The Korean War Memory Tour Has Been Busy The Last Couple Weeks

Though I haven’t been on the road over the last month, the Korean War Memory Tour has stayed quite busy with a number of related projects. So in this last post of summer (new posts start in September), I wanted to provide updates on what I’ve been up to and plans for the future as well as a broad outline of what I’ve learned so far over the last few months. First off, after an investigation into existing projects (including a local branch of the Library of Congress sponsored Veterans History Project and the still under construction Atlantic County Veterans Museum), and a lengthy phone conversation with a current Commander of the local Atlantic County branch of the Korean War Veterans of America, the decision was made to go ahead with the South Jersey Korea Vets Project as an effort to rename a bridge rather than either some sort of educational initiative or oral history project (since both of these have also been done before and the Korea veterans involved are largely in their eighties). I next reached out to my local Assemblyman’s office to look into the political side of the equation and began an email correspondence with his deputy chief of staff that eventually led to me doing some research on bridges and highways named in honor of Korean War veterans across the country, and to me sending him this:

‘Over the last 20 years, no fewer than 30 states have named highways in honor of Korean War Veterans, starting with New Jersey re-naming the entirety of Interstate 287 including sections after specific vets from North Jersey counties. I’m attaching the relevant NJ legislation that is available online. Several states actually have multiple roadways named for Korean War vets. The most recent was I-5 in Oregon this spring. Only about a dozen states currently have Korean War memorial bridges, the most recent of which were dedicated last year in Massachusetts and Kentucky. Interestingly, the second span of the Delaware Memorial Bridge was originally meant to honor Korean War veterans from both New Jersey and Delaware, but in the fall of 1968 then presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey decided to co-dedicate it to both Korean and Vietnam vets.’

I’m currently waiting to hear back from the Assemblyman’s office and planning to re-connect with the Commander in a few weeks at a POW/MIA event in September which he suggested that should I attend.

In other news, I’ve completed my state-by-state digital inventory of Korean War sites of memory using the three major indices of American monuments: ‘Waymarking’, the ‘Historical Marker Database’, and the ‘American Memorials Directory.’ Once I transcribe this info into a spreadsheet (with categories including age, style, and setting such as a courthouse lawn or veterans park just to name a few) then I’ll be able to manipulate the data and hopefully be able to document even more trends than I’ve noticed already. In addition, this data will help me do a much better job planning future trips: to New England this fall during the Papal Visit to Philadelphia, hopefully down South over winter break, and next June back to Kansas City to pick of stray sites in the Appalachians, the Ozarks, and up the Ohio River valley. Moreover, on these future Korean War Memory Tour trips, I plan to use Flickr as a means of making my research much more easily accessibly both for myself (as I have sometimes found it difficult to organize and even find certain images from my trip because of the way that I uploaded them to Verizon’s Cloud) and for followers of my project who may want to more fully experience the monuments as I see them. I’ve also been revisiting mass media representations of the Korean War (with the aid of my research assistants) including MASH with the goal of highlighting its many specific references to Korea rather than Vietnam, Mad Men with the goal of documenting just how important the Korean War is to the central plotline of the recently concluded series (a plotline the series creator recently revealed had been a part of the project that inspired the show), and various documentaries from the 1950s through the 2010s. This last area of research may end up being the most immediately relevant, as it will aid me in rewriting a conference paper I drafted two years ago (called “Oliver Stone’s Korean War: Nixon, Untold History, and American Memory”) for inclusion in an edited volume of essays on Stone that the conference organizer recently wrote me is about to finally move forward toward the book proposal stage. Just this week I applied to present on the Korean War Memory Tour during the NextGen Plenary luncheon at the upcoming conference on Collaborating Digitally to be held this November at Bucknell University. Lastly, also this week I committed to write the Korean War entry for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Finally, I’ve been making lots of notes and outlines laying out what I think are my best ideas for the introduction to my dissertation, while defining exactly what my project is doing that’s new (the vast majority of my examinations of local monuments, museums, and memorial infrastructure as well as the research into the Korean anti-war movement, my evaluation of contemporary media representations such as Mad Men or Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, and my examination of digital memory) versus the secondary scholarship that I’m deploying in support of my argument (existing work on Korean War literature, on film and television before 2000, on the historiography of the war itself, and on the National Korean War Veterans Memorial in DC). I’ve also made a few small structural changes: putting much of my discussion of the Korean War in education at the front of the intro as a cold open, folding my discussion of historiography into each chronological chapter, and replacing chapter 2 with a look at the two phrases most associated with public memory of Korea: ‘Forgotten War’ and ‘Freedom Is Not Free’. I’ll then need to add a brief history of the war itself into the chapter on the Korean anti-war movement. I’ve also cut down on the commemorative newspaper articles that I’ll be looking at so now I’m planning to use four newspapers (a mix of national and local) to look at how four dates (the 1950 start of the war, the 1951 firing of MacArthur, the 1952 visit be President-Elect Eisenhower, and the 1953 armistice) have been recalled over six decades of commemoration, for a total of ninety-six articles.

After the cold open, the rest of the introduction will explore how there are likely better ways to determine if Korea is a ‘forgotten war’ than by looking at education (per Rosenzweig and Thelan), such as examining museums, historic sites, films, books, and websites, which can all be classified as ‘sites of memory.’ I’ll then trace the idea of ‘collective memory’ from the work of Maurice Halbwachs to Jacques Le Goff and Pierre Nora’s conception of ‘les lieux de memoire’ before looking at how memory studies migrated to the United States in the 1980s and how war memorials then became an increasingly popular topic from the 1990s onward (allowing for a comparison of my project to various recent works on WWII, Vietnam, and other conflicts as well as for discussion of how I’m adapting other scholars’ approaches to analyzing memorials). After noting that the structure of these comparable contemporary studies is what suggested the need for me to adopt a chronological approach to my own project, I will then lay out the chapters. I’ll plan to close the intro with a categorical examination of some of the places local memorials are found (courthouses, parks, schools, and cemeteries for example), their style (construction materials, imagery/artwork, and whether Korea is combined with other wars), and their message (use of common phrases, listing of names, special dedications, and discussion of the war) as well as some methods for approximately dating sites without a clear dedication year, followed by an outline of my main argument: that the Korean War has never been forgotten in American culture, though the ways it has been publicly recalled have evolved from being primarily media-based to being increasingly centered on monuments. It’s actually a bit more complicated than that; for example, there were numerous memorials dedicated to heroes from the Korean conflict and several different sub-genres of film during the first memory wave from the 1950s through the mid-1960s before both were subsumed by Vietnam memory from the late 1960s through the early 1980s (a period during which collective memory of the two wars was conflated), while the last two decades has seen Korea virtually disappear from media just as there’s been a kind of ‘forgotten war memory boom’ with innumerable local monuments dedicated exclusively to Korea vets springing up across the country just as the internet has made it easier to catalog and share their stories. Now that I have a plan, all that’s left is to write a draft of the intro, hopefully over the next week or so!

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