Vietnam Veterans Memorial

views updated May 21 2018

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 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


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): 376420.



See Sutton Hoo.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

views updated May 09 2018


The National Vietnam Veterans Memorial (NVVM), located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., has three components: a 500-foot long black granite wall of names designed by Maya Lin and dedicated in 1982; a bronze sculpture of three Vietnam-era soldiers by Frederick Hart, known as The Three Servicemen, dedicated in 1984; and a bronze sculpture of three Vietnam-era servicewomen attending to a wounded male GI, by Glenna Goodacre, known as the Vietnam Women's Memorial and dedicated in 1993. Lin's wall is the most important work of commemorative public art in America in the second half of the twentieth century.

The NVVM was the brainchild of Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran who, after seeing The Deer Hunter, a popular Hollywood film about the plight of Vietnam vets, founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in 1979. This organization was devoted solely to obtaining a prominent federal site for a national memorial to Vietnam veterans, raising money for the memorial, and commissioning a design. In 1980 a national design competition produced a radically new approach to commemorative public art. The winner of the competition was Maya Lin, an undergraduate architecture student at Yale, whose design called for an abstract sculpture influenced by the aesthetic of contemporary earthworks. This aesthetic is based on the idea that a sculpture is inextricably bound up with its site, and that the artwork is a place rather than an object. Lin's memorial featured a wedge-shaped black granite retaining wall pressed into the landscape. Its surface bore the names of over 58,000 Vietnam veterans killed or missing in action, in the order of their death or disappearance. The granite, polished to a reflective sheen, merged the reflections of visitors with the names of the dead.

This design created a great deal of controversy. Opponents, who had expected a representational, white, and vertical monument, called Lin's design a "black gash of

shame." Some were upset that the competition winner was a young Asian-American female. A compromise was reached when powerful conservative elements in the Reagan administration demanded the inclusion of a traditional representational sculpture at the memorial site. Hart's Three Servicemen was a detailed representation of Vietnam soldiers, one of them an African-American soldier—a nod to the sacrifice this group made in Vietnam and the first-ever depiction of an African American in a federal memorial. The inclusion of this statue in turn necessitated the second statue to acknowledge the contributions of more than 10,000 women who served in Vietnam.

Since its dedication, Lin's wall has been one of the most-visited sites in the nation's capital. It has helped to burnish the public image of Vietnam veterans in the postwar era and acts as a site of powerful emotional catharsis. It also revolutionized memorial design in America, transforming monuments from passively observed statuary to places experienced over time and space. Moreover, the success of the wall began a national revival of public commemorative art and spurred the creation of hundreds of federal, state, and local memorials to veterans of Vietnam, the Korean War, and World War II. Specific aspects of Lin's design appear in many of these. The wall also influenced the Oklahoma City National Memorial (2000), which honors the victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City terrorist bombing, and design schemes for memorials to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.


Capasso, Nicholas J. "The National Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Context: Commemorative Public Art in America, 1960–1997." Ph.D. diss., Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, 1998.

Griswold, Charles L. "The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Washington Mall: Philosophical Thoughts on Political Iconography." Critical Inquiry 12 (summer 1986): 688–719.

Scruggs, Jan, and Swerdloe, Joel. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: To Heal a Nation. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

Strait, Jerry L., and Strait, Sandra S. Vietnam War Memorials: An Illustrated Reference to Veterans Tributes throughout the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 1988.

Nicholas J. Capasso

See also:Grunts; Vietnam Veterans.

Vietnam War Memorial

views updated May 29 2018


VIETNAM WAR MEMORIAL. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated on the Washington Mall in November 1982. Maya Ying Lin, a Yale University architecture student who won the national design competition, erected two elongated, tapered walls of black granite that joined at the higher ends at a 125-degree angle to form an open "V." The back sides of the walls were landscaped to be even to the ground. Open front sides sloped downward into the earth to a depth of ten feet where the wings met. The names of the 57,939 American men and women dead or missing in action in the war were etched, chronologically, in white on the polished granite. At the dedication, veterans and family members read the names of the dead in alphabetical order, a tribute that required more than three days.

The organizers of the Vietnam Memorial intended their project as a symbol of reconciliation. Their nonpolitical memorial would not comment on the rightness or wrongness of the Vietnam War. By focusing simply on those who served and died, the organizers hoped to conciliate the war's supporters and opponents. Their choice of a site across from the Lincoln Memorial meant, as one

veteran put it, that "no one could ignore it." The wall's stark design offended some conservatives and veterans groups, who agitated for a more heroic memorial. As a compromise, sculptor Frederick Hart prepared a statue of three U.S. soldiers—one black, one white, and one Eurasian—as a counterpoint to the abstract simplicity of the wall. Since its unveiling, the Vietnam Memorial has been the third most visited site in Washington, D.C.


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

Scott, Wilbur J. The Politics of Readjustment: Vietnam Veterans since the War. New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1993.

Senie, Harriet F., and Sally Webster, eds. Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context, and Controversy. New York: Icon Editions, 1992.

J. GarryClifford/f. b.

See alsoArt: Sculpture ; War Memorials ; Washington, D.C.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

views updated May 23 2018

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Inc. (VVMF) was established in 1979 by a group of Vietnam veterans in Washington, D.C. (See Vietnam War .) Member Jan Scruggs lobbied Congress for a two-acre plot of land in an area called Constitutions Gardens. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter (1924–; served 1977–81) signed the legislation to provide a site for the construction of the memorial. It would be located near the

Lincoln Memorial . More than three years passed before the memorial was built.

That same year, the VVMF announced a nationwide memorial design competition, open to any U.S. citizen aged eighteen years or older. Entries were judged anonymously by a panel of eight artists and designers who had been chosen by the VVMF. Out of 1,421 entries, the winner was an undergraduate student at Yale University. Maya Ying Lin designed the winning entry with the goal of creating a park within a park. The result of her vision is commonly known as The Wall.

The Wall consists of seventy separate granite panels, each 246.75 feet long and 40 inches wide. Each black granite panel is inscribed with names except for the four panels at the end, which have been left empty to allow for names to be added as needed. As of 2008, The Wall was inscribed with more than 58,000 names. Each name represents a member of the military who died in the Vietnam War (1959–75) or who is missing. Next to each name is a cross (for those confirmed dead) or a plus sign (for those missing). The plus signs can be turned into crosses if necessary.

The Three Servicemen

In addition to The Wall, the Vietnam Memorial includes a bronze, life-size sculpture designed and created by sculptor Frederic Hart. It is called The Three Servicemen and features three young, uniformed soldiers. The sculpture faces the wall, approximately 150 feet away. The Three Servicemen was unveiled in November 1984.

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