The Making of an All-American Memorial

By Ambar Pardilla

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James Reston Jr. addresses an audience member who asked him a question at Politics and Prose. (Photo by Ambar Pardilla)

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s black granite wall, which lists the lives that were lost or missing during the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975, contrasts with the white marble obelisk—the Washington Monument—that overlooks it. Along with the other two bronze statues that are a part of the memorial, the Three Servicemen Memorial and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, the wall has become a recognizable piece of Washington, D.C.

But the making of the three parts of the memorial was filled with difficulties and disagreements about how to honor an unpopular war, as James Reston Jr. explained on Saturday at a Politics and Prose event promoting his new book, “A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory, and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial.”

“There was so much accident in this that turned out well,” Reston said.

Reston explained that his book chronicles what he called “an art war” about whether or not the war should be memorialized at all and how to commemorate those who served “despite a flawed rationale.”

The connections between the war in Vietnam and the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq weren’t lost on Reston. He described the parallels between public reaction to the war then and the detachment between civilians and “the American boys fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq” now.

The book also comes before Ken Burns’ 10 part documentary series, “The Vietnam War,” which premieres Sunday on PBS, which Reston said he knew was in the works two years ago. Still, Reston separated his book from what he saw as “an angled attack against Vietnam memory.”

“It’s [his book] not just a reflection of what Ken Burns is doing,” Reston said.

Reston, who served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army from 1965 to 1968, said that there were “two emotional ties” that connected him to the book: one of his friends, who “was killed without firing a shot,” is listed on the wall and his relationship to Frederick Hart, the sculptor who created the Three Servicemen Memorial. Reston said he “lived down the road” from Hart in Virginia in the ’90s.

Although Reston said he had never written anything about art before, he was drawn to understanding the selection process for the design and eventual construction of the memorial’s wall.

“I wanted to recapture the intensity of that five-year period,” Reston said.

According to Reston, the competition received more than a thousand handwritten submissions, as printed ones weren’t allowed to make the process more personalized. The submissions varied “from the very brilliant to the kitschy,” Reston said.

Maya Lin, who was then a 21-year-old student at Yale University, won the competition in 1981 with her, as Reston called it, “almost high schoolish” drawing for the design of the memorial.

But Reston said “what won her over was her description.” Lin described that the memorial would be “a rift in the earth,” which Reston took for the title of his book.

Despite Lin’s win, Reston said, the decision sparked “a vicious backlash.”  According to Reston, arguments against Lin’s design included criticism of the choice of color, as black was seen as “the color of shame” and the belief that the memorial was depressing as it only honored the dead.

Resistance to the plans for the memorial reached Congress and former Sen. Jim Webb from Virginia (who was not a senator at the time), Reston explained.

“It becomes a Washington story,” Reston said.

Reston, who wore tortoiseshell glasses and read from his handwritten notes in blue ink, then remembered how Hart became involved with the project, as he was chosen to create a second part to Lin’s contribution.

Hart’s proposed addition, the Three Servicemen Memorial, caused controversy. Reston said that some thought that Hart would be “imposing on another piece of art.”

Reston quoted what Lin had said about the prospect of Hart’s sculpture: “This is like painting a mustache on the ‘Mona Lisa.’”

Still, Reston said, Hart remained respectful of Lin’s design and “saved the Vietnam Memorial.”

The third and final part of the memorial, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, was designed by Glenna Goodacre. It was dedicated in 1993.

For Reston, the memorial endures as “a place of contemplation” which stands out “in this city of generals on horses, vertical statues and obelisks.”

But beyond the district and in spite of all the stress that went into the memorial, it has become a model for how memorializing should be done, according to Reston. The inclusion of individual names has served as an example for other memorials.

“This concept of names lost in war has been repeated all over the world, including Vietnam,” Reston said.

The memorial remains a reminder of what the generation of the era faced and was forced to do, Reston said, but it’s more than just a memory for veterans.

“The Vietnam Memorial has become universalized,” Reston said.

“It’s not about just one war, but about all wars,” Reston added.

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