A Rift in the Earth

Reston, James - A Rift in the Earth (1)A Rift in the Earth

by James Reston, Jr.

Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs conceived of a memorial to honor those who served in Vietnam and to catalyze the nation’s healing. His vision proceeded to completion as Congress approved of a Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the VVMF (Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund) was established. The VVMF selected notable architect Paul Spreiregen, who hosted a weekly NPR program and had written extensively, as their advisor, and he created a contest and chose eight prominent jurors to select a design for the memorial. But when the panel chose Maya Lin’s black granite chevron design, they unknowingly shot the first volley in the Art Wars that rehashed the debate over the legitimacy of the Vietnam War and compromised the construction of the memorial itself.

A contingent of vocal Vietnam veterans, with support from billionaire Ross Perot, became the spokesmen of the opposition to Lin’s design which they saw as insulting to veterans, a means to “bury” them. Supporters ranged from those who thought the memorial would be a fitting site of reflection and healing to those who defended the design competition’s integrity and the artist’s right over the inviolability of her work.

To salvage the process, the Fine Arts Commission agreed to a compromise in which a realistic sculpture by Frederick Hart (“Three Soldier”) and a flagpole were added to the site of the memorial.

Once I started reading A Rift in the Earth, I realized how little I knew about the history of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. From Scrugg’s initial call for a monument to the design competition to the debate over Lin’s winning entry, Reston presents a well-researched narrative of the process leading to what is now known as one of the most stunning memorials and architectural achievements of the century. His profiles of key characters, particularly Maya Lin, Frederick Hart, and Tom Carhart are fascinating. Included are several illustrations with a color inset reproducing a selection of entries to the VVMF design competition.

Reston also includes a poignant postscript describing his relationship with his friend Ronald Ray, a serviceman who died in Hué, and his pilgrimage to Vietnam. In so doing, he provided insight into the ways that the Vietnamese honored their war veterans differently than we do here in the United States.

Even though the conclusion of the Art Wars was a forgone conclusion, I became caught up in the intrigue of the debate, the backroom negotiations, and the way a contingent of veterans appropriated the spotlight. While I never questioned the need or responsibility to honor the men and women who served, I was dumbfounded that figures as prominent as President Reagan argued that Vietnam was a “just war.”

The feminist implications of the debate and the racist language used to denigrate Lin are touched upon, but I would have liked to see more attention to this aspect of the debate. Additionally, the interplay between art and memory and who has the right to control public art is the key driver of the “Art Wars.” In the context of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the issue is discussed extensively, but I think Reston missed an opportunity to analyze the issue as it applies in other contexts.

A Rift in the Earth is a valuable contribution to the literature concerning the Vietnam War and covers a chapter not typically addressed, and I’m glad that I read it. It should appeal to those who are interested in the war’s lasting effects and to those who are interested in debates over public art.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial (National Park Service)

Virtual Gallery of Things Left at Vietnam Wall

Maya Lin Studio (Requires Flash)

Frederick Hart (Requires Flash)