Today, Americans celebrate Memorial Day, honoring soldiers who died while serving in the military. This long-standing holiday pays tribute to fallen members of the United States Armed Forces. Monuments in Washington, D.C.’s National Mall complement this day of reverence.
In Washington, D.C., the capital city of the United States of America, a large area known as the National Mall—or, for short, the Mall—is home to several monuments and memorials honoring the country’s history. The most recognizable of these are the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, which were built for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, two of America’s most distinguished presidents. However, there are also three memorials commemorating veterans of 20th-century wars: the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. These three memorials serve as year-long tributes to Armed Forces members, supplementing national holidays like Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day. Let’s take a closer look.
Rolling Thunder and the Vietnam War
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a 500-foot-long wall of black granite listing the names of all 58,000 soldiers who died in the conflict it honors. The design came from a competition held by the Commission on Fine Arts. “More than 1,400 designs were submitted, and finally the commission selected the work of Maya Lin, who at the time was an undergraduate architecture student at Yale University,” said Dr. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. “The wall’s height tapers from a mere eight inches at either end to 10 feet high at the center, but rather than rising to reach that 10 feet, it sinks into the earth. A visitor descends into the timeline of the war and rises back out again.” Despite controversy surrounding the memorial, which was seen as nihilistic and inappropriate, it was eventually embraced after the addition of a more traditional bronze statue of three servicemen was placed nearby.
The memorial plays another role in America’s history with its veterans as well. Marine Corps veteran Ray Manzo, concerned with the government’s handling of recovering American soldiers who had been classified as Missing in Action (MIA), decided to raise awareness through a motorcycle rally ride that went from the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, to the Vietnam Memorial. “The first Rolling Thunder First Amendment Demonstration Run was held on Memorial Day Weekend 1988,” Dr. Kurin said. “Today, Rolling Thunder is one of the largest annual events held on the Mall and the largest single-day motorcycle event in the world.” Dr. Kurin said that in 2017, an estimated 900,000 riders participated in the event. However, the 32-year tradition is ending after 2019. Vietnam veteran and co-founder of Rolling Thunder, Artie Muller said due to escalating costs and the difficult planning logistics, this year will be the last ride.
The Influence of the Vietnam Memorial
Not many people are aware that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall was the first of three veterans’ memorials to be constructed, which also paved the way for the memorials commemorating the Korean War and World War II. “The movement to acknowledge the Americans and their allies who had served [in the Korean War was] thanks in part to the precedent established by the Vietnam Memorial,” Dr. Kurin said. “In 1985, Representative James J. Florio of New Jersey introduced the Korean War Memorial Act into Congress. It rapidly passed through both houses and was signed into law by President Reagan the next year.” Groundbreaking began in 1992. Inspired by the Vietnam Memorial, it features a wall of black granite, but rather than list the names of the fallen soldiers of the Korean War, it displays a mural of images depicting the war and, separately, a curb commemorating the countries of the United Nations that participated in the conflict. Between the granite wall and the UN curb, 19 stainless steel statues of soldiers stand. They and their 19 shadows symbolize the 38th parallel, where the Korean War both began and ended.
The World War II Veterans Memorial Act was signed in 1993, but only after four failed attempts by Ohio Representative Marcy Kaptur to push it through Congress. Congress eventually signed Sen. Strom Thurmond’s version of the bill, instead. However, disagreement about its exact placement, design, and size held up the groundbreaking until the year 2000. “The first concern was that the memorial would disrupt the now-iconic views along the long axis of the Mall—the clear line of sight from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument to the Capitol,” Dr. Kurin said, also concerns existed about the Roman-inspired arches shown in design concepts. “Hugh Carey, a World War II vet and former governor of New York, even said he’d hoped to see something more like the Vietnam Memorial. That once-derided monument had now became the standard.”
The Vietnam War has remained as one of America’s most controversial large-scale engagements, but the monument honoring its fallen soldiers was the first of three veterans’ memorials on the National Mall and a precedent for the other two war memorials. As Americans celebrate Memorial Day and remember those who died serving in the United States Armed Forces, they can take comfort in the fact that the war memorials on the Mall continue to honor our fallen service members year-round and remain an ever-lasting tribute that is visited by millions of people each year.
Dr. Richard Kurin contributed to this article. Dr. Kurin is the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. He holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Philosophy from the University at Buffalo—The State University of New York. He earned both his M.A. and his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago.