The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, commonly referred to as “The Wall,” symbolizes America’s attempt to come to terms with the Vietnam War.
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The Vietnam conflict was a battle in the larger Cold War, waged between 1945 and 1991, pitting the United States against the Soviet Union. It was fought to decide whether a pro-American or pro-Soviet government would ultimately govern that Southeast Asian nation, and after it began it almost immediately involved the United States as the nation attempted to contain the spread of communism. The U.S. commitment began with only advisers in the 1950’s, but by 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson committed American combat troops to Vietnam to support the government of South Vietnam in its struggle against Hanoi-led communist forces, which were drawn from both South and North Vietnam and backed by the Soviet bloc.
In less than four years, more than a half million American soldiers had been committed to the conflict that seemed less and less likely to be resolved by the presence of those servicemen. The war produced a deep cleavage among the people that eventually led to America’s withdrawal in 1973 and a communist victory in 1975. It also led to the “Vietnam Syndrome,” which associated the conflict there with, among other things, military defeat and tarnished veterans, who were often perceived as mentally unstable and drug-addicted. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, called “The Wall,” represents America’s attempt to come to terms with the Vietnam War by at once honoring the war dead and repairing the rift among the disparate warring factions that did battle at home during the war.
The idea for a Vietnam Veterans Memorial likely originated independently in the minds of numerous American soldiers and civilians. However, Jan C. Scruggs, a combat veteran from Maryland, is probably the one who provided the inspiration and determination to make the idea a reality. After viewing the motion picture The Deer Hunter in March of 1979, he reflected on the meaning of the war. The principal characters in that early Hollywood dramatization of the Vietnam War came from a working-class background, and it occurred to Scruggs that the majority of America’s casualties in fact were, like himself, ordinary young men who believed in their country and were asked to perform extraordinary tasks. Those who died doing their duty, as well as those who returned home, deserved to be recognized for their service instead of stigmatized for their participation in a war that had become unpopular and ended short of victory. Were these servicemen responsible for the war’s unpopularity and lack of success?
Scruggs attended a meeting of Vietnam veterans who talked about organizing a victory parade and building a memorial. There he met Bob Doubek, a Vietnam veteran and lawyer who advised Scruggs to form a nonprofit organization to raise funds for the memorial. On May 28, 1979, Scruggs held a press conference designed to generate publicity and funds for the memorial project. When Washington, D.C., attorney and Vietnam veteran Jack Wheeler took interest in this fledgling project, the nucleus of the memorial organization emerged. The next stage of memorial realization was to convince Washington politicians and bureaucrats of the wisdom and feasibility of such a proposal.
This undertaking began when Scruggs contacted U.S. senator Charles Mathias from Maryland, a liberal who had opposed the Vietnam War but was sympathetic to a memorial. Meanwhile, Wheeler used his contacts in the Washington establishment to connect with the Veterans Administration, the National Park Service, and the Fine Arts Commission, all of which would need to approve the project. The Fine Arts Commission proposed a site across the Potomac River near Arlington National Cemetery, but the now-incorporated (as of April, 1979) Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund demurred, insisting on a location central to Washington memorials, specifically Constitution Gardens adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial. The National Capital Memorial Advisory Committee, composed of a representative of each government agency involved in memorial projects, opposed any site-specific location. However, on Veterans Day, 1979, conservative Senator Barry Goldwater and liberal Senator George McGovern introduced legislation to give the Memorial Fund two acres next to the Lincoln Memorial, and similar legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives by John Hammerschmidt. After months of heated debate in Congress, both the House of Representatives and the Senate approved the Constitution Gardens site on June 24, 1980, and President Jimmy Carter signed the bill a week later.
Even as the politicians discussed the issues surrounding the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Memorial Fund launched a struggling but ultimately successful fund-raising campaign. Senator John Warner and his then-wife, Elizabeth Taylor, hosted a breakfast to raise contributions. A National Sponsoring Committee added luster to the memorial project with such patrons as Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter; entertainer Bob Hope; Nancy Reagan, wife of then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan; and former prisoner of war Admiral James Stockdale. Billionaire H. Ross Perot made a substantial donation, veterans’ organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion donated large sums, and tens of thousands of citizens sent in contributions. Thus, when the competition for the memorial’s design began, the fund leadership had gained an elementary knowledge of how to maneuver around the political obstacles in government and how to raise cash to see the project through to completion.
Perhaps it is fitting that, just as an ordinary citizen got the idea of a Vietnam Veterans Memorial off the ground, an unknown (but far from ordinary) twenty-one-year-old architecture student put the memorial into the ground. The process that produced the winning design first involved deciding how the memorial would be created: by fund members themselves, by architectural firms that would submit designs to the fund members, or by a competition judged by reputable architects and sculptors. The last approach won the day, the reasoning being that the fund members knew little about architecture, and that not much diversity of design would be achieved with only a few architectural firms submitting ideas. The jury was instructed by the fund that the memorial had to “recognize and honor those who served and died” in Vietnam and “make no political statement regarding the war or its conduct.”
With these instructions, the jury proceeded to evaluate 1,421 entries, which eventually were narrowed to three, of which number 1,026 won unanimous approval. The winning design, announced on May 6, 1980, at a press conference at the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C., was submitted by Yale architecture student Maya Ying Lin, who was born in 1959, the year the first American soldier died in combat in Vietnam. However, the winning design still had to be approved by the Fine Arts Commission and, realistically, by veterans, politicians, and the public as well.
The Wall is actually two walls, each 246 feet long, that meet at an angle of 125 degrees, where the structure is ten feet high. The black granite used for the memorial came from Bangalore, India, and was cut in Barre, Vermont; the names and inscriptions were etched in Memphis, Tennessee. By Memorial Day, 1997, 58,208 names graced the memorial, listed in chronological order of death, beginning in 1959 and ending in 1975. When the design was made public it generated praise, condemnation, and a middle path of calls for alterations to a fundamentally solid project. Most major newspapers endorsed the design, as did most members of Congress, but Perot argued that the design honored only the dead; veteran Tom Carhard called it “a black gash of shame”; other veterans criticized it for various reasons; novelist Tom Wolfe labeled it “a tribute to Jane Fonda”; and influential journals such as National Review opposed it. Additionally, something of a generation gap existed between Lin and the older veterans that complicated discussions about the design.
Ultimately, and against the wishes of Lin, a sculpture of three combat infantrymen by Frederick Hart and an American flag were added to the memorial, a design approved by the National Capital Planning Commission and the National Park Service in March, 1982. Construction of the Wall commenced and was finished in time for the dedication on Veterans Day, 1982. Thousands of veterans, family members of the fallen soldiers, and other visitors gathered to listen to the dedication and hear the names of all killed in action read aloud. As the father of a fallen soldier put it, “It is important to have other people hear his name.”
The comments of columnist James J. Kirkpatrick probably best capture the significance of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. After he viewed the design, but before it was built, he predicted that it would be “the most moving war memorial ever erected” and maintained that it would also signify whatever each visitor wanted it to express. The first forecast seems to have hit the mark. Each year more than two-and-a-half million sightseers view the Wall, making it the most-visited memorial in Washington, D.C. Testimony to its emotional impact on visitors can be seen in the assorted tributes they bring: a Hank Williams, Jr., tape, two shot glasses, photographs, a teddy bear, a mess kit with knife, a fishing rod, a rock “left by Jewish couple,” an ace of diamonds, combat medals, walnuts, an ace of spades, and flags. According to a leading scholar of the Wall, the gifts serve as a reminder to the nation that it owes a debt to these forsaken soldiers and that the debt needs to be paid. One need only view the documentaries and photographs of the memorial, which contain vivid scenes of weeping veterans and nonparticipants in the war as well as the tributes left at the Wall, to realize that Maya Lin helped America begin to come to terms with the Vietnam War, if not its meaning. Lin, reflecting on her losing struggle to prevent the statue and flag from being included in the memorial, stated that “What is memorialized is also that people still cannot resolve the war, nor can they separate the issue, the politics from it.” Indeed, her design elicited many different interpretations even as it was being constructed. Lin intended the “V” shape to symbolize an open book, whereas others interpreted the form to be a peace–that is, antiwar–sign. Lin utilized black granite to symbolize “the black earth, the earth polished,” but many perceived the use of a black substance to signify evil or shame. Whatever architect Lin wanted to convey in her creation, it is hard to argue that the Wall has become a sacred public space for most Americans.
Hass, Kristin Ann. Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Studies the “offerings” or “gifts” which Americans brought to The Wall as a means of understanding America’s continuing struggle to give meaning to the Vietnam War. Katakis, Michael. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. New York: Crown, 1988. Photographic impressions and commentary. Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. Directed by Freida Le Mock. Santa Monica, Calif.: Sanders & Mock Productions/Ocean Releasing, 1994. An excellent documentary exploring the role of architect Maya Lin in designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Palmer, Laura. Shrapnel in the Heart: Letters and Remembrances from the Vietnam Memorial. New York: Random House, 1987. Contains letters, poems, and other remembrances from the relatives and friends of those Americans who died in the Vietnam War. Scruggs, Jan C., and Joel L. Swerdlow. To Heal a Nation: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Focuses on the political skirmishes involved in the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Smithsonian Institution. Reflections on the Wall: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1987. An illustrated account of the Wall by four photographers who capture in faces and offerings the feelings of the visitors. Strait, Jerry L., and Sandra S. Strait. Vietnam War Memorials: An Illustrated Reference to Veterans Tributes Throughout the United States. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1988. Discusses Vietnam War memorials throughout the United States, including the principal one in Washington, D.C. Vietnam Memorial. Directed by Foster Wiley and Steve York. 1983. Alexandra, Va.: PBS Video, 1988. A PBS Frontline broadcast covering the events leading up to, and the dedication of, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Constitution Gardens.