When dedicated in 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, known as “the Wall,” was one of most contested sites on the Mall. Its design and focus on loss across all ranks and services by listing names challenged how Americans remembered war. Some lawmakers and citizens argued that architect Maya Lin’s design failed to properly honor the military dead, and they financed a second monument nearby depicting soldiers. Nearly a decade later, a third monument honoring women was built. Even with the controversies, the Wall remains an emotional space for all visitors, prompting some to leave tokens of remembrance.
Why are there three memorials honoring those who served in Vietnam?
At the age of 21, Maya Ying Lin won a public competition to design to build the original Vietnam Veterans Memorial. For some, the open V shape of two walls partially buried in the ground represents the depth of grief caused by war. Not everyone was pleased with the abstract and simple design. Lin's design looked different from other war monuments, and several members of Congress complained to James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, that Lin's design did not properly honor those who fought.
Despite complaints, family members flocked to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial when it opened in 1982 to find the names of their loved ones. Without coordination or explicit instructions, people spontaneously left objects meaningful to them or the service person at the Wall, as if it was a gravestone.
Political pressure forced the addition of a second memorial representing soldiers. When installed in 1984, designers, lawmakers, and citizens fought, again, over this memorial's exact location. From where they now stand, the Three Soldiers appear to look over to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial and the names of the fallen.
After three male soldiers appeared on the Mall, female Vietnam veterans wanted to be visible on the Mall in their own monument. In 1993, after a ten-year campaign, the Vietnam Women's Memorial became the first memorial on the Mall to recognize and honor women in military service.