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University of Dayton Human Rights Center faculty and students create online exhibit exploring Vietnam War’s impact on campus

By Allison Brace '22

A key component of the Vietnam Legacies Project explores the University of Dayton in a wartime setting, showcasing protests, personal stories and the greater effects of the war on campus. An initiative of the UD Human Rights Center, the project includes a virtual exhibit launched during the 2020 fall semester, as well as a two-day online symposium in October that addressed the impact of the war in the U.S. and attracted more than 40 panelists and attendees.

The project was made possible by Vietnam veteran and University alumnus John (Jack) Meagher ’63, who generously committed $100,000 to the Human Rights Center (HRC) to fund a major research project and symposium on the topic, "Transitional Justice, Advocacy, and the U.S.-Vietnam War." Meagher’s gift also funded a postdoctoral scholar to research war legacies and promote advocacy related to the war.

“Jack came to the center through University Advancement and we discussed how his interests in the Vietnam War could marry with the center's interest in focusing on advocacy around peace and human rights issues,” said Shelley Inglis, HRC executive director and research professor of human rights and law.

Meagher earned his bachelor’s degree in history from the University while participating in the ROTC program. He graduated from UD as a commissioned Army officer, and earned his law degree from the University of Cincinnati before being stationed in Germany and then Vietnam.

“My purpose in initiating this project was to remind people of the facts of the war and ask whether the United States should consider the need and importance of making amends to the Vietnamese people,” Meagher said. “I am grateful that the Human Rights Center was willing and able to accept the challenge of exploring these topics.”

The virtual exhibit showcases the impact of the war on campus through letters, photographs and oral histories. It highlights on-campus protests, peace studies, student movements for racial and gender equality, iconic speakers, the role of the University of Dayton Research Institute and the requirement for male students to participate in ROTC programming during that period.

Originally planned as an in-person exhibit, “Exploring the Legacy of the Vietnam War at the University of Dayton” became a web-based display because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paul Morrow joined the HRC staff in fall 2019 as the John Meagher Fellow, a postdoctoral scholar intended to research war legacies and promote advocacy related to the U.S.-Vietnam War.

“My academic work focuses on problems of justice in post-war societies, specifically Europe post-World War II, Rwanda after the 1994 genocide and others,” said Morrow, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Vanderbilt University. “Frequently, transitional justice processes focus on transformations within a single country, for example those that have experienced civil war and need reconstruction and reconciliation. However, this lens can also be applied to American society after the Vietnam War.”

Morrow spearheaded the research project with help from several students, including history majors Katie Schreyer ’22 and Jackson Prieto ’22, who came to the project from their class, Intro to the Historian's Craft. Political science and human rights studies double major Bridget Graham ’22 also assisted with the project by developing the exhibit’s website.

“I think that the Vietnam Legacies Project can positively impact campus because it can help UD students know what life on campus was like 50 years ago and how students back then thought about and acted on the issues of their time,” Schreyer said. “There are a lot of parallels between the social dilemmas we're facing now and the ones that people contended with in the 1960s and 1970s, and I think it's important for people to know the origin of these problems in order to change them moving forward.”

The climate strikes and gun violence demonstrations held during the 2019-2020 school year as well as last summer’s protests for racial justice are just a few of the social dilemmas that have spurred renewed advocacy within the community. Schreyer plans to continue to draw these correlations through ongoing research on the topic.

“I continue to conduct interviews with former UD students and professors who want to share their experiences living during the Vietnam War,” Schreyer said.

The students sifted through archival documents, news stories and photos from the UD Special Collections Library to understand the campus climate in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, this research was halted in March 2020 when students left campus because of the coronavirus pandemic. The students persisted and were able to conduct virtual interviews with alumni and faculty from the era.

“We got a lot of alumni input and personal stories which we were able to capture in our shift to an online exhibit instead of having a real exhibit,” Inglis said. “A lot of the stories we got from the alumni were really important because those alumni were trailblazers in making changes at UD which we still have the legacy of today.”

The Vietnam Legacies Symposium, Oct. 22-23, included panelists who spoke on topics such as unexploded ordnance, the health effects of Agent Orange on American and Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, and U.S. veterans' activism and memorialization.

“The Vietnam War is one that divided our country and caused destruction to the land of Vietnam and its people,” Meagher said. “There have been millions of unexploded bombs and landmines left behind on the land both injuring and killing thousands of Vietnamese people over the last 50-plus years. Since the war, many Vietnamese children have continually been born with birth defects directly connected to the exposure effects of Agent Orange left behind by the war.”

The Vietnam War and its aftermath continue to stir strong opinions. Alumna HaQuyen Pham ’07 said the website, and the project as a whole, should trace impacts from past to present-day and include Vietnamese-American perspectives, as well as other voices traditionally missing from the narrative, including Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong people who were affected by the war, thousands of whom settled in the U.S.

“There’s certainly a link to the greater Dayton community,” said Pham, who holds a bachelor’s degree in French and journalism and a master’s in communication from the University. “Vietnamese refugees settled in Dayton and started grocery stores, restaurants, churches, temples and community organizations that contributed to the local economy and the cultural fabric.”

Pham’s parents started a Dayton-area Vietnamese restaurant in 1990. She also noted that Dayton has a significant Vietnamese-Catholic community that rented space for many years at Holy Trinity Church before establishing a downtown parish in 2001 at the historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

The Vietnam Legacies Project advances the Human Right Center’s mission of nonviolence education, advocacy, change and social justice, striving for change while chartering the frontiers for research and advocacy both at the University and in the community.

“The Vietnam Legacies Project corresponds to the multidimensional mission of the Human Rights Center,” Inglis said. “It incorporates a focus on research for and about advocacy for peace, justice and reconciliation from the Vietnam era, a historical period which has legacies that profoundly shape our political and social realities today.”

For more information, visit the Human Rights Center website.

Image, top of page: John (Jack) Meagher.

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