On this day in 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is dedicated in Washington DC after a march to its site by thousands of veterans of the conflict. The often controversial and long-awaited memorial was a simple V-shaped black-granite wall inscribed with the names of the 58,195 American servicemen and women who died in the conflict, arranged in order of death, not rank, as was common in other memorials.
The first name originally appearing on the wall is that of USAF Tech. Sgt. Richard Bernard Fitzgibbon, Jr. of Stoneham, MA, who was murdered by another USAF airman, June 8, 1956. The last, USAF 2nd Lt. Richard Vandegeer of Cleveland, OH, a helicopter pilot who perished during rescue operations above the SS Mayaguez, May 15, 1975.
The Vietnam War itself was born from the effort of North Vietnam, which had defeated the French colonial administration of Vietnam in 1954, to unify the entire country under a single communist regime modeled after those of the Soviet Union and China. The South Vietnamese government, on the other hand, fought to preserve a Vietnam more closely aligned with the West. U.S. military advisers, present in small numbers throughout the 1950’s, were introduced on a large scale beginning in 1961, and active combat units were introduced in 1965.
By 1969 more than 500,000 U.S. military personnel were stationed in Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and China poured weapons, supplies, and advisers into the North, which in turn provided support, political direction, and regular combat troops for the campaign in the South. The costs and casualties of the growing war proved too much for the United States to bear, and U.S. combat units were withdrawn by 1973. In 1975 South Vietnam fell to a full-scale invasion by the North.
The conflict spawned a political and cultural awakening in the U.S., cleaving sons and daughters from their WW2-era parents through wide-scale protests, with the greatest era in popular music to date providing the soundtrack. Predictably, the backlash to “peace, love and rock ‘n roll” brought with it hardhats, Dick Nixon and the Southern Strategy, legacies still lurking to this day.
In all, the Americans losses are among more than 3 million people killed in the Vietnam War, with well more than half that number Vietnamese civilians.