The Memorial was established by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Inc. (VVMF), the nonprofit, charitable organization incorporated on April 27, 1979, by a group of Vietnam veterans led by Jan C. Scruggs, a wounded and decorated infantryman, from Bowie, Maryland.

VVMF wanted Vietnam veterans to have a tangible symbol of recognition from the American people. By separating the issue of the service of the individual men and women from the issue of U.S. policy in Vietnam, VVMF hoped to begin a process of national reconciliation.

Significant initial support came from U.S. Senators Charles McC. Mathias, Jr., (R-Md.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.). On Nov. 8, 1979, Sen. Mathias introduced legislation to authorize a site of national park land for the memorial. The first significant financial contributions to launch the national fundraising campaign were raised by Sen. Warner.

More than $8,000,000 was raised, all of which came from private sources. Corporations, foundations, unions, veterans groups and civic organizations contributed, but most importantly, more than 275,000 individual Americans donated the majority of the money needed to build the Memorial.

On July 1, 1980, Congress authorized a site of three acres in Constitution Gardens near the Lincoln Memorial. In October of that year, VVMF announced a national design competition open to any U.S. citizen over 18 years of age. By Dec. 29, 1980, there were 2,573 registrants, and the competition became the largest of its kind ever held in the United States.

By the March 31, 1981 deadline, 1,421 design entries had been submitted. All entries were judged anonymously by a jury of eight internationally recognized artists and designers who had been selected by VVMF. On May 1, 1981, the jury presented its unanimous selection for first prize, which was accepted and adopted enthusiastically by VVMF.

The winning design was the work of Maya Ying Lin of Athens, Ohio, a 21-year-old senior at Yale University. In August of 1981, VVMF selected a building company and architecture firm to develop the plans and build Lin's design. Lin became a design consultant to the architect of record.

On March 11, 1982, the design and plans received final federal approval, and work at the site was begun on March 16, 1982. Ground was formally broken on Friday, March 26, 1982.


In January 1982, the decision was made to add a flagstaff and sculpture on the Memorial site in order to provide a realistic depiction of three Vietnam servicemen and a symbol of their courage and devotion to their country.  In July 1982, VVMF selected Washington, D.C. sculptor Frederick Hart to design the sculpture of the servicemen to be placed at the site. On Oct. 13, 1982, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts unanimously accepted the proposed sculpture and flagstaff. 

Construction at the site was completed in late October 1982, and the Memorial was dedicated on Nov. 13, 1982. The Three Servicemen statue was added in 1984. That same year, the Memorial was given as a "gift" to the American people during a ceremony with President Ronald Reagan.


In 1993, the Vietnam Women's Memorial by sculptor Glenna Goodacre was added to the Memorial site to represent the heroic work of women who served in the Vietnam War.


In 2000, Congress authorized the placement on the Memorial site of a plaque honoring post-war casualties of Vietnam whose names are not eligible for inscription on The Wall. VVMF worked with several organizations and architects to ensure that the plaque is harmonious with the site's other elements.