The Vietnam Veterans Memorial honors the men and women who served in the Vietnam War. Its main monument, known as ‘The Wall’ is the most visited memorial in Washington.
The construction of a memorial was approved by Congress in 1980 as a result of campaigns by Vietnam Veterans. The project was financed privately; the necessary funds were collected by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. They announced a national competition for the design of the memorial.
One of the 1421 entries in the competition was submitted by Maya Ying Lin, a twenty-year-old student at Yale University. Her design was the result of an earlier class assignment. She only received a B grade on the assignment, but a jury of architects and sculptors unanimously selected her design.
Lin’s design was very simple: two black triangular granite walls are sunk into the ground at an angle of 125 degrees. Each wall is 250ft or 76m long. Both walls start at a height of 8 inches (20cm) and meet at their highest point, where the walls are 10ft (3m) high. Inscribed in the wall are the names of more than 58,000 men and women who were killed in the Vietnam War or who are still missing in action. A diamond next to the name indicates the person was killed, a cross indicates the person is missing. If a body is identified, the cross is circled.
The austere design of the memorial, a scar in the earth, was controversial. Some Vietnam Veterans opposed the design, which lacked statues or an American flag. To silence the critics, a group of statues was erected near the Vietnam memorial in 1984, two years after the wall was dedicated. Over time, people started to better understand the powerful image of the wall. The cleavage in the earth symbolizes the country divided over the Vietnam War, while the seemingly endless list of names visualizes the many sacrifices that were made better than any traditional monument could have done.
In 1993 another sculpture, depicting three women and a wounded soldier, was added to the Vietnam Memorial. It honors the women who served in the Vietnam War.