Today I want to explain the controversy around Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, built in 1982 and located in Constitution Gardens, northeast of the Lincoln Memorial. It is composed of 140 reflective black granite panels engraved with names of those who died in service. The panels form 2 converging walls placed on a v shaped path dug into the mound.
All of the issues in the controversy involves the major question: what is the purpose of the memorial? We can begin understanding why and how each stakeholder answers the question by analyzing 2 overarching themes; political and apolitical. These 2 themes not only tie stakeholders together and but also examines their individual position in this spectrum from opposing to supporting the memorial. [point and place finger around each bubble to express the range of support or against)
Let’s start with the apolitical side. The apolitical theme began with the Vietnam Veteran and Founder of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund JASON Scruggs. In his 1980 interview with NBC, Scruggs announced that the VVMF bill signed by President Jimmy Carter approved of a design that is, “not to be a political statement” about the war but rather a “contemplative, reflective,” and “conciliatory” space for the nation to heal. This need to be apolitical really came through in the selection process held by VVMF where the candidate’s name, gender, and race are not included in the entries. The winning candidate Maya Lin, a Chinese American Women who was still in college, proved the effectiveness of being apolitical especially in a time when even being a women in the field is pretty rare.
Although her win was surprising, her adherence to being apolitical was not. Lin’s background had a clear influence on her intention to free the grieving public from the hassles of politics and the morality of the war. In her press release before construction in 1981, she commented that,” The Vietnam War “never entered my world”. In fact Scruggs even mentions in his book To Heal a Nation, that one of the main reasons VVMF picked her after the initial selection process was because she “never read a book or seen a TV film clip about Vietnam”. Lin’s influence instead came from her experience at Yale University’s Memorial Rotunda. In her article “Making the Memorial”, she wrote that after seeing stonecutters add one name after another of her classmates who died in the war, she realized “the power of a name” and its impact on the grieving process. This is why the reflective granite panels only bares engraved names so visitors can focus on grief alone.
In our current extremely bipartisan political climate, it is hard for us to even imagine conservatives and liberals working together. However the bipartisan support for an apolitical design which started in the passing of the VVMF bill and furthered in the repeating recognitions by presidents of both parties, is actually a tool that politicians use to manipulate public perception of the war and the use of war. Robert K. Brigham, an international relations professor at Vassar College and a doctorate of U.S. Foreign policy, explains in his article “Monument or Memorial? The Wall and the Politics of Memory”, that at the beginning the apolitical design was crucial for politicians to distract the public with notions of grief/unification and push them away from embarrassing losses and the morality of the war. This approach soon changed when both the liberal and conservative media, such as the New Republic and National Review respectively, berated Maya Lin’s minimal design of engraved names, equating it to a police list for bus accidents. He explains that politicians were pushed by media’s harsh critiques to change the narrative from the focus of a united common grief to a sense of nobility by connecting the sacrifice of Vietnam soldiers to the liberation agenda of War 1 & 2 soldiers [point to Reagan and Clinton’s faces] and in turn “cleansing Vietnam from America’s record”. According to Brigham, cleansing America’s record is crucial to both parties because without changing the public’s negative perception of war, politicians would lose the threat and effect of war as a tool in their political arsenal, greatly reducing America’s power and influence over the world. Which is why the members of Congressional Selection Committee who granted the land for the memorial, adamantly demanded the addition of Frederick Hart’s statue The Three Soldiers in order to symbolically connect the Vietnam war with previous wars; knowing perfectly the statue would completely destroy Lin and VVMF’s apolitical efforts.
Another group who wanted to change the memorial and viewed memorials as political tools were the Vets. They believed Maya Lin’s design is an act of aggression towards vets. One of the most vocal opponents Tom Carhart asserts that to the average vet who weren’t highly educated or acquainted with high art, the black tone of the granite represents “the universal color of shame and sorrow and degradation” and the sloped surface is a further insult to wounded and disabled vets. Instead, Cahart explains that Vets just want a monument to “offer emotional comfort to vets and the families” by commemorating the war so that they can get by knowing their sacrifice wasn’t for nothing (Wolfson).
Memorials are special because they are not only great public spaces to celebrate but also to mourn. However its meaning not only differs to each one of us but also with time and the change in public perception. So Next time you visit a memorial think about the underlying meaning for not only those it was built for but also the intentions of those who built it.
Word Count: 1030
Brown, J. Carter “Statement on S2042.” 1988, pp. 1 to 3.
Brigham, Robert K. “Monument or Memorial? The Wall and the Politics of Memory.” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, vol. 25, no. 1, 1999, pp. 165–175. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41299138.
Klein, Christopher. “The Remarkable Story of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial.” Biography.com, 11 Nov. 2015, www.biography.com/news/maya-lin-vietnam-veterans-memorial.
Lin, Maya. “Making the Memorial.” The New York Review , 2 Nov. 2000.
Wolfson, Elizabeth. “The ‘Black Gash of Shame’—Revisiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Controversy.” Art21.Org, Chris Ware , 15 Mar. 2017, magazine.art21.org/2017/03/15/the-black-gash-of-shame