When the winning Vietnam Veterans Memorial design was dedicated on November 13, 1982, a storm of controversy followed. Prior war memorials had depicted brave soldiers riding horses, shooting guns, or at some other moment of triumph—for example, the massive Marine Corps War Memorial with its enormous bronze figures raising the American flag over Iwo Jima. The proposed Vietnam memorial was a simple black wall, starkly sunk into the ground in a “V” shape, with the names of dead and missing American servicemen and women engraved into it. Many people were shocked that of the 1,421 designs submitted by number in a “blind” competition, the final design had turned out to be the idea of a 21-year-old undergraduate student named Maya Lin—an Asian-American woman. Prominent Americans who had previously supported the idea of erecting a Vietnam memorial backed out of the project. Word spread quickly among Vietnam veterans that the politicians in Washington were stabbing them in the back with a “black gash of shame.” President Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior at one point refused to issue a building permit to allow construction to begin at the Memorial site.
The controversy about the wall reflected America’s feelings at that time regarding our involvement in Vietnam. Saigon had fallen to communism only 6 years before, and the Cold War against the Soviet Union continually held the world hostage to nuclear annihilation. The country was trying to emerge from an economic recession, and the recent military failure of Operation Eagle Claw, the abortive attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran, was fresh in American’s minds. Many Americans saw the Vietnam Memorial as a new, ugly reminder of the war their country had lost. Vietnam Veterans, their sacrifices ignored and dismissed for so long, saw the drama surrounding the Memorial as more evidence that they would never be accepted into mainstream American culture. Maya Lin was called as a witness to defend her design in front of Congress, and as a compromise measure an American flag and a more conventional bronze statue, “The Three Soldiers” (sometimes called The Three Servicemen) were added to the Memorial site.
Lin’s wall design turned out to be more intelligent than many armchair critics had realized. One section of wall points to the Washington Monument, the other towards the Lincoln Memorial. At its beginning, the wall is only 8 inches tall, and the names etched upon the reflective black rock begin slowly, as American involvement began slowly with the addition of “advisors” to South Vietnam in the late 1950s. Listed chronologically by their KIA or MIA date are the names of the dead and missing. There is no distinction between officers and enlisted men, between heroic medal winners and those who died before their colleagues got to know them—they are simply named, in order. As America expanded its involvement and threw more resources into the fight, the walls grow taller and the names grow overwhelming. A towering mass of carefully etched names soon confronts the visitor until the wall is over ten feet high at its apex—1968, the year of the infamous “Tet” offensive which simultaneously broke the back of the Viet Cong and also America’s will to fight them. As “Vietnamization” began in the early 1970s and American involvement tapered off, the wall also tapers off and the flood of names slows to a trickle, then stops. The visitors will eventually pass all 58,272 names, eleven years of American sacrifice. Across the apex of the wall stands “The Three Soldiers,” no larger than life-size. One Caucasian, one African-American, and one Hispanic, they appear to be sweating in the blistering wet heat of Southeast Asia. Wearing well-worn uniforms, their bronze weapons seem heavy to them. Their obvious youth contrasts with their tired expressions as they gaze across a short grassy field at their fallen comrades’ names. If it sounds somber, it is. The Vietnam Memorial is not a place to get excited about American military might; it is a place for quiet mediation. It is a place to honor the thousands of American lives lost in a cause that ultimately ended in failure.
As Vietnam veterans and their families began to visit the memorial, a curious phenomenon began to happen. Veterans would stay at the wall for hours making pencil rubbings of names that were important to them. Some would chat with each other, and realize that experiences they had thought were theirs alone, was shared by many others. Men looking for each other’s names on the wall would realize who was standing nearby, and embrace in tears. Children of men whose names were on the wall met veterans who knew other veterans who had known their fathers, and so on. People would leave the Memorial clutching handwritten phone numbers and promising to write letters. Networks of information began to flow. People began to leave personal items, “offerings” at the wall. The National Park Service has kept and preserved more than 100,000 offerings—South Vietnamese money, American medals and insignia, bits of uniforms, combat boots, a captured Viet Cong flag, and even a “chopper” style customized Harley motorcycle. Some items include letters written to fallen soldiers, or notes explaining the significance of the item. Others hold meaning only to those who left them at the wall, such as an experimental war-era Case “jungle survival knife,” of which only 144 were made.
Gradually, the Vietnam Memorial became one of the most popular memorials in the Washington, D.C. area. About 3 million people visit it each year, more than visit the Washington Monument. With its popularity among the American people has also come critical acclaim; in 2007 the American Institute of Architects named it tenth on the list of “America’s Favorite Architecture.” What was once a controversial, disturbing reminder of an unpopular war finally has become a cherished place of healing. America and her Vietnam Veterans have a place to come together.