The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

A controversial design became one of the nation's great memorials

Maya Lin, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1982, granite, 2 acres within Constitution Gardens, (National Mall, Washington, D.C.). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Key points

  • The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is located on the National Mall, in between and pointing to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It consists of two linear cuts that descend into the earth, fronted with black granite panels. The panels contain the names of the more than 58,000 soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, in chronological order of their deaths.
  • The reflective black granite of the Memorial is meant to do two things: it allows the names to take precedence, but also allows the visitor to feel as though they are looking into the peaceful “other world” of the dead. The Monument is meant to honor the sacrifice of the individuals whose names are on the wall, and allow their loved ones to come to terms with their deaths.
  • Lin deliberately wanted to make an abstract, apolitical monument that drew attention to individual sacrifice. The contested nature of the war meant that even the black granite for the structure could not be sourced from countries where people who fled the draft had found refuge.
  • When Maya Lin won the competition to design the Memorial she was an undergraduate architecture student at Yale. When people found out about the design and who she was, there was backlash against both her and the style of the monument.
  • While the Memorial is usually referred to as a wall and conceived of as such, Maya Lin thought of it as an edge in the earth. In her words, “I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth…an initial violence and pain that in time would heal.”

Go deeper

The “Black Gash of Shame”—Revisiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Controversy at ART21 Magazine

Maya Lin’s competition drawings for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the Library of Congress

Vietnam War resources and primary documents at the National Archives

A brief history of the Vietnam War, along with other resources at PBS

More to think about

In looking back on her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Maya Lin wrote about an assignment in one of her architecture classes that asked the students to design a memorial to World War III. “My design for a World War III memorial was a tomblike underground structure that I deliberately made to be a very futile and frustrating experience. I remember the professor of the class coming up to me afterward, saying quite angrily, “If I had a brother who died in that war, I would never want to visit this memorial.” I was somewhat puzzled that he didn’t quite understand that World War III would be of such devastation that none of us would be around to visit any memorial, and that my design was instead a pre-war commentary. In asking myself what a memorial to a third world war would be, I came up with a political statement that was meant as a deterrent.” [*] If you were going to create a memorial for a person or historical event, what would you choose, and how would you design your memorial?


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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