There have been a wealth of books and articles published about the Vietnam war, and the concurrent issue of prisoners of war (POWs) and missing in action (MIAs) from American involvement in that conflict. Not many authors have examined the cultural and political impact of the Vietnam POW/MIA lobby on American society. The outsize role of the POW/MIA campaign on American politics, and how that came to pass, is the subject of a remarkable volume by Northwestern University history professor, Michael J. Allen.
The book Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and the Unending Vietnam War is a scholarly and wonderful account of the fascinating, disturbing and largely unrecognised story of how the POW/MIA issue became such a durable and impactful feature of post-Vietnam war American society. Based on Professor Allen’s doctoral thesis, the book is a welcome addition to a subject that still stirs passions today.
From the middle of the 1960s, as the US government escalated its war on Vietnam, American military aviators were shot down over enemy territory. Some were captured, and became prisoners of war. Their cause was at first treated with extreme secrecy by the Johnson administration. He did not a reduction in morale, with the news of American POWs.
The families of the downed pilots, concerned about the POWs and those aviators whose fate was unknown, formed a lobby group which subsequently became the National League of POW/MIA Families. This group, formed in the late 1960s, was taken under the wing of the Nixon presidency and turned into a conservative political and cultural force. There are various reasons why Nixon and his team adopted this approach.
By the late 1960s, domestic opposition to the war was mounting. Vietnam veterans were protesting the war – joining peace groups to pressure the government. Anti-war activists had traveled to North Vietnam to secure the release of American POWs. Allen details how, in 1965, two American servicemen released from North Vietnamese captivity, went on to denounce the American war in press conferences after their release.
Nixon and his colleagues found the perfect counter to the antiwar and anti-establishment sentiment sweeping the nation – the families of the captive and missing American aviators. The possibility of outright military victory in Vietnam was particularly remote – especially after the Tet offensive. The concern for POWs, while legitimate, was exploited by the Nixon administration to the fullest extent. The National League of Families became his conservative political allies on the domestic scene.
The US administration constructed a new way to think about loss in Vietnam. Why the aviators? Because, as Allen explains, the aircrews were mostly white, from affluent and middle class families, well-connected with the military hierarchy. The loss of the thousands of conscripts – poor white, black and Hispanic Americans – was quickly sidelined. The Americans were now the victims, and the North Vietnamese cast as hostage-takers.
The National League of Families became the establishment’s answer to the anti-establishment protesters; clean-cut, well-dressed, dutiful wives and girlfriends waiting for their menfolk to return from the war. Here was the perfect way to depoliticise the Vietnam war – surely all Americans are hoping and praying for the safe return of their loved ones?
Ronald Reagan, a longterm MIA activist, elevated the recovery of ‘every last man’ as a national priority of his presidency. The 1980s represent the high point of the National League’s influence – any politician who dared to suggest that all the captives had been returned in the 1970s at the war’s conclusion – risked being denounced as a ‘traitor’ and ‘Communist sympathiser’ by the MIA lobby.
Hollywood churned out numerous films, novels were published, hewing to the common theme of heroic Vietnam veterans returning to Indochina to rescue the mythical POWs and MIAs. The POW/MIA flag fluttered atop government buildings to keep the flame of hope going – the belief that the Hanoi authorities were secretly holding Americans captive was all-pervasive.
In fact, as Allen demonstrates, this category of POW/MIA is a deliberately confusing concoction unique to the Vietnam war. After every conflict, there are POWs, who are returned, and unaccounted for personnel, now lumped into the one category called MIA. There are still at least 78 000 American personnel still unaccounted for from World War Two. The recovery of remains, if at all possible, does not always result in a positive identification. There are American personnel classified as KIA/BNR – killed in action/body not recovered.
There are at least 8 000 American personnel still unaccounted for from the Korean war. The usual practice of the military with regard to those classified as ‘missing in action’ was to allow a seven year window – if in those seven years, no credible or verifiable information could be gained to indicate that the person is alive, the presumption of death was upheld. As for the Vietnam conflict, all American POWs were returned at the conclusion of that conflict as part of the Paris Peace Accords.
Never before has there been a stubborn, influential campaign to demand a ‘fullest possible accounting’ of every single American soldier after the conclusion of hostilities as there has been with the Vietnam war. Successive US administrations have maintained the possibility that MIAs might still be alive and held captive in Vietnam; and in this way, the war with Vietnam could continue indefinitely.
The POW/MIA campaign became, as Allen explains, the way the Vietnam war is memorialised in the United States. By associating that war with noble sacrifice, stoic heroism in the face of enemy cruelty, the American military’s crimes in Vietnam become lost amidst a constructed narrative of American loss. The accusation that the US government was engaged in a ‘coverup’ of POWs/MIAs was a staple of rightwing conspiracy theories for decades.
In 1994, former US President Bill Clinton lifted the trade embargo against Vietnam, and he normalised relations with that nation the following year. Over the vociferous objections of the MIA lobby, Clinton did not use the POW/MIA issue as a barrier to normal economic and political relations with Vietnam. The National League of Families, while still a force, has declined in recent years, especially since 2000.
Professor Allen’s book is a necessary and informative contribution to a debate that is sorely needed in American society. Long after the hostilities in Vietnam ended, the POW/MIA lobby exerted a powerful political and cultural grip on the American public. Allen’s book is a timely and well-researched examination of the long shadows cast by US involvement in Vietnam.