A gripping history of the fights over how to memorialize the Vietnam War.
Given the contentiousness of the war, the clashes it aroused on the home front, and the way that it undermined the confidence Americans had in their government, it should come as no surprise that the question of how to honor the war and those who fought it created its own controversy. In this fine book, accomplished journalist and military veteran Reston (Luther's Fortress: Martin Luther and His Reformation Under Siege, 2015, etc.) brings to life the intense wars of words and political machinations inspired by the decision to build a Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. At the center of the book and the conflicts it depicts is the outcome of the 1981 competition to determine the design for the memorial, at the time the largest such competition in the histories of Europe and the United States. The winner was Maya Lin, at the time a 21-year-old undergraduate at Yale. Lin, equally parts naïve and stubborn, had no idea the maelstrom that her victory would create. The by-now familiar design—a wall that in her conception represented the titular “rift in the earth,” stark and simple—proved deeply contentious, with various veterans’ groups, politicians, and general rabble-rousers taking public and sometimes brutally malicious stands against the design and its implementation, which in turn caused Lin and her supporters to dig in their own heels. Readers will find it nearly impossible not to have visceral reactions, taking sides in these events that, in light of fights over Civil War monuments today, still seem fresh.
The Vietnam Memorial, with Lin’s wall as the centerpiece (but with a series of compromises also put in place), is one of the most striking features on the National Mall. As this relatively brief but powerful book shows, this outcome was far from a foregone conclusion.