Sometimes you have to leave a place to understand it better. By travelling to North Carolina, I have come to understand a local resource in a new and different way. The idea of Vietnam as contested territory has long held fascination for me. I grew up at a time when we were trying to digest American involvement in Vietnam and ultimately our failures there. I also have the benefit of being close enough to Gerald R. Ford’s presidential museum to use it as a classroom resource on occasion.

During the course of the seminar, I had the opportunity to share how I have used the staircase from Saigon, which is in the Gerald R. Ford Museum, with my students as a concrete (or in this case iron) reminder of place and time. We looked at the image of our South Vietnamese allies in the famous photograph desperately clutching the railing of the staircase hoping to be evacuated by helicopter before the North Vietnamese army overran their position, sometimes referred to as, “The Last Helicopter Out.” Growing up, this image had been a sign of failure to me, of our nation’s failure to be successful in SE Asia, of a failure to contain communism. But as an adult, I saw it differently and that is what I wanted to share with my students. It was also a symbol of the hopes and fears of the people we sometimes leave behind in the wake of our foreign policy. The moment was emotional for both my students and myself.
While sharing this story at the seminar, a visiting professor (Pierre Asselin) shared that the story is a myth and that the staircase in the photo is from an apartment building and not the embassy. My first reaction to this information was to feel bad because as a teacher, especially one of history, I like to get it right for my students. As I continued to reflect on the new information, I realized that yes, I would share this new information with my students, but it doesn’t change how I feel about the staircase and the message or lesson ensconced in it.
While preparing this description of a significant epiphany in humanities for myself, I found it interesting to find that what had played out in my own mind growing up had been in the thoughts of others. I stumbled across an article by Douglas Brinkley that details an argument between Henry Kissinger and Fred Meijer (a Michigan based grocery chain owner). Kissinger wanted to have the staircase buried in the bowels of the Smithsonian because it was a symbol of American failure, while Meijer felt that it represented more. I will conclude with how President Ford settled the argument in favor of acquiring the staircase for the museum. “To some, this staircase will always be seen as an emblem of military defeat,” Ford notes. “For me, however, it symbolizes man’s undying desire to be free.” (Of ladders and letters: On the anniversary of Saigon’s fall, a trove of documents sheds new light on old traumas By Douglas Brinkley April 17, 2000)

Photo Credit – Gerald R. Ford Archives –

– Dan Boyer (High School Principal, Beal City Schools, MI)