History of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Jan Scruggs in Vietnam, 19 years old

Jan Scruggs in Vietnam, 19 years old, 1969. 

"The Deer Hunter," 1979 poster

A poster of the 1979 film "The Deer Hunter," that inspired Jan Scruggs to invest in a memorial for Vietnam veterans as the way to unify and heal. 

Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs is the founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The year was 1979, and the Vietnam war had finished for four years. However, there had been no public sentiment for planning a Memorial. Unlike the “Great Generation” of WWII soldiers, those of the Vietnam conflict were left without any form of memorialization. Vietnam veterans “came home to changing ideas about patriotism and heroism; they returned to a society riven by the civil rights movement, Watergate and the assassinations of the men who had inspired many of them to fight.” As a result, there was no consensus, or agreement, on what the war meant to Americans and the soldiers that fought in it. There was no public space in which people could mourn: “this lack of community not only made [the public, civilians and veterans] deeply crave a remembrance of the experience of Americans in Vietnam, but also made the work of remembering especially difficult.” However, Scruggs believed that it was a community that had be to made.

    In March 1979, Scruggs found inspiration in tackling the challenge of remembrance, after watching The Deer Hunter. The Hollywood film traced the narrative of war and homefront: the horrors of the battlefield, and the difficulty of returning to a society deeply unaffected by local war devastation. The film showcased a soldier’s transition from life at war to life at home. It displays how a community “shattered by the war … regains its bearing in a tentative return to the patriotic ideals that had inspired its boys to fight.” An arguably tragic storyline, the film explores a community’s eventual ability to recognize and acknowledge the controversial war conflict they tried to erase.  

The community’s ignoration of war’s soldiers -- their value, struggles, lives, and names -- became an immediate and compelling source of inspiration for Scrugg’s initiatives in funding a Vietnam War memorial. After returning home from the movie theater, he remembers not letting go of the idea of the names:“The names. No one remembers their names.” He was not able to sleep the rest of the night, because the film had awoken desires for change. As he claims, “I kept seeing the faces of the men in the company, and these men could not rest either.”

    One month after having watched The Deer Hunter, Scruggs and a few friends formed The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF). The group’s goal was to self fund without the aid of the US government: the VVMF was not a political initiative, but rather a social aim. Thus, the hope was that the community would be able to heal itself in building a shared memorial, by providing the funds themselves. However, the first funding attempts that followed were unsuccessful. Although the veterans were determined, they lacked social and political power. Eventually, influential Vietnam veterans began joining and supporting the VVMF. For example, Jack Wheeler, a highly-educated and politically powerful veteran “began to draw in Vietnam veterans from high places throughout Washington.” Although government support was not the aim, Washington power brokers became financially and socially influential in generating the first major contributions to the VVMF. 

Vietnam Veterans Memorial History