Although Robert Doubek, the former executive director of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, had been to plenty of publicity events, he was not expecting a question like this.
It was August 2009 and Doubek was in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, with the city's mayor, expected to speak to the media about a Woodrow Wilson Monument in the European country.
Just before he was slated to speak, a wannabe Wilson sculptor and the artist selected to create the monument got into a fist-fighting brawl, which would end up on the evening news and splashed across newspapers the next day.
The mayor turned to him: "Mr. Doubek, was the Vietnam Memorial this hard?”
He responded, “10 times harder.”
Doubek, a Vietnam Air Force intelligence officer veteran, published a book on his story in June. “Creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: The Inside Story” provides a look at what was happening within the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund that was pushing for the creation of what is now known as the Wall on the National Mall.
After the war, Doubek was “somewhat disillusioned,” having “had a very incompetent and abusive boss,” he told Newsmax.
While the Air Force wanted him to stay — he knows German and Russian — Doubek left to attend law school. He later practiced law for the government and eventually took a position at a private firm afterward.
He connected with some other veterans who invited him to attend a meeting on securing more benefits for Vietnam veterans in April of 1979.
“At that time, they still did not have any counseling for post-traumatic stress, the vet centers. There was something called the Vietnam Veterans Act that was tied up in Congress,” Doubek said. “I went to this meeting, and this guy out of the blue said, ‘What about a memorial?’ Everybody put him down, they said, ‘We don’t need a memorial, we need more benefits.’”
After thinking about the suggestion, Doubek walked up to the individual, Jan Scruggs, a veteran himself, and asked Scruggs what needed to be done.
“I didn’t need any more benefits from the government,” Doubek said. “All the sacrifice made was dismissed with lightly veiled contempt by the yuppy professional class in Washington. I resented that. I met some very fine people in the military and in Vietnam. I thought what everyone needed was some recognition.”
According to Scruggs, they would need to form a nonprofit. Fortunately, Doubek had just helped another client create a 501c3. Scruggs came to his office 10 days later, and they started a team.
“No one knew how to raise funds,” Doubek said. “It was almost like learn as you go.”
Scruggs recommended the fund not use any governmental money in creating the memorial except for the land on which it was constructed. Doubek agreed.
“The whole idea would be that it would be an expression of the American public, not a simple appropriation bill by the government,” he said.
Doubek suggested a direct mail test, so he found a fundraising firm near his office and it turned out to be one of the most reputable fundraising companies in the business. After Virginia Sen. John Warner hosted a breakfast fundraiser, the fund was able to send out a 200,000-piece mail test.
“Actually, usually a test mailing doesn’t make anything but finds out which segments of society will support you, and so, we actually made a little money and then planned to mail a million letters on Memorial Day,” Doubek said.
The story was picked up by conservative columnist James Kilpatrick, who appealed to his readers to donate. Soon, the organization was sitting on more than $100,000.
Looking toward larger donations, the fund hired Doubek fulltime and contracted a fundraising consultant. Veterans’ organizations pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations.
By November of 1979, the legislation to create the memorial had been introduced into the Senate. The Secretary of the Senate’s son was an insider of the fund, and the legislation was then co-sponsored by all 100 senators, “which is extremely unusual,” Doubek added.
They expected the bill to pass the House of Representatives, but a California congressman blocked it because the legislation stated that the memorial would be built on the National Mall.
“He thought the Mall was his turf, and he wanted it in his committee, so he blocked us,” Doubek said.
After some discussion, the representative backed off.
The fund then needed to create a design for the memorial. Doubek said designing it themselves would be “a recipe for disaster,” so he suggested a competition open to the public, a tradition with which he was familiar because he grew up in the suburbs of Chicago.
“It’s a fair way, and it’s a national project, so everybody ought to have a crack at it,” Doubek said. “There could be somebody starving in a garret in Wyoming who was born to design this.”
On the selection jury, the fund placed the most experienced and prestigious people they could find who had experience in architecture and landscape. While none were Vietnam veterans, some had served in previous wars.
Washington, D.C., Metro designer and juror Harry Weese drew the others’ attention to 21-year-old Yale undergraduate Maya Lin’s design, which was selected as the final memorial design.
“My initial thought of it, I couldn’t figure out what it was. I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ It was very poorly rendered,” Doubek said. “I have to say, the first thing I said was, ‘Look, we ask you to give us a memorial to all who served, and it appears you have given us a memorial that honors only the dead.’”
The jurors argued that it honored all who served in the war, and Doubek relented because “they were the experts; I wasn’t.”
While the governmental committees seemed in favor of the design, “this very small Lucifer’s group came together.”
Individuals who had contributed time and money to the fund, such as Ross Perot and Tom Carhart, criticized the design. Others began voicing complaints too. It was called “nihilistic," among other things.
Political commentator Pat Buchanan wrote an article criticizing the project, which started a letter campaign from congressmen to President Ronald Reagan against the memorial.
“That was a turning point,” Doubek said.
Secretary of the Interior James Watt informed the organization that political pressure was building to end the project. A meeting was called, and a compromise was reached to add an American flag and a statue.
“My initial idea was that we would snooker them by agreeing to it and then letting the fine arts commission shoot it down,” Doubek said.
The statue evolved to include three individuals of different races, but discussion still left the biggest battle over where the flag and figures would be placed. This was not decided until after the dedication of the memorial.
In the end, Doubek trumpeted the statue compromise to ensure the memorial would be built.
The dedication ceremony occurred on Nov. 13, 1982. Doubek said he was exhausted and emotionally drained after checking the spelling of the 58,000 names for the eighth time.
“There was videotape of me,” Doubek said. “I saw me up on the speaker’s platform, and I was visibly shaking because we were afraid of violence, and I was in charge of the dedication part of it.”
Fortunately no chaos erupted, and Doubek recalled saying to himself after the ceremony, “Well, we did what we said we were going to do. If anyone doesn’t like it, they can go build another one.”
When it was completed and the memorial began receiving lots of publicity – good publicity – for the memorial, he expressed relief and pride.
“I felt I had my own reputation staked on getting it done. I was relieved that’s what happened. I was proud of making such a big impact . . . I have to be grateful and humbled by it,” Doubek said. “It was quite striking.”
Doubek left the fund in 1983. He now works for the Secretary of the State on purchasing land for embassies and foreign consulates.
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