The Museum of American War Letters

Museum of American War Letters.
Carroll, Andrew
Nina Janz, Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH), Université du Luxembourg

Field post letters or war letters have been a frequent research subject into war experiences and military history in recent decades. The ego-documents offer research from "below", following Wolfram Wette's study "Der Krieg des kleinen Mannes. Eine Militärgeschichte von unten“1 the focus shifted to ordinary soldiers to examine their experience and life in battle.2 The analysis of letters is different from memoirs or state administrative documents. Letters express the momentum of experience of events, emotions, and thoughts. While memoirs written years or decades after the war can represent a distorted image of the actual events, letters can show a short glimpse of everyday life. Museums, archives and research institutions scrutinize these unique sources to highlight the personal sight of the senders in different periods, such as the World Wars. Editions and extensive collections have been published, and virtual platforms have been created around these resources. For example, various exhibitions, physical and virtual, were launched for the anniversary of the First World War, such as the Europeana 1914–1918 collection3 or British war letters4. Many other platforms are dedicated to a specific conflict or targeting a national army or country.The American War Letter Museum collection is such an example.

The name of the project is misleading here. It is not a digital exhibition of a real museum, but a virtual exhibition launched by Andrew Carroll, the Center for American War Letters – together with Chapman University (Orange, California). The site intends to exhibit correspondences from the American Revolution up to the present. On the National Vietnam War Veterans Day 2021 the site went online and displayed war letters of American soldiers during the conflict in Vietnam 1955/1975. The website is still in creation; the initiator is planning to add further material about different periods and conflicts.

The visitor „walks” through the digital museum using a computer mouse or keyboard, moving through a long gallery with wooden floors, dark walls and dim lighting. The panels with the letters are displayed as illuminated images and accompanied by text that pops up to provide background information about the authors and the context of the war events described therein. A guided tour is offered, which stops at every panel. The first letter is by President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) to Bobbie Lou Pendergrass, who has lost her brother (dated March 6, 1963). In his answer, displayed as a facsimile with transcription, the president expresses his condolences to Mrs Pendergrass and justifies the U.S. American fighting in Vietnam. He writes "that this country must not fall under Communist domination".5 Next to transcriptions, the panel introduces the background of Mrs Pendergrass writing and the further outcome of the situation in Vietnam until Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. The tour leads the visitor to the next panel where video footage about the "The Gulf of Tonkin"-incident is shown, and background information on the situation in Vietnam is provided. The following panels alternate between text and audio-visual material. Other videos, mostly commonly accessible Youtube videos, represent news videos, witness testimonies like Senator John McCain's (1936–2018) statement about the USS Forrestal fire in 1967.6

The transcripts of the letters are displayed in high solution but without the ability to zoom in. Carrolls has integrated reactions and articles on the museum from media, politics and society. The war's consequences and its explosiveness in whether one fights for his country or not is shown by Carroll in a leaked letter from Bill Clinton (*1946), which he wrote on December 3, 1969. The New York Times published it on February 13, 1992, while he was already campaigning for the presidency. In the letter, Clinton thanks his former officer at the Reserve Officers Training Corps for saving him from the draft to fight in Vietnam. The leaked document triggered a small scandal for Clinton while campaigning for the presidency and highlights the symbolic power of an individual document.7

A rare audio letter by Georges Patton IV. (1923–2004) stands out: it was recorded on July 7, 1968, and was addressed to his family at home. These so-called audio letters were quite common during the 1960s, and the visitor gets the chance to listen to this audio message of General Georges Patton's (1885–1945) son for the first time. The initiator plans to expand the wings to other conflicts, with correspondence he has collected and preserved from the Revolutionary War to the present. "America's great undiscovered literature"8 as he calls it, is made available to as wide an audience as possible. The Vietnam Wing traces private correspondences and reveals the perspectives of many Americans, including those who questioned the conflict or expressed fear of the violence.
To present ego-documents such as war letters in a digital format have their advantage. Zooming into individual passages of text, adding further information about the sender, the content, linking with other documents such as photos and official documents, visualising geographical points and timelines, digital methods offer various advantages. However, these possibilities are not sufficiently used. In the case of this presented platform, visitors are taken by hand. Like in a classic museum, the information is thrown on the wall, with background information, but the visitor cannot decide what interests or appeals to him or her more. Also, the opportunity for academic teaching and research questions is not given enough space, and the war letters museum squanders the possibilities of these unique sources. This type of presentation is only suitable for the thematic introduction (in this case to the Vietnam War), but not for discussing the letters as a methodology or particular type of source. This style appeals to first semester history students or higher school students into the subject matter. The linking with the videos and songs, and photos is well done and appeals to a general introduction rather than academic work with war letters as sources to study war history.
The American War Letters Museum is a unique virtual platform to obtain knowledge and information about the Vietnam war by using personal statements such as war letters to represent the everyday life and the war experiences the American combatants made. Although the letters display information about the context and the sender and recipient, the website cannot answer questions beyond this. Without further metadata, such as the origin of the collection (specific archival reference number are missing completely), whether someone edited the letters, how and why they were selected, who donated the letters, whether they are modified or censored, no scholarly source criticism is possible. The documents are unfortunately not downloadable with its transcriptions, further analysis or the implementation of text and data analysis methods are therefore not applicable. In addition, the documents are one-sided, the virtual museum contains an American-centered focus on the sources. The sacrifice of the American soldiers and their contribution to world peace is in the foreground. This limited angle hampers a scholarly approach to the Vietnam War. Personal statements of Vietnamese could have been added as a comparison.
Nevertheless, the website is promising for educational projects; it provides suitable information on American involvement in Vietnam. The diversity of sources is sufficient, but for further use for higher education (university level) or a research question, the "American Museum of War Letters" is not diverse and suitable enough to obtain a detailed angle on the war about the different conflict parties. The opening of the next "wings" in the museum on different conflicts and periods will hopefully soon expand the war letters collection.


1 Wolfram Wette (Hrsg.), Der Krieg des kleinen Mannes. Eine Militärgeschichte von unten, München 1992.
2 Ortwin Buchbender / Reinhold Sterz (Hrsg.), Das andere Gesicht des Krieges. Deutsche Feldpostbriefe 1939–1945. München, 1982; Veit Didczuneiet / Jens Ebert /Thomas Jander (Hrsg.), Schreiben im Krieg Schreiben vom Krieg. Feldpost im Zeitalter der Weltkriege, Essen 2011.
3 Letter from the front Boudes Emile to Louise Boudes, August, 23, 1915, in: Europeana Collection 1914–1918/ (May 17, 2021).
4 National Archives / Letters from the First World
War / 17, 2021).
5 Letters Bobbie Lou Pendergrass and John F. Kennedy, archives of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, in: American War Letters Museum , (May 20, 2021).
6 Witness testimony Senator John McCain / USS Forrestal fire in 1967,in: American War Letters Museum, (May 20, 2021).
7 Bill Clinton Letter to Colonel Eugene Holmes,in: American War Letters Museum,, (May 20/2021).
8 Colib Moynihan, An Online Museum Shows Life During Wartime, (May 17, 2021).

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