Episode #1440

American Icons: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

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Friday, October 04, 2013

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

Maya Lin Vietnam Veterans Memorial Contest Entry Sketch Studio 360 American Icons

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.

Maya Lin Vietnam Veterans Memorial Contest Entry Sketch Studio 360 American Icons

Maya Lin's full contest entry from 1981.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Dedication American Icons Studio 360
Courtesy of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

The 1982 Veterans Day dedication of The Wall.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Dedication American Icons Studio 360
Courtesy of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

The crowd at the 1982 dedication of the memorial. 

Vietnam Veterans Memorial American Icons Studio 360

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

Vietnam Veterans Memorial American Icons Studio 360

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

Vietnam Veterans Memorial American Icons Studio 360

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.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial American Icons Studio 360
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."

Vietnam Veterans Memorial American Icons Studio 360
Courtesy of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (Dan Arant)

The Three Servicemen in color in 2011.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial American Icons Studio 360
Courtesy of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (JC Cummings)

An aerial view of the memorial from 2009.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial American Icons Studio 360
Eric Molinsky

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

Vietnam Veterans Memorial American Icons Studio 360
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.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial American Icons Studio 360

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.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Memorial Resource Center American Icons Studio 360
Eric Molinsky

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.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Memorial Resource Center American Icons Studio 360
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. 

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Memorial Resource Center American Icons Studio 360
Eric Molinsky

A tiger cage from a POW MIA commemorative parade. 

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Memorial Resource Center American Icons Studio 360
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. 

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Memorial Resource Center American Icons Studio 360
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."

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Memorial Resource Center American Icons Studio 360
Eric Molinsky

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

Vietnam Veterans Memorial American Icons Studio 360
Courtesy of Sharon Denitto

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.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial American Icons Studio 360
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. 

Vietnam Veterans Memorial American Icons Studio 360
Dan Epstein

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

    Music Playlist
  1. Legions (War)
    Artist: Zoë Keating
    Album: One Cello x 16 Natoma
    Label: Zoë Keating
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Sun Will Set
    Artist: Zoë Keating
    Album: One Cello x 16 Natoma
    Label: Zoë Keating
    Purchase: Amazon
  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]
    Purchase: Amazon
  5. Electric Counterpoint – Slow (movement 2)
    Artist: Steve Reich
    Album: Different Trains/ Electric Counterpoint
    Label: Nonesuch
    Purchase: Amazon
  6. More than Just a Name on the Wall
    Artist: Statler Brothers
    Album: The Definitive Collection
    Label: Mercury Nashville
    Purchase: Amazon
  7. Gotta Go to Vietnam
    Artist: John Lee Hooker
    Album: Urban Blues
    Label: Geffen
    Purchase: Amazon
  8. The Viet Nam Blues
    Artist: Jack Sanders


Michael Arad, Aseneth Blackwell, Tom Carhart, Max Cleland, Sharon Denitto, John Devitt, Lt. Dan Doyle, Duery Felton, Chuck Hagel, Kristin Hass, Maya Lin, Angela Matthews, Levern Neely, Viet Nguyen, Laura Palmer, Kirk Savage, Jan Scruggs and Marilyn Young

Produced by:

Eric Molinsky


Leital Molad


Jocelyn Frank

Comments [28]

rose-ellen from jackson heights

Calling someone who sitting at her console from the safety of Las Vegas, drops bombs on men, women and children, a warrior, or soldier is truly newspeak. At least she had nightmares but if there were real justice she'd be on trial for murder. She's an executioner, a murderer, but soldier?Please? Is that someone's idea of a joke that she wears a uniform behind her console?!

Nov. 11 2013 09:46 PM
Freddy from Bushwick

Brian, thank you for this segment. My father was a Veteran who did two tours of Vietnam. He was born in the segregated South and had no idea where Vietnam was when he was drafted. He would say that what he thought about other people changed due to his experiences there. He never spoke to my sisters, myself or my mother about what he experienced there...but he would say "anyone who has ever been in combat, would never wish it on another person."

Nov. 11 2013 11:30 AM
jf from reality

tricked into doing the worst most horrific crimes imaginable for corporate profit and power. PTSD is the symptom of humanities innate peacefulness. The mind cannot comprehend the paradox of being told they are doing good and knowing obviously that cluster bombing babies and burning villagers alive with napalm and white phosphorus is the obviously the purest form of evil imaginable.

Nov. 09 2013 04:21 PM
David Dudley from Denver, CO

I am not a Vietnam Veteran though I'm old enough to have had my name placed in the first Selective Service System lottery back in 1968. I was neither 'selected' nor did I volunteer, but had no doubt that I'd have done so if called upon. More to the point, my first visit to The Wall moved me to tears…as it has on each subsequent occasion.

This broadcast, ironically heard on the Festival of The Day of The Dead, elicited a similar effect. Kurt Andersen's insightful interview with Maya Lin is indeed a "bonus track." Thank you…it is the first time I've heard her speak; and I hope not the last. DCD

Teach us, Lord, not to hold on to life too tightly.
Teach us to hold it lightly, not carelessly, but
lightly, easily.
Teach us to take it as a gift, to enjoy and cherish
while we have it, and to let it go gracefully and thankfully
when the time comes.
The gift is great, but the giver is greater still.
Thou, O God, are the Giver and in Thee is a life
that never dies. Amen

—Rev. Theodore Parker Ferris, Rector, Trinity Church, Boston

Nov. 01 2013 02:59 PM
Mark from NYC

Like the memorial itself: Haunting, eloquent and timeless. Thank you. I'll come back to listen again and again.

Oct. 12 2013 12:05 PM
David DeChant from Florida

Greetings America again,

Here's one of most poignant recognition of Vietnam Veterans ~~

E.G. Marshall, the actor emceed the First National Memorial Day Salute on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C. and spoke these words following Taps which sounded after the reading of a Gold Star Mother’s letter to her son left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial ~~

“To the men and women who have served us in uniform, America bows its head in Honor. To you have died for us, to you whose fate remains Unknown, and to you who live on bearing the scars of your sacrifice, we are truly grateful. There are depths of pain you have suffered for us that we can never fully comprehend. We will never know exactly what you have experienced ~ your courage and fear, your triumph and despair, your hope and loneliness. Yet in a way, your sacrifice has made us one with you. No person, no family, no country can endure war without being equally wounded. And as long as memory survives, no war is truly over. Thus we are all wounded. Those of you who were taken from us, and those of you who are disabled, and those of us who have misunderstood, together we are one in our need for healing and reconciliation.

You have offered everything for us, your lives, bodies and minds and spirits. Spirits wounded by war, and even by the people you tried to defend. Whether you have chosen this or had it thrust upon you, you have done it for us. We will never fully comprehend your gift. But we shall always remember you have given it. It is a gift of hope, hope of our healing together, hope for justice and peace for everyone. Words are inadequate and gratitude is not enough. Only our love, love spoken out in stumbling speech, love acted out in simple kindness will begin to express our reverence for your gift. To you our service men and women, America bows its head in Honor.”

Semper Fidelis,

David DeChant
Marine Vietnam Veteran

Oct. 10 2013 10:37 PM
David DeChant from Florida

Greetings America,

I am a Marine Vietnam Veteran and a member of the core group of veterans who joined Jan to build The Wall. I served on the public relations and fundraising task forces; and am deeply honored and humbled to have participated in the Calling of The Names at the National Cathedral. This is the prayer I said before calling my Names:

"Celebrate the peace, consecrate this place,
Softly call The Names of those we love,
Those we sadly, fiercely miss,
Those who have died and remain missing.
At the Tomb of the Unknown, we all know
The Names of the Dead."

After calling my Names, I was interviewed by Don Scott, Ch. 11, Baltimore who asked what the Memorial means to me. I paused, reflected and said, "I hope the Memorial will be a constant reminder to those who make foreign policy decisions, of the costs of those decisions in stark human terms; and that the American people are ultimately responsible for their decisions."

I greatly appreciate this presentation with one exception ~ The Wall does NOT "commemorate or memorialize war" as noted in the opening narrative. However, later you clarify The Wall transcends the debate about the war, and honors the Dead, Missing and Survivors, and begins to Heals Our Souls.

I escorted Maya that night at The Wall when the veteran began yelling and pounding his artificial leg surrounded by dozens of fellow veterans. I also met her parents and spoke to them in Mandarin when they came to D.C.

Arthur Engendorf, a Vietnam Veteran author notes, “healing is the way we restore ourselves...with a little help from our friends, we can heal ourselves, even from war...healing culminates in a renewed vision of what is possible for us and our world. In light of this vision, our individual healing shifts from being the center of attention to an instance of much more encompassing possibility ~ healing for all humanity.”

Legitimacy of moral life depends on the willingness of men and women to struggle with such questions before they decide what to do. Also Karl Jaspers, a German WW II philosopher notes, “all men, like all nations, are tested twice in the moral realm ~ first by what they do, then by what they make of what they do. A condition of responsibility denotes a kind of second chance: men are, as if by a kind of grace, given a chance to repay to the living what it is they find themselves owing the dead.”


Treasure Life & Semper Fidelis,

David DeChant
1/26 & 3/4 Marines
July 66 - August 67
Combat Intelligence NCO
Assigned to Scouts

Oct. 10 2013 10:34 PM
Paul Hunchak from Syosset, NY

Thank you for a very comprehensive retrospective on the memorial. I was only in high school when the process began to select the design, et. al. and remember all the controversy. It is amazing how that all seemed to drift away once the memorial opened.

I have been reading and thinking about contemporary art the past few months, particularly trying to understand its relevance among the general public who resist modern/contemporary outdoor art and architecture. However, the memorial has convinced me of the power of contemporary art and its meaning. It must be the only work of contemporary art that elicits a response from the visitor which doesn't lead to contempt or apathy. The design is a witness to the power and depth of modern art which breaks the "classical" mold.

If the memorial was designed and built made to look like a contemporary version of the Civil War memorials at Gettysburg and elsewhere it not elicit such power that the Vietnam Memorial conveys to contemporary visitors.

Oct. 10 2013 02:44 PM
Dick Hughes from New York City

The late Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths ["Vietnam, Inc."] said in 2005 at a Chelsea/NY B&N book signing that if there were a wall for the Vietnamese who died during that war, with same density of names as
the DC wall, "it would be nine miles long". Something to think about. - dh

Oct. 07 2013 08:48 PM

Thank you for a deeply moving, very important program today. Listening to it I felt like I had been to church - because the compassion for all the people in the story was so clear. When you spoke with the officer who put a letter on the wall to the two men whose famiies he never got to contact, and then transitioned to hearing from the mother of one of them, and then returned to the officer who felt little peace because of the hundreds of Vietnamese people whose deaths he was responsible for (3/4 women and children)... I felt such tremendous compassion for each, and felt the preciousness of person's life, and I wept and wept and raged and wept. Listening today made me a bit more human, and all of us (I hope) a bit more humane. And for that I thank you sincerely.

Oct. 06 2013 09:52 PM
Kay Merkel Boruff from Dallas

14W LN 88 Each November for over 30 years, I walked The Wall with my 6th grade girls and left my poem or a student's and explained why the name of my husband Jon Merkel killed 18 Feb 70 flying in Laos for Air America was not included with the other 58,000. My story made The Wall and the Viet-Nam Conflict real to my students. The names of the 250 Air America KIA is on our memorial in the Special Collections at UTD.

Oct. 06 2013 07:32 PM
Jeff Turner from Gates Mills, Ohio

Dear Studio 360,

Great program on American Icons: Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Vietnam shaped much of my life when I was in my 20's and you program was exactly the way it was. Crazy times.

Jeff Turner

Oct. 06 2013 03:18 PM
Frederick Moe from New Hampshire

Thank you for broadcasting this amazing, heartfelt episode. I broke into tears several times listening, grieving for those we have lost in a war that didn't make sense.

Oct. 06 2013 12:50 PM
Sandra from NJ

I am a devoted listener to WNYC and I often describe myself as a NPR "addict." I was certainly impressed with your program on the Vietnam Memorial. However, I was surprised and very disappointed to hear no reference to the statues sculpted by Frederick Hart.They are only 100 feet from the wall. They are also moving and have had to be restored because of the many people who have touched the figures. I feel confident that those sculptures are also meaningful to the thousands of visitors. I have visited the wall at least three times.

Oct. 06 2013 12:44 PM

I listened to the program yesterday, and it really opened an old wound. My brother was killed in Vietnam. I visited it shortly after it was built, and I hated it then, and I still hate it. Every other monument to veterans is positive; this one is all negative. Why is the sacrifice not as noble as those who went to other wars? And the quote from Ms. Lin just shocked me: "This enormous veteran practically verbally pinned me at the apex and was just yelling at the top of his lungs ... and all I could think of is, it was working". So the goal of the monument is NOT to honor, or thank, or comfort those that gave so much; rather it is to make them angry? Well, job accomplished.

Oct. 06 2013 12:07 PM
Carl from Paterson, NJ

What sort of memorial will be build to the Iraq War--a war waged on choice based on lies to annex another country's resources?

Oct. 06 2013 11:52 AM
Veterans Peace Council of Metro New York

Thank you for this program, and for the bonus tracks. We've posted the program link to our FB page: www.facebook.com/VeteransPeaceCouncil

Oct. 06 2013 11:50 AM
carl schmeckpeper from Minn

They will Never be forgotten 58,479

Oct. 06 2013 12:36 AM
George Myers from The Bronx, NY

Maya Lin also designed a "smokestack" for an environmentally friendly newspaper recycling plant that was supposed to be built in the South Bronx. It had falling water along glass partitions that boxed the stack. The terror events of 1993 and 2001 have had in general a political "nay say" effect on building "green" issues, though much has been accomplished. Another proposal was to have reduced the cost of produce in Manhattan, by loading and unloading designed containers for produce, put on at a central trucking location near Tappan Zee, brought by shared rail or new, and placed on small trailers designed to go under the overpasses of Manhattan and the rest of NYC. I wonder what she thought of the Vietnam Veterans memorial in lower Manhattan, which had letters home etched into glass, and an area of low flowing water through it. I recall it was redesigned and rebuilt after unpopular reaction to it.

Oct. 05 2013 06:34 PM

Living close to DC, I've visited the Wall several times, and have always found it moving and a great tribute to all the American heroes who died or were incapacitated by the unpopular Vietnam War. The program discusses the wall as a fitting tribute to the veterans, both those who lived and those who didn't.

But neglected are those Americans who perhaps also deserve at least some recognition for helping to bring the war to an end after most Americans realized that it was a fruitless endeavor based on a mistaken "domino theory." Richard Nixon was elected President in 1968, based to some extent on his pledge to end the war and his "secret plan" to accomplish that. Only later did we learn that his secret plan was to further escalate the war to force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table. (The war continued under Nixon until 1973, when America and North Vietnam signed a peace treaty, but the war between North and South Vietnam continued.) We also discovered after the fact that "The Gulf of Tonkin" incident that Nixon's predecessor, Pres. Lyndon Johnson, had used to obtain Congressional authorization to expand U.S. involvement in the war, was based on faulty intelligence.

From the point of view of many Vietnamese, the Vietnam War was simply a continuation of Vietnam's quest to be independent, first against the French, then the Japanese, and the French again, and now the Americans. So many draft-age Americans refused induction into a military fighting a war against the principal of liberty on which the U.S. was founded. Some draft dodgers went to prison and some to Canada. While some may have simply been cowards, other conscientious objectors deserve commendation for the suffering they went through in refusing to compromise their principals. Should they too not get at least some recognition for the sacrifices they made, albeit not comparable to those who served, to end the war?

Oct. 05 2013 03:49 PM

Living in the Washington, DC,area, I avidly followed the unfolding of the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as it was happening. I greatly admire Maya Lin. I have heard various iterations of the story several times. But you did an exceptional job of telling the story. It was so moving, I was welled up the entire drive home.

Oct. 05 2013 03:22 PM
Susan from York, PA

Years ago I adopted my beloved black German Shepherd from a Nam Vet who had fallen on hard times. The dog was named Gertsch after the vet's friend, John Gertsch, who did not make it home from that war. One day the "Moving Wall" was set up in town, so I took Gertsch to visit his namesake. I told a helpful volunteer the story and he found the name and did a rubbing for us -- while we both cried. Even Gertsch was uneasy because we were upset. It was a very special day.

Oct. 05 2013 03:14 PM
Michael Walsh from Germantown, Maryland

I have spent the last four years traveling to all 50 states photographing Vietnam memorials. I now have visited about 400. I write about my travels, the guys I meet and other thoughts on my blog, "A Means To Heal" (ameanstoheal.org) Please feel free to check it out, contact me if you like. There is an email and comments on the site.

Thanks you for this great program, it helps validate my efforts and I hope others will benefit from hearing it and perhaps from visiting my site, too.

Oct. 05 2013 02:51 PM
Louise from Austin, TX

Thank you for such a moving, well-crafted piece. I had to stop what I was doing and sit and LISTEN. And cry at the healing I heard in people's voices. I'm an Army brat (both parents) and my eldest brother served in Vietnam. I went to the Wall in 1985 with my mother, and your story brought back the silence and awe I felt at that time. But your story also touched on so many other aspects -- the design selection and controversy, the politics, among others -- and in doing so engaged my mind as well as my heart. I look forward to sharing your story with everyone I know, as well as the discussions that will ensue. Again, thank you.

Oct. 05 2013 02:30 PM
Leital from Studio 360

Thanks, Irene. It's Shrapnel in the Heart by Laura Palmer.

Oct. 05 2013 12:08 PM
Irene H. Weinberger from Coral Gables, FL

I heard only part of this program and felt it was very moving . Well done!
As a volunteer at the Miami VA Hospital, I meet some of these veterans and will tell them about this program.
I'd like to know the title of the book and the author's name about the items collected at the wall.

Oct. 05 2013 11:03 AM
Leital from Studio 360

Thank you, Bill -- we'd love to have as many veterans as possible hear it and share their thoughts.

Oct. 04 2013 03:56 PM
Bill from Santa Fe

Thanks; well done and topically poignant. I emailed it to my circle of Vietnam veterans so that they could share the moment.

Oct. 04 2013 12:51 PM

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