Maya Ying Lin's Memorial to the Vietnam War Dead Raises Hope—and Anger

updated 03/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Maya Ying Lin was too young to know of the divisive controversy of Vietnam. She was only a year old when the first American soldier died there and 12 when the last GI died. But over the past 10 months Maya, 22, has become closely acquainted with the passion Vietnam still stirs in this country. She has lived at the center of it.

Lin was a senior at Yale, majoring in architecture, when she won last year's contest to create a memorial to Americans killed in Vietnam. She describes her design, picked from the 1,421 entered, as "a rift in the earth, a long, polished black stone wall emerging from and receding into the earth." On its 480-foot-long surface—an inverted V pointing to the nearby Washington and Lincoln memorials—will be engraved the 57,692 names of the dead and some 2,500 missing. "It does not glorify the war or make an antiwar statement," Maya maintains. "It is a place for private reckoning."

Maya's project has become an ironically apt coda to the war whose dead it commemorates—a monument whose every step toward completion has provoked bitter debate and protest. As this week's scheduled groundbreaking approached, Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde began a campaign to discredit the edifice as "a political statement of shame and dishonor." One like-minded veteran worried that it would become a "wailing wall for future antidraft and antinuclear demonstrations." Some have seen in its V shape the two-fingered sign for peace, others the sign for victory. Retired Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland and American Legion head Jack Flynt, among others, have lined up in defense of Maya's plan. To force a compromise, Interior Secretary James Watt withdrew his approval of the project until monument organizers agreed to add a flag, a statue of a soldier (to be sculpted later) and a three-sentence inscription that reads in part: "Our nation honors the courage, sacrifice and devotion to duty and country of its Vietnam veterans."

For former infantry corporal Jan Scruggs, who as head of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Fund helped raise $6 million toward its construction, the last two months have been "hell. Some days we had meetings every two hours," he says, "to cope with some new move planned against us. I'm drained."

Maya has tried to duck the controversy. After she graduated from Yale last spring she took a $15-an-hour job consulting on the memorial's construction—flattening the landscape for handicapped access, installing a drainage system and lengthening the walls because she had not left enough room for all the names. "I decided on everything from the lettering to the sandblasting to the alphabet style of the inscription," she says. She was reported to be furious about the additions to the monument but now calls them "a matter of personal taste; modern art makes a lot of people nervous." She was hurt, though, when one of the design's foes, a Pentagon lawyer and veteran, "started making insinuations about my Chinese descent. I couldn't believe it."

Maya's heritage may, in fact, have contributed to her design's stark eloquence. Her father is a ceramicist and dean of Ohio University's School of Fine Arts, and her mother is a poet and professor of Oriental and English literature at the university. They fled China for the U.S. in 1948 but passed its culture on to their two children. Henry Huan Lin says his daughter's design "is like Taoism—simple yet very direct."

Maya is now designing water fountains for the 1984 New Orleans Expo as a $7.50-an-hour apprentice at the Washington architects Cooper Lecky Partnership. In her free time she is helping renovate the ramshackle row house on Capitol Hill where she lives with two designer roommates. In a few weeks Maya will take some of the $20,000 she won in the contest and travel to Paris, where her poet brother, Tan, is studying, and to China with her parents. Then she hopes to start on an architecture degree "either at Harvard or Yale, whichever one will accept me."

While admitting she can't wait to see her vision set in granite, Maya remains perplexed by the controversy. "I am trying to disassociate myself from the memorial," she says. "The project is done for me."

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