Veterans Day and the surrounding days are some of the biggest annually for Kansas City’s National World War I Museum and Memorial, as Nov. 11 marked the day the guns fell silent in Europe in 1918.
Last year was the centennial. This year, the museum welcomes the traveling exhibition “The Vietnam War: 1945-75” from the New York Historical Society. Kansas City is the exhibit’s final stop. It debuted last Friday and runs through May 31, 2020, the Sunday after Memorial Day.
“We’re certainly expecting a great, strong crowd,” said Matt Naylor, president of the WWI museum.
The museum’s purpose is to “remember, interpret and understand the war and its enduring impact, how the war influenced events decades later,” Naylor said.
The Vietnam War has more connections to World War I than many might realize.
For one, nearly 100,000 Vietnamese citizens served in France during the war, for at the time their country was part of the colony known as French Indochina.
“The French were looking to all their colonies to support them,” Naylor said. “They borrowed funds at first, and then it became evident they would need workers and troops.”
About an equal number of workers and troops went to France. Most came back, but they had been changed.
“They had a different relationship with France,” Naylor said. “They’ve earned money, they’ve got new skills, they’ve learned about munitions, unionizing, mechanizing; soldiers learned new strategies like trench warfare.”
In essence, that started the push for independence movements. One young man who later renamed himself Ho Chi Minh tried unsuccessfully to secure an audience with leaders at the Paris talks to push for independence from France.
“The cat had been let out of the bag,” Naylor said. “It began the seeds of independence; equipped people to do that, and political leaders.”
In addition, several notable American leaders with some connection to Southeast Asia later in the following decades played roles and drew from experiences in World War I, including Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt and, of course, Captain Harry Truman.
Naylor said the fact so many major world conflicts and events have roots in some way back to World War I shows that “decisions that we make often have long-term consequences.”
“They certainly had a profound effect for many decades to come,” he said, “and in fact we continue to live out some of them today.”
Museum volunteers have had the chance to walk through the Vietnam exhibit, which is in the museum’s new exhibit space Wylie Hall. Many of those volunteers were Vietnam-era veterans or citizens who came of age in that time period.
“It’s been really quite moving for many of them,” Naylor said.