More than 17 million war veterans live in the United States. On Veterans Day in 2000, the Library of Congress launched a congressionally mandated project to collect and preserve their stories, which are an invaluable resource for researchers, educators and generations to come.
This year the Veterans History Project (VHP) of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress marks the 10th anniversary of its mission to collect, preserve and make accessible the oral histories of America’s war veterans.
For a decade, the Veterans History Project has encouraged war veterans, their families, veterans groups, communities and students to record and donate veterans’ interviews along with any original photographs, diaries, letters, maps and other wartime documents to the Library of Congress, where they are housed in the American Folklife Center in perpetuity. (See Information Bulletin, December 2000.)
“The Library of Congress is proud to count the Veterans History Project among its most prized collections,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “We celebrate the overwhelming success of the project, and we recognize the sense of urgency to capture these unique stories of service and sacrifice.”
To date, contributors have recorded and submitted more than 68,000 personal recollections to VHP, making it the largest oral-history collection in the United States. These include the remembrances of male and female veterans from all 50 states and the U.S. territories who served during World War I through today’s conflicts, in all branches of the U.S. military. Approximately 7,500 stories have been digitized and are accessible on the project’s website at www.loc.gov/vets/.
“The Veterans History Project depends upon a vast network of individual and organizational volunteers from across the nation to collect these priceless, firsthand accounts from the men and women who served our nation during wartime,” said VHP Director Bob Patrick. “Together, these stories paint a picture of war that history textbooks don’t always capture—the human perspective of everyone who served from those on the front lines of the battlefields to those performing critical support roles,” he added.
Veterans History Project Established
Congress created the Veterans History Project in 2000. The authorizing legislation (Public Law 106-380), sponsored by Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Sens. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), received broad bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Clinton on Oct. 27, 2000. Its congressional mandate is to collect, preserve and make accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans.
On Nov. 8, 2001, the Library convened the first meeting of the Five-Star Council, an advisory board to the Veterans History Project (www.loc.gov/vets/fivestar.html). At the meeting, AARP announced its pledge of $3 million to support the project during its first three years. A webcast of the event is accessible at www.loc.gov/webcasts/.
To commemorate its first decade, VHP will hold several special events and launch new program initiatives. These include events to mark the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, efforts to gather more stories of minority and women veterans and the launch of a toolkit to assist contributors planning community engagement programs. In addition, there will be book talks and new online presentations.
A Decade of Achievement
In addition to amassing its large collection of stories, the Veterans History Project boasts many achievements in its first decade, including recognition as one of the “Top 50” most innovative, creative, forward-thinking, results-driven government programs, according to the Ash Institute of Harvard University.
The project has organized hundreds of community outreach programs with the United States Congress; colleges, universities and schools; the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; civic organizations; faith-based groups; veteran-service organizations; and libraries. The project has participated in the National Book Festival by presenting its materials and hosting guest speakers in the Library of Congress pavilion.
Through its Field Kit as well as workshops, VHP has trained members of the public on how to conduct oral histories with veterans in their families and communities. Through a cooperative effort with the American Folklore Society, VHP has provided training for more than 7,000 volunteer participants through more than 300 workshops in 41 states since 2002. These workshops utilize the VHP process to bring concepts of oral history and folklore to local communities across the country.
As part of its ever-growing online “Experiencing War” series, 28 web presentations feature the stories of the diverse veterans who served the nation in wartime.
Thematic presentations highlight the military achievements of women, African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Asians and disabled veterans, among others. Presentations also feature specific conflicts such as the two World Wars and the Global War on Terror, and pivotal events like D-Day and Dec. 7, 1941. The site even pays tribute to the important machinery of war such as helicopters and submarines.
Two books featuring items from the VHP collection have been published by the Library in conjunction with National Geographic: “Voices of War: Stories of Service from the Home Front and the Front Lines” (2004) and “Forever a Soldier: Unforgettable Stories of Wartime Service” (2005), both of which feature stories from the VHP collection. Companion websites are accessible for each publication at www.loc.gov/voicesofwar/ and www.loc.gov/foreverasoldier/.
Members of Congress gathered at the Library in November 2004 to celebrate the publication of “Voices of War,” edited by Tom Wiener, the first book to showcase the extraordinary tales of courage, friendship and sacrifice collected by the Library’s Veterans History Project (see Information Bulletin, December 2004). Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), co-sponsor of VHP’s founding legislation, attended the event. The Vietnam War veteran said, “War is not an abstraction. The suffering is real. This book represents so much humanity and service. It depicts so much that is right about this country and its people.”
Hagel brought greetings from former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), another co-sponsor of the founding legislation. Also in attendance was Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who credited his success to the G.I. bill, which enabled him to graduate from college and obtain a law degree.
On Memorial Day weekend, May 27-30, 2004, the Veterans History Project participated in the grand opening of the National World War II Memorial on the National Mall (see Information Bulletin, July 2004). VHP volunteers collected the stories of veterans who came to Washington, D.C., to renew acquaintances and share their memories of the war. VHP sponsored one of seven pavilions and two performance stages on the Mall during the National World War II Reunion, which was produced by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the American Battle Monuments Commission.
D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams issued a proclamation naming May 2005 “Veterans History Project Month,” and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority donated public service advertising space on its bus and rail system to promote the Veterans History Project during the month. The mayor’s proclamation and the design for the advertising campaign were unveiled at a ceremony held at the Library on April 29.
VHP marked the 30-year anniversary of the fall of Saigon (April 30, 1975) with a public symposium held on May 4, 2005. (See Information Bulletin, June-July-August 2005.) The event honored Vietnam War veterans in a public conference titled “In Country: The Vietnam War 30 Years After.” Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), co-sponsor of the legislation that created the Veterans History Project, spoke at the event.
On May 26, 2005, the Veterans History Project convened a symposium in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium to explore various facets of the end of World War II. (See Information Bulletin, June-July-August 2005.) The symposium, co-sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, was timed to mark the 60th anniversary of the two dates—VE Day on May 8, 1945, and VJ Day on Aug. 15, 1945—which are commonly used to mark the formal end of hostilities.
On Nov. 30, 2005, the Veterans History Project Information Center opened in the Library’s James Madison Building. Open to the public between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, excluding federal holidays, the center provides information about the project and greets veterans of all wars, members of Congress and their staffs and constituents and the general public. (See Information Bulletin, March 2006.)
On April 17, 2007, the Veterans History Project and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) announced their collaboration on an initiative to engage the broadest possible community in gathering firsthand recollections of the diverse men and women who have served the United States during wartime. (See Information Bulletin, June 2007.) The public-outreach campaign was planned to capitalize on the PBS broadcast of Ken Burns’ film “The War” to promote nationwide interest in collecting the stories of war veterans and contributing them to VHP for preservation at the Library. Over 128 local stations engaged in targeted efforts with community partners to collect interviews for submission to the project. PBS began airing the popular seven-part series on Sept. 23.
To support the public outreach campaign, VHP produced new resources to help the public learn about and participate in the effort. These included a new page on the Veterans History Project Web site featuring stories of veterans from VHP’s collection related to themes explored in Burns’ film “The War” (www.loc.gov/vets/stories/thewar/) and details on how to participate. In addition, a revised and updated Veterans History Project Field Kit was designed to provide step-by-step instructions on collecting and preserving veterans’ stories.
In 2008, VHP commemorated Memorial Day with a Moment of Remembrance, in support of the White House Commission on Remembrance. Established by Congress in 2000, the White House Commission on Remembrance is an independent, non-partisan government agency that encourages Americans to honor the sacrifices of our fallen and their families. The Commission also sponsors the National Moment of Remembrance (Public Law 106-579), which invites everyone to pause where they are at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day in an uplifting act of national unity.
In July 2008, VHP marked the 60th anniversary of the historic integration of the United States armed forces.
A National Teach-in on Veterans History was held at the Library of Congress on Oct. 21, 2009, and webcast live to more than 2,000 schools. The program was hosted by VHP and the History cable network as part of the “Take a Veteran to School Day” initiative. The archived webcast may be viewed at www.veterans.com. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) joined Librarian of Congress James H. Billington in greeting the students, including those watching from their classrooms in the congresswoman’s district. The students were urged to find veterans in their families and communities and record their interviews for addition to VHP archives at the Library. The Congresswoman told them, “You have a chance to accomplish something of historical importance so that our nation does not lose the strands of memory that bind us.”
On Nov. 3, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H. Res. 866, designating National Veterans History Project Week—”to encourage public participation in a nationwide project that collects and preserves the stories of the men and women who served our Nation in times of war and conflict.” Rep. Kind and Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) submitted the resolution, which was referred to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Similar resolutions were passed in 2005 and 2006.
In honor of Veteran’s Day 2009, VHP and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs created and launched a web campaign titled “Honor our Veterans. Record their Stories!” The site, which features veterans’ oral histories from each U.S. state and territory, is accessible at www1.va.gov/opa/vhp/default.cfm.
Recently, VHP honored its founding partners and the volunteers and organizations that recorded stories of veterans. The newly launched VHP Contributor Program replaces the Partner Program and is designed to recognize both individuals and organizations involved in recording veteran interviews, according to VHP’s online instructional materials.
“VHP is not only a resource for researchers and the scholars who access these one-of-a-kind stories; it exists for everyone. I am most heartened when veterans and their families share how profoundly proud and honored they are to tell their stories,” said VHP Director Bob Patrick. “Most consider it an act of patriotism to submit their personal account to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.”
Lisa Taylor, Jeffrey Lofton and Monica Mohindra of the Veterans History Project compiled this article.