Along with the Norman Rockwell paintings and patriotic art that Ross Perot surrounds himself with in his office in Dallas is a bronze statue of three weary-looking American soldiers returning from a patrol in Vietnam.

A life-size version of the statue, designed by Washington sculptor Frederick Hart, stands near a grove of trees at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial here, a starkly realistic counterpoint to the brooding black granite presence of what has come to be known simply as "The Wall." The addition of the statue and a flagpole to the memorial's original design was the compromise solution to a bitter controversy over how an unpopular war should be best remembered. The battle laid bare many old national wounds over Vietnam that the memorial's proponents had set out to heal.

Perot, the Texas billionaire whose tireless effort on behalf of prisoners of war and the common soldier has made him a hero to many Vietnam veterans, waged a long and bitter campaign to make the memorial a more heroic celebration of those who served in Vietnam and to change the design from one he called "a tombstone."

Perot then all but accused Jan Scruggs and John Wheeler, the memorial's two main proponents, of misusing public donations, and -- according to Scruggs -- allegedly hired the late Roy Cohn to investigate them before ending his involvement in the project.

"I found his tactics frightening, but I was not going to back down," said Scruggs. "The dirtier his tactics got, the more determination it gave me."

In an interview last month, Perot denied using unfair tactics, describing his efforts as solely meant to benefit Vietnam veterans. "There was nothing in it for me personally," Perot said. "Just my concern for those people who fought for 10 years, suffered so terribly."

Like many episodes in Perot's life, his involvement with the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial takes on a new significance in light of Perot's emergence as a serious contender for president. In some regards it shows Perot at his best -- an unselfish patriot working to bring recognition to the veterans who returned to their country unheralded and ignored.

To his detractors, however, Perot's behavior in the memorial controversy was a classic display of an unwillingness to compromise and an abusive style toward those who disagree with him.

Wheeler today feels such strong emotions about Perot that the only comments he wanted quoted were those he made in a written statement.

"What our country has not seen yet in Ross is the quality of forgiveness and mercy," Wheeler wrote. "In the story of the wall, he has not shown mercy or forgiveness."

Today the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, dedicated 10 years ago this November, is a place of serenity and often heartbreaking emotion where memories of the 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War are kept alive by the names chiseled on the wall and the mementos that are left there -- a prayer folded up tight and left in a tiny crack near a name or the photographs of grown children their fathers will never know.

Yet the struggle over building the memorial had a horrible animosity that somehow reconstituted the bitter divisions of the war itself. "It's the nastiest thing I've ever been involved in," said one former federal bureaucrat who had weathered years of other government skirmishes.

A Message About the War

At issue was not whether a memorial should be built but what it should be, and therefore what message it should convey about the Vietnam War. For many conservatives the stakes were enormous. Supporters of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, they felt that the liberal media had made the war seem to be a dishonorable undertaking and a folly. They saw the memorial, which would stand for decades or centuries, as a final statement that should set the record straight on the war and celebrate America's heroism.

Scruggs and Wheeler envisioned it as something different -- a place of reconciliation that would also honor those who served in Vietnam, if not the war itself.

Perot had tried to build such a monument in the 1970s. A graduate of the Naval Academy, Perot supported the war, but not vocally. Instead he took up the cause of those who served in it, gaining international fame in 1969 by publicizing North Vietnamese mistreatment of American prisoners of war. Later he embarked on a crusade for a full accounting of whether any Americans were left behind, a cause he still champions.

Perot's efforts to interest both the Ford and Carter administrations in building a memorial listing Americans who died in Vietnam got nowhere. Scruggs, a former infantryman decorated for gallantry, was more persistent. He started a fund to build a memorial in the late 1970s and approached Perot for financial backing in 1980. The next year, when Perot gave an initial $10,000 -- then the fund's second biggest donation -- Scruggs almost did not accept it, fearing it would give Perot too much leverage over the fund. Later Perot gave an additional $160,000 to finance a design competition.

Perot said he told Scruggs he was donating the money on one condition: "Make sure the men who fought and served in Vietnam like their memorial because they've been so badly treated. . . . I want them to really feel good about their memorial."

A 1981 memo by Scruggs -- one of many internal documents of the memorial fund now on file in the Library of Congress -- said Perot also stated then that he did not want a "flower power" memorial.

With the backing of the federal government, Scruggs won permission to build a memorial on the Mall, near the Lincoln Memorial. To choose a design, the fund formed a panel of architects and landscape designers that held a public competition and considered 1,400 proposals. Most, including one for a colossal GI helmet with big bullet holes -- were quickly rejected. But one design, the judges felt, was clearly superior.

A Yale University undergraduate named Maya Lin proposed building two walls of black granite, meeting in a V, set into a hillock, with names chiseled in order of death. The walls were to be polished to allow visitors to see their own reflections. There were to be no heroic columns, statues or flags. The plan had the dignity and understatement the judges -- and Wheeler and Scruggs -- wanted.

Perot couldn't stand it.

In May 1981, days after the selection, he called the fund and told an official there that the design "is great for the 57,000 who died, but not for the 2 million who came home," according to a document at the Library of Congress. "I've enjoyed helping you, but I'm folding my tent now."

Several months later Perot told Scruggs, according to a Scruggs memo, that he "has received many letters from vets" criticizing the design and that he "dislikes the design more and more every day, and is really 'teed off' that he helped us out."

Perot would restate the point countless times in the coming years: His distaste for the design was generated by Vietnam veterans' dislike of it, and his later suspicions about the fund's financial activities were simply a response to veterans' suspicions. It is a posture Perot has maintained in many other controversies -- he is simply a passive conduit of other people's information or criticism.

Perot told reporters the proposed memorial was "a tombstone," and that veterans considered it "an apology, not a memorial." Perot disliked the design for the same reasons other critics did -- it should not be black, but white; it should be above ground; it should have a flag at the center; and names should be listed alphabetically so visitors could find their loved ones' names, instead of having to look them up in a directory.

"Ross Perot was legitimately concerned about the incompleteness of the {memorial's} original design, which didn't even have the word 'Vietnam' on it, or a walkway for the handicapped," said James Webb, a Perot ally who was assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs during the dispute. "And he was totally justified in asking they open their books for public inspection."

Polling Ex-POWs on the Design

Perot offered to fund another competition, and then financed a poll of returned POWs on the winning design. Of the 587 POWs asked for their thoughts, 265 replied and 67 percent said they disliked the design.

When it was clear that the basic design would not be changed, Perot and his allies pushed hard for additions -- a large flag at the vertex of the V and a statue of soldiers directly in front of the wall. The memorial's backers resisted because these plans would have made the wall a backdrop for the statue and a podium for the flag.

The designer, Lin, met with Perot, and later told CBS's "60 Minutes" that Perot couldn't accept her design without the addition of a statue. "He really felt that . . . we've given {veterans} something peaceful," Lin said, adding that Perot's point was " 'Now what do we do for the heroics?' . . . He really looked at contemplative as being passive."

The fight became increasingly ugly. Opponents spread the word that participants in the design's selection committee included a communist (indeed, this man had been named in McCarthy-era hearings in the 1950s), a KGB plant (an unsupported allegation) and a man who had falsely claimed to be a World War II veteran (the man in fact had won a Purple Heart from the landing at Anzio).

The opponents persuaded Interior Secretary James Watt, a conservative who had jurisdiction over the memorial because it was on the Mall, to repeatedly delay approval for construction.

At one point Perot told Wheeler by telephone that if he did not get his way, "I'll wipe you out" -- a threat Perot later denied having made.

"There was a chill," Wheeler recalled feeling at the time. "Perot was merciless . . . . I resolved to stand and fight."

Finally, in January 1982, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) convened a marathon negotiating session. It became extremely heated -- Scruggs recalls screaming at Perot -- but it finally resulted in a compromise. A statue and flagpole would be constructed at a modest distance from the wall.

Watt lifted his stop-work order, and construction began. The panels of black granite from India, cut in Vermont, were soon laid into place, and Hart's statue was placed 150 feet away.

Perot was not satisfied with the compromise. He began demanding that he be allowed to audit the fund's books. Perot has acknowledged that he never had specific allegations in mind, only suspicions, and has stressed that he has demanded that other charities to which he has given open their books to him. Perot thought the fund's refusal suggested it was guilty of something.

Scruggs and his supporters decided Perot was out to get them, and refused to open all their files to him, even when he offered to finance an audit by a top accounting firm.

Suggestions of Wrongdoing

Perot sent in lawyers from his company, Electronic Data Systems, to demand access to the books. The fund's lawyers, from the Washington firm of Williams & Connolly, resisted.

Perot made veiled suggestions he knew of wrongdoing. "I've never been able to get over to these fellows that they are custodians of other people's money," Perot said in a televised interview at the time, "that they have a sacred trust, that every penny of this money must be spent carefully, must be accounted for, that you can't give your friends subcontracts, you can't give people consulting fees that don't do anything, and so on and so forth, all these allegations that are being made."

A 1983 Williams & Connolly report on the matter said the firm concluded that Perot was "willing to go to great lengths and expense to impose his will on the organization. A lawyer who represented Perot in making his demand for a special audit described him as the proverbial '800-pound gorilla' who is accustomed to getting his way."

The fund named an independent committee of prestigious businessmen to examine the books, and it found no problems, but Perot persisted. The fund sent people of standing to try to reassure him -- such as retired Gen. Michael S. Davison, former West Point commandant and commander of Army forces in Europe -- but he would not be reassured. Davison thought Perot had "some sort of ulterior motive" in demanding the audit, according to Scruggs's notes from 1982.

Fund officials theorized, according to their official files, that Perot was out to "harass" them because he was jealous that they were successful in launching a memorial when he had not been.

They thought Perot became desperate when he realized the memorial was not going to generate much publicity for himself. "He was extremely preoccupied by the idea of finding a way to get credit for the memorial," Scruggs said.

Demands From Roy Cohn

Even when a major accounting firm -- the same one that did his firm's books -- and the Internal Revenue Service found nothing amiss with the fund's books, Perot's suspicions were not allayed.

In 1983 the fund started to receive demands from Roy Cohn, a New York attorney known as one of the nation's nastiest advocates, demanding access to the fund's books. Fund files show that Cohn told the fund's lawyer, Terrence O'Donnell, that he had been retained by Perot.

"He is a mean man, and he has hired a mean lawyer," another of the fund's attorneys, former attorney general Elliot L. Richardson, wrote to Scruggs. "I have known Roy Cohn since 1947, and if you want me to make him feel embarrassed about having taken on Ross Perot's cause, I would be glad to oblige."

Perot said it is "a myth" that he hired Cohn. In the interview, Perot presented a letter from John Baines, a San Antonio developer, saying he, not Perot, had hired Cohn.

According to the fund's files, Cohn, after having told fund lawyers that he represented Perot, later said he represented a group: Perot, Baines and a Baines associate named William Stensland.

Baines said last month that he retained Cohn for no fee with Stensland, a retired Marine major who helped Baines run a Vietnam veterans' group in Texas. Both men said in interviews that Perot was not involved in retaining Cohn.

But fund officials learned that while Baines and Stensland were Cohn's clients of record, Perot was supposed to pay Cohn, and that Baines was "angry" when Perot indicated he would not pay for Cohn's work, according to fund files.

Tom Bolan, a longtime legal associate of Cohn's, said he recalled that "the client was Baines, but . . . the understanding was Perot wanted to maintain a low profile, and not be the client of record. My understanding was at some point Baines may have bailed out because Perot didn't pay up."

Perot, asked whether he was supposed to finance retaining Cohn, replied, "No, no, no, no, no, no."

In 1984, the General Accounting Office completely cleared the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund of all allegations of impropriety, concluding that "the numerous allegations raised regarding the fund were not valid."

Perot privately was not placated, fund documents indicate. He told an acquaintance at an Air Force gathering in 1984 that the GAO report was "a whitewash," according to one fund document.

Perot summed up the matter differently last month.

"I never made any allegations," Perot said. "The Vietnam veterans made the allegations. I said let's get an audit and clean it up. We eventually got an audit and cleaned it up."

On Nov. 13, the fund will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the memorial's dedication. Scruggs recently wrote to Perot asking whether, despite past bitterness, he would help organize the celebration. Perot's secretary wrote back that he could not.