Yesterday came news that my home state, Illinois, is preparing for its twenty-sixth annual ceremony this Saturday to honor the “66 Illinoisans listed as MIA or POW in Southeast Asia.” I absorbed this development the same week I had occasion to attend an internment at a military cemetery in Washington State, over which flew, alongside the banners of all of America’s military service branches, the familiar “POW/MIA” flag with the forlorn, hangdog prisoner silhouetted in the foreground and guard tower and barbed wire in the back. Given the scale of national problems we’re facing these days, this one hardly registers a dent. But it creeps me out all the same. And if you deplore jingoistic, racist propaganda, it should creep you out, too—so, this afternoon, let me unburden myself.
When downed American pilots were first taken prisoner in North Vietnam in 1964, US policy became pretty much to ignore them―part and parcel of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s determination to keep the costs of his increasingly futile military escalation in Southeast Asia from the public. Then, one day in the first spring of Richard Nixon’s presidency, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced the existence of from 500 to 1,300 of what he termed “POW/MIA’s.” Those three letters—“MIA”—are familiar to us now. The term, however, was a new, Nixonian invention. It had used to be that downed fliers not confirmed as actual prisoners used to be classified not as “Missing in Action” but “Killed in Action/Body Unrecovered.” The new designation was a propaganda scam. It let the Pentagon and State Department and White House refer to these 1,300 (later “1,400”) as if they were, every one of them, actual prisoners, even though every one of them was almost certainly dead. “Hundreds of American wives, children, and parents continue to live in a tragic state of uncertainty caused by the lack of information concerning the fate of their loved ones,” Secretary Laird said. That was part of an attempt to manipulate international opinion to frame the North Vietnamese Communists (against whom, of course, America was prosecuting an illegal and undeclared air war against civilians) as uniquely cruel, even though fewer men were taken prisoner or went missing in Vietnam than in any previous American war. (From 1965 through 1969, they were tortured, at least if you believe American prisoners at Guantánamo Bay were tortured; the techniques were essentially the same.)
During the Johnson years, Sybil Stockdale, whose husband James (Ross Perot’s unfortunate running mate in 1992) was the highest-ranking and one of the earliest POWs, had organized a “League of Wives of American Prisoners of War” (later the National League of Families of Prisoners of War, then the League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia) which agitated for attention to the prisoners’ plight—against the Pentagon’s wishes. Under Nixon, the Pentagon co-opted it, sometimes inventing chapters outright, as useful to their propaganda barrage. Their families showed up on newsmagazines and TV; “POW bracelets,” invented by the future wingnut congressman “B-1 Bob” Dornan, then a local Limbaugh on Orange County radio, were unveiled in the spring of 1970 at an annual “Salute to the Military” ball in Los Angeles. (Governor Ronald Wilson Reagan presided, and Hollywood choreographer Leroy Prinz, who had worked with Reagan on the 1942 film Hollywood Canteen, choreographed a splendid pageant.) Bracelets soon sold at a rate of 10,000 a day; Sonny & Cher wore them on TV; some people, the The New York Times reported, believed them to “possess medicinal powers”―and not just the children who displayed them two, ten, a dozen to an arm. A Wimbledon champ said one cured his tennis elbow. Lee Trevino said his saved his golf game. Matchbooks, lapel pins, billboards, T-shirts and bumper stickers (POWs never have a nice day!) proliferated, fighter jets made thunderous football stadium fly-bys, full page ads blossomed in every newspaper urging Hanoi to have a heart and release the prisoners for the sake of the children.
Jonathan Schell, then of The New Yorker, observed that the American people were acting “as though the North Vietnamese had kidnapped…Americans and the United States had gone to war to retrieve them”—martyrs to an enemy so devious, as the Armed Forces Journal put it, that they denied hundreds of little boys and girls “a right to know if their fathers were dead or alive.” Ross Perot testified to Congress that when he visited North Vietnam to plead for their release they were incredulous at all this concern over “just 1,400 men.” Americans were plainly more morally sensitive than Communists. Though in fact our South Vietnamese allies held some 100,000 prisoners, many of them Buddhists monks guilty of nothing except pacifism, in a prison complex of American design that was so inhumane that Time’s correspondent described the captives as “grotesque sculptures of scarred flesh and gnarled limbs. They move like crabs, skittering across the floor on buttocks and palms.”
Already, the issue made for “a lunatic semiology,” as the historian Richard Slotkin later described it, where “sign and referent have scarcely any proportionate relation at all.” But it sure was heartily useful to the national security state. When America’s involvement in the war ended in January, 1973, Nixon told his secretary of defense that the military-orchestrated celebration of their return, dubbed “Operation Homecoming,” was "an invaluable opportunity to revise the history of this war.”
This is when the story got even nuttier—when the propaganda slipped the bounds intended by its authors, and became more like the brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The scholar H. Bruce Franklin of Rutgers tells the story with elegant economy in the book M.I.A., Or Mythmaking in America; Northwestern’s Michael Allen tells the story in more detail in Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and America’s Unending Vietnam War.
Operation Homecoming returned 587 American prisoners of war—but Nixon had by then settled on the number “1,600” as the number of Americans as “POW/MIA.” So where were the other 1,013? The brigadier general who supervised the repatriation announced that he “did not rule out the possibility that some Americans may still be held in Laos.” The secretary of defense promised, “We will not rest until all those still known captive are safe and until we have achieved the best possible accounting for those missing in action.” Holding the government to that pledge had now become the raison d’être of the League of Families—an organization now all the stronger, thanks to its recent history as a veritable White House front group. Bracelets continued to be sold, now with the names of MIA on them. Next came that flag—pow-mia: you are not forgotten—soon flying over VWF and American Legion posts across the fruited plain. And barely months after the Operation Homecoming propaganda triumph, Chicago MIA families declared that the administration was “abandoning” men “seen in photos coming out of Indochina or who have been reported alive by returning POWs.”
The issue came to define the diplomatic relationship between the United States and Vietnam, a subject of considerable exasperation for Vietnamese officials now being called on to “prove” they held no more prisoners. As one of them reasonably exclaimed, “We have not come this far to hold onto a handful of Americans.” A congressman from Milwaukee, Clem Zablocki, opened hearings that fall to debunk the spreading absurdity. He assured concerned families, referring to the testimony both of American returnees and the North Vietnamese, “There are no missing in action or prisoners of war in Southeast Asia at this time that they believe are alive.” Which only meant, to many POW-MIA families, that Congress was just part of the cover-up. “Why are you willing to believe the enemy on this subject when they do not tell the truth on any other subject?” the Corpus Christi chapter of the National League of Families soon raged in a letter to the Pentagon. “The fact is, you have no proof our men are dead.” (Her emphasis.)
But how could there be proof that men shot down over jungles or the Gulf of Tonkin or the South China Sea were “really” dead? And so the “issue” endured. Governor Ronald Reagan, in Singapore as a special presidential representative for a trade deal, said that if North Vietnam didn’t return the POWs and MIAs supposedly still being held, “bombing should be resumed.” He accused liberals in Congress seeking to ban further military action in Southeast Asia of taking away “the power to sway those monkeys over there to straighten up and follow through on the deal.”
Here was the right-wing variant of the Watergate-induced dread about whether anyone in Washington could be trusted. It took on a life of its own. In 1975 a conservative Democratic congressman from Mississippi, Gillespie “Sonny” Montgomery, empaneled a House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia. He was initially sympathetic to the families’ claims of Communist perfidy. Then he led a delegation there which found their hosts warm, accommodating—and, once more, befuddled at what it was they were being asked to account for. (Just about every Vietnamese family had relatives who had disappeared in the war or whose remains could not be returned to the ancestral village—a sacred duty in Vietnamese culture.) Montgomery concluded that the existence of American prisoners in Vietnam was almost certainly a myth. As a CIA pilot captured there in 1965 testified at one of the subcommittee hearings, “If you take a walletful of money over there, you can buy all the information you want on POWs on the streets” but “when you try to run them down they fizzle out somewhere down the line.” They also turned up evidence that China had manufactured stories of MIA’s still in prison camps in order to keep the US from normalizing relations with their Asian rival. Reagan, however, remained adamant: “If there is to be any recognition,” he boomed on the campaign trail in the spring of 1976, “let it be discussed only after they have kept their pledge to give a full accounting of our men still listed as missing in action.”
Henceforth paying ritual obeisance, hat in hand, at meetings of the League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia became presidents’ annual ordeal. Read the section in Allen’s book about George H.W. Bush’s manhandling at the 1992 conclave. Read here about how Nixon’s long-lived propaganda goof delayed normalization of relations with Vietnam until 1995. And click here to see how this absurd cult still endures. The 9/11 Truthers don’t enjoy official government sanction. But if you happen to live in Illinois, you can roll with your very own “POW/MIA Illinois Remembers” license plate for your car. The “66 Illinoisans” apparently still imprisoned in Southeast Asia hardly deserve less.
Rick Perlstein questions whether John F. Kennedy would have ended the Vietnam War.