The Vietnam Wall ControversyHistory on Trial Main Page

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About - Introduction

How should we remember a war that we "lost"? You may have been tear-choked as you touched or watched others touch "the Wall" at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the most visited war memorial in our nation's capital. Literally millions and millions of American citizens have felt and shared that emotion. In the presence of such national shrines as this our patriotic community is formed. Yet few of us realize that this seemingly god-given shrine wears political feet of clay, that behind it lies a fierce controversy that re-opened the wounds of the war the memorial was designed to heal.

In the late 1970s a lone, virtually penniless, politically unconnected Vietnam veteran -- Jan Scruggs -- started on a mission to construct a national monument to a war that many Americans wanted to forget. His story is the classic American success story -- straight out of the American self-reliance tradition -- and "the Wall," which is now so cherished, became a reality in 1982. However, at a certain point in the development stage, fierce opposition to the nature of the proposed design arose from other veterans and even from the designer, opposition that eventually included people at the highest levels of government, opposition that came close to sinking the project, and opposition that eventually forced compromise and negotiation. In 1984, for instance, a statue was added to the site as part of the agreement that allowed the construction of the Wall to continue. And in 1993 came yet a third addition -- a woman's memorial. Thus, the question of how best to represent this war, a war that we "lost," engaged an array of vigorous viewpoints.

This controversy put "history on trial." Perennial questions such as these were hotly contested. What history should we tell? How should we tell it? Who should tell it? Who "owns" history? Who speaks for the nation? Who speaks to the nation? This controversy engaged the nation's highest concerns, left a rich paper trail to follow, and yields significant lessons about our democratic processes in matters of constructing history for the edification of future generations.

The "history" of this attempt to represent history can teach us much about the function of history in our culture and why history matters.