One of the unfortunate legacies of the Vietnam War is that the United States virtually turned its back on those who fought in its most controversial overseas conflict. The old-line veterans’ service organizations, for example, all but shunned Vietnam War returnees. The Veterans Administration all but ignored Vietnam veterans seeking compensation for diseases caused by exposure to Agent Orange and those asking for mental therapy as a result of their traumatic war experiences. Too many in the antiwar movement blamed the warriors for the war. And Congress did nothing at all for Vietnam veterans until the early 1980s.
The corollary to that situation is that the men and women who had served in the Vietnam War had to lead the fight for just about every government program and every other sort of recognition of their service to America. That includes conceiving of, lobbying Congress for, and raising the funds to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., an edifice that has become one of the nation’s most revered works of architecture since it was dedicated 25 years ago.
The story of The Wall’s unlikely creation has been told many times. But it’s worth retelling as the nation’s eyes turn toward the shimmering black granite memorial that honors all of those who served in the war, and literally spells out the names of those who perished and remain missing.
When former 199th Light Infantry Brigade soldier Jan Scruggs went to see the Vietnam War movie The Deer Hunter in 1979 he came out of the theater with an audacious plan: build a national memorial on the Mall in Washington listing the names of those who had perished in the war. Scruggs, who had come home from Vietnam with 11 pieces of shrapnel in his body, was working for the federal government at the time. In his spare time Scruggs organized the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund with fellow Vietnam veterans Robert Doubek, Robert Kimmitt and John Wheeler to attempt to turn his vision into a reality.
Scruggs and company persuaded Maryland Senator Charles McC. Mathias to introduce a bill in Congress on November 9, 1979, authorizing construction of a memorial on two acres of land at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, with the proviso that the VVMF raise all the funds to build it. Congress debated the measure during March and April of 1980 and overwhelmingly passed Mathias’ legislation in June. President Jimmy Carter signed the bill into law on July 1, 1980.
After many months of struggle, the donations began to come in from individuals, corporations and veterans’ groups. The VVMF ended up raising more than $8.4 million from more than 270,000 individual donors.
In April 1981, the VVMF held what was believed to be the nation’s largest architectural competition to choose a design for the memorial. The criteria: that the memorial be “reflective and contemplative in character,” that it be in harmony with its surroundings and that it contain all the names of the Vietnam War dead and missing. On May 6, 1981, the design committee announced the winner from among 1,421 entrants: two polished sloping black granite walls, each 200 feet long, meeting to form an oblique triangle. The names of the Vietnam War dead and missing would be inscribed on the walls in chronological order of death or MIA date. The stark design was the work of a 21-year-old Yale University undergraduate architecture student, Maya Lin, who submitted it as part of a course she was taking in funerary architecture.
Some veterans, members of Congress and others objected to the design, saying it did not properly recognize the sacrifices of those who perished in the war. One veteran called it a “shameful degrading ditch—a black gash of sorrow.” Reagan Administration Secretary of Interior James Watt agreed with the dissenters, and moved to block the entire enterprise. At the eleventh hour, Virginia Senator John Warner brokered a compromise. Lin’s design would remain, but the memorial also would contain a larger-than-life statue, an American flag and a one-sentence inscription: “Our nation honors the courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty of its Vietnam veterans.”
On March 26, 1982, with a crowd of some 2,000 on hand, 125 Vietnam veterans, some of them weeping, pitched shovels into the muddy earth to break ground for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “May this be a holy place of healing,” said Army Chaplain Max D. Sullivan in his benediction.
On July 22, the VVMF unveiled the first of 140 polished black granite slabs inscribed with the names of the Vietnam War dead and missing. On September 21, the sculptor Frederick Hart unveiled a model of his statue of three Vietnam War fighting men; it would be dedicated at the memorial on Veterans Day 1984. On October 7, the final panel of names was put into place. On the 13th, the Washington Commission of Fine Arts approved the addition of Hart’s statue, a flagpole and a name locator, and their placement in a grove of trees near the memorial’s western entrance.
The VVMF and the National Park Service threw a five-day national salute to Vietnam veterans during Veterans Day weekend. The salute, attended by tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans and hundreds of thousands of spectators, included a three-day, around-the-clock candlelight vigil at Washington National Cathedral during which volunteers read aloud the names of those listed on The Wall. The salute also included unit reunions and a parade in tribute to Vietnam veterans. The final event was the dedication of The Wall on Saturday, November 13, 1982.
The National Salute marked the beginning of a very good thing: a national reassessment of the service of Vietnam veterans that has resulted in the nation no longer blaming the warrior for that war. The dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial also ended controversy over its design. The Wall is now accepted universally as the nation’s highest compliment to all of the Americans who served their nation in the Vietnam War.
“The emotional five days in Washington, which brought our country together after that divisive war, did a great deal to finally bring societal acceptance of, and recognition for, our nation’s 2.7 million Vietnam veterans,” the VVMF reported to Congress in 1983. Those words have been borne out in the intervening quarter-century. The Wall has become a powerful, meaningful, special place for Vietnam veterans and for millions of others who have made it one of Washington’s most visited sites.
The first time The Wall’s power made a lasting impact on me came in 1992 during the 10th anniversary commemoration, when I played a miniscule part in a continuous, four-day reading of the 58,000-plus names inscribed on it. At 7:45 on Veterans Day morning I joined a line of five others in front of the memorial waiting to read names. I struck up a conversation with Harry Robinson, a Vietnam veteran who was then dean of Howard University’s School of Architecture. We bantered about this and that, but mostly we scanned our lists of names, concentrating on pronouncing them correctly.
When Robinson finished reading his names, he paused. He then read the names of three college classmates who died in Vietnam. After finishing, he climbed down the steps and walked right past me. His face was set grimly. He was barely holding back tears.
When I walked up to the podium, I set my paper down, adjusted the microphone and then looked up. That’s when I experienced the emotional weight of what I was about to do. I looked to my left and saw the Capitol dome backlit by the rising early morning sun. In front of me a growing crowd of people stared at the stage. To my right, dozens of TV and still cameras were glued on The Wall and on me.
I only felt one thing during the next few minutes as I read the 20 names—an overwhelming need to enunciate each one clearly and correctly. When I finished the last name, Robin Ray Yeakley, I nodded to the next reader and walked off the stage. As I climbed down, a volunteer thanked me. I tried to say “Thank you,” but the words wouldn’t come. Emotion overcame me. If I’d tried to say anything, the words would have choked in my mouth and I probably would have sobbed.
I’d been to The Wall many times before. When I did, I’d think about Stephen Allsopp, the only guy in my unit who was killed during my year in Vietnam. I’d remember Joe Tangarie from my hometown of Hillside, N.J. We were pals throughout basic training. He was killed in Vietnam about four months later. I grieved for Joe and for Allsopp in 1968. I continued to feel the tragedy of their deaths whenever I visited The Wall. But I never experienced anything more than a transitory sadness over their fates while I was at The Wall—until Veterans Day of 1992 when for the first time I felt its enormous power and healing value.
Journalist, historian and author Marc Leepson served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1967-68. He has written six books, most recently Desperate Engagement, about the Battle of Monocacy and Confederate General Jubal Early’s march on Washington, D.C.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.