If you are under 40 you know the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as an indispensable part of the National Mall, as iconic as the Lincoln Memorial, and just as cherished. That it was ever controversial seems laughable. But it was, and to the point of white-hot fury. Its design and construction sparked what may have been the first, and arguably the angriest, of America’s “art wars” — even including today’s bitter disputes over Confederate war memorials. Curiously, it was also the only one to leave a more united country in its wake. Such are the lessons of “A Rift in the Earth,” James Reston Jr.’s definitive history of the memorial.
The broad outlines of the story are familiar. Five years after the United States withdrawal from Vietnam, designs were solicited for a memorial to the 58,000 American dead and missing of the war. Maya Lin, a Yale undergraduate of Chinese-American extraction, won the competition with a project of staggering simplicity — a graceful hollow in the earth, a stone retaining wall and nothing else. Her great inspiration was to list the names just as they died, day by day. In the process she turned what could easily have been a telephone directory into a vast and tragic timeline, which you experience in bodily terms as you make the gentle descent to the center, where the roster of names begins and ends, fittingly, at point of repose.
None of this was apparent in Lin’s bafflingly elusive drawings. Many veterans regarded the design as an anti-monument, violating the competition requirement that the memorial be nonpolitical. One compared it to “a great privy, an outside urinal of German beer garden design.” They were indignant that there were no Vietnam veterans among the eight jurors. (The only one with actual combat experience was the architect Pietro Belluschi — who served in the Italian Army in World War I.) When Ross Perot, an early donor to the memorial, offered to fund a new competition, to be judged by Vietnam veterans, a hasty compromise was struck. The abstract granite wall would be offset by a work of traditional sculpture, Frederick’s Hart’s “The Three Soldiers.” To Lin, Hart’s additions were a mustache on the “Mona Lisa,” but Reston argues convincingly that without Hart’s realistic figures, her memorial would never have been built.
There are a great many surprises here. Reston shows how Lin’s supremely minimalist design did not come to her in a flash, and that her black granite wall was originally a backdrop to a sculpture of falling dominoes. Her instructors suggested she remove it, freeing the work of the hokey symbolism that afflicted most of the other 1,420 projects, many of which Reston illustrates, surely to the chagrin of their authors. The great revelation here is the memorial’s early history. In 1979 Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran, watched “The Deer Hunter” and relived his own horrific wounding. He began a personal quest to build a memorial, and the first artist he consulted was none other than Frederick Hart, then carving a sculpture for the Washington National Cathedral. Far from being the unwelcome gate-crasher to Lin’s party, as he is invariably depicted, Hart was actually there from the start.
A personal epilogue recalls Reston’s own service during the war. Although he was not sent to Vietnam, his best friend from military intelligence school, Ronald E. Ray, was. There he died (and rather heroically) in the Tet offensive. Reston hardly needs to spell it out for us: When he looks at the black granite wall, he knows that it is only for the luck of the draw that Ray’s name is there and not his. Here one understands the emotional undertow that runs through every page of this superb and unexpectedly affecting book.