The Power of a Name: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial at 30
On the chilly, blustery morning of November 13, 1982, thousands of Vietnam War veterans assembled in the nation’s capital to march down Constitution Avenue. Some had donned army fatigues, camouflage suits, or dress uniforms; others wore business attire, with raincoats or jackets. They came from every state. There were parents and grandparents; there were bikers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and active soldiers. Some carried children on their shoulders. Disabled veterans came in wheelchairs, on crutches, and leaning on canes. Two men led the column of marchers: a Green Beret with the Medal of Honor around his neck; and General William Westmoreland, former commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Spectators cheered, waved flags, and held signs thanking the veterans for their service.
The long line moved west down the avenue and gathered on the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial. There, the marchers took part in the unveiling of the most remarkable memorial built in the United States since the 1920s. It was dedicated to their fallen comrades—the 58,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, doctors, and nurses who gave their lives in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
Like the war itself, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial seemed destined to be a site of controversy and division. Yet soon after it was unveiled, employees of the U.S. National Park Service, which administers the National Mall, noticed that visitors had begun leaving an extraordinary variety of objects there. These objects revealed the depth of public response to the memorial and to the very private conversations between the dead soldiers whose names are on the memorial and those who remember and love them. The Park Service collects and stores these tributes to the dead in a warehouse and hopes eventually to display them in a museum. They testify to the enduring intensity of feeling about the Vietnam War—and to the remarkable power of the memorial, which marks its 30th anniversary this year.