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Wars are fought twice. Once on the battlefield and once in memory.

David S. Ferriero made his first contribution to the nation’s Vietnam War records in 1967 when he filled out enlistment forms for the Navy after dropping out of college. Today he is custodian of millions of documents from the war as head of the National Archives and Records Administration, which has included many of those documents in an exhibit that opened in November and runs through Jan. 6, 2019.

Ferriero was appointed archivist of the United States by President Barack Obama in 2009. He previously served four years as head of research libraries for the New York Public Library, the largest public library system in the country with four research libraries and 87 branch libraries. Ferriero, who earned degrees in English and library science after his Navy service, also held high-level positions in libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke University.

At the National Archives, he leads an agency of about 3,000 employees in 44 facilities who preserve key federal documents and make declassified ones available to the public. Ferriero also works with his staff to create special exhibits.

In an interview with Vietnam magazine Editor Chuck Springston, he talks about things people will see at the new exhibit and what he saw firsthand in Vietnam. 

Why did you leave college and join the Navy? I was an education major at Northeastern [University in Boston.] I hated every minute of it. Northeastern wasn’t a good fit for me. I came from a high school with a relatively small number of students, compared to Northeastern. In fact, I spent most of my time in the Museum of Fine Arts or the Isabella Gardner Museum, rather than in class.

I had a brother in the Army, stationed in Germany, and he advised me not to join the Army. The sea had always been part of my life growing up. I had a great uncle who was a fisherman on the Grand Banks. So the Navy was a logical choice for me. And safe. That was one of the deciding points for me. It was safe.

I can still remember, at the bottom of the enlistment form was a statement: “I volunteer for medical service duty.” I signed my initials. Navy, hospital, my God, how can you be any safer? Little did I know. I ended up in boot camp at Great Lakes [naval station near Chicago]. And then to hospital corps school, back at Great Lakes and on to Bethesda [naval hospital in Maryland] for psych tech training to get a neuropsychiatric specialty.  

Despite your best efforts you still ended up in Vietnam. My first duty station after the psych training was Chelsea Naval Hospital [in Massachusetts]. I was in charge of the psych ward for a large portion of my Navy career. I expected to get out there because there wasn’t enough time left in my enlistment to go through the field training to serve in Vietnam. I was shocked when I got orders in January 1970 to report to the 1st Marine Division, Vietnam, by the 28th of February 1970. The personnel office at Chelsea Naval Hospital wired Washington: What’s the story here? But the orders stood. So I’m on a plane to Da Nang.

The folks in the personnel office in Chelsea said when you get to Vietnam look up Chief Dusty Rhodes. And son of a gun, he was the one who checked me in. The first words out of his mouth were, “What in the hell are we going to do with you?” They couldn’t send me to the field because I didn’t have field training. He gave me all of these uniforms, sidearm, flak jacket, helmet, everything that I needed, and since I had psych training he told me to report to the psych ward. Two month later I got orders for the USS Sanctuary hospital ship. 

That ship was used to treat wounded? Yes. It spent the day in Da Nang harbor. Casualties were coming in all the time, some by boat but most of them by helicopter. The harbor wasn’t safe at night because of concerns about potential enemy depth charges [dropped in the water during the darkness]. We spent the night cruising this big circle from Da Nang up to Hue and back. And all night long we were taking on patients by helicopter. At daybreak we went back in. 

For someone whose medical experience had been with psychiatric patients, what was it like to see seriously wounded patients on the Sanctuary? Well, I saw a fair amount of that at Bethesda in basic corps training when I got a rotation through the wards there. On the ship, of course, it was more intense and much more of it. And the triage piece of it was new. I volunteered to work in triage because one of my good friends from Chelsea Naval, Jim Maroney, was in charge of triage—the decision-making about who’s most distressed and who needs the most attention first.  

How did you deal with that? You just get used to it. I often think about that when I cut myself or something. You just get used to it.  

You were on the Sanctuary until you left Vietnam? Yes. I was volunteering in triage, but my assignment was hospital personnel because they had recently taken a psych unit off the ship. The patients were jumping overboard.

Why were you assigned to hospital personnel? At boot camp I was in this huge barn of a place, and they asked: “Can anyone in here type?” I was the only one who raised his hand. That got me out of a lot of stuff, and I ended up in personnel.

Anything else about Vietnam that particularly sticks out in your memory? There is another thing I think about. I was never afraid. I was in a war zone. But I was in a relatively secure area. I was on my way to the head one night, and there were very attractive, colorful bursts. I didn’t know what the hell it was. Turns out it was a sniper. After the fact someone told me what was going on. I should have been scared. But I didn’t know what it was.

Fifty years later, as the nation’s archivist, you’re helping to share the memories of many other veterans with the American public through the Remembering Vietnam exhibit. How did the idea for that exhibit emerge? Many of the exhibits are driven by anniversaries, commemorations on the calendar. Suggestions from other exhibits come in from all over the place. The board of the National Archives Foundation [a nonprofit organization that provides financial and other assistance to the agency] reviews all of our suggested exhibits because there’s a fundraising aspect to these things. The board is very much involved. We have lots of ideas from them.

Out of millions of documents, miles of film and hours of audio, how did you decide what to display? That’s the role of the exhibition staff and the curators who know the most about the records. The concept development starts about three years out, thinking about how’s the story is going to be told. 

The book that sums it up for me is Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War [a nonfiction work about ways the war is remembered by people of various nations involved in it], by Viet Thanh Nguyen [who came to the U.S. as a South Vietnamese refugee in 1975].  He makes a point that wars are fought twice. Once on the battlefield and once in memory. That’s what Remembering Vietnam is all about. As important as the documents are, the most important piece of this is the memories we’re capturing in interviews, people telling the story of war from their perspective. On both sides. 

How were those interviewees chosen? Alice Kamps, the curator for the exhibit, developed the interview schedule. We worked with a panel of advisers, historians, mainly, to come up with names of the people to interview. Alice did 16 interviews. All are in the exhibit.

As you know, the Vietnam War is a contentious topic. Tell me about it. 

There’s probably some skepticism about a government-sponsored exhibit on the war. That’s the beauty of these interviews. These are the real folks, telling the stories from their own perspective. It’s not the government. It’s not us interpreting what they said. And the [document] records tell the good stuff and the bad stuff. 

At LBJ Library [in April 2016] we did a Vietnam War summit. Those kinds of issues came up in the audience. We had veterans who disagreed with some of the panelists. The high point of that disagreement came when Henry Kissinger denied there was any carpet bombing in Cambodia. When it was pointed out that there’s a document with Richard Nixon’s notes in the margin that prove there was carpet bombing, he went on this screed about archivists saving every scrap of paper.

Was he saying that jokingly or was he serious? He was serious.

Some of the material in your exhibit is recently declassified. How much of the Vietnam War is still classified? Lots, lots. There is some stuff that probably will remain classified for a while, mostly because of methods [used for intelligence gathering that would be disclosed]. But there’s also this huge issue of Social Security numbers. The military stuff has Social Security numbers that have to be redacted before it can be released.

What are the lessons of the Vietnam War? As the monuments outside [the National Archives building] say, “study the past” for “the past is prologue.” We as a country don’t do a good job of studying the past and often find ourselves in the same kind of situations. Vietnam is a great example. We’ve been in a series of conflicts since Vietnam, which are so Vietnam-like. And we haven’t learned. We’re still at it.

When message would you like exhibit’s visitors to leave with? I’m really focused in all of our exhibits on the K through 12 community, who in this particular case know nothing at all about the war. The stories will tell that this war was fought for—what reason? Why were we involved? And I hope people will start thinking about war in general, about the destruction to human cultures and life and way of life that wars bring with them.

Born: Dec. 31, 1945, Beverly, Massachusetts  

Residence: Washington, D.C.  

Education: Northeastern University, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature, 1972 and 1976; Simmons College of Library and Information Science, master’s degree, 1974  

Military service: U.S. Navy, May 1967-February 1971; highest rank, petty officer second class 

In Vietnam: Hospital corpsman, assigned to 1st Marine Division, February-March 1970; USS Sanctuary, March 1970-January 1971   

Professional career: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1965-67 and 1971-96, rising to associate director for public services and acting co-director of libraries; Duke University, university librarian and vice provost for library affairs, 1996-2004; New York Public Libraries, Andrew W. Mellon director and chief executive of research libraries, 2004-09  

Today: Archivist of the United States, since Nov. 13, 2009