The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, today one of the most revered monuments on the National Mall in Washington, DC, was once a very controversial work. Built in 1982 through the efforts of Vietnam War veterans hoping to erect a memorial to their fallen comrades, the design selected at first raised doubts in the minds of veterans groups, the public, and elected officials. Maya Lin, a Yale architectural student who won the design competition with a unanimous vote from the project's governing board, proposed a memorial consisting of two black granite walls containing the names of the dead and intersecting at a broad angle in the middle, while sloping downward to the ground at the edges. Conservatives denounced the design as a misguided political statement—a sort of anti-monument—and demanded a more traditional work consisting of a statue and flagpole. Both “the wall” and the statue were eventually erected, and soon afterward, the controversy dissipated as visitors came to appreciate Lin's unique design and the honor it pays to the dead and missing of the Vietnam War.

Summary Overview

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, today one of the most revered monuments on the National Mall in Washington, DC, was once a very controversial work. Built in 1982 through the efforts of Vietnam War veterans hoping to erect a memorial to their fallen comrades, the design selected at first raised doubts in the minds of veterans groups, the public, and elected officials. Maya Lin, a Yale architectural student who won the design competition with a unanimous vote from the project's governing board, proposed a memorial consisting of two black granite walls containing the names of the dead and intersecting at a broad angle in the middle, while sloping downward to the ground at the edges. Conservatives denounced the design as a misguided political statement—a sort of anti-monument—and demanded a more traditional work consisting of a statue and flagpole. Both “the wall” and the statue were eventually erected, and soon afterward, the controversy dissipated as visitors came to appreciate Lin's unique design and the honor it pays to the dead and missing of the Vietnam War.

Defining Moment

The United States paid a heavy price for its military defense of South Vietnam. More than 58,000 US troops were killed or listed as missing, and some 300,000 were injured. All in all, some 2.7 million Americans served in the country over the course of the conflict, creating a vast pool of returned war veterans needing to adapt to civilian life. Moreover, unlike previous wars when those who had fought on behalf of the United States were welcomed home and granted favored status and access to socioeconomic opportunities, during the Vietnam War, veterans were treated poorly. The war had challenged many Americans' basic beliefs about themselves and their country, including that the United States was a force for good in the world and that there was nothing it could not achieve. With Vietnam, a crisis of conscience arose when it became clear that policymakers and military leaders were capable of faulty decisions and indefensible actions, and that, moreover, we seemed to be losing the battle to a poor, undeveloped country in a far off corner of the world. The war became more and more unpopular as time passed, and as a result, returning veterans were not given the respect they deserved. Indeed, in some cases, they were looked down upon by opponents of the war as tools of a suspect government. More generally, the vets were reminders of a grim episode that many Americans preferred to forget.

Some veterans became activists and sought to turn this picture around. One of them was Jan Scruggs, a moderately disabled Army veteran who obtained a master's degree in psychology after the war, but still had trouble finding a job. Critical of meager government efforts to assist vets in reintegrating into society, and disturbed by the shoddy treatment afforded vets generally, Scruggs developed a view that America's “final recovery” from the war depended on a “national reconciliation.” Further, he suggested that a national monument was needed “to remind an ungrateful nation of what it has done to its sons.”

To that end, Scruggs organized a group of veteran activists who worked to bring a memorial to the National Mall. Contributing $2,800 of his own money to the cause, Scruggs eventually managed to obtain over $8 million in private contributions. In 1980, through a bill sponsored by Senator John Warner of Virginia and Senator Charles Mathias of Maryland, Congress authorized the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, with Scruggs at its head. A panel of eight judges, none of them Vietnam veterans (in order to eliminate bias), was set up to evaluate design proposals submitted as part of an open competition. Four basic rules were established for the memorial: 1) it could make no political statement; 2) it had to fit in with the landscaping of the site; 3) it had to suggest a place of contemplation; and 4) it had to contain the names of the dead and missing. Over 1,400 designs were submitted. When the winning design was announced on May 1, 1981, the name Maya Lin was projected into history as the youngest—and most controversial—artist ever to be granted a spot on the Mall.

Author Biography

Maya Ying Lin was born in Athens, Ohio, in 1959, the daughter of Chinese immigrant parents who taught fine arts and literature at Ohio University. Lin studied at Yale University, where, as an undergraduate, she entered and won the competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981. Subsequently, she received a master of architecture degree from Yale and an honorary doctorate from Yale and several other prominent universities. Today, she continues to work as an artist and designer and has a studio in New York City.

Jan Craig Scruggs grew up in Bowie, Maryland, and, during the Vietnam War, served in the US Army's 199th Light Infantry Brigade. After his military service, he received a bachelor's and a master's degree from American University in Washington, DC. He founded a fund to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1979 and received Congressional authorization for it a year later. Today, Scruggs continues to serve as CEO of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and speaks about veterans and veterans' affairs.

Historical Document

Original Competition Drawing.

Original Statement by Maya Lin.

Walking through this park-like area, the memorial appears as a rift in the earth, a long, polished, black stone wall, emerging from and receding into the earth. Approaching the memorial, the ground slopes gently downward and the low walls emerging on either side, growing out of the earth, extend and converge at a point below and ahead. Walking into this grassy site contained by the walls of the memorial we can barely make out the carved names upon the memorial's walls. These names, seemingly infinite in number, convey the sense of overwhelming numbers, while unifying these individuals into a whole.

The memorial is composed not as an unchanging monument, but as a moving composition to be understood as we move into and out of it. The passage itself is gradual; the descent to the origin slow, but it is at the origin that the memorial is to be fully understood. At the intersection of these walls, on the right side, is carved the date of the first death. It is followed by the names of those who died in the war, in chronological order. These names continue on this wall appearing to recede into the earth at the wall's end. The names resume on the left wall as the wall emerges from the earth, continuing back to the origin where the date of the last death is carved at the bottom of this wall. Thus the war's beginning and end meet; the war is ‘complete,’ coming full-circle, yet broken by the earth that bounds the angle's open side, and continued within the earth itself. As we turn to leave, we see these walls stretching into the distance, directing us to the Washington Monument, to the left, and the Lincoln Memorial, to the right, thus bringing the Vietnam Memorial into an historical context. We the living are brought to a concrete realization of these deaths.

Brought to a sharp awareness of such a loss, it is up to each individual to resolve or come to terms with this loss. For death, is in the end a personal and private matter, and the area contained with this memorial is a quiet place, meant for personal reflection and private reckoning. The black granite walls, each two hundred feet long, and ten feet below ground at their lowest point (gradually ascending toward ground level) effectively act as a sound barrier, yet are of such a height and length so as not to appear threatening or enclosing. The actual area is wide and shallow, allowing for a sense of privacy, and the sunlight from the memorial's southern exposure along with the grassy park surrounding and within its walls, contribute to the serenity of the area. Thus this memorial is for those who have died, and for us to remember them.

The memorial's origin is located approximately at the center of the site; its legs each extending two hundred feet towards the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The walls, contained on one side by the earth, are ten feet below ground at their point of origin, gradually lessening in height, until they finally recede totally into the earth, at their ends. The walls are to be made of a hard, polished black granite, with the names to be carved in a simple Trajan letter. The memorial's construction involves recontouring the area within the wall's boundaries, so as to provide for an easily accessible descent, but as much of the site as possible should be left untouched. The area should remain as a park, for all to enjoy.

Document Analysis

The proposal by Lin is remarkable for the degree to which the finished work conforms to the original plan. Oftentimes, artists' and architects' initial conceptions are modified as a project takes shape. The outcome in this case is all the more remarkable given that Lin acknowledged later that she did not know that much about the Vietnam War—she was quite young at the time—yet she did know that it was a divisive conflict that tore at the American social fabric. Thus, she envisioned the memorial as a kind of giant knife cutting a gash into America, creating a “rift in the earth.” At the center of the work are the names of the first servicemembers who lost their lives or went missing during the conflict, while the remainder of the names, as noted in the proposal, proceed chronologically to the right, pick up again at the left edge, and conclude at the center, bringing the list “full circle.” The sequence of names thus functions as a kind of diary of the war, a day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month accounting of the fallen. This approach proved to be a powerful one, in practice, because it allowed living veterans to see the names of their dead service mates assembled in one place according to the action in the war, the “battle,” in which they were killed. In fact, “seeing” the names is only part of the story, for what happens in practice, nearly universally, is that visitors put a hand to the name and rub their fingers over the incised letters. The act becomes a powerful reminder of the physical person—the friend or loved one—now gone from the visitor's lives.

Lin notes that the polished black granite walls, set, as they are, into the ground, are meant to act as a sound barrier, creating an aura of privacy and allowing for contemplation. And, indeed, even with some 4 million visitors per year—one of the highest visitation rates in the Capitol—the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is often considered a special place by visitors because of the aura of quiet reverence that surrounds it. The formidable black granite wall serves as a kind of permanent barrier between the dead and the living, the earth below and the surface above. Lin does not mention this in her proposal, but the highly polished surface of the granite permits the visitor to see a reflection of him- or herself facing the wall and viewing/touching the names. This effect generally adds to the intimacy of the space, the uniqueness of the moment, and emphasizes the boundary separating the visitor from the deceased.

Besides touching the names, another ritual that developed soon after the monument was erected was that of leaving a memento below the name of a friend or loved one. Over the years the National Park Service, which oversees maintenance of the monument, has collected thousands of these mementos, ranging from combat boots and love letters to cigarette lighters and children's drawings. A further detail that was added to the monument during final deliberations was the use of a small diamond symbol next to a name to indicate “deceased” status, and a small plus symbol to indicate “missing in action.” Upon confirmation of death—for example, through the identification of recovered remains—the plus sign is converted to a diamond. Lin also notes that the eastern wall points to the Washington Monument and the western wall to the Lincoln Memorial. This visual effect, however, is less commented on by visitors than are other aspects of the memorial; nonetheless, it is appreciated when pointed out.

Essential Themes

The predominant theme of this work is the deep rift created by the war and the need to honor the dead and missing at the conclusion of the war. Initially, critics of Lin's design focused only on the first aspect—the rift—and could not appreciate how the work paid tribute to the fallen. A number of conservatives and veterans lambasted the design, calling it “a black gash of shame,” a “degrading ditch,” a “nihilistic slab.” They commented on the fact that the memorial was black and below ground in a city of white marble. Some veterans objected to Lin herself as the creator, both because she was a young student and, in a darker vein, because she was the daughter of Chinese immigrants—the vets had not forgotten that China had supplied aid to North Vietnam and was itself a communist country. James Watt, secretary of the Interior in the Reagan administration, at first refused to authorize construction of the memorial, but eventually accepted a compromise solution whereby a more traditional statue and flagpole would be included at the site. The eight-foot bronze sculpture of three servicemen by Frederick Hart was originally proposed for the apex of the wall (the center), but under pressure the organizers allowed that it could be situated on a small hill a short distance away. It was unveiled in 1984. Nine years later, in response to calls by female veterans and women's organizations, another sculpture by Glenna Goodacre was added nearby to show the contribution of nurses and women generally. Finally, in 2000, a plaque was added to remember veterans who died later (for example, from Agent Orange exposure) as a result of their war service.

In comments made years later, Lin observed that whereas traditional war monuments seem to place war—and victory—in a respectful light, her monument was meant to be bleak and honest so as to serve as a “deterrent” to any future war. This is perhaps what rankled the critics; victory and “war pride” are nowhere to be seen in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The artist wanted to make death and loss the centerpiece of the work, and this she did. She effectively separated the warrior from the war, which turned out to be a message that Americans needed to hear in order to begin the healing process and achieve reconciliation regarding the war. Many veterans and others attended the dedication ceremony in 1982, and they embraced the memorial as a place for catharsis, a place to come to grips with the overwhelming tragedy of the war. The memorial was soon hailed as an aesthetic triumph and soon came to influence numerous state and local war memorials erected in subsequent years.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “History of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.” Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, 2015. Web. <http://www.vvmf.org/the-memorial-history>.
  • Lin, Maya. “Making the Memorial.” New York Review of Books. NYREV, Inc., 2 Nov. 2000. Web. <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2000/nov/02/making-the-memorial/>.
  • Nicosia, Gerald. Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans Movement. New York: Crown Publishers, 2001. Print.
  • Piehler, G. Kurt. Remembering War the American Way. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2004. Print.
  • Scruggs, Jan C., & Joel L. Swerdlow. To Heal a Nation: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Print.
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