Standing out prominently over the reflecting pool, near the flagpole that forms the focal point of the national Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, is the inscribed message that “Freedom Is Not Free.” These words appear larger than the engraved faces on the wall of reflection, the listing of Korean casualty statistics, or names of nations that fought with the US from 1950 to 1953 and suggest an interpretive lens through which the monument as a whole ought to be understood. The KWVM in DC is, above all else, meant to remind the visiting public of the personal sacrifices endured by soldiers in Korea, while ignoring the politics of the war itself, thus encouraging remembrance of those who fought in Korea while trying to please various stakeholders by choosing to ignore the details of what happened, why it happened, and how it continues to impact global politics today. At the other end of the Mall lies the Victims of Communism Memorial, dedicated in 2007, which highlights the continued suffering of the North Korean people in the decades since the 1950s. Halfway between these memorials sits the Price of Freedom exhibit, at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, where the Korean War is relegated to a single set of small panels within a larger framework called The Cold War, in contrast to the online exhibit which has a separate section. In comparison the American Revolution, Civil War, WWII, and the Vietnam War all garner multi-room displays at the museum. Such a curious curatorial choice is striking since the exhibit opened in 2004, less than a year after the fiftieth anniversary of the armistice of 1953.
The Korean War is similarly folded into a broader Cold War gallery at the US Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, an institution used for teaching since at least the 1840s that today presents the history of both the US Navy and the academy itself chronologically while also containing a gallery of Ship Models from the Age of Sail. As a civilian, lacking military or government agency issued ID, I was asked to park my vehicle in town and then walk onto the base using just my driver’s license, which is only the first of several access issues potentially impacting public memory of the Korean War. At the National Archives in nearby College Park, home to an exhibit called The Forgotten War Remembered—America and the Korean War which according to the website “features 20 photographs tracing the war from the growing tensions in the late 1940s to the signing of the armistice in 1953,” they advise potential visitors to take public transportation due to parking constraints. Ironically one of the easier Korean War exhibits in the DC metro area to visit is housed at the National Security Agency complex in Fort Meade. Indeed, whether it is due to a desire to deflect criticism caused by recent revelations about domestic spying or with the goal of recruiting the next generation of codebreakers, the National Cryptologic Museum offers ample parking, free admission, and an extensive program of tours for students and the general public.
On the other hand, when I recently attempted to visit Korea 1950-53: The Navy in the Forgotten War at the US Navy Museum I was rebuffed entirely due to shifting security protocols at the Washington Navy Yard, which can apparently change in the time it takes to drive from Atlantic City to DC. The fact that it is normally open to the general public is still better than the total lack of community accessibility at the newest Korean War exhibit in the area, which opened two years ago just across the Potomac at the Pentagon in Arlington. This exclusivity reinforces the idea of these museums as educational tools for members of the military but also greatly limits their potential impact on the public at large. Indeed, as the crowds at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum extension (called the Udvar-Hazy Center) located in Chantilly indicate, there is considerable interest in seeing Sabre Jets and Huey Helicopters from the Korean War (as well as iconic items including a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, an Air France Concorde, the Enola Gay, and even the Space Shuttle Discovery), even though actually accessing the site requires that one drive through the suburbs and pay a $15 parking fee. However, the fact that the Korean War lacks its own exhibit at the center and is instead folded into a display alongside the Vietnam War makes it less likely that tourists will gain much knowledge about the unique struggles of Korea while increasing the chance visitors will conflate the two conflicts, much as many believe that M*A*S*H is set in Vietnam.
Yet even allowing for the lack of historical detail and the blending of Korean War memory with other events of the Cold War era, the sheer number of memorials and museum exhibits in and around DC that are dedicated to actively remembering the Korean War calls into question the legitimacy of the ‘forgotten war’ label. Moreover this is not merely a national phenomenon as there are numerous state and local Korean War memorials and museum exhibits throughout the Mid-Atlantic region such as the New Jersey State Korean War Veterans Memorial (located at the corner of Boardwalk and Park Place in Atlantic City), many of them seemingly placed in order to maximize public accessibility and visibility. And so, in order to evaluate how the Korean War is publicly recalled in a much larger area, in early June I’m embarking on The Korean War Memory Tour: A Public History Road Trip across a dozen states stretching from Delaware to Kansas that will explore how the Korean War is remembered by presidential libraries, military museums, local monuments, and memorial infrastructure such as highways. I hope to use much of what I learn on the tour for my Temple University Public History PhD dissertation, tentatively entitled “Not Forgotten: The Korean War in American Public History and Memory,” and I have already started another blog as a way of presenting my initial findings even while I’m still on the road. My hope is that this blog will help generate awareness for the project just as the project itself is designed in part to help generate awareness of the war. Moreover, as a way of encouraging public investment in my project and as an experiment in using crowdfunding as an alternative to applying for grants to pay for public history projects, I’ve launched my very first Kickstarter campaign which I hope that you will consider supporting. Lastly, and most importantly, I hope that you will think of Korean War veterans this Memorial Day weekend.