Located in the Financial District in Lower Manhattan, it lies on a trapezoidal parcel of land that was formerly a roadway named Coenties Slip. The slip road was used from the 17th century by Dutch sailors between journeys. The slip was filled in 1835, and it then became Jeannette Park in 1884, dedicated to the ill-fated Jeannette of the Jeannette expedition. Horticulturist Samuel Parsons was responsible for laying out the garden in 1886.
By the mid-20th century, city planner Robert Moses had rebuilt the park with "horseshoe pitches and tennis, paddleball, handball, and shuffleboard courts all arranged around a tear-shaped asphalt plaza with a flagpole". Paul Friedberg was commissioned to redesign the land in 1971, to which he added the amphitheater fountain.
In 1982, plans were unveiled to redevelop the land into a memorial, and the architects Peter Wormser and William Fellows, and the writer Joseph Ferrandino won a competition to design it. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission raised private donations of $2.5 million to finance the memorial in 1983. It was dedicated in 1985 by then-Mayor Edward I. Koch to honor the 1,741 citizens of the city who died during the Vietnam War and the 250,000 men and women who served between 1964 and 1975.
Mayor Rudy Giuliani rededicated the plaza on November 9, 2001, following the September 11, 2001, attacks, as it underwent a $7 million restoration. A new ceremonial entrance was added providing access from Water Street to South Street and a black granite fountain placed at the center. The "Walk of Honor" contains 12 polished granite pylons with the names of all 1,741 people who died.