From Maya Lin's Vietnam Veteran's Memorial proposal
Jan C. Scruggs, a veteran of the Vietnam War, provided the initial impetus for a memorial.
Sparked by his efforts, the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Fund was established, congressional approval was granted for a site on the mall in Washington, D.C., and the parameters were set forth for a design competition.
The specifications for the design stipulated that the memorial could not contain political or military content and had to be reflective in character, harmonize with the surroundings, and include the names of all of the dead and missing.
At the time of the competition, Maya Lin was an architecture student at Yale University, completing a class in funerary monuments. The final examination was to create a design for the Vietnam memorial.
As our resource materials indicate, her design was minimalist, deeply symbolic, and remarkable in its simplicity. Her professor helped her evolve it further and encouraged her to submit it.
Maya Lin did not initially anticipate submitting her design, let alone winning the competition. The selection of her design from the 1421 submissions catapulted her at 20 into national public view and intense controversy.
Some of that controversy was vicious and mean spirited. She was called a “gook,” an Asian woman from a “hippie Ivy League school,” an “aesthetic elitist forcing her art and commentary” on others.
Creating the monument became a political battleground. Ultimately it could not be built without placing an oversize statue of three soldiers and a flagpole nearby, and then later an additional monument to the women who served in Vietnam.
These accommodations to diverse opinions resulted in the creation of what officially is a Vietnam memorial made up of three distinct and disconnected parts: Maya Lin's Wall, Frederick Hart's Three Servicemen Statue, and Glenna Goodacre’s Vietnam Women's Memorial.
The vitriolic responses to Maya Lin’s design aside, there were veterans who raised thoughtful objections that represented very different perceptions of what the memorial should express.
Some veterans objected to the fact that Maya Lin’s design only honored the dead. In the Vietnam War, 2.7 million men and women served; 57,661 were killed or missing. What expression, what voice, what message, they asked, did the nation have for the move than 2 million men and women who came home alive?
To say that memorials and monuments are there simply to ensure that we remember may be too simplified. Remember how? Leave out what?
The Vietnam Memorial demonstrates that remembrance can be an intense battleground over whose perspective on history is codified and rendered official.
What do the politics surrounding the creation of the Vietnam Memorial tell us about memorialization as conflict?