Full Metal Racket: How An Honest Bid To Preserve The Legacy Of Vietnam Sold Out
"There are a number of people who are getting paid quite well to keep this campaign alive."
The Education Center at the Wall, set to open its doors in 2020, would be the latest historical showpiece on the National Mall, 25,000 square feet of exhibition space dedicated to the memory of the Vietnam War, clad in Italian glass and jutting steel, occupying five acres of coveted Washington real estate. Mandated by Congress to be visible only from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — and just enough to “satisfy its purpose” without “disrupting the landscape” — the center would be accessible by a flight of stairs guiding visitors into a warren of galleries replete with an array of museum exhibits and multimedia installations examining our troubled involvement in Southeast Asia. Those exhibits would tell the story of the war as it was experienced both at home and on the battlefield, from myriad perspectives.
A collaboration between the world-renowned Ennead Architects and acclaimed museum design firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the exhibition space took nine years to design. The process was shepherded by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) — a Virginia-based nonprofit founded in 1979 by Jan Scruggs — and paid for entirely with donations, including from the likes of Time Warner, ConocoPhillips, Lockheed Martin, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the governments of Singapore and Australia, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. When the Commission of Fine Arts finally approved the plan, in May 2015, it congratulated the project team for “its perseverance and responsiveness over many years in creating this important public facility to enhance the experience of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.”
And indeed, it was a triumph: a veritable masterwork despite being produced under the rigorous scrutiny of Washington bureaucrats. But three years after the design was unveiled, construction crews have yet to break ground and may never do so. Despite high hopes, eye-popping donations, and a large dedicated staff, the Education Center is beginning to look like a boondoggle, “a story of incredible failure,” says a person familiar with the project. Others used terms like “impossible,” “quagmire,” and “a fool’s errand” to describe it. According to those sources — current and former VVMF staff and board members, volunteers, and donors — the organization has internally considered the Education Center a hopeless cause for years but soldiered on because, as one ex-staffer put it, “there’s no fucking exit strategy.”
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial itself, now considered a triumph of public art, was itself a highly fraught endeavor. The selection of a sober, minimalist design by 21-year-old student Maya Lin sparked a bitter controversy, fueled by those who considered the V-shaped back granite memorial to be more symbolic of the antiwar movement than anything else. Over time, though, it won adherents, eventually going on to unite Americans behind the notion that troops should never be sent into battle without their country’s full support. Better known simply as “the Wall,” it was unveiled in 1982 and has since become one of Washington’s most popular tourist attractions, drawing an estimated 5.6 million visitors each year.
What the memorial didn’t do, however — at least not to the satisfaction of some — is place the 58,315 men and women whose names it bears in a historical context. Much as it may have helped Americans process their grief, it carried no obvious message. And it certainly didn’t explain why we’d gone to war in the first place, and then kept at it, as casualties piled up, even as the possibility of victory became ever more remote. As Jan Scruggs wrote in one letter seeking funds for the Education Center, “[As] a nation and a people, we must remember why we chose to fight and then reflect on each war so that we may better understand how to avoid them in the future.”
The success of the Wall only further convinced Scruggs that the hard-learned lessons of Vietnam were too important to forget. He began lobbying for the Education Center in 2000 and spent the next three years waging an uphill battle to convince lawmakers that it would serve rather than undermine VVMF’s foundational mission — “to honor and recognize the service of American veterans of the Vietnam War, particularly those who were lost.” The vision eventually drew the support of Congress, which in 2003 passed a law earmarking a parcel of Federal land for the project. Longtime VVMF allies, including John Kerry, John McCain, John Warner, Gen. Colin Powell, and Chuck Hagel, rallied behind the effort as well.
Fundraising and planning progressed steadily behind the scenes until November 2012, when the project had a public coming-out of sorts, a media-heavy ceremonial groundbreaking on the National Mall attended by a notable cadre of politicians, Pentagon officials, and celebrities, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Adm. Mike Mullen, and musician Jimmy Buffett. The occasion doubled as an opportunity for VVMF to announce an expansion of the Education Center’s scope: In addition to telling the story of Vietnam, it would also cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Among the attendees were about a hundred parents of troops lost in those conflicts. Each came bearing photographs of their child, which were gifted to VVMF at the end of the ceremony — after Buffett played an acoustic rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” The images would be included in the center’s crowning exhibit: a giant digital wall that would display images of every American service member who died or went missing in both the Vietnam War and the War on Terror.
“It warms my heart to know that long after I’m gone, that people can go into that center and see the faces of my son and all those who made the ultimate sacrifice and then go out and tell somebody,” the mother of a 29-year-old Marine captain killed in Afghanistan told Stars & Stripes. “That’s a living legacy.”
Setting unrealistic expectations is a common theme in the 18-year saga to build the Education Center. As Stripes and several other major publications reported that evening, the project would not actually get underway until the VVMF raised “another $38 million for the $84 million project.” But momentum was building, Scruggs insisted to the droves of reporters who had turned out for the event. “We can knock this out of the park.” The goal was “to start construction by next year, in time to complete the center in 2014 to coincide with the return of the last troops from Afghanistan.”
An education center that grappled honestly with the immense policy failures that drew America into an unwinnable war in the first place was a good idea. On that, at least, everyone agrees. There was only one precedent: the Vietnam War Era Museum and Education Center in Holmdel, New Jersey, which opened in 1998 and was also designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates. Similar to what Scruggs had in mind, the original goal of the museum was to offer visitors an unbiased, clear-eyed, and comprehensive narrative of the conflict and its manifestations back home. But a bitter public dispute over the exhibit script resulted in a series of small but surgical revisions of certain features perceived as “anti-veteran,” including panels related to the Mai Lai massacre and the antiwar movement, according to Meredith H. Lair, a historian of the Vietnam War at George Mason University, who authored the text.
Lair also wrote a critical analysis of the Education Center published in 2012 and attended several VVMF advisory board meetings for her research. In an interview, she said the New Jersey museum served as “a model but also a cautionary tale for the Education Center,” and pointed to another controversy that “had a very chilling effect on people who work on national museums about wars.” In 1994, veterans groups and lawmakers prevailed in a vigorous campaign to pressure the Smithsonian Institution into dramatically altering an Enola Gay exhibit. As a result, the New York Times reported, the Smithsonian removed “items that the critics said dwelt to excess on the horrible effects of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki” and also “vastly revise the estimate of how many casualties might have resulted” if the U.S. had invaded Japan, among other things.
Nonetheless, having emerged from the Wall campaign as something of a folk hero, Scruggs was confident he could pull off the required political balancing act. After all, his objective was simple: a modest visitors center adjacent to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial featuring some photographs of troops killed in the war, accompanied by a handful of iconic images, a historical timeline, a few exhibits, and a small movie theater. The goal was merely to “bring home the sacrifices made in Vietnam and the great patriots this country produced,” Scruggs told a reporter in October 2001. “It’s a good thing to remind people of that at a time when once again we’re calling on patriots to protect our country in this most unusual sequence of events.”
The surge of patriotism after the September 11 terror attacks helped carry the Vietnam Veterans Education Center Act through Congress. But efforts stalled soon after, for a variety of reasons. Some say, in retrospect, that the campaign was doomed from the start, that it was foolhardy to think that the unanimous love and support for the Wall would carry over to a project that threatened to disrupt its sacred neutrality. Others blame the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As the war heated up, many potential donors shifted their attention to helping the droves of troops returning home wounded and traumatized. In that way, at least, the War on Terror would not be like Vietnam. Scruggs still had enough clout with veterans of his generation to land a series of major donations, but rising costs vastly outpaced the inflow of funds. And the decision to fold the War on Terror into the project seems to have backfired. “Congress loved the plan, but otherwise the support was wafer thin,” Scruggs recalled.
A Vietnam veteran who volunteered as a fundraising committee leader with VVMF for nearly a decade told Task & Purpose — on condition of anonymity — that he personally pledged $100,000 towards the project but ceased payments after donating just over half of that sum “because it eventually became apparent that we were not going to be able to raise enough money to do it the way it would need to be done.” He attributed some of that inertia to the decision to fold the War on Terror into the original plan. “I think there were quite a few people who, let’s just say, when the idea was broached to people that I was trying to solicit for money, it was sort of like — it didn’t grab them — it was not embraced. To me, it felt artificial.”
Other prominent supporters also appear to have lost faith in the project, including Hagel, who authored the legislation for the Education Center.
The former secretary of defense did not return a request for comment sent to his private email, but sources familiar with his thinking say he expects VVMF to abandon the project when its board votes on the matter later this month. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Powell explained that he “is not actively engaged with VVMF,” although for many years he was instrumental in the fundraising effort and donated money himself.
Scruggs, now 68 and recently recovered from a near-fatal heart infection, says he began to doubt the feasibility of the project in the weeks after the ceremonial groundbreaking in 2012, when a member of his staff informed him that the figures he’d provided to the media —$38 million raised for a $84 million project — were wildly inaccurate. “He said, ‘Jan, we still need to raise $80 million and perhaps more than that’” Scruggs recalled. More bad news followed within weeks. “We found out that a request for federal funding that it seemed likely we were going to get got rejected. Everything we did was reduced to smoke and mirrors within a month.”
The former fundraising committee leader said that he grew increasingly disturbed by the “idea that all of these vets and widows and children of KIAs were sending their hard-earned dollars to something that they thought would be finished in just one or two years.” Indeed, numerous news articles about the Education Center published over the last decade or so cite VVMF sources repeatedly claiming that construction is just around the corner. Such assurances were offered in 2012, 2013, and 2014, and then quietly revised without explanation. 2018 was also supposed to be a big year, according to a 2017 report by the Washington Business Journal: “The group has said it hopes to begin construction in 2018.”
“I, for one, cannot understand why the VVMF board doesn’t face up to this situation and bring some real transparency to what’s really going on,” the former committee leader said. “Because you have millions of vietnam veterans out there who are under the impression that this is going forward and I dont think it’s fair to the veterans community to let that impression stand without a formal practical plan for how this is going to get done.”
Scruggs retired as president of VVMF in the fall of 2014, severing all ties with the organization shortly thereafter. And though he’s reticent to discuss his personal feelings about the project, people close to him say he is haunted by the notion that the Education Center’s “inevitable demise” will undo a lifetime of work advocating for Vietnam veterans.
“I told him that he just needs to be retired,” a longtime friend and associate recalled. “He has a great life, and he will have a great legacy no matter what happens with the center.” Another person who maintains regular contact with Scruggs described him as being deeply “concerned with the integrity” of the memorial. “He has a tremendous heart and he did something that was truly remarkable for us, that wall he created,” they said.
Of course, more than reputations are at stake. The Education Center is very real to a lot of people. “It’s sad for the veterans and the families who have invested so much energy and time into this effort,” said a former VVMF employee. “We’d get phone calls all the time asking about progress.” In addition to the tens of thousands of photographs the organization has collected for the Wall of Faces exhibit, it has amassed a vast archive of keepsakes left at the memorial that it planned to feature in an adjacent installation. It also continues to solicit donations on its website — “Gifts large and small are needed to help build the Center” — and sources say that most of VVMF’s handsomely-compensated staff, which consists of 14 full-time and two part-time employees, is primarily focused on “development,” or fundraising.
“On a noble level, there’s some wishful thinking that something magical is going to happen, that there will be a breakthrough of some sort, that some angel investor will suddenly show up and say I’ll fund the whole thing,” said the former fundraising committee leader. “At a less noble level, there are a number of people who are getting paid quite well to keep this campaign alive. I think it’s really wrong.”
After enlisting in the Army straight out of high school, Scruggs served a 12-month tour with the infantry in Quang Tin province and was wounded in action. He returned home in 1970 “disillusioned and disenchanted,” and drifted through his early 20s, working odd jobs and roving the country on a motorcycle before eventually enrolling at American University in Washington D.C. to study psychology. He says he came up with the idea for the Vietnam Veterans memorial after watching The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino’s Oscar-winning 1978 epic war drama about three small-town friends who volunteer to fight in Vietnam and are each left profoundly traumatized by the experience. The film was one of the first to examine the war’s corrosive effect on veterans, their families, and the working-class communities that sacrificed disproportionately.
Scruggs founded VVMF in 1979 to build “a tangible symbol of recognition from the American people for those who served in the war,” and spent the next several years lobbying politicians and government officials, beseeching donors, rallying veterans, and talking up his plan to anyone who would listen. The Wall cost a total of $8.2 million to build. VVMF, which at that time consisted of Scruggs and several other Vietnam veterans, raised roughly $6.5 million of that in increments of $10 donations or less. “It was very much a grassroots efforts,” explained Lair, the historian. “And by the way,” she added, “it is not called ‘The Vietnam War Memorial.’ It is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, because it was built by veterans in the name of veterans to ensure that the nation remembered those who served but especially those who died.”
Many of those allies turned to enemies the moment VVMF revealed Lin’s winning submission. The backlash was swift and virulent. Interior Secretary James Watt declared that he would not issue VVMF a building permit. The Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who contributed $160,000 to finance the competition, seethed that the Wall was “an apology, not a memorial” and launched an aggressive — and ultimately successful — campaign to build another. Twenty-seven Republican senators penned a letter of protest to Reagan, calling the Wall concept “a political statement of shame and dishonor.” Jim Webb, a Navy Cross-recipient and future U.S. senator, who’d been deeply involved in the campaign, described it as “nihilistic,” while the military historian Tom Carhart, a combat-wounded former Army infantry officer, lamented that “if Americans allow that black trench to be dug, future generations will understand clearly what America thought of its Vietnam veterans.”
The construction of the Wall happened to coincide with a period of national self-absolvement. By 1982, America was back to being its old cocky self. Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” was number one on the charts, President Ronald Reagan was pumping money into the military, Moscow was on the ropes, and the history of the Vietnam War was undergoing a major revision. On the campaign trail, Reagan called the war a “noble cause” and accused the Carter administration of being “anti-veteran,” declaring in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars that “we dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful.”
On Nov. 13, tens of thousands of veterans from across the country converged in Washington for the dedication of the Wall. They came in old jungle fatigues and jump boots and boonie hats slung low over bearded faces, like soldiers back from a long and forlorn patrol. The day began with a “Welcome Home” parade down Constitution Avenue attended by a thin but zealous crowd of flag-waving supporters and culminated with a dedication ceremony on the National Mall. Marching at the helm of the procession was Gen. William C. Westmoreland, whose infamous “war of attrition” strategy is still widely blamed for the staggering body count represented in the memorial. In fact, the general, a decade retired at that point, had personally requested to grand marshal the parade, and Scruggs, who had left the Army as a 20-year-old corporal, had dutifully agreed. “I couldn’t say no to an icon,” he told Task & Purpose.
A sketch of Scruggs’ initial idea for the center reveals that he envisioned a simple, leaf-shaped cabana surrounded by lush vegetation, sort of like a concession stand for soldiers in Vietnam. That version was projected to cost about $2 million. The price instantly ballooned with Congress’ mandate that the center be built underground, and then steadily increased from year-to-year. In 2015, an accounting firm VVMF hired to conduct a more thorough analysis of the project confirmed that the $87 estimate Scruggs gave reporters three years before had been wildly off. The price tag has been $130 million ever since. But that was three years ago and VVMF won’t say whether it’s crunched the numbers since. According to one well-informed source, the cost increases with each day the blueprints collect dust. “You have to take into account new technology,” they said. “It’s a very sophisticated building and it’s underground. And it would be impossible to scale it back.”
Also impossible is raising the necessary funds incrementally, as in, “a million here, a million there,” the source added. “Everybody knows that.” The only way the center gets built is if someone picks up the rest of the tab “because they want to put their name on it.” But that isn’t an option now and may never be. On June 11, VVMF submitted a “Donor Recognition Plan” to the National Park Service for review and approval. The plan, which was rejected entirely, included “allowing the Education Center and ‘associated Plaza’ to be named after a donor.” Unfortunately, as the NPS explained, such arrangements are prohibited by federal regulations. VVMF also asked for “donor recognition at donation levels as low as $15,000.” That isn’t permitted, either.
Nevertheless, the VVMF website continues to promise “special recognition opportunities” for gifts starting at $100,000. VVMF did not reply to an email asking whether those opportunities are contingent on a policy change, or if it plans to submit a revised recognition plan as NPS urged it to.
Last spring, VVMF received a major windfall in the form of a $10 million grant from the Lilly Endowment. The organization said at the time that the donation brought the total raised for the Education Center to $42.5 million, and expressed hope that more money would follow.
VVMF seems to rely on several different metrics for measuring progress — photographs collected, mementos accrued, design plans finessed and approved. Speaking strictly in terms of donation dollars, however, progress screeched to a halt last year. VVMF director of communications Heidi Zimmerman told Task & Purpose in July that VVMF had raised a total of $42.5 million — which, she admitted, is the same amount the organization reported a year before. She was quick to point out that VVMF has raised $14 million for the Education Center since she joined the organization in 2014. However, the estimated cost also grew during that time, by $15 million, leaving VVMF further from its fundraising goal than ever.
According to an accountant who specializes in nonprofits and reviewed VVMF’s 2014 financial records, VVMF has already spent spent roughly $8.4 million on the Education Center. “But I’d be surprised if everything that money was spent on is still really useful,” he said. “Because some of that was spent 15 years ago.”
Last month, Sen. Steve Daines, Republican of Montana, introduced a bipartisan bill with Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois that would grant VVMF a four-year extension to continue raising donations for the center beyond October of this year, which is when its previous extension expires.
It may be too little too late. At its current pace, the fundraising campaign would have to continue for at least 30 more years to reach its $130 million goal (and the estimates are likely to increase). That timeline would require 10 more three-year extensions on top of the two VVMF has already been granted (one of which was for four years, an exception). And each of those extensions would require re-convincing Congress that the Education Center isn’t just a pipedream. But VVMF doesn’t seem quite convinced itself. “There’s no more love for it,” a former staff member told Task & Purpose. According to another, “People no longer see the reason to do it. Even Vietnam vets who love the Wall aren’t on board with what we’re doing anymore.”
Neither, sources say, are some members of the board, who are concerned that the organization is drifting perilously off course and believe a return to a more grassroots model is the only way to preserve its legacy. Such a shift would likely entail big staff cuts. “The Education Center is superfluous to the meaning of the Wall, and people no longer see the reason to do it,” a source said. “Before this project got started we were just a little mom and pop shop in D.C., and we did just fine. The big staff and salaries haven’t really paid off.”
In an email shared with Task & Purpose a key supporter opined that the decision to shutter the Education Center has already been made and that VVMF has been biding its time as it figures out how best to break the news. “Wise to take the approach they’re taking because they know there are many pieces to this monster,” they wrote. One inside source put the odds of the board voting to continue the project at “60/40 against.” Another said, “they are going to have to stop this charade and give some money back and get rid of some employees.” Only a few major donors stipulated in contracts that VVMF would have to return their money if it failed to complete the project, however. The rest is for keeps.
“The Board of VVMF now has the choice of continuing to pursue contributions for the Center or giving the five acres on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial back to the National Park Service,” Scruggs told Task & Purpose in a written statement. “This is the Board’s decision to make. The money from America’s international allies, the VFW, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida remains available for return.”
When Scruggs retired in 2014, he left VVMF in the hands of its current president and CEO, Jim Knotts. A former Air Force public affairs officer and Desert Storm veteran, Knotts has stated before that he — like so many others who have served in the post-Vietnam military — benefited greatly from Scruggs’ campaign to restore the nation’s respect for members of its armed forces. As he explains on the VVMF website, Knotts envisions the the Education Center as a celebration of military service, a shrine to the great lesson his predecessor taught our nation: to always “separate the war from the warrior.” (Task & Purpose was unable to reach Knotts for comment.)
Of course, the Wall was supposed to teach us so much more. VVMF had stated in the memorial design competition brochure that it would “not exist in perpetuity” — that when the memorial was completed, the organization would be “dissolved.” As promised, VVMF folded its colors in 1985. However, several years later, Scruggs decided to get the band back together. In an interview with People Magazine in 1988, he acknowledged that the Wall “took a lot of the bitterness out of the Vietnam debate, but I wouldn’t say the memorial healed the nation. The wounds caused by the war still require a political healing, a healing on many different levels.”
Everyone interviewed for this article offered different interpretations of what the Education Center was supposed to be, and what it’s become. But they shared a concern that the essential lessons of Vietnam were being forgotten. The saga of the past 18 years only seems to validate those fears. “If what you are saying is true,” said Lair, the historian, “that the foundation is raising money for a cause that they know will never succeed, then they have spectacularly replicated one of the problems of the Vietnam War.”
Lair has harbored deep reservations about the Education Center since her meeting with the project’s advisory board. “There is ample evidence in the historical record of the Education Center at The Wall to suggest that its proponents seek to advance a sanitized, seemingly apolitical narrative of the Vietnam War and an idealized, militarized version of citizenship,” she wrote in a 2012 paper titled The Education Center at The Wall and the Rewriting of History. But she seemed crushed when told of the VVMF’s recent struggles. For all her criticisms of the project, Lair idolizes Scruggs. She was rooting for him. “I remain stunned by what he accomplished,” she said. “Pushing for a memorial at a time when most Americans just wanted to put the Vietnam War behind them, ensuring that the Wall got built, creating a physical and rhetorical space for mourning and reflection — it is a gift to the nation beyond description.”
After a pause, she continued: “Although I like the idea of historical discussions on the west end of the National Mall, maybe less is more. Maybe we need fewer words. I think the Wall already accomplishes the work that Scruggs wanted to do with the Education Center. The only consensus we are ever going to come to about that story is that it is terribly, terribly sad.”
Pentagon correspondent Jeff Schogol contributed reporting