.

The White House gala was planned as a private celebration to honor the men and their families, and if you’re interested in learning more about the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum or this wonderful exhibit, feel free to read HERE.

If not now, then just enjoy a few of the photos I took and if you think about the implications of these simple objects, I think you’ll be very moved.

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Rosie and I were aided in our understanding of the context of the exhibit by multiple video components highlighting archival televised news reports of the POWs returning to the United States.

Told from the perspective of survivors reunited after 40 years, I know you would find this video inspirational, with or without knowledge of the war itself.

I admit, it’s a lot to absorb. That’s why for me, I take it one story at a time.


30 thoughts on “What does the television show China Beach have to do with a Presidential Library?

  1. That war was just so unnecessary and seemed to have been created by those with a love of war who never have to do active service. So tragic that so many young lives were lost and so many families never saw their loved ones again. And for what? I was growing up in NZ where NZ had refused to participate but over in Australia they sent troops who, if they came back, were so psychologically scarred. I nursed a guy who’d become a complete C3-C4 quadriplegic through being shot in the neck. He didn’t want to go and fight that war, he was ordered to. xx

    1. The psychological scars you mention are still very evident today in so many Vietnam Vets, and it is really disturbing that we are continuing to bring Vets home from the current wars/conflicts that are committing suicide in unheard of numbers. The tragedies from war are compounding, and it’s a terrible shame. It sounds like you had your own memories of being a caregiver to someone badly wounded. It makes war very real, doesn’t it! thank you for sharing, Charlie. ox

  2. Very overwhelming. It was my generation. Do you remember the wrist bands? Each wrist band had the name of a POW and when you got one you were supposed to wear it until he was freed.

    1. I do remember the wrist bands, Kate. I think I must have had one, but I don’t clearly recall!. I was clearly influenced by the times but I didn’t graduate from high school until 1970, and I think I wanted to be on a college campus where the ‘adult” activity was happening. But it was a terribly turbulent time in our country and I don’t know that anyone who lived through it could escape without very strong, lasting impressions.

  3. Dear Debra, thank you for posting this video. I was in the convent when the first 5,000 or so “consultants” were sent to Vietnam by the president. That was back in 1963 or 64 I think. Sam, a Quaker, taught social studies in the high school in which I was teaching English. He’s the one who told me what was happening because I had no way to know–nuns didn’t get to watch television or read newspapers or magazines. And Sam’s the one who made me–way back in the middle of the ’60s–a anti-Vietnam protestor. We speak of the World War II soldiers as the greatest generation. But the men who fought and died and were captured in Vietnam are just as great. And they fought a jungle war unlike anything any US soldier had ever fought.

    You know the one thing that surprised me about this video is that I saw only one African American POW. He was at the far left in the part of the video where the group sang. I wonder why that is because there were many black Americans in that war. Peace.

    1. I recall your stories of being involved in the anti-war activities, Dee, and as I read them I wondered at the courage. It wasn’t an easy path to take, even if you were in good company. I was still in high school and I was still fairly sheltered from understanding the implications of all I was viewing. I just remember the tension and chaos. I completely agree with you that the Vietnam Vets have been somewhat shortchanged the honor due them by being compared to the Greatest Generation and not having a similarly strong and inspirational title, but of course, what they experienced was every bit as terrifying and their courage just as evident.

      What a careful eye you have to have noticed the lack of African American POWs. I must admit that didn’t jump out at me, and it does bring questions to mind. So often you find the details that others miss, Dee. Thank you so much for your very thoughtful response, my friend.

  4. Indeed, Debra, this is a lot to absorb. I remember here in Australia in the 1960s and 70s there were a lot of Anti-Vietnam-War protest marches. Young men were conscripted to go to Vietnam. I believe in America conscription was in place too at the time. Later we did protest against the Iraq war. Our prime minister then called the protesters “the mob”.
    People who had to fight in these wars and went through horrible experiences and maybe years of prison camps deserve to be cared for by their communities and to be helped in any way possible to overcome whatever they had to go through. It is very heart warming to see you mentioning so many family members turned up to welcome back the ex-prisoners of war.and they were given a gala dinner by the president and Mrs.Nixon.
    Way back boat people from Vietnam, who came to Australia as refugees, were welcomed here with open arms. These days our government has a policy that boat people, who seek refuge in Australia, are not welcome.

    1. I certainly wasn’t aware of anti-war protests in Australia at the time, Uta, but that makes sense, since anywhere men were conscripted had to be a hotbed of contention! I didn’t remember the Presidential dinner, but I think it was a lovely way to honor the POWs, in sharp contrast to the way the public generally failed to support the returning veterans. Our church at the time was very supportive to several immigrant Vietnamese families (boat people) and helped support their integration into the country. It was a really fascinating time, and I think one reason I continue to read about the war and collect stories is because I was quite young, and I often wonder at the accuracy of some of my memories. Thank you for sharing yours, Uta.

  5. I don’t even know what to say. I can’t imagine what these men went through. I am humbled by their courage and faith in our country and wish that we all were that dignified in our treatment of her.

    1. I was so glad I didn’t procrastinate and miss the “Homecoming” exhibit at the Nixon Library. It was a very moving experience. It was interesting to view the archival film footage and to see a very young John McCain getting off an airplane with other returnees. Thank you for your very thoughtful comment, Colleen.

  6. I clearly remember when these men were released, Debra, watching it on television and reading about it in the newspapers.
    Tom and I were newlyweds of just three days when the May 23, 1973 dinner was held, so, I’m sorry to say that I don’t recall this reception/dinner, but, I’m glad it was held to honor those held as POWs. I’m glad you were able to see this exhibit at the Nixon library and that you shared the video. I’m old enough to remember this tragic part of our history, but, many who read you may not be. You bring about an awareness of our past. Thank you, Debra.

    I visited the D-Day museum in New Orleans shortly after it first opened. There was an exhibit of POW articles much like the ones you show here. It was a sobering exhibit. I can understand how you must have felt seeing this one.

    I’m forgetting the author, but, have you read The Things They Carried? It is a series of related stories about a Viet Nam vet.

    1. I was a newlywed in ’73, too, Penny, and I don’t remember the Presidential Dinner either. There are so many things about that time that are very vague, but not the return of the POWs. That somehow really captured my full attention, as I presume it did most Americans. Right about that time our church began sponsoring Vietnamese refugees, supporting whole families and helping them assimilate. I often think back to what a significant time in history we lived through! I do find it very interesting to revisit and look at with much more “seasoned” eyes. Thank you for the book suggestion, Penny. I haven’t read The Things They Carried, and I would like to! ox

  7. I never watched China Beach, but I enjoyed the photos you took, Debra.

    The Vietman War, like many since (Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan), had more to do with putting money in the pockets of the few . . . at the expense of the many. Such a waste of time, money, lives, and resources. 😦

  8. Tom McCubbin

    I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and worked two years in the county hospital as nursing assistant. A lot of painful memories for a lot of people, whether pro- or anti-war.

    1. Absolutely true about the painful memories, Tom. I was reading something the other day about Muhammad Ali and recalling his being a conscientious objector. I had friends who crossed the border into Canada and I’ve often thought of them, wondered how that worked for them. It was a really terrible time and now we have serious concerns about the welfare of the Veterans returning home from Afghanistan.

  9. What a tumultuous time, Debra! I know of those who left for Canada. Living in Detroit, Canada was just a bridge away. My Cousin served during the first Tet Offensive. I remember Uncle and Zia staying up all night, listening to the radio to learn if his base was being bombed. It was but he wasn’t hurt, thankfully. I remember seeing the former POWs returning home, their families rushing to greet them on the tarmac. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

    1. I am really interested in the context of those tumultuous times, John, but every time I dip into the topic I get a little nervous. I know that it is still a really painful history for so many people. In the 60s I didn’t have the maturity to really understand the emotional toll Vietnam took on families watching those terrible scenes on television, but flash forward to Iraq and Afghanistan and I’ve been close to friends who haven’t slept well in years with their children in the current conflicts. The homecomings in any war bring me such joy, even without being directly connected to the servicemen and women. I also remember the Vietnam POW returns, and being in awe of what that meant to those families and the men returning. I still can’t grasp how long many of them were imprisoned. What a joyful return for your family it must have been to see your cousin come home. You mentioned your aunt and uncle being up all night listening to the radio. One of my friends has told me she still can’t sleep well at night. Her sleep was so disturbed while her son served in the early years of the war in Iraq and her sleep habits have completely changed. These are the stories. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, too.

  10. As we were in our own little terrorist war in Rhodesia at the same time, the Vietnam conflict was very real in our discussions and news… we spent virtually 6 weeks fighting on the border then 6 weeks at home… it was not the most pleasant to live but we were fighting for our survival and the survival of our home country, to be able to work towards a dispensation that suited all citizen of the country… a good friend of mine was abducted or captured by terrorists and was being marched back to Zambia, one hell of a distance, but managed to one evening escape and walk back home 700 odd km.. to this day he does not talk an awful lot about it… Our civilian Viscount Planes that were shot out of the sky have only recently received recognition with a memorial erected in South Africa and we have heard that this story is to become a major film now that the whole world will get to see… our war was not publicised too much, and I don’t want to go into the politics about this, but it will be nice for the world to see our own little Vietnam that we fought for many many years…

    1. Please be sure to talk about the movie you’re referring to, should it be made, Rob. It would be a powerful story that should be told. You are my only source of information about the war in Rhodesia, although following several of your previous remarks and comments I have done additional reading. I was very moved by the story of the memorial erected to remember the civilian casualties in the shooting down of the planes. I’m always trying to understand what is really at stake in these wars, and somehow equally understand what is politics rather than conflict over true principles. I am so grateful to be living with such good access to international news, which certainly was not available during the wars we’re referencing, but as the world continues to heat up and our countries make decisions, often extremely unpopular, I gain a lot of insight in hearing how the United States is viewed from outside, and I can also better know what my international friends are experiencing. I don’t think there could be a “silent” Rhodesian War today. But it has to be upsetting and galling to have lived through something so treacherous and not to have had the attention it deserved. I appreciate you talking to me about this, Rob. I wish we had better access to a longer conversation. This is such an interesting topic to me!

  11. Very interesting, Debra, even for a non-US-American. And I think it should, as USA is still getting involved in wars around the world, the latest threat now being Syria. I think there is a lot to be learned from the Vietnam War. For one I don’t think a revolution in a country can come about with foreign military involvement. It needs to be based within the population of the country. One can support an uprising but not create it from outside. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    1. I really do value your opinion and your thoughts regarding American intervention in other countries, Otto. Your observations don’t surprise me, because I feel I have come to know you much about you over the last couple of years. I truly agree with you regarding the current situation with Syria, and as you may already know, the majority of Americans appear to be very strongly against any direct military involvement. From all that I know, which is perhaps a very limited lens, I don’t believe Vietnam was a conflict we ever should have entered, let alone stay in for so many years. It’s a huge scar for our country, and I am honestly always interested in how the rest of the world views our actions. You help me understand, Otto. Thank you!

  12. Debra, once again you have made me think deeply; such a scar, this conflict. But as you say, within the greater war there were many individual stories of triumph over adversity. Thanks for posting this. The museum looks fascinating; and thought-provoking.

    1. Thank you for letting me know you enjoyed this post, Kate. I had a little insecurity writing it. The exhibit we attended was very meaningful to me, and yet I know it may not resonate well overall. The focus for me, though, is really seeing what human beings can survive and how they can take tragedies and loss and build from that. Sorry…here I go again! I can really get lost in this topic. Thanks once again, Kate.

  13. I have very mixed feeling about the war. I have known quite a few of Vietnam Veterans that have had very sad emotional problems. And some very real physical ones as well. I am against any direct Military involvement with Syria. When I hear the word war I think of words like hate, death, loss, but yet some many people say how Noble how wonderful and thank you to our service men. I am Thankful but also upset about WAR. I desire peace, Love, Life, respect for life.

    1. I’m in agreement with you, Deb, and think Syria would be a huge mistake. It’s a terrible thing that today’s Veterans are also coming home with such serious emotional and physical injuries. I think you said it very well, my friend. Vietnam exacted a terrible loss of life and serious recurring physical and emotional injuries to the returning Vets. ox

    1. I “came of age” in the Vietnam War era, Linda, and it affected so many of my friends either in loss of family members who served and died, or veterans who have had a rough time in the decades following. I was young enough to have been very impressionable and emotional, yet as I get older I sometimes question the details of what I remember. I find that true of a lot of recent history. The Presidential Libraries are helpful in giving me a mini-history lesson and I really enjoy spending time in discovery, when I have the time! Thank you for commenting, my friend. ox

    1. I am glad you found something meaningful in the post about the Vietnam War POWs, Andra. I’m rarely prepared to have a discussion about the intricacies of war, but I do want to be mindful of the stories of people and what these periods of conflict bring into their lives. I remember the POWs being released, and it left an indelible impression. Thank you, Andra. oxo

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