Viral infections have been shown to induce lymphopenias that lower memory CD8 T cell frequencies, and they also have been shown to cause a permanent loss of memory cells specific to previously encountered pathogens. In this study, the patterns and significance of virus-induced memory CD8 T cell depletion were examined in mice immune to heterologous (Pichinde, vesicular stomatitis, vaccinia) viruses and subsequently challenged with acute or persistent lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus infections. Memory CD8 T cell loss was comprehensive and occurred in both lymphoid and peripheral tissues of the immune host. The impact of the loss of memory T cells was reflected by in vivo cytotoxicity assays, which showed decreased clearance of epitope-expressing targets. Memory CD8 T cell loss occurred very early (day 2) after infection, and was thereafter sustained, consistent more with an active deletion model than with a competition model. Cross-reactive T cells, in contrast, increased in number, but memory cells were reduced whether or not there was competition from cross-reactive T cells. Memory T cell loss was more profound during persistent infection than after acute infection. Adoptive transfer studies showed that, unlike the resolved acute infection, in which the reduced memory frequencies became stable, memory T cell loss was a continuously ongoing process during persistent infection. This study therefore links an early virus-induced lymphopenia to a subsequent long-term loss of CD8 T cell memory and offers a new mechanism for immune deficiency during persistent viral infections.