The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, set in the 42-acre Constitution Gardens, is a national war memorial honoring the members of the U.S. armed forces who fought in the Vietnam War and who died in service or are still unaccounted for, consisting of three separate parts: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the Three Soldiers statue, andthe Vietnam Women's Memorial. The idea for the monument originated with Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran, who organized the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Inc., a nonprofit organization formed April 27, 1979, and Congress authorized the site on July 1, 1980. Maintained by the U.S. National Park Service, the memorial receives around 3 million visitors each year.
The Memorial Wall, designed by 21-year-old undergraduate student, Maya Ying Lin, the winner of a 1,421-entry 1981 public design competition, was dedicated on November 13, 1982. It consists of two black granite walls, 246 feet-9 inches long, sunk into the ground at a 125-degree angle. One wall points towards the Washington Monument, the other towards the Lincoln Memorial, meeting at an angle of 125° 12′ where they stand 10.1 feet tall and tapering off to a height of eight inches at their extremities. There is a pathway along the base of the Wall, where visitors may walk, make a pencil rubbing of a particular name, or leave sentimental items.
The granite, from Bangalore, Karnataka, India, was chosen for its reflective quality, allowing visitors to see their reflection simultaneously with the engraved names, symbolically linking the past and present. The names, set in Optima typeface and etched using a photoemulsion and sandblasting process developed at GlassCraft, represent the serviceman who were either KIA (Killed In Action) or remained classified MIA (Missing in Action) when the walls were constructed. Each wall has 72 panels, 70 of which carry the inscriptions, listed in chronological order, starting at the apex on panel 1E in 1959 and moving day by day to the end of the western wall at panel 70W to the end of the eastern wall at panel 70E, which ends on May 25, 1968, starting again at panel 70W at the end of the western wall which completes the list for May 25, 1968, and returning to the apex at panel 1W in 1975. The wall listed 58,159 names when it was completed in 1993; as of May 5, 2007, when another name was added, there are 58,256 names. Approximately 1,200 of these are listed as missing, denoted with a cross; the confirmed dead are marked with a diamond. If the missing return alive, the cross is to be circumscribed by a circle, (although this has never occurred as of January 2007); if their death is confirmed, a diamond is superimposed over the cross.
Negative reactions to Maya Lin's initial design were so strong that several Congressmen protested, and Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt refused to issue a building permit. As a compromise to those who wanted a more traditional approach, Frederick Hart, who placed third in the original design competition, was commissioned to augment the memorial. Hart's Three Soldiers, also known as The Three Servicemen, was unveiled on Veterans Day, 1984 and depicts three young men purposely identifiable as Caucasian, African American and Hispanic. Lin protested at the proposed adulteration of her design, which resulting in its disconnected setting, even though the statue and wall appear to interact with each other--the soldiers look off in tribute to the distant names of their fallen comrades.
Further lobbying led to the Vietnam Women's Memorial, which was dedicated on Veteran's Day, 1993, just a short distance south of the wall. Glenna Goodacre's sculptural group commemorates the women of the United States who served in the Vietnam War, most of whom were nurses.
In 2007, the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial was ranked #10 on the AIA 150 America's Favorite Architecture list.