Vietnam Veterans Memorial


The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a tribute to the dead of the United States' longest, most unpopular, and least successful war. Like the war itself, this memorialization was highly controversial, but the site has become the most frequently visited memorial in Washington, D.C., drawing over 4 million visitors annually.

American casualties in Vietnam began in 1959 and ended with the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. Never officially designated a war, the Vietnam conflict became increasingly unpopular as casualties and news coverage of the fighting increased. Those people who served in Vietnam returned to an unsupportive nation and a media that emphasized the social problems of its veterans.

There were few attempts to honor Vietnam veterans until 1978, when an insignificant and ambiguous plaque was placed behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. One year later, Jan Scruggs (a wounded Vietnam veteran) founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), which sought private funds from both war supporters and opponents to build a memorial honoring the veterans but not the conflict.

The VVMF held an open competition for a memorial design that would: "1. be reflective and contemplative in character, 2. harmonize with its surroundings, 3. contain the names of those who had died in the conflict or who were still missing, and 4. make no political statement about the war" (Fish 1987, p. 3). A panel of distinguished architects and artists reviewed over 14,000 submissions, and on May 1, 1981, announced its unanimous choice: the design by Maya Ying Lin, a twenty-one-year-old Chinese-American undergraduate at Yale University.

Lin's design was simple and elegant, consisting of two walls of polished granite (each 246 feet long) composed of seventy-four panels that gradually increase in height from eight inches to more than ten feet at the center, where they meet at a 125-degree angle. Shaped like an inverted V, the memorial is cut into a small hill sloping downward, invisible from most locations on the National Mall.

Although the design was supported by most veterans groups and won critical acclaim in the art

Maya Lin, a Chinese-American student at Yale University, designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall to be reflective— those stopping to read the names can see themselves reflected in the highly polished surface. In order of date of death, names of the over 58,000 American missing or dead are chiseled into the granite without reference to rank or branch of military service. CORBIS (BELLEVUE)
Maya Lin, a Chinese-American student at Yale University, designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall to be reflective— those stopping to read the names can see themselves reflected in the highly polished surface. In order of date of death, names of the over 58,000 American missing or dead are chiseled into the granite without reference to rank or branch of military service.
CORBIS (BELLEVUE)
community, many veterans and conservative politicians were outraged at its selection. Critics targeted features that distinguished the design from other memorials, saying it was black instead of white, horizontal and in the ground instead of rising upward, abstract rather than a realistic depiction of soldiers or battle, and devoid of any patriotic symbols. The most influential of the critics was James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, who put construction on hold until the VVMF agreed to supplement the wall with more traditional patriotic symbols.

Lin's wall was dedicated on Veteran's Day in 1982; a flagpole with an inscription and emblems representing the branches of military service was added in 1983. A bronze sculpture by Frederick Hart entitled Three Servicemen, placed near the flagpole looking out toward the wall, was dedicated in 1984. The Vietnam Women's Memorial, a bronze sculpture created by Glenna Goodacre to honor the women who served and died in Vietnam, was added in 1993. In June 2001 plans for another addition were unveiled by the VVMF. The In Memory Plaque will honor individuals who died prematurely because of war-related illnesses, including Agent Orange poisoning and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Despite these additions, Lin's wall remains the focal point of the memorial.

The wall's unique design promotes interaction. Hidden quietly in its recessed hillside, it invites the visitor to approach and move along it. The names, chiseled in half-inch-high letters, promote intimacy; visitors get close to read them and are encouraged to touch and take rubbings of the names.

For some visitors, interaction includes leaving objects. According to legend, the brother of a man who died in Vietnam left the first object at the wall; during its construction, he tossed a Purple Heart into the wet concrete. Since then, over 500,000 nonperishable items left at the wall have been collected and are housed in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection at the National Park Service Museum Resource Center.

Flags and flowers, the most frequent donations, are not collected, but all personal remembrances are carefully catalogued. Within the collection, military mementos are the most numerous, but more idiosyncratic gifts (e.g., a bicycle fender, a can of beer, a fishing pole) are common. Visitors and the objects they leave mirror the diversity of Vietnam experiences; war supporters and opponents as well those born after the conflict pay tribute at the wall. In this way, the memorial brings the nation together to a common place, but not a common understanding. While some see a memorial to fallen warriors, others see a challenge to war in the poignant demonstration of its costs.

Decades after its dedication, Americans continue to reflect on the conflicts of the Vietnam era at the wall. For the many psychologically wounded combatants, the wall is incorporated into their healing; therapeutic programs for veterans with PTSD often make visiting it part of their emotional healing. Efforts to extend the wall beyond its physical boundaries also demonstrate its significance. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund began scheduling tours of the Movable Wall in late 1996 and to date more than 100 cities have been visited (as well as parts of Ireland). The Wall That Heals Traveling Museum and Information Center accompanies the half-scale replica on all of its stops and the Virtual Wall allows online visitors to see individual panels, click on names, leave e-mail notes, and request rubbings.

See also: Cemeteries, Military ; Cemeteries, War ; Lincoln in the National Memory ; Memorialization, Spontaneous ; Museums of Death

Bibliography

Fish, Lydia. The Last Firebase: A Guide to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane, 1987.

Hass, Kristin Ann. Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Palmer, Laura. Shrapnel in the Heart: Letters and Remembrances from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Wagner-Pacifici, Robin, and Barry Schwartz. "The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Commemorating a Difficult Past." American Journal of Sociology 97, no. 2 (1991): 376–420.

PAMELA ROBERTS

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