On this day in 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is dedicated. When the Memorial’s long, black walls were first proposed, they sparked controversy. Since then, they have become a place of reverence and healing.
The Memorial might never have existed but for Jan C. Scruggs, a Vietnam War veteran. The years after the war were tough, and Scruggs became more and more convinced that a memorial would help veterans heal. “Its mere existence would be societal recognition that their sacrifices were honorable rather than dishonorable,” he explained. “Veterans needed this, and so did the nation. Our country needed something symbolic to help heal our wounds.”
Scruggs hoped veterans’ service could be recognized, even in the face of disagreement with governmental policy. In 1979, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) was incorporated.
It wasn’t easy, and VVMF struggled at first. Finally, a site was authorized near the Lincoln Memorial, with the help of two Senators. VVMF began raising more money and businessman Ross Perot helped sponsor a national design competition. More than 1,400 designs were judged by a jury of 8 artists and designers.
The jury’s decision was unanimous: It picked a simple design with two long, black granite walls. The names of the killed and missing in action would be etched into the granite. Each name would be printed in chronological order, according to the date of injury.
The jury had unknowingly selected a design submitted by a college student. She was Maya Ying Lin, an undergraduate at Yale University and the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Lin later explained the genesis for her idea: The Yale University Memorial Rotunda features the names of alumni who have died in military service. “I think it left a lasting impression on me,” Lin later wrote, “the sense of the power of a name.”
Not everyone saw it that way at first.
Perot hated the design. “The memorial did not honor all the soldiers,” he said. “It just honored the dead.” He called the proposed Memorial a “trench.” Another critic called the design a “nihilistic slab of stone.” Where were the patriotic symbols? Why did the slabs of granite sink into the earth, as if they had something to hide? One critic blasted the monument as a “black trench that scars the Mall. Black walls, the universal color of shame and sorrow and degradation.”
The controversy was finally resolved in a closed door session. “I am sick and tired of calling black a color of shame,” Brigadier General George Price blasted to the room. He reminded those assembled that “[c]olor meant nothing on the battlefields of Korea and Vietnam. We are all equal in combat. Color should mean nothing now.”
A compromise was reached. A huge flagpole would be added, as well as a statue of three soldiers. In the end, these additions were placed a short distance from the wall itself. That angered some, who had wanted the flag and statute much closer, but the deal was done.
When the Memorial was finally dedicated, thousands of Vietnam vets marched down the streets of D.C. Finally, their service was being recognized. Many wept. “It was a homecoming parade seven years after the war,” one journalist wrote.
Now, as you know, visitors flock to the memorial, looking for the name of a loved one. They leave flowers and flags. “Name rubbing” is common. A traveling wall tours the country, and a virtual wall has been created online.
Lin had sensed “the power of a name.” Perhaps she’s been proven right.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
About the Wall (Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website)
Denise Kersten Wills, The Vietnam Memorial’s History (Washingtonian; Nov. 1, 2007)
History of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website)
John Mintz, Perot's War: Viet Vets' 'Tombstone' (Wash. Post; July 7, 1992)
Robert W. Doubek, Creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: The Inside Story (2015)