The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11853

Creating a monument for one person is hard enough; how do you fashion a suitable memorial for over 58000 people in one location? Visit this somber, literally-reflective memorial that honors each name!


United States

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5), Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • What do you think is the best way to remember those who gave their life in service to their country?
  • Is any memorial sufficient?

In the previous lessons in this series, Let's Explore Washington D.C.!, you learned about memorials built to honor famous politicians and civil rights leaders.

  • Did you miss any of those lessons?

Find them in the right-hand sidebar under Related Lessons.

While the accomplishments of these distinguished individuals are unparalleled, nothing compares to sacrificing your life to uphold and protect American values. Throughout the United States, you can find memorials built to honor those who died in military conflict. Each memorial has had its own unique challenges because designers struggle with developing something significant enough to reflect what was lost.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., faced this same challenge. In this lesson, you will explore the history and meaning of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Then, you will take a tour of the most somber memorial in Washington, D.C.

Four years after the Vietnam War ended, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Inc., was established to create a memorial for veterans of the Vietnam War. Congress allocated a plot of land near the Lincoln Memorial for the project and decided it would hold a design competition to decide what the memorial would look like. In 1980, exactly 2,573 designs were submitted for consideration. The designs were laid in rows in an airplane hangar at Andrews Air Force Base, covering more than 35,000 square feet of floor space. A committee walked through the rows of ideas and examined each design, narrowing them down until only one was left. The design selected was for a simple memorial by an artist named Maya Lin.

The centerpiece of Lin's design was two massive walls of black stone. These stones would be engraved with the names of U.S. soldiers who died or were never found during the Vietnam War. The two walls would come together to form an angle and would taper off on both sides. Lin said the tapering-off effect gave the appearance of a wound that is healing.

The image below is an aerial view of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

  • How is the image of a healing wound illustrated by the walls?
  • How is this imagery relevant to the Vietnam War?

Explain your answers to your teacher or parent:

Vietnam veterans wall satellite image

Image from the U.S. Geological Survey, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Lin's design was immediately met with controversy. Many felt the simplicity and dark tone diminished the lives of the fallen, rather than honoring them. The public disagreement about the design became so great that President Ronald Reagan initially would not issue a building permit for the memorial due to fear of public backlash. Compromises were made, and it was decided that a statue of three soldiers would be placed next to the wall.

  • Do you think this was a good compromise? Why or why not?

Explain your reasoning to your teacher or parent.

the three soldiers monument

The memorial was dedicated on November 13, 1982. Thousands of Vietnam veterans attended the event. While the design of the wall was initially met with controversy, it has found meaning and significance with people today.

A reflective black stone was intentionally used for the walls. When visitors read the names of the fallen soldiers, they can see their own reflection in the wall. This symbolizes merging the past and the present together. The statue of the three soldiers that was added as part of a compromise with those who did not approve of the original design, is stationed across from the wall with their faces turned towards it. This is meant to symbolize them looking upon their fallen military brothers (and eight sisters).

The wall is a total of 495 feet, six inches long. The highest point, where the two walls meet at the center, is 10.1 feet high and the lowest points, at the two ends, are exactly eight inches high. As of 2016, the wall listed a total of 58,307 names. The names of those who died during the Vietnam War are followed by a diamond. The names of those who were classified as missing in action are followed by a cross. When the death of someone who was considered missing is confirmed, the cross is changed to diamond. A plan was made to place a circle around a cross for any soldiers who returned home but, unfortunately, this has never happened.

Vietnam Veteran Memorial Wall

More than 3 million people visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial each year. Directories are placed next to the memorial to help those who visit looking to find a loved one's name. Those who are looking for someone in particular will often place a piece of paper over the name and color over it with a crayon or pencil. This creates an outline of the name that the visitor can take with him or her.

It has also become a tradition for people to leave notes and small gifts at the base of the memorial, the same way people do at a grave site. Each week, the National Park Service collects these items and takes them to a museum where the items are cataloged and stored as historical artifacts. The only items that are not kept are flags and perishable items, such as flowers. Any flags that are collected are redistributed through various organizations, and perishable items are thrown away.

woman kneeling at wall

Ask your teacher or parent if he or she knows anyone who is named on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. If so, ask if your parent or teacher would be willing to share a story about that person.

Now, move on to the Got It? section to take a virtual field to trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Consider exploring the Elephango lesson in the right-hand sidebar under Additional Resources to learn more about the president mentioned in this lesson.

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