The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was built to honor the sacrifice of veterans that served in a divisive war that lasted more than ten years from 1961 to 1975. Even though the Vietnam War was controversial, those who fought in the service of their country chose to obey the commands and orders of those above them.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Where is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial?
- History of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Frequently Asked Questions
Many soldiers followed those orders in the field and prepared to fight, willing to lay down their life for their country. The memorial was built to honor that spirit and the sacrifice of so many who gave everything they had to give.
The controversial Vietnam War was long and drawn out, fought in a humid terrain alien to American soldiers. As a result of the grueling guerilla-style warfare employed by the Viet Cong, thousands of soldiers lost their lives on both sides. After the protracted engagement finally came to an end, the Vietnam War concluded with the North Vietnamese winning and taking full control of Vietnam.
American soldiers returned home facing an extremely divisive nation, half of whom wanted to honor them for their service, and the other half who felt angered that America had gone to war at all. In light of this, it was decided that a memorial needed to be built one, to honor the soldiers and two, to provide a place for healing.
Where is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial?
Vietnam Veterans Memorial can be found in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., on a two-acre plot of ground. The memorial is located between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial in what is known as Constitution Gardens, adjacent to the National Mall.
The memorial is free for visitors and is open and available to the public 24 hours a day. The memorial has three parts: a memorial wall with the names of servicemen and women who fought, died, and went missing in action; the “Three Servicemen Statue;” and “Vietnam Women’s Memorial.”
The most known among them is the wall where 58,000 names are engraved in tribute to their sacrifice.
History of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The Vietnam War was a divisive and politically polemic war. During the 1970s, it divided the country between families of servicemen who gave the ultimate sacrifice and those who felt the war was wrong due to the controversial policies and decisions implemented during the war. However, for both groups, something needed to be done.
Families who lost sons and daughters needed them to be remembered and honored for their sacrifice. Those who felt the war should not have been fought also needed a place to gather and mourn.
Four years after the war ended, a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund came into being as a nonprofit organization. The man behind the formation of the fund was a wounded Vietnam War veteran named Jan Scruggs. By 1980, the fund had raised an astounding $8.4 million thanks to private donations. The two-acre site was then selected and approved by Congress for the building of the memorial.
The purpose of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was two-fold. It was meant to heal the wounds of families who lost members in the war and to reduce the divide within the nation by separating a soldier’s service from the policy decisions made by higher-ups.
The wall ultimately became a place to mourn, reflect, honor, and immortalize the sacrifice of the soldiers who paid the ultimate price in service for their country. To this day, the wall is included in military tribute songs, stories, poetry, and art honoring those who served.
If visiting the wall during the funeral of a Vietnam Veteran who is interred at Arlington National Cemetery, you’ll likely be able to hear the 21-gun salute as you stand and view the names of their brothers-in-arms who went on before them.
Construction and who designed it
After the memorial location was selected and finalized, the next step was deciding on a design. The importance of the memorial design was significant in that it was something that was to contribute to the healing of a nation—both those who lost someone in the war and those who felt that the war never should have happened.
Numerous criteria were specified including the requirement that it be contemplative, reflective, and hold no political overtones. It was to simply memorialize those who answered the call to serve and provide a place for healing.
Congress decided to hold a nationwide competition to choose the best possible design for the memorial. More than 2,500 people registered for the competition. The winning design would be worth a $20,000 prize, and 1,421 entries were submitted for review.
Andrews Airforce Base was selected as the location where those designs would be displayed for the selection committee. To maintain anonymity, each design was only assigned a number for identification. Names of the designers were left out of the selection process entirely. The jury made their final decision and unanimously chose number 1026, the design of Maya Lin, a 21-year old architectural undergraduate student at Yale University.
After the design was finalized, not everything went smoothly. Just like the controversy around the war itself, the memorial also garnered some dissenting opinions and controversy around the simplistic design. In Maya Lin’s vision, her design was to be a black polished granite wall with the names of every single soldier who served in the war etched into its face. It met the required criteria of it being contemplative, in harmony with monuments in the vicinity, have no political statement, and contain the names of the soldiers.
Initially, there was a public outcry over the color of the wall, the lack of ornamentation, and the fact that it seemed only to honor those who died, not those who had fought and were still living. At one point, the building permit was halted for fear of negative public reaction.
As a form of compromise, the opposition to the design led to the construction of a three-man statue that faces the wall and looks on at the names of those who died. Later, a Vietnam Women’s Memorial was also placed in the vicinity. A 50-foot flag pole with both the US and MIA flag was also erected in the vicinity.
Controversy surrounding the wall’s design died down quickly after the unveiling on November 13, 1982. As Maya Lin had hoped, the wall quickly became a place for solemn reflection, mourning, and healing for visitors from all around the nation.
Today, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial gets around 3 to 4 million visitors each year from around the world, proving that the purpose of the memorial has been achieved. It has become one of the most iconic national monuments to honor those who sacrificed their lives in service to their nation.
Date it was built
The groundbreaking for the final design took place on March 26, 1982. The Wall itself was finished on November 1, 1982.
By 1984, all parts of the memorial had been completed with The Three Servicemen statue unveiled on November 11, 1984. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated on November 11, 1993.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Frequently Asked Questions
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is open year-round, 24 hours a day. It has become a place for reflection, grieving, and healing. During Memorial Day, you may see a surge in visitors who return to pay tribute to their fallen friends and fellow soldiers. This has become a solemn place where many gather to pay respect during the National Moment of Remembrance, as well.
How many names are listed on the memorial?
The Vietnam Memorial Wall holds the names of soldiers who died in action and those who went missing in action. Currently, the Wall holds 58,318 names.
Do they still add names to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial?
The original number of names added to the memorial was 57,939. Today, that number stands at 58,318 due to special criteria put forth by the U.S. Department of Defense, which stipulated that the death of a veteran post-war can also lead to their name being inscribed on the wall.
If for example, a veteran dies due to complications of wounds received during the time when they served in the Vietnam war, their name will be added.
How do you find a name on the memorial?
The simplest way to find a name on the wall is by taking advantage of The Wall of Faces name finder supported by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. Here, you can search for the name of a loved one by entering their first name and last name if you know it.
You can also perform an advanced search if looking for someone based on anything from the city they lived in, their birth date, their military branch, and even their rank. On the person’s memorial page, you can write a note to them, read other peoples’ tributes, and request a sketch of their name from the wall if you are unable to go yourself.
A Place to Remember
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial teaches us how to acknowledge and honor the sacrifice of a soldier regardless of whether one agrees regarding the war they fought in.
Even if the policy was wrong, the soldier who lost their life was a father, brother, son, and friend. It is only right that they should be honored, respected, and memorialized.
Looking to learn more about memorials for veterans? Read our guide on the Pearl Harbor Memorial.
- "These names, seemingly infinite in number...” Vietnam Veterans Memorial, National Park Service. 20 April 2020. www.nps.gov/vive/index.htm
- “Plan Your Visit.” Vietnam Veterans Memorial, National Park Service. 28 October 2018. www.nps.gov/vive/planyourvisit/index.htm
- “About The Wall.” The Wall - Vietnam Veterans Memorial, The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. www.vvmf.org/About-The-Wall/
- Spector, Ronald H. “Vietnam War.” Wars, Battles, and Armed Conflicts, The Encyclopedia Britannica, 28 April 2020. britannica.com/event/Vietnam-War/The-U-S-role-grows.