40 Quotes about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

A lot has been said about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial over the last 40 years – and it hasn’t always been good. Controversy surrounded the Memorial in the beginning. Today, we look back on some of the things that have been said about the Memorial – from its earliest days as just an idea to today. From the famous to the everyday visitor – The Wall impacts everyone who visits.

1 – “No efforts can provide compensation, of course, to the Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam. For them, perhaps, a national monument is in order to remind an ungrateful nation of what it has done to its sons.” – Jan Scruggs, 1977, when he first suggested a memorial

2 – “It is now up to Congress to bring a long-deserved dignity to those who answered the call, at great personal cost. It is their turn to gather on the mall, Mr. Speaker, and when I notice that the portion of this memorial will contain the names of every man who died in Vietnam, I cannot think of a more appropriate group to be permanently enshrined there.”
Congressman John Hammerschmidt in his introduction of legislation for the memorial in 1979, via The Vietnam Wall Controversy

3 – “The idea of having all these names permanently displayed in Washington a few blocks from the White House, a block from the State Department, down the street from the U.S. Congress—to me, this was poetic justice. These were the people everyone wanted to forget. They wanted this whole thing to go away, and I didn’t want it to go away.”
Jan Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

4 – “In honoring those who answered the call of duty, we do not honor war. But we honor the peace they sought, the freedoms that they fought to preserve, and the hope that they held out to a world that’s still struggling to learn how to settle differences among people and among nations without resorting to violence.”
President Jimmy Carter upon signing legislation to permit the building of the Memorial in 1980

5 – “Sir, we knew the risks. In all competitions, few can be chosen and many are the losers. Not all who lose can do so with grace. Not all winning designs can please everyone. But great art will survive.”
Grady Clay – head of the Memorial’s design competition jury

6 – “Brought to a sharp awareness of such a loss, it is up to each individual to resolve or come to terms with this loss. For death is in the end a personal and private matter and the area contained within this memorial is a quiet place, meant for personal reflection and private reckoning.”
Maya Lin in her essay submitted with her design entry for the memorial in 1981

7 – “Many people will not comprehend or entirely understand this design until they experience it. Confused times need simple forms.”
Design competition jurors, 1981

8 – “I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone.”
James Webb in a letter to Jan Scruggs in 1981

9 – “The injustice suffered by Vietnam veterans can never be remedied. Those who served in Vietnam did not start the war; it was not their failure that led to the miserable ending. They lived up to the code: duty, honor, country. No belated apology will erase the contumely the survivors experienced. But at least we are now well along in providing deserved tribute to those who did not survive. . . . this will be the most moving war memorial ever erected.”
James J. Kilpatrick, “Finally, We Honor the Vietnam Dead,” Washington Post, 1981

10 – “I don’t care about artistic perceptions, I don’t care about the rationalizations that abound. One needs no artistic education to see this design for what it is, a black trench that scars the Mall. Black walls, the universal color of shame and sorrow and degradation. Hidden in a hole in the ground, with no means of access for those Vietnam veterans who are condemned to spend the rest of their days in a wheelchair. Perhaps that’s an appropriate design for those who would spit on us still. But can America truly mean that we should feel honored by that black pit?”
Tom Carhart, The Commission of Fine Arts meeting, 1981

11 – “When the soldiers came home from Vietnam, there were no parades, no celebrations. So they built the Vietnam Memorial for themselves.”
General William Westmoreland

12 – “Young men began to get up and say, ‘This is a black gash of shame.’ I’d heard as much of that crap as I could stand. I stood up and told them, ‘I’m tired of hearing you talk about black as the color of shame. We’ve gone through a civil-rights movement to prove that’s not so.'”
Retired Brigadier General George Price

13 – “I wanted to create a memorial that everyone would be able to respond to, regardless of whether one thought our country should or should not have participated in the war.”
Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

14 – “The monument starts like the war itself, small and unseen. It grows larger, as the war did, by degrees, until it is higher than a man’s head, and then, also like the war, it slowly fades until it is gone. It has almost no beginning and no end. The war was like that.”
Richard Cohen quoted in The Washington Post after the dedication in 1982

15 – “You can hear how many men and women gave their lives but when you see The Wall with all their names it really becomes real and makes an impact on you. I love the way everyone has reverence while at The Wall which shows the love that all these patriotic men and women had. Being able to touch our loved ones’ name help bring closure and help us to be able to move on.”
Nancy H., California

16 – “I went to The Wall. I saw those names I did not want to see. My legs buckled under me. I could not stop the tears. Seeing those names made me realize I did not believe they were lost in Nam, even though I was there to witness it, until I saw their names inscribed on The Wall. That experience I will never forget. I thank my friend for making me go. So long ago so fresh in my mind that place called Vietnam. Rest easy my brothers, rest easy.”
Mark S., Massachusetts

17 – “My first visit to The Wall was in the 80’s, when I was 12. My Dad and I walked along the sidewalk in the dark, in the hush, in the stillness of nighttime in DC. I was moved and so sad that each name was connected to a man, a life not lived, a family not raised, a girlfriend left grieving, friends left adrift. And I cried that night. I had only just seen Platoon, and my connection to the film was that Elias was on that Wall, at least in spirit. And I grieved…”
Nikki A., Connecticut

18 – “I visit The Wall and my experience was that tears began to come from my eyes because I look at the names of my brothers and sisters. I became overwhelmed because it was only by the Grace and mercy of God that my name was not on The Wall. My prayers go out to all the families that names are on The Wall. As I write this, tear[s] come to my eyes. John 14:6 says, ‘Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.’”
Melvin T., Pennsylvania

19 – “I have visited The Wall twice, many years ago. It of course brought tears for all those we lost to that awful war, which I was able to watch on the evening news, to my horror. I don’t think any of us who lived through it have ever been the same. It also brought a sense of peace to me that these people were getting some recognition for their sacrifice.”
Sarah H., New York

20 – “The first time I went to The Wall years back, the one thing that I noticed was how quiet it was. I had been to all the other monuments and people were talking and laughing and taking pictures but it was so different at The Wall, it was just silence. It was almost as if people were on hallowed ground and they knew if they were ever going to be respectful this was where they were going to do it. Maybe it was the over 58,000 names that they seen etched in the granite or the enormity of The Wall, I don’t know but it by far was magical to me because I could go up to my brother’s name and not have people laughing around me, it was as if it were just him and I there. Things have changed since my first time there, seems to be more people but the one thing that has not changed is the quiet and the solemn faces of all who walk past the 58,000 names.”
Renee D., Michigan

21 – “As opposed to pretending it never happened, you have to look it straight in the eye. Then you can turn around and walk back out into the light.”
Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

22 – “For me, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial carried a message at three levels. On one level it signifies this nation’s readiness to sacrifice in the cause of freedom. Although The Wall’s dark marble may reflect doubts as to the wisdom of the sacrifices it records, it proudly affirms their nobility. On a second level, The Wall perpetuates the memory of those who gave their lives in Vietnam. That is its role as a Memorial. It thus renews for succeeding generations both awareness of these sacrifices and gratitude for them. The third level drives home the realization that those were individuals who died on the other side of the world: one by one, name by name – fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, cousins, neighbors, friends – all loved and valued no less than we ourselves.”
Elliott Richardson, former U.S. Attorney General, 1992 ‘Writings on The Wall

23 – “Ten years ago, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was constructed amidst controversy and anguish. But in the course of that decade, it became a symbol of reconciliation, not division of a reborn national will, not to forget, but to forgive and remember. The austere simplicity of the roll call on that Wall tells the story of individual American sacrifice – an indisputable sacred memory of those who paid the highest price for freedom.”
James A Baker III, former U.S. Secretary of State, 1992 ‘Writings on The Wall’

24 – “Ten years after its dedication, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, our memorial, “The Wall,” stands for and has absorbed the pain and grieving of our generation’s comrades-in-arms, that of their families, and that of a nation shaken at its foundations by the loss of its sense of self and some of its pilgrimage to pay homage to our generation, its living and its dead, to those who returned to our soil and to those left behind. The Wall is our victory, the nation’s victory, our closure.”
Harry G. Robinson, 1992 ‘Writings on The Wall’

25 – “For some reason, The Wall opens people up to their feelings it gets them in touch with them. There’s something about that place that says ‘It’s okay to show your feelings when are down there.’ I think that our grief over Vietnam, and over those that we lost in Vietnam was suppressed. Partly because of the way our culture handled grief at the time, and partly because of the Vietnam War and all the conflicts surrounding it. So many of us suppressed so much for so long. At The Wall, you grieve in the presence of other people. People who are grieving too or people who are there to offer solace and comfort and say, ‘yes, I know, I understand.'”
Wanda Ruffin, widow of James Thomas Ruffin, who is remembered on Panel 5E, Line 49, 1992 ‘Writings on The Wall’

26 – “There’s magic in that Wall. How could two pieces of granite engraved with names and placed in a depression in the earth come to be the most famous memorial in a city endowed with so many tributes to men of honor and to America’s wars? How could this gravestone to those who died in America’s most controversial and most unpopular war come to occupy such a wonderful, remarkable place in America’s collective heart? How could it have become an altar, a shrine, a temple, a church? Most of the memorials that we see in the Mall were built decades after the passing of the man or the end of the conflict, yet this Wall sprung to life just a few years after the Vietnam War ended. How did this Wall expand beyond Vietnam and come to encompass the service and sacrifice of all generations? How has it come to touch so deeply people who did not have a loved one who served in Vietnam, did not lose anyone in Vietnam. How has it come to touch young people born long after The Wall or were born after this Wall was dedicated? The Wall came at t time when we desperately needed something to help heal a nation that had been deeply wounded by Vietnam and by other traumatic events in the 1960s and 1970s. At a time when we were besieged by empires behind iron and bamboo curtains, empires that are now gone. In that era, Vietnam veterans were pushed aside along with the war they had fought. Often ignored, should those who gave the supreme sacrifice or who are still not fully accounted for be simply forgotten as we move on? Was their valor any less or the honor of their service any different from those who had gone before? One man, one man stood up, said no, and he began a crusade to make sure that didn’t happen. Jan Scruggs pledged his life and modest fortune to make sure those lost in Vietnam would never be forgotten.”
Colin Powell, 25th anniversary of the dedication of The Wall, 2007

27 – “When I stood here in 1982 and declared the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated, I had no idea what this one simple act would mean to the nation. Thousands of you crowded on this site that day, eager to look at The Wall and touch a name of a loved one. Twenty-five years later, we Vietnam veterans have given another gift to this country. We have shown America how to respect its warriors.”
Jan Scruggs, 25th anniversary of the dedication of The Wall, 2007

28 – “I saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial not as an object placed into the earth but as a cut in the earth that has then been polished, like a geode.”
Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

29 – “The Wall is actually more than just 58,000-plus names. These are individuals. These are people who have given their lives. These are, many of them, my friends.”
Richard Schroepfer, Vietnam War veteran, 1st Infantry Div – 1st of the 18th Infantry “Swamp Rats”, 2015

30 – “I try not to think of them as being on The Wall, but how I knew them before they got there.”
Gene Harris, who served multiple tours in Vietnam, told CBS DC, 2015

31 – “There’s something about the power of a name. For many people, the memorial has such significance—they are almost at the grave of their loved ones.”e
Robert Doubek, Co-Founder and Former Executive Director for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, University of Illinois Alumni Association interview, 2016

32 – “I spoke at the groundbreaking for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982 and on that day, the first step was taken to honor all Vietnam veterans. When I look at The Wall, I feel pride for serving my country and respect for all those who served and especially those who sacrificed everything and didn’t make it home. They each had a family that was forever changed by their loss. The Wall should serve as a reminder for generations to come of the price of war.”
Chuck Hagel, 2017 Memorial Day Observance

33 – “It is overwhelming to stand in this profound place knowing that behind each of these more than 58,000 names lies an incomprehensible tragedy. An individual human being whose life was cut short by the Vietnam War. And a family that has endured immeasurable, devastating loss.”
Ken Burns, filmmaker, 2017 Memorial Day Observance

34 – “The Wall has become the iconic symbol of our Vietnam struggles. There is something for everyone, regardless of his or her attitude toward the conflict at the time. Its large black granite panels with polished surface can reflect our individual memories and emotions. It has become a national place of healing and repair and renaissance.”
Hal Kushner in ‘The Enduring Legacy of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Forty Years of Healing’, 2022

35 – “It is important for all Americans to understand that as The Wall grows older and the Vietnam War creeps into the annals of history, the granite wall of names stands still in time to serve as a reminder that there is no glory in war, only suffering. We must bear the deep scars of war and learn the lessons of history to move forward in confidence that America’s spirit will remain strong and resolute.”
Chuck Hagel in ‘The Enduring Legacy of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Forty Years of Healing’, 2022

36 – “First-time visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are typically awestruck by what confronts them—a black monolith without embellishments or features other than the thousands of names etched into its granite surface. Relatives and friends and others with or without connection to those embodied there run their hands over the engravings, take rubbings of the names and often leave keepsakes at the base of The Wall. But each name is just a reminder of someone—a son or daughter, a husband, a father, a lover, a friend—who gave his or her life in service to our nation. There is so much more behind those names.”
Michael Morris in ‘The Enduring Legacy of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Forty Years of Healing’, 2022

37 – “To our generation of veterans this place is Hallowed Ground…. Sacred to our fallen brothers and sisters…. This Wall is not only a place, but also a time that we can return to and heal and hopefully start to experience some level of closure. We also come to this place…. this Wall…. To pay homage to the heroes of a war long over that continues to take Americans from our generation today.”
Denis Faherty in ‘The Enduring Legacy of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Forty Years of Healing’, 2022

38 – “For anyone that has avoided visiting The Wall because you know that there’ll be pain, let me say that seeing and touching the names will hurt, yes, but it will also heal. In-country, we never got to say goodbye. Now we can.”
Edward Egan in ‘The Enduring Legacy of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Forty Years of Healing’, 2022

39 – “Knowing that there is a memorial dedicated to our father, and the brave souls who served in Vietnam, helps soothe our broken hearts. The Wall represents love, brotherhood, and sacrifice. It stands for freedom, and the price paid for it. When we are there, we feel the heal.”
Carol Gell Federici and her mother Rebecca Gell Workentine are daughter and widow of Jack Earl Gell, who is remembered on Panel 3E, Line 49, ‘The Enduring Legacy of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Forty Years of Healing’, 2022

40 – “After 25 years, the way in which visitors have embraced and cherished this work has been a great gift to me. I am always incredibly moved and heartened, especially when a veteran tells me that The Wall has helped them in some way – it could not mean more to me. When I meet Vietnam veterans who stop me to say thank you for creating the Memorial, I always want to say: thank you, for the service and sacrifices that all of you have made in service to your country. Unfortunately, at times we have chosen to go to war. But we must never forget that there is always a high price to war. It is measured in the ultimate sacrifice – a human life – and we should never, ever forget the sacredness of those lives. That is what the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is all about.”
Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 25th anniversary of the dedication of The Wall, 2007