Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Description & History

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  • 0:00 'The Wall'
  • 0:50 Building the Memorial
  • 2:58 Memorial Characteristics
  • 4:59 Visitor Experiences
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the history, design, and structure of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., where the names of more than 58,000 American servicemen and women are enshrined.

'The Wall'

'War is Hell' is a paraphrased quote often attributed to the Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman. It certainly was hell for American servicemen and women in Vietnam in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. America's involvement in Vietnam's civil war was incredibly controversial and an issue that split the nation.

America's involvement and its justification for war in other countries remains contentious to this day. Fortunately, one part of the Vietnam legacy that has the support of all Americans is the striking and moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. In fact, it's so well known that it's commonly referred to simply as 'The Wall.'

Building the Memorial

The impetus behind building a monument to commemorate the more than 58,000 American military personnel who lost their lives in the Vietnam War began only a few years after the last American troops were pulled out of Southeast Asia. In April, 1979 a small group of Vietnam veterans led by Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran and infantry corporal, created and incorporated the non-profit Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. Scruggs began lobbying congress for support and for a prominent location to build a memorial. He got immediate support from several U.S. Senators, and in 1980, President Carter signed legislation granting an area near the Lincoln Memorial for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The founders of the memorial then chose to hold a national competition for the design of the monument itself. The winning design was chosen in 1981 and approved by Congress shortly after. It was submitted by Maya Ying Lin, a Yale University student and daughter of Chinese immigrants. The design met all the requirements the organization put forth: that it encourage reflection and contemplation; that it meld seamlessly into its environment; that it contain all the names of those who had died or were still missing; and that it be void of politics.

Construction began on the Memorial in March 1982 and was completed later that same year. It was commemorated in November. Though the design of the memorial today is iconic, in the early 1980s it was controversial - some right-wing politicians felt it was making a political statement about the war simply through its lack of ornamentation or any recognizable symbols or statues associated with the war. In addition, they felt it failed to truly honor those who had lost their lives in the conflict.

In the end, a compromise was made, and a second sculpture depicting soldiers was commissioned. The sculpture is known as 'Three Servicemen' and sits roughly 150 feet opposite the main wall. It was completed by sculptor Frederick Hart and unveiled in November 1984.

Memorial Characteristics

The wall itself is made of polished black granite that reflects light extremely well. This was by design. Ms. Lin intended for the wall to reflect the trees, grass, and parkland that surrounds the wall on the National Mall. The wall is built into the earth, which creates a recessed, quiet area for viewing, and one can barely see it from a short distance away. The wall is actually two large walls, each one nearly 250 feet long and tapered at the ends. The place where the two walls meet stands more than 10 feet high. As the wall grows larger toward its central apex, it also descends slightly below the horizon. The two walls together contain the names of the 58,272 American servicemen and women who served in Vietnam and are currently listed as dead, missing, or presumed dead.

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