UW News

November 9, 2015

Documents that Changed the World: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1982

UW News

Visitors touch names and leave gifts at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 2006.

Visitors touch names and leave gifts at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 2006.Wikimedia commons

As people walk down toward it, the dark structure bearing 58,272 names prompts memories, prayers and quiet tears. Visitors take photos, leave flowers and gifts — a surprise to the planners — and even make rubbings of names to take home.

The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., designed by then-architect student Maya Lin and installed in 1982, is many things to many people.

To Joe Janes of the Information School, the son of a World War II veteran and creator of the Documents that Changed the World podcast series, the memorial, the discussions it sparked and the hearts it helps heal — “the totality of the wall” he says – together comprise an important document.

The “simple, stark, elegant and ultimately beautiful” memorial, he says, “showed us more about ourselves and how we remember than anyone would have imagined.”

Documents that Changed the World:
The Vietnam War Memorial, 1982

In the podcasts, Janes explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents both famous and less known. UW Today presents these occasionally, and all of the podcasts are available online at the Information School website.

He said he got the idea for this installment while watching a PBS documentary about the National Mall, which mentioned the famous memorial.

“Intrigued, I began to dig into it,” he says, and wound up wondering, “How in the world did they ever get this thing built? So many difficulties, so much opposition, the fundraising and Maya Lin’s design, not to mention her [Chinese] heritage — and the contentiousness of the war itself.”

Veterans Appreciation Week
Nov. 1-12, 2015

Events across campus.
Learn more online.

Lin’s design was chosen from among 1,421 anonymous entries in a unanimous vote by an “expert” jury that, Janes notes, included not a single veteran. Her submission, number 1026, described the proposed memorial as “a rift in the earth.” Later, Janes notes, the memorial was also called “a black gash of shame.” Lin did the work for a class project for which, though it seems incredible in hindsight, she got a B. The 58-272 names are carved in granite from India — offers of stone from Canada and Sweden were not accepted as those nations had shielded American draft evaders during the conflict.

Janes was touched by the stories of what people did when the memorial opened: “Seeing themselves, as intended, in the highly polished surface, reaching out to touch names, making rubbings of them (less expected) and of course leaving objects behind (not at all expected).”

The first of those offerings, Janes says, was said to have been added by a naval officer who threw his brother’s Purple Heart medal into the trench where concrete was being poured for the memorial’s foundation. Many thousands of gifts have been left, Janes says in the podcast, and most end up at the Museum and Archaeological Regional Storage Facility in Maryland.

“Many come without explanation or names attached, so we are left to wonder. They all mean something to somebody, though without context or purpose, they’re adrift in our collective consciousness.”

But above all, there are the names, “each one documenting a life gone or missing,” Janes says.

“Perhaps, just perhaps,” he adds, “the Wall achieved its purposes, of reconciliation about a war that divided this country so deeply.”


  • The Documents that Changed the World podcast series is also available on iTunes, and is approaching a quarter of a million downloads so far.
  • For more about this or any of the Documents that Changed the World podcasts, contact Janes at jwj@uw.edu.

Previous installments of the “Documents that Changed the World” series