The Vietnam War ended in 1975. Compared with other monuments on the Mall, the memorial to those who served in Vietnam was realized with extraordinary speed, although its design was almost as controversial as the war itself.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), a private organization, was formed in 1979 to fund the memorial and see it to completion. In 1981, after a competition that drew a record 1,421 entries, the jury selected a design by Maya Lin, then a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale University. Lin's design featured a V-shaped black granite wall set into the earth. One arm of the wall would be aligned with the Washington Monument, and the other, with the Lincoln Memorial. The names of those who died or remained missing would be inscribed on the wall.
The VVMF required that the memorial be politically neutral toward the war. Some critics felt that Lin's proposal was antiwar, an expression of shame and sorrow that dishonored those who had died, not one of pride and patriotism. These objections were overcome by adding a flagpole and a sculpture to the memorial. The placement of these new elements was itself controversial, and ultimately, they were located at the west entrance, where they have minimal impact on the integrity of Lin's design.
Ground was broken in March 1982, and the memorial was dedicated on November 13 that year. Each arm of the wall is 247 feet long and comprises 74 black granite slabs. Names are occasionally added to the wall, and as of Memorial Day 2015, there were 58,307 names.
Lin intended that the memorial be experienced by descending into it, not as a static object to be viewed from afar. Indeed, a chain railing forces visitors into intimate contact with the wall, where their reflections in the black granite merge with the names of the dead. A visit to the wall is a moving experience. Perhaps the memorial's success lies in the fact that it makes no judgment about the war, leaving it open to individual interpretation.
The commission for the sculpture went to Frederick Hart. Dedicated in 1984, Hart's work is a realistic depiction of three soldiers, two white and one black. Criticism that Hart's statue did not include a figural portrayal of a woman, many of whom served in Vietnam, led to the establishment of the Vietnam Women's Memorial, a narrative sculptural group by Glenna Goodacre. Located in the woods to the southeast of the wall, it was dedicated in 1993.
Adapted with permission from The Washington National Mall, by Peter R. Penczer, Oneonta Press, Arlington, Va.: 2007.
Copyright © Peter R. Penczer 2016