The History Of The Viet Nam Veteran Memorial

The origins of one of the most famous and unique memorials in our country, the Viet nam Veteran Memorial in Washington, DC.

The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D.C. was one of the most bitterly disputed public monuments in American history. However, the Vietnam War, during the course of which 57,661 young Americans lost their lives, was one of the most divisive events in American history.

The Vietnam Memorial was designed by Maya Lin, who at the time was an undergraduate at Yale studying architecture. Lin was only 21 years of age when she won the competition for the design of the Vietnam Memorial. Perhaps, no one can better describe the simplistic, but powerful design of the memorial better than Lin. In an interview with PBS she explained the concept behind her design, "If you can't accept death, you'll never get over it. So what the memorial's about is honesty. You have to accept, and admit that this pain has occurred, in order for it to be cathartic. All I was saying in this piece was the cost of war is these individuals. And we have to remember them first."

Lin's design was simply to incorporate two single black granite walls bearing the names of the 57,661 Americans who died in Vietnam. The names are arranged chronologically by death. Each half of the wall is 246.75 feet in length, with a combined length of 493.5 feet. Each wall is made of 70 panels. At their intersection, at the highest point, the walls are 10.1 feet high. The shiny, black granite used to build the walls came from southern India. The wall contains the names of each one of the Americans who died in the war. Each panel contains 137 lines of names, while the smallest panels contain only one line. There are five names on each line. The names and other words on the wall are .53 inches high and .015 inches deep.

When the design was initially announced in 1981, it provoked a storm of controversy. After all, this was not your normal post-war monument. There were not troops standing victoriously atop a hill waiving the flag of freedom. The fight against the monument was led by political commentator Pat Buchanan and Representative Henry Hyde, R-Ill. The two led a campaign featuring letters which claimed that one of the jurors on the selection committee was a communist and four of the jurors had been anti-war protestors. Other protestors wanted the color of the Memorial to be changed from black to white. Still others lobbied for a flagpole to be planted where the two walls converged.

But, the design stood the backlash and the monument, as Lin had originally designed it, was unveiled in the Washington D.C. Mall in 1982. The dedication was a deeply profound historical and emotional moment for those who fought in the war, as well as the entire country. Since its construction, thousands of Americans have visited the wall to mourn, remember loved ones, reflect on war and death, and to heal.

Since being unveiled, the memorial has been heralded as one of the most unique and powerful memorials of our time. It is so powerful because of its simplicity. Lin expressed through her design that the consequences of war are people, the loss of innocent lives. The heroism of war and the glory of the soldier winning the battle for freedom were not captured in her memorial. The high ideals of war were shattered by her monument. All that was left was a stark realization of the magnitude of death. The wall is meant to overwhelm one with the amount of names, a list so voluminous, each name so small. At a close range, the names dominate everything. The names are listed in chronicle order of casualty to underline the war as a series of individual casualties and sacrifices, giving each person a place in history. Yet to the person who has lost a loved one, the individual name stands out above all else. It can be replicated, a flower can be placed under the name. A path to healing can begin.

The memorial sits in the park with its walls pointing to the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, thus bringing it into the historical context of the country.

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