You’ve probably seen it: the simple black walls that emerge from the peaceful Constitution Gardens in Washington, D.C., the more than 58,000 half-inch-high names inscribed on the granite. It’s the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and since 1982, it has commemorated military personnel who died or were declared missing in action during their Vietnam War service.
The moment plans for the memorial were unveiled, it was clear the structure would be immediately recognizable—and controversial. It was all the more astonishing because of its creator, an unknown, 21-year-old student with no professional experience.
Maya Lin was still an undergraduate at Yale University when she beat out more than 1,400 competitors in a competition to design the memorial. A Chinese-American, Lin was born in Ohio, where her parents were professors. They escaped mainland China as young adults when it became clear that their families might be threatened by Maoist revolutionaries.
Though she majored in architecture, Lin was far from a professional architect. And while she had little personal connection to Vietnam, she did experience the cascading effects of the war: During the 1970s, the conflict indelibly impacted American life and popular culture. Television news brought the war into peoples’ living rooms in unprecedented—and graphic—detail. Young adults lived in fear of the draft and the father of one of Lin’s high school friends was killed in combat.
For veterans, the toll was even greater. The war had profound psychological effects, and even 40 years later veterans suffer from PTSD, exposure to chemicals like Agent Orange and wounds they received in the war. More than 300,000 Americans were wounded during the war.
Lin was aware of those costs, and she wanted to commemorate them with a fiercely modern design. She created it as part of a college architecture class that challenged students to make an entry for the national design competition for the planned memorial.
Instead of something heroic or celebratory, Lin imagined two stark black walls that began inside the earth, then grew and grew in height until they met—like a “wound that is closed and healing.” The V-shaped wall, designed to point toward the Lincoln and Washington Memorials, would be inscribed with the names of the dead in chronological order. It would exist inside a park, as inextricable from the landscape as it was from the minds of Americans.
“I just wanted to be honest with people,” Lin told The Washington Post. “I didn’t want to make something that said ‘They’ve gone away for a while.’ I wanted something that would just simply say ‘They can never come back. They should be remembered.’”
The jury, which judged the entries blind, agreed. (Meanwhile, Lin only got a B on her assignment; she ended up beating out her professor in the competition.) But Lin’s bleak concept didn’t sit well with many members of the public, who expected a more imposing, complex and grandiose monument with marble, columns and statues in the vein of other buildings on the Mall, like the Lincoln or Jefferson Memorials.
A group of veterans protested the design, claiming that it was an ugly insult that portrayed the war as shameful, dishonorable and worth hiding. “For too long the veterans of that miserable conflict have borne the burden of the national ambivalence about the war,” wrote one critic. “To bury them now in a black stone sarcophagus, sunk into a hollow in the earth below eye level, is like spitting on their graves.”
Critics found an ally in then-radio host Patrick Buchanan and Congressman Henry Hyde. They launched a campaign to change the wall to a white color and add an eight-foot-high sculpture of soldiers to the site. The wall’s detractors used everything from Lin’s age to her ethnicity to her as reasons the design should be changed or abandoned altogether. Lin vehemently disagreed and accused Hyde of “drawing mustaches on other people’s portraits.”
The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which was in charge of the final design, finally brokered a compromise. They kept Lin’s design and added a sculpture that had won third place in the design competition, Frederick Elliot Hart’s “Three Soldiers,” nearby. A tribute to the 11,000 in uniform—the first to honor women’s military service in the nation’s capital—was added in 1993.
Lin did not attend the compromise meeting, and was so hurt by the controversy over her work that it took her years to discuss it publicly. In 2000, she published an essay about her design process. “It wasn’t so much of an artistic dispute as a political one,” she wrote. “It was extremely naïve of me to think that I could produce a neutral statement that would not become politically controversial simply because it chose not to take sides.” She had always intended the memorial to be apolitical, she wrote, but she regretted the ways she had become a weapon in the fight against a memorial intended to highlight veterans.
The critics may have been louder at the time, but many Americans were appreciative of Lin’s striking design. Spurred on by the activism of the wounded Vietnam veteran Jan C. Scruggs and sympathetic celebrities like Bob Hope, some 275,000 Americans, as well as businesses and veterans’ groups, donated $8.4 million so the memorial could be built. While U.S Congress had allocated three acres on the National Mall for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, funding for the project came from the private sector, not the government.
Today, the wall has become a destination for visitors to Washington D.C., even those who did not experience the war firsthand. People with friends or relatives who fought in the war search for their names and rub impressions of them onto paper. Offerings like letters, medals, photos and dog tags are left almost daily.
In 1999, Congress expanded its definition of both the length of the war and the areas it covered. As a result, the Department of Defense regularly learns of more service members who died during combat or whose service records have been re-evaluated and adds their names.
In 2010, a study even found that visiting the wall multiple times can help Vietnam veterans better cope with post-traumatic stress.
Now a world-respected artist and architect, Lin continues to design iconic structures like the Civil Rights Memorial, a fountain and sculpture in Montgomery, Alabama that is inscribed with the names of activists who died during the Civil Rights Movement. A member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. But her most lasting legacy will likely be the wall she designed as a 21-year-old student—and how it honors the veterans it was meant to commemorate.