Historian James Reston Jr. was an assistant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall prior to his service in the U.S. Army from 1965 to 1968. He is a best-selling author of 17 books. His latest book is A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial, which he promoted at the 2018 Library of Congress National Book Festival. I had an opportunity to interview him in Washington, D.C. after his book signing session.
You did your book research at the Library of Congress. Since we’re at an event [by] the Library of Congress, I’d like to know how instrumental your research was.
It was absolutely critical. The Library of Congress is a repository of all of the documents that I really needed to do this book. All of the submissions to the Vietnam War Memorial competition are in the Library of Congress. That was a very interesting part of the whole thing for me to see how artists generally tried to conceptualize what would be appropriate for a Vietnam War memorial. All of that was there.
I ended up working in the publishing office and got one of the editors there as my first editor on this. When the manuscript was finished and sent to New York, it was clean as a whistle because that editor had done such a good job. I’ve worked many years at the Library of Congress, and this was a particularly happy experience.
Do you have a background in art and architecture? As an art history major, it was really compelling for me to see the design process you discussed.
None. I loved learning to write about art and architecture. It was a real expansion of my life. I had never written about that area before. I had to learn some of the nomenclature of how artists and architects talk to one another, how they conceptualize projects. Yes, that was very interesting to me.
Moving on to Maya Lin, I was surprised by the ferocity of the attacks on her due to race, rather than only towards her design and artistic merits for the memorial. Could you elaborate more about that?
To begin with, she was 21 years old. She was just tough as nails and she had a very strong notion of what her vision was for this whole thing. By God, she was not going to compromise on it. The forces arrayed against her – not only the veterans who hated her design, were very well organized and well connected – there was the artistic and architectural community who said, “Oh dear, this is cute, but you’ve never done this before. You don’t know how to execute your vision. We need to kind of take over.”
She was having none of it. She had to stand up not only to that opposition that used racism as one of its tools: a Vietnam War memorial, this design by an Asian woman? I mean, that was shocking. They used that to try to undermine her. Then in the actual execution of it, they would say, “You need to have a much thicker wall. What are we going to do about drainage? It’s underground.”
She would basically just say do it. Have a very thin wall, as her notion of cutting a scar in the earth. It had to be thin. She ultimately won. She had to do two compromises. One of the two was she resisted having an inscription about duty, honor and heroism. Her initial design said, “In memoriam.” She had to cave on that issue. When it got to the crisis of 3 statues imposed on her design, that too was a fundamental issue about the sanctity of a work of art.
Looking back to part of the title with “a rift,” I see 3 rifts: artistic due to the classical versus new art, Vietnam War veterans versus protesters, and people for and against the design. Was it originally in your plan to have those 3 major –?
I think the three of them just evolved from the story. But if I may say so, it’s a wonderful title for this particular conflict. It comes from Maya [Lin], of course. I’m arguing and, I think I’m right in arguing that she won that competition primarily by the description of her vision rather than the display of the concept itself. The display was rather sophomoric. It was very sort of simple and not compelling in and of itself, but you put that together with a very poetic description. It was compelling to the judges.
For younger artists looking to do commemorative art, how can they do that successfully, based on the story you covered here?
I think the story of Maya Lin herself is inspiring about what is possible in this world. You know, great commissions like the Vietnam War Memorial don’t come along every day. It’s hard to find something equivalent to that. The whole area of public art as opposed to art itself, art per se, is almost a different discipline, especially if it’s memorializing anything in history.
These things come up in local areas all over America, where local communities want to have a memorial that relates to their history. It’s a fruitful field for endeavoring.
Towards the end of your book, you mention how this story frames how we think about conflict and wars happening today: veterans returning and individuals who protest the wars. Moving forward, how do we approach the debate in a way the reconciles the sides?
Well, it’s first and foremost an artistic question. Just to say you need a memorial to memorialize anything you can think of is easy to say. But once it’s defined what it is to be memorialized, then the artistic process enters into thing, as to what would be appropriate but also what would be beautiful and relate that sense of reflection and contemplation.
In the case of wars possibly, it’s reconciliation. That’s asking a lot of an artist. This kind of thing comes up with the whole question of Confederate memorials and whether they should be removed. People say blithely, “Well, just need to put Martin Luther King statues next to Robert E. Lee,” or something like that. Easy to say that kind of thing.
What is the art that contextualizes the words being used: the Confederacy, the death of slavery, and so on? That’s when really hard work begins, as the artist tries to visualize what would work in that circumstance.
Thank you for your time and for sharing all these insights.