The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, located in Constitution Gardens adjacent to the National Mall, is comprised of three separate memorials: the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, the Three Servicemen Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. While many may be familiar with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the whole memorial is actually 3-acres in Constitution Gardens. Every year, more than 3 million people visit the memorial, which is presently maintained by the U.S. National Park Service.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is comprised of two identical stone walls, each 246 feet and 9 inches long, containing 58,300 names. When the wall was initially completed in 1983 it only had 58,191. Approximately 1,200 of the names featured are those who were accounted for as missing in action or prisoners of war. Directories to find the location of specific names are located on podiums adjacent to the site.
Four years after the Fall of Saigon (April 30th, 1975), the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Inc. (VVMF) was incorporated on April 27th, 1979. The non-profit had a singular purpose: to establish a memorial to veterans of the Vietnam War. The founder of the organization was a U.S. Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War, Jan Craig Scruggs. Scruggs retired from his position as head of the foundation in 2015.
In March of 1979, Jan Scruggs and his wife went to see the movie The Deer Hunter, a war drama film about the Vietnam War and the emotional tolls on servicemen. By 3:00AM of the night they saw the movie, Scruggs began having flashbacks of 12 of his comrades being killed when three mortar rounds accidentally exploded while being unloaded from a truck on January 21, 1970. By dawn, the idea of erecting a memorial, with the names of every American servicemember who had died in the Vietnam War, had flashed into his mind.
While his wife feared that Jan had “gone off the deep end” and that the idea might leave them penniless, Jan would go on to share his idea at a local meeting of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). The initial concept proposed was a 30ft tall obelisk to be erected without the assistance of government funding, and containing every name of every death inscribed on its surface.
The initial concept for a memorial, and the design proposed, were strongly opposed by fellow veterans who felt that the idea was potentially naïve, or created a distraction from the VVA’s main goal of gaining better benefits for veterans. One critical supporter Scruggs found early was Bob Doubek, a D.C. attorney and fellow Vietnam War veteran. Doubek advised Scruggs to form a nonprofit corporation as a vehicle for raising funds to build the memorial on his own.
Scruggs would go on to announce the VVMF formation on May 28th, 1979 during the start of Vietnam Veterans Week, which is organized by the VVA. Scruggs was working as an investigator in the equal opportunity employment office of the Department of Labor at the time and was granted a week off to devote to the memorial. However, it was not long after the formation that he began devoting 11 hours a day, six days a week, to running the VVMF.
After a slow first two months, which raised only $144.50, CBS Evening News aired a report by Roger Mudd that ridiculed the fundraising effort. Roger Mudd’s report about the VVMF would go on to become material for late-night comedians. The attention helped raise the overall profile of the VVMF and increase fundraising into the thousands of dollars. The majority of donations that Scruggs received were in the $5 to $10 range.
When Chuck Hagel, then deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, became an early backer of the project, it was able to further bring donations into the VVMF. Another viewer of the CBS News report was a Vietnam War veteran and attorney by the name of John P. Wheeler III. Wheeler, for context, was the individual who fought for the Southeast Asia Memorial at West Point.
After nearly two years of fundraising, the organization had raised more than $8.4 million from private donors. Scruggs was the primary force behind the VVMF’s legislative efforts to get Congress to authorize the memorial and grant it a location on the National Mall. The controversial design, dubbed “a black gash of shame” by public officials, had to be pushed through the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and other federal and D.C. agencies by Scruggs. The completed Vietnam Veterans Memorial was finally unveiled on November 13th, 1982.
Design and Construction
The site of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, near the Lincoln Memorial, was authorized by Congress to be located on the site of a demolished World War I Munitions Building. However, before construction a design competition was held to determine the design of the park. By the end of 1980, 2,573 people had registered for the design competition’s prize of $50,000. However, by March 30, 1981, only 1,421 designs had been submitted. In order for the selection committee to review each design, all 1,421 designs were put on display at Andrews Air Force Base in an airport hangar in rows that covered more than 35,000 square feet. The entries were tagged only with a number to preserve anonymity. The initial 1,421 were reduced to a selection of 232, then 39. The eventual winner, the artist Maya Lin, was number 1026.
While initial responses to the proposed design considered it highly controversial, with some public officials describing it as “a black gash of shame”, it was above all viewed to be highly unconventional for a war memorial lacking ornamentation. The early building permits were initially refused by James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under President Ronald Regan, due to the public outcry. However, the initial controversy and criticism have largely evaporated. Scruggs describes the shift due to the memorial “becoming something of a shrine.”
The controversy to Lin’s design for the wall led to the selection of Frederick Hart, who had placed third in the initial design competition, to produce bronze figurative sculptures in the heroic tradition of war memorials. However, even the placement of the sculptures were met with their own controversy. The statue, known as The Three Soldiers, depicts a European American, African American, and Hispanic American. The statue’s design is so that the arrangement of the three soldiers appear to be looking on in solemn tribute at the names of their fallen comrades.
It wasn’t until March 11th, 1982 that the final design became formally approved. Though it would take almost another year for ground breaking to occur on March 26th, 1982. The stone used in the construction of the memorial’s wall was sourced from Bangalore, Karnataka, India, due to the stone’s reflective quality. The cutting and fabrication was done in Barre, Vermont before being transported to Datalantic in Atlanta, George for typesetting. The negatives from the etching process that occurred in Memphis Tennessee, are currently in storage at the Smithsonian.
The Vietnam War Memorial Wall was officially dedicated on November 13th, 1982, after thousands of Vietnam veterans marched across D.C. to the site. Nearly 2 years later Frederick Hart’s statue of the Three Soldiers was officially dedicated.
Vietnam Women’s Memorial
The Vietnam Women’s Memorial was designed by Glenna Goodacre for the purpose of honoring the women of the United States who served in the Vietnam War. The original winner of the design contest for a Women’s Memorial was deemed to be unsuitable for the memorial. Goodacre’s original submission depicted a nurse holding a Vietnamese baby. The initial design was deemed to be making an unintended political statement and thus rejected despite its honorable mention. When the design was resubmitted, Goodacre altered it to be a figure of a kneeling women holding an empty helmet. The completed sculpture was officially dedicated on November 11th, 1993.
A memorial to those veterans who died after the war as a direct result of injuries suffered in Vietnam, but whom had fallen outside the formal Department of Defense guidelines for being classified a casualty of the Vietnam War, was spearheaded by Ruth Coder Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was the founder of The Vietnam War In Memory Memorial Plaque Project, which struggled against fierce opposition, until the plaque was finally authorized on November, 10th, 2000, by Pub.L. 106-214.
Visiting the Vietnam War Memorial
While the Vietnam War Memorial is open to the public 24 hours a day, Park Rangers are only on site to answer questions between 9:30 AM and 11:30 PM daily. Between 10:00 AM and 11:00 PM daily there are interpretive programs available. The memorial is lit at night to allow viewing into the evening and pre-dawn hours. The visitor contact station nearby the site is located between the Lincoln Memorial and Vietnam War Memorial.
Leave your tripods for photography in the car as their use is prohibited at the memorial. Furthermore, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial may not be filmed or photographed for commercial purposes.
Due to its location within the Constitution Gardens, it is strongly advised that you use public transportation. The most convenient options are via Metrobus or Metro Rail. If you choose the bus, the 32, 34, and 36 routes will take you to the site. The closest stations to the memorial are the Smithsonian and Federal Triangle stops which service the Orange and Blue lines.
Street parking on Ohio Drive is available for general visitor parking, however handicapped accessible locations are limited. You should not rely on the limited street parking available.
The Vietnam War Memorial’s location within Constitution Gardens on the National Mall places it close to the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin are within walking distance.
Visitors may also want to plan on visiting the White House, Holocaust Museum, as well as the East Potomac Park and Southwest Waterfront.