Memories in the Memorial

This lesson is designed primarily to provide students with a way to think about monuments historically, instead of simply as tourists. The goal of the lesson is for the students to create a comparison between the major 20th century American wars and the monuments honoring each conflict in Washington, DC. The students must consider not only the monuments themselves, but also the cultural and political circumstances in the United States at the time of the creation of the monument.

Historical Background

This lesson can be undertaken in a number of different places throughout the U.S. history curriculum. Ideally, it would be used as an enrichment activity during the Cold War unit, but it could also be incorporated into the modern history unit at the end of the course.

The historical background focuses most directly on the monuments themselves. Interestingly, the most controversial of the conflicts, Vietnam, was the first to establish a monument. The Vietnam Memorial was dedicated in 1982, more than a decade before the Korean Memorial and the WWII memorial, honoring the earliest of the conflicts, wasn’t completed until 2004. Each of the monuments was designed by the winner of a national competition judged by a group of veterans which makes the obvious differences in style and statement invaluable resources into the historical and cultural legacies of the wars themselves.

The WWII Memorial is majestic but impersonal. It lacks references to names, units, or service branches and instead lists each of the 50 states and broadly, the two theaters of war. The memorial honors those who served but includes absolutely nothing controversial or emotionally charged. Some say that simplicity leaves open responses that are personal for each visitor, while others argue its political correctness to the extreme.

The Korean Memorial depicts realities of battle absolutely. It is personal and gut-wrenching. The soldiers forged in steel are young, too young it seems, and weighed down by both the metaphorical and literal baggage of battle. Beyond them etched in stone are the faces of the men and women behind the battles, the forgotten soldiers from the forgotten war. The support wall includes more than 2,400 faces of the nurses, drivers, operators, commanders and secretaries that allowed the infantrymen to fight. This memorial does not depict heroes but rather regular Americans, fathers, brothers and friends, who fought.

The Vietnam Memorial is unique and abstract, a massive black stone wall, rising from the ground and receding back, quietly naming each lost soul. The reflective surface allows visitors to see themselves in the memorial, or a memory. Tokens and tributes are left behind every day, seen in vibrant reality and through the granite as reflections of the cost of war. Over time the memorial has become a beloved piece of national culture, and the most visited location on the National Mall, but that understanding took time and compromise. Compromise seen by every visitor to the memorial in the 7 foot tall bronze forms of three men, soldiers, depicted to honor a group who felt abandoned in the aftermath of a war that shaped their lives.

Lesson Objective

Students will be able to evaluate the significance of monuments as primary historical and cultural documents using historical thinking skills (sourcing, close reading, contextualization and corroboration) by examining the major American war memorials of Washington, DC – WWII, Korea and Vietnam and considering those monuments as evidence of history by answering questions about both the monuments themselves and the public and private responses to those monuments.



  1. The essential questions: (a) Can monuments be used as history? How? (b) Are Monuments Primarily a Primary Source, or a secondary one? Or must we consider both if we really want to use the monument as history?
  2. To complete this assignment, students must take a trip into D.C. and visit each of the three major war memorials there – the WWII monument, the Korean War monument, and the Vietnam War Memorial. Students must consider each of the monuments as both a primary and a secondary source.
  3. In preparation for the the visit to the memorials, students should complete the pre-activity to get them thinking about each memorial.
  4. The pre-activity also includes primary and secondary source analysis questions. For primary sources, students should consider: Who is the monument for? What is it for? What can you learn from the monument about the event, public opinion, or about the historical perspective on the conflict?
  5. For secondary sources, students should consider: What major cultural and economic events were occurring around the time the monument was created? Who prompted the building of the monument? How does the monument reflect the time in which it was built?


Have students answer: If you were going to make a monument on the war on terror….


Students will engage in a class discussion on the monuments and the questions this activity arose regarding monuments as sources of history. This discussion is worth 15 formative (quiz) points. A rubric for the discussion including specific expectations should be provided.


“American Battle Monuments Commission.” American Battle Monuments Commission. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

Ashabranner, Brent K., and Jennifer Ashabranner. Always to Remember: The Story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1988. Print.

Corbin, Julianne. “Boston University Arts & Sciences Writing Program.” Memory and Form: An Analysis of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Writing Program, Boston University. Jessica Bozek, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2013

Highsmith, Carol M., and Ted Landphair. Forgotten No More: The Korean War Veterans Memorial Story. Washington, DC: Chelsea, 1995; Stein, R. Conrad. The Korean War Veterans Memorial. Cornerstones of Freedom. Second Series. San Francisco, CA: Children’s Press, 2002.

“Korean War Veterans Memorial.” Image. American Battle Monuments Commission. World at War: Understanding Conflict and Society. ABC-CLIO, 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

“National World War II Memorial plaza.” Image. American Battle Monuments Commission. World at War: Understanding Conflict and Society. ABC-CLIO, 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

Trask, David S. “Korean War Veterans Memorial: Korean War.” World at War: Understanding Conflict and Society. ABC-CLIO, 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

“U.S. National Park Service – Experience Your America.” U.S. National Park Service – Experience Your America. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

Washington Post. “Museums on” The Washington Post. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

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