National Mall and Memorial Parks | VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was the first “national” war memorial on the National Mall. Congress authorized its creation in July 1980, and a design competition was announced that fall. Any U. S. citizen over the age of 18 could enter. No names were attached to the entries, so the judges had no idea who the designers were. The only criteria that had to be met was that the memorial blend in with the surrounding memorials, be contemplative in nature, list the names of all U. S. soldiers who died or went missing in the Vietnam War, and make no political statement.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The winner was 21-year-old Maya Ying Lin, an American-born woman whose parents came from China. She was a student at Yale and entered the contest after seeing an advertisement. The award to Lin caused a controversy because many thought a war veteran should have designed the memorial. In addition, the public hated Lin’s design because it was black and had no traditional elements.

To minimize the public’s outcry over the design, Frederick Hart was commissioned to create a sculpture of three soldiers, aptly named The Three Soldiers. The sculpture is unique in that it is painted, not left as bare metal. Hart, who was not a military veteran either, had entered the original competition and finished third in the judging.

Three Soldiers sculpture

Three Soldiers sculpture

Lin’s design called for a Memorial Wall comprised of two highly polished black granite walls that came together at an angle, with one end pointing towards the Washington Monument and the other towards the Lincoln Memorial. The walls tapered into triangles, with the tallest ends being at the vertex (center meeting point). The names of 58,191 soldiers who died or went missing during the Vietnam War are engraved in the granite. The names are listed in chronological order of casualty, starting at the vertex and running to the right towards the Washington Monument, then picking up again at the start of the wall angling towards the Lincoln Memorial, thus forming a figurative circle with the first and last casualties meeting back in the middle.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Next to the names are either a diamond or a cross. A diamond means the person was confirmed to have been killed; a cross means the person is missing in action. If an MIA soldier were to show up today, a circle would be engraved around the cross. If his remains are found, a diamond is superimposed over the cross. You will also find round dots spaced evenly along the vertical edges of some panels. These simply mark every ten lines, allowing visitors to find a particular name more easily. Catalogs listing all names on the memorial are located near the entrance. A panel number (found at the bottom corner of each panel) and a row number are given in the catalog.

Construction on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial began in March 1982, and it was officially dedicated on November 13, 1982. The Three Soldiers sculpture was not installed until the fall of 1984. In 2010, a memorial plaque with the names of men who died after the war due to injuries sustained in battle was installed near the Three Soldiers. These men did not qualify to be listed on the Memorial Wall.

In 1993, a third element was added to the memorial: the Vietnam Women’s Memorial dedicated to the women who served in Vietnam, most being nurses. This is a sculpture of three women and a wounded soldier. The artist is Glenna Goodacre.

Vietnam War Women's Memorial

Vietnam Women’s Memorial

Vietnam War Women's Memorial

Vietnam Women’s Memorial

Vietnam War Women's Memorial

Vietnam Women’s Memorial

Despite the initial public criticism, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has arguably become the most popular memorial on the Mall. According to visitation statistics—don’t ask me how the National Park Service actually keeps track of visitors to the memorials—only the Lincoln Memorial gets more visitors each year. In fact, in 2015 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was the 9th most visited unit of the National Park system. This can perhaps be attributed to the names on the wall, for while other memorials honor “those who died,” here you can actually read the names of those who died, so there is a real connection between the memorial and the visitors.

Visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is open year-round, 24 hours a day. Park Rangers are on hand from 9:30 AM to 10 PM to answer questions (except for Christmas day). The National Park Service offers daily programs that rotate throughout the memorials on the Mall. To find out what sort of activities are going on when you visit, see the National Park Service’s Calendar web page for the National Mall and Memorial Parks.

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Last updated on April 27, 2020
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