WHAT IS IT? Two Memorials located on the western edge of the National Mall and Memorial Parks that honor the soldiers who served in two Asian wars fought between 1950 and 1975, Korea and Vietnam.
BEAUTY (4/10) The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in undeniably evocative. The simple, diagonally shaped black granite wall etched with the names of the fallen has become the touchstone for modern War Memorial design. The Korean War Veterans Memorial’s copycat black wall confirms this notion.
While they are solemn, thought provoking and poignant neither Memorial is particularly beautiful. We wish, however, that the Korean MEM had further copied Vietnam Memorial’s minimalist simplicity. Instead, its mishmash of 19 haunting statues, diagonal black granite wall, Asian shrubbery, etched troop statistics, inscribed quotes and a shallow pool meant for quiet remembrance feels far too busy.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (7/10) The 1982 opening of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial marked a profound shift in American historical commemoration. The National Mall is our country’s avenue of heroes, our tribute to lasting and eternal greatness. Until 1982, all of the Mall’s major memorials had been dedicated to individuals of genius and political impact: Ulysses Grant, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. Grand soldiers’ memorials had been reserved for the Arlington National Cemetery, located across the Potomac in Virginia.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial changed that line of thinking, reflecting a more populist historical vision. In its wake, America honored Korean War veterans in 1995 and World War II veterans in 2004 with their own tributes on the Mall.
You are not going to learn any specifics about either the Vietnam or the Korean War at their Memorials. The Memorials are both powerful abstractions. In fact, we overheard dozens of parents, some more eloquent than others, struggling to explain the circumstances and events of both Wars to their children.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the organization that generated the funds and political weight to create the Memorial in 1982, is currently raising funds to build a museum, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center, underneath the Memorial itself. On August 3, 2006 the National Park Service approved the proposed location. Actual construction is years away.
Perhaps upon the Museum’s completion, the American public and Memorial visitors will be able to achieve a better understanding of the events of America’s longest war.
CROWDS (7/10) Hundreds of people move slowly along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s walls and alongside the life-sized soldiers of the Korean War Memorial. The sustained silence around the Vietnam Memorial is rarely punctuated by any voice louder than a murmur.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial aims for a similar reverence but doesn’t quite get there. Most folks pause briefly for a photo or two before moving on to the next site.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5) The easiest way to visit is via the Tourmobile® Sightseeing buses. Your $20.00 per adult all day ticket drops you off in front of the both the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the nearby Lincoln Memorial and every other National Mall-area attraction.
These two Memorials are located on the western edge of the National Mall, just south of a dense conglomeration of federal offices. The more adventurous (or masochistic) tourist could find a metered street parking space among this mess of barricaded one-ways streets, diplomat-only meters and tricky diagonal intersections. We do not recommend it.
The nearest D.C. Metro stop is Foggy-Bottom-GWU, located three-quarters of a mile to the north at the intersection of 23rd and I Streets. This downhill concrete walk always seems longer than the distance indicates.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (2/5) There are no NPS bookstores dedicated to either Memorial; a very limited selection of titles can be found within walking distance at the Lincoln Memorial bookstore.
COSTS (4/5) There is no entry fee. We missed free Ranger talks at both memorials by a few minutes.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5) Several young Rangers were clustered together on the walkways between the two Memorials. More were stationed at the circular information kiosks adjacent to the Site. Rangers are there if you need them; you just need to seek them out.
TOURS/CLASSES (3/10) What did we learn from our visits to the Memorials? With its prominently chiseled motto, the Korean War Memorial told us that “Freedom Is Not Free.” The engraved numbers adding up those who served, were wounded and died in the Korean War as well as the endless sea of names on the Vietnam War Memorial are a portion of the total bill.
We question whether one Ranger-led tour a day is sufficient given the amount of people who visit these Memorials, especially during the summer months. Perhaps the Memorials are meant to be more introspective than informative.
We asked one Ranger at an NPS kiosk about the proposed Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center museum that would be located underneath the current Vietnam War Memorial (see History). He knew of no such plans, but did direct our attention to the podiums lining the walkway which invited visitors to comment on the Memorial. He told us those papers were collected nightly and were archived with the intention of eventually displaying them. They have volumes.
FUN (5/10) Reading the names of 58,249 Americans killed in Vietnam is not a fun experience. Neither is reading the engraved stats telling you 36,516 Americans died in the Korean War. Everybody has their own reasons for visiting these Memorials; carefree enjoyment is not one of them.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10) Unlike the sites dedicated to Lincoln, Jefferson or Washington, these two Memorials commemorate not only individuals but the collective effort of enlisted men and women performing duties on behalf of their country. The events are so current visitors usually don’t need to go beyond one or two degrees of separation to find someone they know who is memorialized here.
USA-C2C.com is an independent website, not affiliated in any way with the National Park Service, the National Parks Foundation or any of their partners.