Born in 1950
Bob Doubek, VVMF cofounder.
Vietnam veteran Jan C. Scruggs is the person most responsible for the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a Washington, D.C., monument that pays tribute to the 58,000 American men and women who died in the Vietnam War. Scruggs's efforts to build the memorial began in 1979, when he established the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. Over the next three years, he and other dedicated volunteers worked tirelessly to see their vision become a reality. During this time they encountered several major obstacles, ranging from financial difficulties to controversy over the proposed memorial design. But Scruggs and his allies persevered, and in 1982 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was formally dedicated.
Goes to Vietnam
Jan Scruggs was born in 1950 in the small town of Bowie, Maryland. He was the youngest of four children. His father, James, was a milkman, while his mother, Louise, worked as a waitress. He graduated from high school in 1968, at the height of American involvement in the Vietnam War.
This war pitted the United States and South Vietnam against the Communist nation of North Vietnam and Communist guerrillas—known as the Viet Cong—who lived in the South. The Communists wanted to overthrow South Vietnam's leaders and unite the two countries under one Communist government. But the United States strongly opposed these efforts, and during the mid-1950s the United States began sending money, weapons, and advisors to South Vietnam to help the country defend itself. In 1965 the United States escalated its involvement in the Vietnam War, sending thousands of American combat troops into the South and executing hundreds of air raids against Communist targets. But deepening U.S. involvement in the war failed to defeat the joint Viet Cong-North Vietnamese forces. Instead, the war settled into a bloody stalemate that eventually claimed the lives of more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers and caused bitter divisions across America. The United States finally withdrew from the Vietnam War in 1973. Two years later, Communist forces captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon to bring the war to a close.
When Scruggs earned his high school diploma, he decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. He believed that it was his patriotic duty to serve his country when it was at war. He completed basic training and was transferred to Vietnam, where he joined a combat infantry unit. Scruggs was one of only a handful of soldiers in his unit who had voluntarily joined the military. In fact, he estimates that 90 percent of his company was made up of draftees (men who were selected by the government for required military service).
Scruggs spent the next year in the jungles and mountains of Vietnam. The experience was a frightening and miserable one for him. "The massive protests against the war by then did little to help sagging morale," Scruggs recalled in the Washington Post. "Yet if the war was unpopular at home, it was probably liked even less by those whose fate it was to serve in Vietnam. It was a year-long nightmare. Half the men in my company were killed or wounded." Scruggs himself was wounded in action in 1969 by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade attack.
As the months passed, though, Scruggs developed a deep respect and appreciation for his fellow soldiers. He also witnessed many acts of bravery, including one example of heroic sacrifice that he would never forget. "Several months before leaving Vietnam I spent four hours of my life fifty feet from a North Vietnamese machine gun emplacement," he said in the Washington Post. "A dozen American youths were pinned down; several were wounded. We were able to retreat as one fellow exposed himself to the enemy gunners and drew their fire. He held his own for the few crucial minutes needed [so that we could] retreat with our wounded. Then came his screams. . . . We knew we were watching the man who had given his life for us die a horrible, excruciating death. We also knew he had a wife in Pennsylvania."
When Scruggs returned home in March 1970, his wartime experiences had made him an angry and disillusioned man. "The bitterness I feel when I remember carrying the lifeless bodies of close friends through the mire [deep, muddy ground] of Vietnam will probably never subside," he later wrote. This bitterness became even stronger when he realized that America did not seem to care about the men who served in Vietnam. Instead, the entire country seemed to regard the returning veterans as unpleasant reminders of a troubled period in American history. This attitude made Scruggs and thousands of other veterans feel forgotten and ignored.
At first, Scruggs had difficulty putting the war behind him and adjusting to life back in the United States. He spent the better part of a year drinking heavily and wandering aimlessly around the country. As time passed, however, he stopped his self-destructive behavior. In 1974 he married a young woman named Becky Fishman. He also returned to school, eventually earning a master's degree in education from American University in Washington, D.C. By the late 1970s, he was working in the U.S. Labor Department as a specialist in race and gender hiring issues.
Vietnam film sparks interest in building memorial
In March 1979 Scruggs saw The Deer Hunter, a film about the Vietnam War and the young American soldiers who fought in it. As Scruggs watched the movie, its storyline and imagery rekindled a flood of memories about the war and the men with whom he served. It also reminded him that the United States had never expressed any meaningful thanks to the men and women who served their country during the Vietnam War. Scruggs decided that he wanted to try to correct that injustice. The next morning, he turned to his wife and announced, "I'm going to build a memorial to all the guys who served in Vietnam. It'll have the names of everyone who was killed."
A short time later, Scruggs began publicizing his concept of a monument that would honor the 58,000 Americans who were killed in Vietnam. His activities quickly attracted the attention of fellow Vietnam veterans Jack Wheeler and Bob Doubek, who shared his dream of creating a memorial to the nation's forgotten Vietnam soldiers. Together, the three men established a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) to raise the millions of dollars that would be needed to pay for the monument.
At first the organization had trouble getting started. Early fund-raising efforts were disappointing, and a comedian on national television made fun of Scruggs' vision of a memorial. Some critics even charged that the VVMF leaders were self-centered people who wanted to build a monument to themselves. But when Scruggs heard this complaint, he always replied that if America's Vietnam veterans waited around for someone else to honor their service, a monument would never be built.
Finally, some Americans who had actively opposed the war in the 1960s and early 1970s criticized the memorial idea. They claimed that the monument would honor U.S. involvement in an immoral war. But Scruggs and other VVMF officials emphasized that the monument would not make any political statements about American involvement in the war; it would simply pay tribute to Americans who were killed. "The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is conceived as a means to promote the healing and reconciliation of the country after the divisions caused by the war," explained Doubek.
Momentum builds for memorial
As the months passed, the efforts of hundreds of VVMF volunteers finally began to pay off. Boosted by the public support of such figures as First Lady Rosalynn Carter, former President Gerald Ford, antiwar Senator George McGovern (see entry), Vietnam General William Westmoreland (see entry), and entertainer Bob Hope, VVMF fund-raising appeals garnered responses from around the country. The VVMF gathered more than $8 million from more than 650,000 private donors in the early 1980s. The federal government did not contribute any money to the memorial fund. But it did set aside a two-acre section of land for the memorial in Washington, D.C.'s Constitutional Gardens, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
In May 1981 the VVMF unveiled its proposed design for the monument. Created by a twenty-one-year-old Chinese-American art student named Maya Lin (see entry), the design featured a long, V-shaped wall of polished black granite that would be engraved with the names of American soldiers killed or missing-in-action in Vietnam. Much of the reaction to the design was positive. Several veterans' organizations—including the powerful Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Gold Star Mothers, half of whose membership had lost sons in Vietnam—declared their support for the design. Press reaction also was favorable. The New York Times stated that "[the design] honors these veterans with more poignancy, surely, than . . . more conventional monuments. . . . This design seems able to capture all of the feelings of ambiguity and anguish that the Vietnam War evoked in this nation."
But Lin's design attracted harsh criticism from other people. In To Heal a Nation, Scruggs and Joel Swerdlow admitted that some Vietnam veterans and other observers viewed the design as "unheroic, unpatriotic, below ground, and death-oriented." A bitter debate soon flared within America's veteran community over the proposed memorial, and before long the entire project seemed to be in jeopardy. This controversy angered and saddened Scruggs and the other VVMF volunteers, who had devoted countless hours to making the memorial a reality. The VVMF tried to address the concerns of the design's critics, but they failed to ease doubts about the project. "VVMF reassurances that the memorial would be exposed to sunlight all day, and that the names as displayed in Maya Lin's design would speak eloquently of sacrifice, commitment, and patriotism, never attracted as much attention as the attacks," wrote Scruggs and Swerdlow.
Finally, after months of debate, the two sides agreed on a compromise that permitted construction of the memorial to go forward. Under the terms of this agreement, a statue of three young American soldiers and an American flag would be added to the two-acre plot near Lin's memorial. Construction of the memorial finally began in March 1982. Seven months later, it was ready to be presented to the American public.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was formally dedicated on Veterans' Day weekend in November 1982 in front of a crowd that numbered in the thousands. The memorial features two tall walls set in the ground, each nearly 250 feet long, that meet at a V-shaped angle. Constructed of polished black granite, the walls have mirror-like surfaces that reflect the sky, the trees, and the faces of the men, women, and children who stand before them. On these walls, the names of more than 58,000 American soldiers who were lost in Vietnam are engraved.
Public reaction to the memorial—which soon became known simply as "the Wall"—was overwhelmingly positive. During the dedication weekend, Vietnam veterans, their families, and relatives of the men and women who were honored on the Wall all praised it as a touching and powerful tribute to their lost friends and loved ones. As more and more people went to see the memorial for themselves, the controversy over Lin's design quickly faded. Within months, the Wall became one of the most treasured sites in all of the United States.
Today, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial continues to be regarded as one of America's most beautiful and emotionally powerful monuments. It is also the most visited site in Washington, D.C., with an estimated 2.5 million visitors each year. And the memorial continues to be updated as U.S. casualty lists from the war are corrected (the Wall contained the names of 58,209 Americans who served in Vietnam as of Memorial Day 1997). Scruggs, meanwhile, continues to serve as president of the VVMF. The organization helps provide care for the Wall and coordinates activities and ceremonies on the monument grounds.
Hass, Kristin Ann. Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Isaacs, Arnold R. Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Katakis, Michael. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. New York: Crown, 1988.
Scruggs, Jan C., ed. Why Vietnam Still Matters: The War and the Wall. Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, 1996.
Scruggs, Jan C., and Joel L. Swerdlow. To Heal a Nation: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.
Vespa, Mary. "His Dream was to Heal a Nation with the Vietnam Memorial, but Healing Isn't over Yet." People Weekly, May 30, 1988.
Support for "the Wall"
In 1981 the proposed design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was attacked by critics who felt that it failed to honor the American men and women who died in Vietnam. But many other observers, including veterans' groups and newspaper editors, defended Maya Lin's design. Following is an excerpt from a New York Times editorial that expressed support for the proposed monument:
It used to be much simpler to build a monument. The roll of honor on bronze tablets, or the statue of the fallen warrior holding a flag appeared predictably on the village green. Anonymous generals and unknown soldiers furnish innumerable traffic islands. Forgotten heroes dot the nation's parks. The uniform changes, the heroes sit or stand or occasionally ride a horse, but the message remains the same: a noble cause well served.
Nowadays, though, patriotism is a complicated matter. Ideas about heroism, or art, for that matter, are no longer what they were before Vietnam. And there is certainly no consensus yet about what cause might have been served by the Vietnam War.
But perhaps that is why the V-shaped, black granite lines merging gently with the sloping earth make the winning design seem a lasting and appropriate image of dignity and sadness. It conveys the only point about the war on which people may agree: that those who died should be remembered.