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Interview with Steve Maxner: Perserving veterans' past for the future

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: June 14, 2011 
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(Courtesy of Steve Maxner)
(Courtesy of Steve Maxner)
Born in 1965, Steve Maxner's earliest memories of world events were of the Vietnam War. Today, as director of the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University, Maxner is devoted to preserving for future generations the memories of those who fought in that war. The Center and Archive, the brainchild of Vietnam veteran and the Center's founder, James Reckner, has become the largest archive and research center focused solely on the Vietnam War. Maxner describes how the Center is made possible by the support of Vietnam veterans and how their material donations and oral histories serve to inform and educate.

The Vietnam War was ramping up the year you were born. Do you have any memories of the war?
I was born in 1965 and honestly, some of my earliest memories of actual world events had to do with Vietnam. I can remember President Nixon talking about the war on TV and in the early 1970s how the war was unfolding. So I feel it's always been there as part of my early life experiences. Later, as a teenager working with my father, who managed a dry cleaning plant in the early 1980s, I got to know one of the Vietnamese boat people he hired there. The war was very formative for me in terms of my ideas of public policy and military affairs.

When did you get interested in Vietnam in a big way?
I enlisted in the Army immediately after high school. I had taken some Constitutional law classes in high school and had the idea of becoming an attorney. When I joined I put in for legal specialist and also for what they called the Special Forces option. That meant no matter what would be assigned to a Special Forces unit, go through airborne training and have the option of transferring and becoming a Special Forces soldier. Vietnam was always a topic at Ft. Bragg. I lived across the street from "Bronze Bruce" and next to U.S. Army Special Warfare Center. You couldn't be there in the mid-1980s and not be kind of immersed in the history of Special Forces in Vietnam. So there was a constant reminder of how important the war was and how formative it was for the Army then. It was a fascinating time to be in the Army.

Did you then start studying the war's history?
I did train with Special Forces and got to jump. I didn't really enjoy being a legal specialist; it was an office job and not what I anticipated. It became evident law wasn't a career I wanted to follow. I looked into Special Forces option but found I wasn't eligible until I was at the end of my enlistment, so I opted to go to college. I enrolled at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and joined ROTC. When I first enrolled I was looking to economics or city planning, a way turn my degree into making money. But I started working with a brilliant professor of military history, who first introduced to me to the subject of Vietnam War in the academic setting. From that point on I knew what wanted to do. I switched to history and never looked back.

You seemed torn between studying the military and being a part of it.
I was not sure I would take an active duty commission or go into the reserves after college, but after delving into military history and graduating as the distinguished military graduate at UNCW in 1990. I decided to go back in the Army. Since the reason the military exists is combat, I put in for infantry. It was a tremendously rewarding experience, being at Fort Benning right after First Gulf War. I served two years. I enjoyed being and officer but decided to go back for my master's degree, as I knew at that point I wanted to pursue history as a career

How did you land in Lubbock?
After getting my Master's at UNCW, I headed to Texas Tech University for my Ph.D. in 1996. I knew of Vietnam Center before I got there and of the strong support for the study of military history there. I was immediately offered a graduate teaching position so was able to jump in with both feet to get my Ph.D. and start teaching history.

What was the Vietnam Center like then?
It was founded in 1989 and by 1996 it was starting to grow very rapidly. James Reckner started it with group of local vets in 1989. It was already a remarkable place and archive. I felt lucky to be here, even though I was not yet involved during pivotal events, such as the acquisition of the Douglas Pike collection in 1997 and the hiring of a Vietnamese linguist and specialist who had fled to the U.S. in 1975. But, I didn't realize at the time how important the Center would become, to me personally and to Vietnam veterans more broadly.

How did you come to join the Center?
I was introduced to James Reckner and then went to Vietnam on the Center's first study abroad program in 1998. As I became more involved in studying and then traveling to Vietnam, that was it. I kind of fell in love with Vietnam and the Vietnam Center and started working there as a student more and eventually segued into a full-time position after I completed my course work.

And your first job was a big one.
My first job was to start up the Oral History Project in 1999. It was brand new to us and there weren't too many oral history projects working with Vietnam veterans and other participants in the war at the time. It was designed to reflect James Reckner's all-inclusive philosophy and not just focus on one particular group. It is aimed to understanding the entirety of the Vietnam War experience by working with veterans, Americans who deserted, civilians, veterans for and against the war antiwar activists, everybody involved. And, we set out to work with individuals of any participating country, even the wartime enemies including the NVA, PAVN, Viet Cong.

You are also editor of the TTU Press Modern Southeast Asia Series?
James Reckner and the former director of the TTU Press started the series and they have published some really import volumes in the series, such as….Hickey…recent vol. Fragging… whole slew of other books…It has been a really important part of TTU Press activities. As director of the center, I took on that role as series editor. We have been steadily increasing the number of volumes and we have several manuscripts now near the final point of consideration.

How do you balance the academic studies from the popular memoir genre?
We are trying to strike a good balance of the newest scholarship on Vietnam and continuing to publish important memoirs and autobiographies that shed light on that personal experience of war. My role as editor is actually quite modest, the TTU Press Director Robert TKTKT and his staff does the yeoman's share of work getting great manuscripts into the system. The hardest part of the work is going through the veterans' memoirs. We wish we could pubish all that are submitted, but there have been so many memoirs published there is already a wealth of information available. That's great, but not necessarily for many authors whose personal stories, while often compelling, don't really further our general understanding of the war. We have to be selective because as a not for profit press we have to know we can break even on a title and know that we publish something that enough libraries and other institutions will want to buy. For authors, it can be a hard proposition if you can't prove that.

How did the Vietnam Center and Archive's become such an important institution?
Outside the National Archives we are largest repository of Vietnam related materials in the United States, and that is because of the driving force behind the project James Reckner, who served two tours in Vietnam as a naval officer. James Reckner was great at getting the word out, making sure people were aware of us. He was constantly reaching out to institutions, scholars, and key individuals to get them involved very actively in outreach to veterans. He is masterful in constantly reminding TTU and the state of Texas just how important the work we do here is and making sure the project remains timely, prescient and is not just about history. Our work addresses the ongoing wartime and postwar issues our nation faces.

How has this academic research center brought veterans into it?
One of most important ways has been through the Oral History Project. When launched in 1999 we made a concerted effort to reach out, go to reunions and inform veterans. I was part of the initial team to develop the Center's website and get that information out. As a result, we saw a huge increase in the archival donations. We went from receiving 50 to 100 collections a year to more than 500 donations a year in 2003 and 2004. We saw a huge spike then, but we have subsequently not been as active in outreach, primarily because of funding and storage space issues.

Won't your archival collection role only grow and how will you handle that?
We've worked hard to make sure Vietnam vets know we are here, that this is their archive. We want to collect and preserve their materials so future generations can learn from them. We need a dedicated building to house archive. We are now receiving a new collection to our archive every day—about 350-375 a year. In the future we will scale that up depending on space and things like that. We need a dedicated building to house the archive and have a building program in place.

How do reach out to vets?
We go to reunions, our newsletter, web presence, special events, press coverage, and word of mouth. The veteran community is very connected now, especially through the Internet. Any Vietnam Internet search will eventually take people to our site. Word of mouth is one of most important things going for us and you can be sure the veterans vet our program. Because we are asking them to send their original materials there are a lot of concerns and scrutiny about who we are and what we do. Universities, of course were not all that hospitable to the military during the war and some veterans still question why a university would want their stuff? We did have to overcome some of those wartime stigmas attached to universities. Through perseverance and our presence we proved our sincerity and genuine desire to honor veterans by collecting and making available to others their part of story of the war.

Do you ever turn away a donation?
Very rarely do we turn away a collection if it is related to Vietnam. And if we accept it, we are committed to keeping it. The only exceptions are if the collection is infested with insects, we do have to be very careful to ensure the rest of our collection is not harmed. We may return a collection if we cannot adequately clean up.

What about book collections?
We get a lot of books submitted but cannot keep more than three volumes of any particular work. But we do have a program to share books we cannot keep with other libraries and institutions.

What is reason for the drop in donations in the past few years?
Drop in number of collections more as function of scaling back outreach and travel. We were at the beginning two of us attending a reunion once a month. And we continued that for nearly three years. During that time the collect started flowing rapidly and we hired another oral historian. We hit a point where it wasn't just the center archive but our sister archives at the university that were growing so rapidly that we all started running out of space. We need to be careful not to run out of space and then potentially have to turn down collections so we started scaling back on our outreach.

Aren't there a limited number of places accepting these types of materials?
There are a few other places that accept Vietnam veteran materials, including some local and state projects, but they are at a far more limited scale, far more selective and restrictive. There is no other project I'm aware of that is working on this at the scale and scope that we are.

How extensive now is your collection?
We have the largest collect of Vietnam War materials. Our current holding are between 25 and 30 million pages of material. We have an unrivaled microfilm collection. We've invested more that $700,000 to purchase microfilm sets from around the world. We have all the presidential library materials, from FDR to Ford, related to Vietnam. The same goes for National Security, Department of Defense, State Department, MACV, U.S. Army Center for Military History, Navy and other organizations involved in the Vietnam War. We've got it all, after action reports, CHECO reports. On top of that we have official documents form foreign countries including U.S. allies and enemies. We have some neat things like the complete set of captured documents. They were sent to a combined document exploitation center office in Saigon, sort of the intelligence clearinghouse where anything deemed useful was sent in. They became part of massive microfiche set, which was indexed using an IBM punch card system. Block codes on the sound recording part of the film were searchable as users could put queries into the system and it would read information and retrieve the documents. It was a remarkable program in the 1960s. Our problem today is that they only made five machines to read the film, and none still exist. There is no rhyme or reason to the documents' organization, so now we have a 2.3-million page mass of awesome historic material you would have to go through document by document to find what you are looking for. That's 954 microfiche reels.

What do Vietnam vets get out the Center?
I think there is so much value to them telling their story. We don't pay for collects, but for the vets themselves just knowing the materials they have, letters diaries and other documents and pictures and even films…It's kind of interesting how many guys had 8mm film cameras with them and even have footage from combat. We have some unbelievable 8mm film of a pilot who strapped the camera to his helmet and would film his gun runs, its amazing. One of the greatest services we can do for our vets is to make sure they know there is an organization that truly values their part in this U.S. history. The war was the most tumultuous event in the second half of the 20th century. We need to continue to study and understand this and, more important, continue to do for our Vietnam vets what we are doing for vets today: appreciate and honor their service and sacrifice. This is not just for people today but also for perpetuity. This archive will be here forever—well as long as there is a Texas Tech University—and will be available to researchers and students…. The veterans who donate their collections will be an ongoing part of that learning experience for future generations.

How accessible are the Center's resources to the average veteran and others?
Materials are avail to vets today through our Virtual Archive. There is that connectivity. They can do searches by name and unit to find information about fellow veterans. They might be able to locate guys they served with. When we receive a request we help them make contact. We always facilitate that kind of communication and make every effort to reconnect vets when we can.

Beyond veterans, how can the Center assist the broad spectrum of people impacted by the war?
And it's not only vets we can assist. Working with a collection of FFVPA. A Vietnamese-American woman who helped Vietnamese flee helped to organize the exodus and from her we have 12,000 case files of where her organization helped Vietnamese apply for political asylum to United States. It's an awesome chronicle, the Ellis Island papers of the Vietnamese Diaspora in the United States. All their stories to just getting political asylum, the stories about the "reeducation camps" and life in post-war Vietnam, it explains how they became Vietnamese-Americans. We've had numerous people find friends from Vietnam by looking in that collection. As we do vets, we try to facilitate reuniting families and friends and helping newer generations of Vietnamese-Americans who have questions about why they are here. They can find the documents that explain how and why that happened.

Can this also serve as a hedge against future historians revising that part of the history?
These documents are definitely going to be a strong set of evidence to ensure historians don't revise too much about the post-war period in Vietnam, when a tremendous number of people suffered directly and where often the children suffered for the "sins" of parents who supported the South Vietnam government or worked with the United States.
Fortunately, from our interactions with Vietnam today it appears most of that has stopped, but was a big part of the post-war period. Perhaps some historians will review the docs when revisionist versions of history come out….

Beyond the war, how can the Archive aid general academics and historians?
There is practically nothing political, social or cultural, in the latter 20th century that was not somehow influenced by the Vietnam War. We like to say anyone working on any topic related to the Vietnam War will have to explore our resources. And, to this day the Vietnam War is still very much alive and well in American politics and culture.

What unanswered question regarding Vietnam would you like to see answered?
There are still so many things to understand, the hard part is narrowing it down. I guess I'd love to know more about the relationship between Johnson and his administration and General Westmoreland. And the big thing, if LBJ were alive today, I would definitely ask why he didn't better manage the post-Tet publicity. Why didn't he get the public relations forces out there to turn that into the military victory it really was and help that shape where we go from there and continue to press North Vietnam, not let it become a perceived failure.

Isn't understanding the dynamics of domestic politics on military decisions about Vietnam very relevant today?
The constant interplay bet domestic concerns and policy and the Vietnam is one of those remarkable aspects of the war. LBJ didn't want to be perceived as weak yet he didn't want the war to take away from his domestic agenda. In the end, he realized "that bitch of a war" really destroyed his domestic policy legacy.

How many oral histories does the Archive hold?
We've currently got more than 1,000 interviews with people from all 50 states, 11 foreign countries. We transcribe all interviews and put the audio interviews and transcriptions on line, so veterans, researchers, students and anyone—such as children and grandchildren—can listen to them on our web site. That is a great gift to family members.
We have about 950 oral histories online.

Do you search out interviews, or take volunteers?
It's a combination. Every once and a while we'll contact someone we think is a key participant, who has a unique experience not yet represented in our overall collection. We started identifying groups of people based on those criteria. We've got a lot of traditional interviews of combat troops, but some groups we knew about weren't getting involved, so we started more targeted efforts to fill in gaps and get as complete a picture as possible. This is a very dynamic project, and we have two full time oral historians on staff, doing interviews all the time.

How do you weed out 'pretenders' or others who may be distorting their past?
While we have a rigorous vetting process, there is only so much we can do to validate a veteran's service. We do request documents about service, DD214s, and we invite them to part in our archive documentation project. That is a great way to validate service. If they say they served and have nothing to show for it, that is a red flag. Most important, though, we ask them to complete a detailed, 120-question survey, to make sure they understand the depth of our interview. That accomplishes two things, informs them and gets memory going regarding different topics and makes them far better prepared for the interview and helps or staff prepare for follow-up questions. Lastly, it also serves to vet the individual. It's hard to fudge your way through 120 questions. But at the end of the day we cannot have 100 percent assurance on what the individual claims.

How should oral histories be used?
One of most important things about oral histories, whether there is documentation to prove the story details or not, users must remember that memory is fallible. We have a significant faith the veterans are authentic but whether every single thing they remember is correct is another thing. It is incumbent on researchers to be critical of sources and with oral history they shouldn't take every single thing at face value. They need to cross reference things, especially the detailed factual information. We always encourage researchers who use our materials to validate information in those resources.

How important is the texture that comes out of oral histories?
Very. The wonderful thing is it gives a human face to the conflict. You can read government documents and military reports and get solid factual information, but to understand the human drama you need to hear the veterans speak about their experience. It gives the connection to people and is far more interesting, and accessible. History without oral history is boring history. At the end of the day history is about human interactions. Not including the voices of those who participate and sacrifice in war is not good history. But importantly, oral history often really does help to fill in gaps in the documentary record, which if frequently just a snap shot from one particular perspective. Oral history can provide a number of snapshots from a variety of perspectives. The after action report was given by one guy, and then often typed up at headquarters by someone who was not even there. There is not a lot of detail from the entire unit; most comes from the leadership. Even years later, oral history can provide additional detail and insight into what happened in the field. It may even conflict with an after-action report, but that doesn't mean it didn't actually happen.

Is time slipping away given the relative lack of resources to collect this history?
We do in fact have a narrowing window of opportunity and we are concerned about that.
The Vietnam veteran population is rapidly aging. That is why we are pushing hard for a stand alone facility here at TTU that can grow. In addition to our collections of documents we have a tremendous amount of artifacts. We now have five helicopters in our collection! We need to have place to preserve our collections, educate and showcase our artifacts. We have maybe 15-20 years to work with directly with Vietnam vets. On the upside we're fortunate that was a textual time in American history. They have a lot of physical documents, photos, and film. So we want to make sure vets know that if they don't want do donate now, at least make it known to their family they want their materials to go someplace. If they designate us, we are honored to receive them. But, they need to make those wishes known so later families don't have to struggle over what to do with Dad's old stuff from Vietnam and perhaps ultimately throw it away. I know that happens a lot and it makes me sick. That's the last thing you want.

So, how does someone reading this donate to the archive?
All they need to do is contact us. Look online, call us at our direct line. We are eager to help them. If want to donate immediately will coordinate receiving and collecting the material from them. If they want to hold on to their material for a time longer, but want to make provisions to donate later, we can provide them with the legal language that they can add to their will to make sure their family knows their ultimate wish. We will do anything and everything possible to make what they want happen.


One Response to “Interview with Steve Maxner: Perserving veterans' past for the future”


  1. 1
    Diana Libby says:

    Glad to see you are working to help veterans and that you were successful in spite of being raised by such a creepy father!



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