Who Built the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.?

FROM A LECTURE SERIES BY PROFESSOR RICHARD KURIN

Today, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a landmark feature of the nation’s capital and a must-see spot for visitors from around the world wishing to honor the fallen soldiers from a contentious 20th-century war. But the story of how this iconic Washington, D.C. memorial came to be is a tale of trauma, solidarity—and controversy.

Soldier statues at Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC

Jan Scruggs’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

The idea for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial began with one man: Jan Scruggs. Scruggs served in the U.S. Army 199th Light Infantry Brigade. He served two tours in Vietnam and was awarded a Purple Heart, three Army Commendation Medals, and a Commendation with Valor. Scruggs was obviously all too aware of the physical wounds combat could inflict. But when he thought about his experiences and those of his fellow veterans, his real concern was the emotional and social wounds the war had left behind.

But the idea of a memorial did not come from his research, at least, not at first. He got the idea because he went to see a movie—The Deer Hunter, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1979. The movie follows the lives of three friends before, during, and after the war, and watching it brought back terrible, harrowing memories for Scruggs. Unable to sleep, he spent the night tormented by thoughts of his experiences and the comrades he had lost, and by the morning, he was consumed with the idea of creating a memorial.

About two months later, he formed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and donated $2,800 of his own dollars to the cause. Fundraising was slow. Most donations were small—$5 or $10 at a time, which was about the most some donors could afford. Then the project came to the attention of two men: Chuck Hagel, the deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and John P. Wheeler, III, an attorney and fellow Vietnam vet. They helped to attract donors and got the idea in front of Congress.

From there, things moved quickly—very quickly by Washington, D.C. standards. Within two years, the fund had raised more than $8 million. Congress had approved a site near the Lincoln Memorial, and the Commission on Fine Arts (which, since Teddy Roosevelt’s day, had guided development on the Mall) had announced a design competition. 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.

Maya Lin Proposes a Unique Design

Her design was like nothing else on the Mall: a 500-foot-long, V-shaped wall of black granite. It was to be engraved with the names of all the servicemen who died during the conflict—more than 58,000 of them. All but the last few names are listed chronologically, starting with Air Force Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr., killed in action on June 8, 1956, to Kelton Rena Turner, killed in action on May 15, 1975. More names have been added, as servicemen once considered missing in action have been confirmed deceased.

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.

Inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Although today the wall is regarded as a masterpiece and, really, almost a pilgrimage site, when the design was revealed not everyone was happy. Most objections were simply due to how different it looked as compared to surrounding architecture. Some, though, found it insulting, calling it “nihilistic” and comparing it to a wound; others objected that Lin’s Chinese heritage and communist China’s role in the war made her involvement somewhat inappropriate—though Lin was born an American citizen and her parents had been naturalized U.S. citizens well before the war.

Once again, the controversy ended in compromise: A more traditional, bronze heroic figural statue by Frederick Hart, called Three Servicemen, was later added to the design, standing some distance away and overlooking the wall, symbolically standing guard over their fallen comrades.

The wall was completed in 1982, and the Three Servicemen statue was completed in 1984. After the statue’s dedication, a memorial statue to the 265,000 women who volunteered to serve in the war was proposed. A figural memorial to these women, sculpted by Glenna Goodacre, was added to the site in 1993.

Ray Manzo and Rolling Thunder

Flags and flowers on Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC

After its completion, the wall rapidly became a site of pilgrimage for those who served and for those who lost someone in the war. Visitors left mementos at the wall—from flags and photographs to letters and medals—more than 400,000 items to date. The National Park Service has collected and preserved these items since the very beginning. In cooperation with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, they have created a virtual museum of these objects, which is available online on the Fund’s website.

But in addition to making this connection with the past, visitors to the wall made connections with each other. People came to discuss their service, their fallen comrades, and those who were left behind. You see, when American forces pulled out of Vietnam, a large number of servicemen were unaccounted for. Unfortunately, this wasn’t unusual. Thousands of service personnel have been declared “Missing in Action”—or MIA—over the course of American history. But because of the difficult social and political climate surrounding this particular war, many veterans felt that the government was not doing enough to recover their MIA comrades or repatriate their remains.

A Marine Corps veteran named Ray Manzo had been thinking about this problem for a while when he came to visit the memorial in 1987. He met some fellow veterans at the Wall who shared his concerns. And they also shared something else: a love of motorcycle riding. By the end of his trip, Manzo and his fellow vets had hatched an idea. Instead of a march to raise awareness about the MIA issue, they would hold a motorcycle rally ride, starting from the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, crossing the Memorial Bridge to the Mall, and ending at the Vietnam Memorial.

The first Rolling Thunder First Amendment Demonstration Run—named not only because of the sound of roaring engines but also for one of the largest bombing campaigns of the war—was held on Memorial Day weekend in 1988. About 2,500 people participated. And they came back year after year, and were joined by more and more veterans, their families, and their friends. Today, Rolling Thunder is one of the largest annual events held on the Mall and the largest single-day motorcycle event in the world. In recent years, participants have numbered in the hundreds of thousands. On the 30th anniversary run in 2017, an estimated 900,000 riders participated in Rolling Thunder.

Meanwhile, the organization that Manzo founded has expanded its mission. It now works to discover and repatriate the remains of Americans killed in every war of the 20th and 21st centuries, from World War I to the War on Terror. They also continue to sponsor legislation that helps veterans and their families.

Visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Tourist etching name off of Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC

If you want to visit the wall yourself, you’ll find it just a few steps northeast of the Lincoln Memorial. Because of its low-lying form, it is surprisingly easy to miss if you approach it from the wrong direction. But you should definitely plan to seek it out. It is a truly moving experience.

If you wish to find the name of a friend or family member who is memorialized on the wall, there are several ways to do it. At the memorial itself, at either end of the wall, you will find an alphabetical index of names, which includes the number of the panel where the name is found. In recent years, the index has become available via an online database and via a smartphone app.

This article is from the series The Great Tours: Washington, D.C., taught by Professor Richard Kurin, Ph.D.