The Opposition to the Design
Maya Lin’s design does not immediately reflect war. At the time of its proposal, the Wall was the only black structure at the National Mall, all others being white. For that reason, and many others, Lin’s design was out of favor among many financial supporters of the VVMF.
The “dignified individual grave markers, the classic seeming architecture, the white stone eagles, and the flags” of common American war memorials were presumably too “profoundly political” for the design of the Vietnam Memorial. Lin’s design lacked a flag, a statue, a visitor center, a map, and bodies. Her design did not feature figures of American soldiers; instead, the only suggestion of the Vietnam soldiers was through the names of the fallen and missing. The design was void of American pride, patriotism, and power. Instead, the Wall’s design reflected the concepts of mortality, morality, and life.
Before construction of the memorial, and in face of backlash against her design, Lin commented that she had not payed attention to the war. As she said, the Vietnam War “never entered my world.” Although the VVMF competition offered a comprehensive reading list of the war for all the entered designs, Lin refused to read any account. This troubled Scruggs, who has said that “she had never taken a college-level history course. She had never read a book or seen a TV film clip about Vietnam. And she had never read All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, or any of the other basic literature on war.” However, her design had been chosen as a blind entry, because it most fully satisfied the requirements of the design contest.
Nonetheless, backlash resumed. When Lin traveled to Washington after learning that she had won the competition, she met with the competition’s top leaders of art, architecture, and design. The Director of the National Gallery of Art and the chairperson of the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), J. Carter Brown presided over the meeting. He and the CFA Board had come to an unanimous vote deciding to endorse Lin’s design. However, at the meeting with Lin “several citizens” shocked Brown when they “voiced their displeasure with the memorial.” Tom Carhart, former infantry platoon leader, West Point graduate, and member of the VVMF, was the first to express his displeasure. To Carhart, the black stone was an inappropriate choice: “Black is the universal color of shame, sorrow, and degradation in all races, all societies worldwide.” He viewed the chosen design as a memorial “to the war at home.” Pinpointing the design as a “most insulting and demeaning memorial to our experience that was possible,” he furthered his insults by viewing the design as a “degrading ditch.” A few journals agreed that the Vietnam War dead were treated by the Wall’s design “like victims of some monstrous traffic accident.” Others criticized it for being below ground. James Webb, a popular Marine veteran and author, remarked that the memorial was “a wailing wall for antidraft demonstrators.” A supporter and financer for the VVMF, business magnate H. Ross Perot quickly withdrew his aid. Lin’s design, “considered an affront to veteran and conservative manhood,” was mocked as a “black gash of shame.” To some, the shape suggested the peace sign, or the Viet Cong. To others, it was a modern, different, aloof, and heavily unwelcomed design.