American Icons: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

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This is the monument that changed how America remembers war. 

How do you build a monument to a war that was more tragic than triumphant? Maya Lin was practically a kid when she got the commission to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. “The veterans were asking me, ‘What do you think people are going to do when they first come here?’” she remembers. “And I wanted to say, ‘They’re going to cry.’" Her minimalistic granite wall was derided by one vet as a “black gash of shame.” But inscribed with the name of every fallen soldier, it became a sacred place for veterans and their families, and it influenced later designs like the National September 11 Memorial. We’ll visit a replica of the wall that travels to veterans’ parades around the country, and hear from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel how this singular work of architecture has influenced how we think about war.  

Bonus Track: Kurt Andersen's full interview with Maya Lin

Hear Kurt's full interview with Lin about what it was like to stir up a national controversy at such a young age, and how her artistic career has evolved in the three decades since the memorial was created.


Bonus Track: Angela Matthews remembers Joseph Sintoni

Angela Matthews reads the letter she left at The Wall for her high school sweetheart, Joseph Sintoni. It was featured in Laura Palmer's book Shrapnel From The Heart


Bonus Track: Viet Nguyen on Vietnamese memorials

Nguyen fled Vietnam with his family after the fall of Saigon, eventually settling in Pennsylvania in 1975. He has been visiting Vietnam almost every year since 2002, and explains how the war is remembered there.


Slideshow: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Memorial Resource Center

Music Playlist

  1. Legions (War)

    Artist: Zoë Keating
    Album: One Cello x 16 Natoma
    Label: Zoë Keating
  2. Sun Will Set

    Artist: Zoë Keating
    Album: One Cello x 16 Natoma
    Label: Zoë Keating
  3. Insight

    Artist: Kristin Rule
    Album: The Knife that Cuts a Tear
  4. Tourtour

    Artist: Wim Mertens & Glenn Branca
    Album: Belly of an Architect
    Label: Import [Generic]
  5. Electric Counterpoint – Slow (movement 2)

    Artist: Steve Reich
    Album: Different Trains/ Electric Counterpoint
    Label: Nonesuch
  6. More than Just a Name on the Wall

    Artist: Statler Brothers
    Album: The Definitive Collection
    Label: Mercury Nashville
  7. Gotta Go to Vietnam

    Artist: John Lee Hooker
    Album: Urban Blues
    Label: Geffen
  8. The Viet Nam Blues

    Artist: Jack Sanders

A watercolor from Maya Lin's entry to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial 1981 design competition. She designed the memorial at only 21 years old as part of her architecture classwork at Yale University.

( Library of Congress )

Maya Lin's full contest entry from 1981.

( Library of Congress )

The 1982 Veterans Day dedication of The Wall.

( Courtesy of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund )

The crowd at the 1982 dedication of the memorial. 

( Courtesy of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund )

The view from the top of The Wall, looking toward the Lincoln Memorial (undated).

( Library of Congress )

Looking from the apex of the memorial, towards the Washington Monument (undated).

( Library of Congress )

Approach to the Memorial from the southwest: the flagpole, the statue of the Three Servicemen, and The Wall in the distance (undated). Some veterans, including Tom Carhart, disliked the design and campaigned for the addition of a figurative sculpture and flag. The flag was originally set at the apex of The Wall, but was moved to a different site after Maya Lin's objections.

( Library of Congress )

A view of the figurative addition to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: the Three Servicemen (undated). Tom Carhart, a veteran who had protested Lin's design, was happy to get a more traditional figurative sculpture. Even so, he still feels that moving it to a different site, away from The Wall, was "a slap in the face."

( Library of Congress )

The Three Servicemen in color in 2011.

( Courtesy of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (Dan Arant) )

An aerial view of the memorial from 2009.

( Courtesy of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (JC Cummings) )

Kurt Andersen and journalist Laura Palmer visit the memorial in 2012.

( Eric Molinsky )

Aseneth Blackwell remembers her husband, veteran Frederick D. Blackwell, at her visit to The Wall on Memorial Day 2012. She comes twice a year every year, on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

( Eric Molinsky )

Offerings left on Memorial Day 2006. While this practice is common now after any tragedy, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was the beginning of more public mourning in America.

( Library of Congress (Carol M. Highsmith) )

Over the years, people have left thousands of objects at The Wall - and they've all been stored at the Memorial Resource Center. Here are some of the storage units at the MRC.

( Eric Molinsky )

Kurt (R) interviews Duery Felton (L), the curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial collection. You can see producer Leital Molad recording their interview. 

( Eric Molinsky )

A tiger cage from a POW MIA commemorative parade. 

( Eric Molinsky )

A bin of recent offerings from Studio 360's visit to the Memorial Resource Center. These objects were 2012 additions to the collection. 

( Eric Molinsky )

A 2009 tribute to the dead from the Worcester Vet Center. The inscription reads, "Freedom has the taste the protected will never know."

( Eric Molinsky )

The peace poncho Kurt mentions in the radio program, sitting below a bag of bullets and a pack of Lucky Strikes.

( Eric Molinsky )

Sharon Denitto helps visitors to The Moving Wall locate names of loved ones. The Moving Wall is one of multiple tributes that are travelling around the United States. Denitto has also volunteered at the original Wall in Washington, D.C.

( Courtesy of Sharon Denitto )

A view of The Moving Wall at sunrise. Denitto says watching the steam rise from the memorial reminds her of spirits breathing life into the monument. 

( Sharon Denitto )

Another touring wall that imitates Lin's original work: this version is called The Wall That Heals. 

( Dan Epstein )