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

From the Lecture Series: The Great Tours — Washington, D.C.

By Richard Kurin, PhD, The Smithsonian

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

Soldier statues at Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC
(Image: K.L. Kohn/Shutterstock)

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 acutely aware of the physical wounds combat could inflict. But when he thought about the experiences of himself and his fellow veterans, his real concern was the emotional and social wounds the war had left behind.

Jan C. Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, standing at the apex of the Wall. 1982
Jan C. Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Image: Dane A. Penland/Smithsonian Institution)

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. 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.

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About two months later, he formed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and donated $2,800 of his own money 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 had guided development on the Mall since Teddy Roosevelt’s day) 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.

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Maya Lin Proposes a Unique Design

Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam war memorial
Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. was chosen in a national competition. At the time she was still an undergraduate at Yale University. (Image: Berkeley Center for New Media/Public domain)

Her design was like nothing else on the Mall: a 500-foot-long, V-shaped wall of black granite, 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.

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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 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. Lin, however, was born an American citizen, and her parents had been naturalized U.S. citizens well before the war.

The controversy ended in a 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.

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Ray Manzo and Rolling Thunder

Flags and flowers on Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC
(Image: Paula Cobleigh/Shutterstock)

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 wall’s installation. 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—throughout 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. 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. They returned year after year, 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.

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Visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Tourist etching name off of Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC
(Image: Geir Olav Lyngfjell/Shutterstock)

To visit the wall yourself, you’ll find it located a few steps northeast of the Lincoln Memorial. Because of its low-lying form, it is surprisingly easy to miss if approached from the wrong direction. Viewing the memorial 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 a smartphone app.

Common Questions About the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Q: Is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial a proper memorial for veterans?

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial honors the soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the Vietnam War or remain missing. It does this by listing the names of all 58,000 of these soldiers.

Q: What are the three parts of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial?

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial consists of the Three Soldiers statue, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

Q: How are the names listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial?

On the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the names are given in chronological order by the date in which the soldier either died or went missing.

Q: What is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall made of?

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall is made of black granite, giving it a simple yet elegant appearance.

This article was updated on July 15, 2020

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