- - Monday, November 10, 2014

This Veterans Day, thousands will visit the National Mall and its war memorials. Multitudes will visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but few will know why the memorial features not just the funerary wall, with the names of the 58,286 killed in Vietnam, along a path that, according to one official website, gives “the sensation of walking into a grave,” but also a heroic “Three Fighting Men” statue, the American Flag and an inspiring inscription. The surprising answer is: Ronald Reagan.

Reagan was passionate about the Vietnam War and especially those who fought it. In August 1980, he declared: “[Vietnam] was, in truth, a noble cause [Those] who died in that cause fought as well and as bravely as any Americans have ever fought in any war. They deserve our gratitude, our respect and our continuing concern.”

Those remarks were reminiscent of two radio addresses he delivered in February 1978 discussing a report rebutting charges about the military’s conduct in Vietnam: “Finally, history is catching up with what has to be our most lied-about war … Do you have the feeling we should apologize to those young men of ours who fought [there] so bravely under so many handicaps and with so little appreciation?”

In 1980, Congress authorized the construction of a Vietnam Veterans Memorial, thanks to the dedication of Vietnam veterans who sought a fitting memorial to their comrades-in-arms. Along the way, however, they were convinced that the design should not be selected by them but by a panel of art and architecture experts, none of whom was a Vietnam veteran.

In May 1981 came the winning design — two black walls of granite that descend into a gravelike depression and meet at an angle. It infuriated many veterans. It is “abstract, anonymous, inconspicuous, and meaningless [and] so unfulfilling that no memorial would be a better alternative,” said Scott Brewer. Tom Carhart saw “a black trench that scars the Mall [with b]lack walls, the universal color of shame and sorrow and degradation.” Wrote Jim Webb, it is “a black hole,” and “a very strong, nihilistic statement regarding the war.”

Officials stonewalled the objecting veterans, but in January 1982, Reagan’s secretary of the interior, Jim Watt, wrote asking to be advised when the design was final so he could give expeditious approval. The letter was code, of course. Mr. Watt was siding with the objecting veterans and wanted major changes.

All hell broke loose. The park purists, the arts community and the anti-Vietnam War activists, all of whom favored the simple, sheer, stark funerary architecture, objected vociferously. Mr. Watt was accustomed to taking heat for policies his boss favored. After Mr. Watt took a beating in the press, he got a call from William Clark, who said, “I have just been meeting with the president, and he has read the story in this morning’s paper and wants you to stand tall and never back up.” Soon, then-Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, helped reach a compromise, which included the American flag, a heroic statue and inspiring inscription. The flag would stand atop and behind the apex of the wall; the statue would be centered upon and face the wall.

Frederick E. Hart, a remarkably accomplished and largely self-taught sculptor, whose design for the monument ranked third but who had submitted the top-ranking sculpture, was commissioned to produce the statue. Mr. Watt visited his downtown studio as he created “Three Fighting Men,” using Marines from Quantico, Va., as his models. Meanwhile, the attack on the compromise continued. Maya Lin, who designed the wall, accused Hart of “drawing mustaches on other people’s portraits.” She was not alone.

The Commission on Fine Arts rejected the compromise and decreed that the flag and statue be “shunted off out of view” and “in the trees.” Mr. Watt summoned Hart to his office to ensure the two new elements were in their rightful places. That did the trick. The commission agreed to the final compromise.

On Nov. 11, 1984, Reagan made his first official appearance at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial when he spoke at the dedication of the “Three Fighting Men.” In his diary, he wrote: “I briefly addressed 100,000 people for the acceptance of the Memorial statue. It was quite an event, and I hope it finally makes up for the way the Vietnam [r]eturnees were treated when they came home.”

On Veterans Day 2014, a visitor may stand beneath the American flag and read the inscription that Mr. Webb wrote for its base, which bears the seals of the five military services: “This flag represents the service rendered to our country by the veterans of the Vietnam War. The flag affirms the principles of freedom for which they fought and their pride in having served under difficult circumstances.” Lifting his eyes, the visitor can look back at the “Three Fighting Men,” who appear to be staring at the wall beyond, and be reminded of who those brave men were and what they did long ago and far away. Thank you, President Reagan.

William Perry Pendley, a former Marine, is author of “Sagebrush Rebel: Reagan’s Battle With Environmental Extremists and Why It Matters Today” (Regnery, 2013).

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