Commemorating the War
The Vietnam Memorial, like the POW-MIA flag, stands as the physical embodiment of the desire of the American people to understand the meaning of the Vietnam conflict and remember the men and women who took part in it. During the late 1970s both public and private efforts began to congeal around the idea of establishing a monument to the 58,000 American dead in Vietnam. Influenced by the film The Deer Hunter (1978), Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran, teamed up with two other servicemen in 1979 to create a non-profit organization known as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
The location and design of the memorial generated intense political controversy over an issue still raw in the American national consciousness. Maya Lin, a young Chinese-American architectural student at Yale University, won the competition with a design based on a sunken 500-foot, V-shaped wall of polished black granite bearing inscriptions on fourteen panels of all the names of the American men and women who died in Vietnam between 1959 and 1975.
Controversy immediately erupted over the political message conveyed by the wall. Some detractors saw it as a thinly veiled criticism of American motives in the war. Lin, who was also attacked by American racists who saw her Chinese heritage as implicated in her interpretation of the war and design of the memorial, effectively kept critics at bay and successfully preserved the inclusion of a chronological listing of the names of the deceased. Conservative critics influenced Secretary of the Interior James Watt to delay construction, however, until agreement was reached adding three life-sized bronze casts of American soldiers in more heroic form near the wall. This new addition reflected the desires and needs of a more conservative segment of the American population, personified by Ross Perot, who felt that the memorial should also recognize the positive aspects of the war and American service in Southeast Asia.
The wall, once unveiled, induced some veterans to feel guilt about surviving a conflict that their friends had not. Others discovered friends had not perished, and reconnected with former friends in the armed services who were at the wall to do the same. Thousands of flowers, cards, and other mementos have been left at the wall, a tradition that serves as a constant reminder that the conflict remains firmly imbedded in the memories of most Americans. A sacred shrine to many, over 2.5 million people visit the wall each year; it is the most visited memorial in Washington, D.C. The Korean War Veterans Memorial, established in 1995, owes its existence in part to a heightened sense of sympathy toward veterans by the American people in the wake of the Vietnam conflict.
On Veterans Day 1993 the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project unveiled a monument to the participation of women in the Vietnam War. Diane Evans, a Vietnam veteran who served as a nurse in hospitals and transport planes along with thousands of other women, pushed the project forward with tireless effort. In ways similar to the inclusion of a black male soldier in a bronze statue installed near the Vietnam Memorial in 1984, the women’s memorial—built by sculptor Glenna Goodacre—reflected the inclusiveness of the war and the shared experiences of participants across race and ethnicity. The statue depicts two female nurses (one black and one white) assisting a fallen soldier. The Vietnam War elevated the visibility of military women within the armed services, leaving a lasting legacy that helped later women achieve even greater gains in rank, job participation, and benefits.