Thirty-three years after it was built in Washington D.C., the Vietnam Veterans Memorial draws more than 4 million visitors a year. That doesn’t include the number of people who come to visit the “traveling” versions of the monument set up in local parks for those who can’t make it to the nation’s capital.
Visitors react in a powerfully emotional way to the stark, simple, black wall, etched with the names of the more than 58,000 American servicemen and women.
But back in the early 1980s when the design of the memorial was first unveiled, it was very controversial. And Robert Doubek, the Riverside native who was the executive director of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation at the time, had a ringside seat for it all.
On June 18, Doubek’s book chronicling the birth of The Wall, Creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: The Inside Story, was released by McFarland Publishing.
“I started working on the book the day I left working on the memorial in 1983,” said Doubek, who lives in Washington and works for the U.S. State Department, buying land to construct U.S. embassies and consulates around the globe.
Doubek kept reams of memos and news articles from his days as the executive director of the memorial foundation and did further research at the Library of Congress, cataloging the information as the years went by.
Actual pen-to-paper writing began in earnest, Doubek said, in 2000. He banged out eight chapters (of 30) until late 2001, when he lost his job at a research foundation.
“After 9/11, I became unemployed,” said Doubek, adding that charitable contributions to organizations, such as the one that employed him, flat-lined in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks.
In early 2003, Doubek landed a job at the state department, which forced him to put the book on hold indefinitely due to his heavy international travel schedule. It wasn’t until 2013 that Doubek began to devote himself to writing again.
The trigger was the death of a close friend and colleague on the Vietnam Memorial project, George “Sandy” Mayo in late 2012. Mayo was just 65, about the same age as Doubek. That was a wake-up call.
“I said to myself, ‘It’s now or never.'”
Some years prior, Doubek had sent some inquiries about the book to publishers and in 2007, McFarland said they were interested. In 2013, Doubek told them he was ready to get writing but that the book would be a memoir.
McFarland gave the go-ahead and for the next 18 months, he worked on the book for two hours every morning, before shifting gears to his State Department job, and for 4-6 hours every Saturday.
“I was [re]living 33 years ago from 7 to 9 a.m. every day,” Doubek said.
He submitted his final manuscript in September 2014 and didn’t hear a word from the publisher for eight months. In early May, Doubek got an email from McFarland’s president complimenting him on the book and received a proof on May 11.
The first copies of the book landed on his doorstep, June 22.
Doubek says the book presents an unvarnished look at the birth of the memorial.
“I pulled no punches,” said Doubek. “I criticized myself as well as my colleagues.”
The book relates the time Doubek had to step between Elizabeth Taylor — then the wife of Sen. John Warner, an early champion of the memorial — and the wife of a disabled veteran at a benefit dinner over a perceived slight.
Doubek also dissects the press coverage and the opposition to the memorial, particularly from some in Washington. Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde was a virulent opponent of the design, and James Watt, the Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, delayed issuing a permit to build the monument until a statue and a flagpole were included.
“Most of the opposition came from the conservative spectrum,” Doubek said.
In the end, he had to be the one to write the definitive story about what it took to get The Wall built, he said, because he was so intimately involved in it.
“I know more details,” Doubek said. “I was in charge of the critical path from beginning to end.”
Doubek will host an author’s event and book signing on July 25 in Washington D.C., at the Politics and Prose bookstore. He’s also lined up an event in Austin, Texas and said he’d love to have one in the Chicago area as well, but nothing has materialized yet.
Creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: The Inside Story is available through the publisher at www.mcfarlandbooks.com and elsewhere on the Internet.