Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian
It’s funny how the best intentions can sometimes lead to the worst PR situations. Actually, it’s not funny at all. But that’s what happened prior to November 13, 1982, the day of the dedication ceremony for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Certainly the individuals leading the effort, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund committee, had tried to do the right thing. They had gathered the support of influential people like H. Ross Perot. They held an open competition, accepting more than 1,400 design proposals. They also gathered eight distinguished artists and designers to judge the designs, concealing the identity of the entrants.
So it was a bit of a surprise when the jury announced that the winning design had been submitted by Maya Lin, a 21-year-old undergraduate student at Yale. Her proposal was a bit of a surprise, too: A giant, black, granite V, cut into the ground.
Lin’s design was the jurors’ unanimous choice and well-received by many. As the New York Times wrote, “This design gives every indication of being a place of extreme dignity that honors the veterans who served in Vietnam with more poignancy, surely, than any ordinary monument ever could.”
But some people did not like Lin’s proposal – and among them were many were veterans. They questioned little details about the design, like why, since all of the other monuments in D.C. were white, this one was black. And they wondered why all the other monuments soared into the air, while this one sank into the ground.
Some critics thought the giant V was intended as a subtle form of the two-fingers Peace symbol; one opponent called it “a tribute to Jane Fonda.” One of the most vocal opponents was Tom Carhart, a Vietnam vet who also had entered the competition; he called Lin’s design “a black ditch of shame and sorrow.”
The controversy escalated. People on both sides received threatening phone calls. More than two dozen Republican congressmen wrote a letter to President Reagan, calling the monument “a political statement of shame and dishonor,” while columnist Pat Buchanan asserted that one of the jurors was a Communist. James Watt, Reagan’s secretary of the Interior, refused to issue a building permit, and Perot withdrew his support, describing Lin, who was of Chinese descent, as an “egg roll.” As NPR later reported, the project “needed public relations crisis managers.” Indeed.
Eventually a compromise was reached: A bronze statue of three soldiers and a U.S. flag on a 50-foot pole would be added to the memorial. This, too, was the subject of controversy, with the unhappy vets wanting the additions placed front and center of the V, an idea that Lin and the architects association strenuously opposed. Ultimately the statue and flag were added, but were placed off to the side. Depending upon your viewpoint, this was either a good compromise or yet another insult.
The years appear to have worked in favor of Lin and her supporters. The American Institute of Architects now ranks the memorial No. 10 on its list of “America’s Favorite Architecture,” and it has become the most widely visited monument in D.C. Several traveling and fixed replicas also have been built.
The initial hostility to Lin’s design may have been an over-reaction, but the opponents did have one point PR pros may want to keep in mind: None of the people judging the proposals had served in Vietnam. We’ll close with excerpts of a thoughtful opinion piece Tom Carhart published in the New York Times:
“There were really two wars in that era: The first was a military war fought in Vietnam where 57,000 Americans died and whose veterans the Fund is authorized by Congress to ‘recognize and honor’; the second was a political war waged here at home. The jurors know nothing of the real war in Vietnam — the television portrayal was far from adequate. … The net result is that the design the jury chose as the winner was necessarily a function of their perception of the war they lived through in America.”