"Missing in Action in the 21st Century"
by By H. Bruce Franklin
Copyright © 2013 by H. Bruce Franklin. All rights reserved.
Today the United States of America has two national flags. One is the colorful red, white, and blue banner created during the American Revolution, with stars that represent, in the words of the 1777 Continental Congress, “a new constellation.” The other is the black and white POW/MIA flag, America’s emblem of the Vietnam War.
The POW/MIA flag is the only one besides the Star-Spangled Banner that has ever flown over the White House, where it has fluttered yearly since 1982. As visitors from around the world stream through the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, they pass a giant POW/MIA flag, the only flag that has ever been displayed amid the epic paintings and heroic statues, given this position of honor in 1987 by the Congress and President of the United States. The POW/MIA flag flies over every U.S. post office, thanks to a law passed by Congress and signed by the President in 1997. During the 1980s and 1990s, the legislatures and governors of each of the fifty states issued laws mandating the display of this flag over public facilities such as state offices, municipal buildings, toll plazas, and police headquarters. The POW/MIA flag also hangs over the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, waves at countless corporate headquarters, shopping malls, union halls, and small businesses. It is sewn into the right sleeve of the official Ku Klux Klan white robe and adorns millions of bumper stickers, buttons, home windows, motorcycle jackets, watches, post cards, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and Christmas-tree ornaments.
The flag symbolizes our nation’s veneration of its central image, a handsome American prisoner of war, his silhouetted head slightly bowed to reveal behind him the ominous shape of a looming guard tower. A strand of barbed wire cuts across just below his firm chin. Underneath runs the motto: YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN.
This colorless banner implies that the Vietnam War may never end. It demonstrates to the world both the official United States government position since 1973 and a profoundly influential national belief: Vietnam may still secretly hold American prisoners of war. This was the official reason why every twentieth-century postwar administration‑-Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton‑-reneged on the 1973 treaty pledge that the United States would help rebuild Vietnam and then waged relentless economic and political warfare against that nation. Even when President Clinton announced in 1995 that Washington was finally establishing diplomatic relations with Vietnam, he claimed the primary motive was to further “progress on the issue of Americans who were missing in action or held as prisoners of war.”
To comprehend the meaning of all this, one must first recognize that there is no rational basis or evidence for the belief that Americans were kept captive in Vietnam after the war. Indeed, it runs counter to reason, common sense, and overwhelming evidence.
None of the armed forces has listed a single prisoner of war (POW) or even a single person missing in action (MIA) since 1994 (when the only person still listed as a prisoner, for “symbolic” reasons, was reclassified as deceased at the request of his family). There are, it is true, 1,742 Americans listed as “unaccounted for” from the war in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, but not one of these is classified as a prisoner, a possible prisoner, or even missing. Most of the “unaccounted for” were never listed as POW or even MIA because well over half were originally known to have been killed in action in circumstances where their bodies could not be recovered. Their official designation has always been “KIA/BNR”‑-Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered. Crews of airplanes that exploded in flight or crashed within sight of their aircraft carrier, soldiers whose deaths were witnessed by others unable to retrieve their bodies, or men blown apart so completely that there were no retrievable body parts–all these are listed in the total of “unaccounted for.” All that is missing is their remains. This KIA/BNR category was never included with the missing in action during the Vietnam War; it was lumped together with the POW/MIA category only after the 1973 Paris Peace Agreement was signed.
The confusion thus created was quite deliberate. But this miasma was relatively mild compared to that generated by the “POW/MIA” concoction itself. Arguably the cagiest stroke of the Nixon Presidency was the slash forever linking POW and MIA. In all previous wars, there was one category called “Prisoners of War,” consisting of those known or believed to be prisoners. There was an entirely separate and distinct category of those “Missing in Action.” The Pentagon internally maintained these as two separate categories throughout the war and its aftermath. But for public consumption, the Nixon Administration publicly jumbled the two categories together into a hodgepodge called POW/MIA, thus making it seem that every missing person might possibly be a prisoner. Because this possibility cannot be logically disproved, the POW/MIA invention perfectly fulfilled its original purpose: to create an issue that could never be resolved.
It also created an almost impenetrable fog of confusion that clouds the issue right up through the present. Although prisoners of war were previously not considered either missing or unaccounted for, once the MIAs became defined as possible POWs, then all the “POW/MIAs” could be dumped into the category “unaccounted for,” which then became synonymous in the popular mind with “POW/MIA.” So when it is reported that there are still almost 1800 “unaccounted for” from the Vietnam War, people assume that any or all of them might still be languishing in Vietnamese prisons. “MIA” and “POW” and “unaccounted for” have even become interchangeable terms, as manifested by a question I’m frequently asked, usually in an incredulous tone: “Don’t you believe there are MIAs?”‑-or, even more revealing, “Don’t you believe in MIAs?”
In all major wars, many combatants die without being identified or having their bodies recovered. There are more than 8,100 unaccounted for from the Korean War and 78,791 still unaccounted for from World War II. So the total of 1,742 unaccounted for in the Indochina war is astonishingly small, especially since 81 percent of the missing were airmen mainly lost over the ocean, mountains, or tropical rain forest, many in planes exploding at supersonic speeds. In fact, the proportion of unaccounted for Americans to the total killed in action is far smaller for the Indochina war than for any previous war in the nation’s history, even though this was its longest war and ended with the battlefields in the possession of the enemy. For World War II, after which the United States was free to explore every battlefield, those still unaccounted for represent 21.8 percent of the total killed. For the Korean War, the figure is 24 percent. In contrast, the unaccounted for from the Indochina war constitute only 3.1 percent of those killed. To get another perspective on these numbers, consider the fact that on the other side there are between 200,000 and 300,000 Vietnamese missing in action.
During the war, the Pentagon listed as a POW anyone reported as possibly being a prisoner anywhere in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, or China at any time from 1963 to 1973, whether or not there was credible evidence of capture and even if there was evidence of subsequent death. After the 1973 Peace Agreement, all but 56 men on the Pentagon’s internal lists were either released or reported to have died in captivity. In the following years, intensive analysis resolved each of these remaining cases. Except for one who had defected, all had died. The one defector, Robert Garwood, is the only captured person who survived the war and was not returned to the United States during Operation Homecoming in 1973.
Despite many investigations by congressional committees, federal agencies, and private organizations, there has yet to be a shred of verifiable or even credible evidence that any U.S. POWs were withheld by Vietnam. Debriefing of all the returning POWs, ongoing aerial and satellite reconnaissance, covert raids, as well as interrogations of thousands of Vietnamese refugees and defectors including high-ranking military and intelligence officials all point to one conclusion: except for Garwood, there were no surviving POWs. Even offers of huge rewards—still amounting to millions of dollars‑-have produced nothing but waves of phony pictures, fake dog tags, and other bogus “evidence.”
Then there is the question of motive. Why in the world would Vietnam keep U.S. prisoners for years and decades after the war?
To torture them, of course, a perfectly plausible motive given the inscrutable cruelty of Asians‑-as depicted in a century and a half of Yellow Peril propaganda in American culture, including countless Hollywood images. Besides, these Asians are Communists, so add three-fourths of a century of Red Menace propaganda, and no further explanation is needed. One ostensibly more rational motive is offered by POW/MIA evangelists: the prisoners are being used as “hostages” or “bargaining chips.” But what good are hostages to a nation that denies holding any? How can you bargain with a chip that you swear doesn’t exist?
A belief that runs counter to reason, common sense, and all evidence but that is widely and deeply held by a society is a myth‑-in the fullest and most rigorous sense. A myth is a story of ostensibly historic events or beings crucial to the world view and self-image of a people, a story that appears as essential truth to its believers, no matter how bizarre it may seem from outside that society or when subjected to rational analysis. Indeed myths must defy commonplace plausibility and transcend everyday logic. Myths are often central to cultures, and may be their most distinctive features, which is why many anthropologists and archeologists find them so essential to understanding a society.
To comprehend the POW/MIA myth, we need to trace its history. For the first fifteen years of U.S. covert and overt combat in Vietnam‑-that is, from 1954 to 1969‑-there was not even a POW/MIA concept. Its seeds were sown in 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive and its aftermath, including President Johnson’s withdrawal from the election campaign, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the tidal wave of urban rebellions, the opening of peace negotiations in Paris, and the nomination of Richard Nixon as the Republican peace candidate. Remember that in his acceptance speech Nixon declared that “as we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame,” and then vowed that “if the war is not ended when the people choose in November,” “I pledge to you tonight that the first priority foreign policy objective of our next Administration will be to bring an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.”
Richard Nixon had no intention of ending the Vietnam War without preserving a U.S. client government in Saigon. But how many Americans in 1968 could have predicted that he would be able to continue the war year after bloody year until 1973? Perhaps even fewer than those who remembered that back in 1954 as Vice President he had been the first Administration official to advocate sending American troops to fight in Vietnam because, as he put it, “the Vietnamese lack the ability to conduct a war by themselves or govern themselves.”
Nixon, however, had several formidable problems. Negotiations had already opened in Paris. The Tet Offensive had convinced most Americans and even much of his own Defense Department that the war was unwinnable. The antiwar movement was growing ever more powerful, domestically and within the armed forces. There was certainly no enthusiasm for the war. What could he do?
What he needed was something to wreck the negotiations, shift the apparent goal of the war, counter the antiwar movement, and generate some zeal for continued combat. Soon after his inauguration, Nixon and an enterprising businessman named H. Ross Perot solved his problem by concocting a brand new issue: demanding a “full accounting” for Americans missing in action and the release of American prisoners of war as a precondition of any peace accord. This was truly a brilliant, albeit demonic, strategy.
This issue created, for the first time, sizable emotional support for the war. It deadlocked the Paris negotiations for four years. It counteracted the antiwar movement. It even provided a basis for continuing economic and political warfare against Vietnam for decades after the United States had conceded defeat.
The POW/MIA issue also neutralized another White House and Pentagon problem that had been building throughout 1968: American revulsion at the torture and murder of the prisoners of U.S. and Saigon forces.
The fate of Saigon’s prisoners had in fact been one of the root causes of the insurgency against the Diem government, whose infamous Law 10/59 (promulgated in 1959) branded those who had fought for independence against France as “Communists, traitors, and agents of Russia and China” and decreed the “sentence of death” for any person actively resisting Diem’s rule. The ensuing wholesale arrest, torture, and execution of hundreds of thousands, featuring portable guillotines and displays of victims’ heads and intestines on stakes, helped lead in 1960 to the outbreak of organized armed struggle and the formation of the National Liberation Front. As the war developed, anyone even suspected of loyalty to the “Viet Cong” was subject to torture and summary execution. Only in the last few years of the war were any captured combatants accorded a semblance of prisoner of war status.
Two books published in 1968 exposed the barbaric treatment of prisoners by U. S. and Saigon forces: In the Name of America, a documentary chronicle by twenty-nine prominent American clergymen of U.S. war crimes in Vietnam, with several sections devoted to the torture, mutilation, and murder of prisoners; Against the Crime of Silence, the proceedings of the 1967 War Crimes Tribunal held in Denmark and Sweden with extensive testimony by American veterans about their own participation in the systematic torture and execution of prisoners by both U.S. and Saigon soldiers and officials. At the same time, the issue exploded into the consciousness of tens of millions of Americans as they actually watched, in their own homes, the chief of the Saigon national police execute a manacled NLF prisoner.
Americans were soon to witness even worse pictures and accounts of U.S. and Saigon soldiers torturing and slaughtering prisoners, both combatants captured in battle and civilians rounded up in sweeps through hamlets and villages. As early as May 1968 came the first published descriptions of the My Lai massacre of March. The CIA’s Phoenix program, designed to wipe out the insurgent infrastructure by imprisoning and assassinating tens of thousands of suspects, was launched in mid 1968; U.S. intelligence officers attached to Phoenix later testified that they never saw any of its prisoners survive interrogation. Soldiers captured by U.S. forces were, in violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, turned over to the Saigon government, whose appalling prison camps were gradually being exposed to American readers and viewers, most dramatically in Tom Harkin’s photographs of the notorious tiger cages of Con Son Island, where the few survivors were almost all permanently disfigured and severely crippled by torture.
The Saigon government’s tiger cages would soon be transfigured by American media magic into images of the prison conditions of captured Americans, thus reversing the direction of popular outrage. But neutralizing protest about what was being done to Vietnamese prisoners by Washington and Saigon was merely a bonus from turning American “POW/MIAs” into the main bone of contention with Hanoi.
The first goal was to deadlock the Paris peace talks. Accordingly, just five days after Richard Nixon’s inauguration, his representative at the talks introduced the POW/MIA issue. A month later, the Defense and State departments began laying the groundwork for a massive campaign at home.
Domestically, the issue was a masterful stroke. After all, how else could any deeply emotional support for the war be generated? Certainly not by holding out the old discredited promises of military victory. And who would be willing to fight and die for the notoriously corrupt generals ruling Saigon? But supporting our own prisoners of war and missing in action was something no loyal American would dare oppose. It also seemed easy to understand, requiring no knowledge of the history of Vietnam and the war. One measure of the campaign’s success was the sale of more than fifty million POW/MIA bumper stickers in the next four years.
The Nixon administration’s “go public” campaign, designed to “marshal public opinion” for “the prompt release of all American prisoners of war,” was initiated on March 1, 1969, and officially launched on May 19. It was immediately and enthusiastically promoted by the media, which, in the relatively restrained language of The New York Times editorial staff, denounced “the Communist side” as “inhuman,” asserted that “at least half of the 1,300 Americans missing in action in Vietnam are believed to be alive,” and insisted that “the prisoner-of-war question is a humanitarian, not a political issue.”
Perot was put in charge of building mass support, and he was soon rewarded. Thanks to White House intervention, his EDS corporation got 90 percent of the computer work on Medicare claims, enabling Perot to become what one writer in 1971 dubbed “the first welfare billionaire.”
Perot was to buy “full-page ads in the nation’s 100 largest newspapers” and run “United We Stand,” a heart-wrenching program about POWs on TV stations in 59 cities. Meeting with Perot in the Oval Office, the President approved Perot’s plan “to mobilize massive popular support” for the war, including: “Charter plane to transport to Paris approx. 100 wives and children of American POWs,” where they would stage a Christmas vigil “with heavy press and television coverage” to embarrass Hanoi’s delegation, appearances by Perot on Meet the Press, the Today show, Mike Douglas, et al., and a national conference to launch the National League of Families.
On November 6, Congress unanimously passed and President Nixon signed a bill declaring November 9 a National Day of Prayer for U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam. Right on schedule, Perot’s United We Stand on November 9 ran full-page advertisements featuring the picture of two small children praying “Bring our Daddy home safe, sound and soon.” Headlined THE MAJORITY SPEAKS: RELEASE THE PRISONERS, the ads demanded the immediate release of all U.S. POWs. On November 13 and 14, the House Subcommittee on National Security Policy of the Committee on Foreign Affairs held hearings to denounce “the ruthlessness and cruelty of North Vietnam” and to provide a pep rally for a congressional resolution demanding the release of American POWs. The resolution was passed unanimously by both the Senate and House in December; it was immediately exploited by U.S. negotiators in Paris. Perot soon was off to Vientiane with two chartered jets filled with Christmas presents for the POWs and, according to Alexander Butterfield’s report to the President, “Reporters from Time, Life, Newsweek, AP, UPI, Los Angeles Times, Reader’s Digest, Look, New York Times, Washington Post, Dallas Morning News, and some five-six other publications.” Butterfield explained how “we were able to give Ross a good bit of behind-the-scenes assistance.”
During the campaign’s formative months in early 1969, officials from the State and Defense departments flew all over the country to build an organization of family members under the leadership of Sybil Stockdale, whose husband was the highest ranking naval officer imprisoned in Vietnam and who herself had been working closely with Naval Intelligence since May 1966. By June, Stockdale had made herself the national coordinator of an organization she christened the National League of Families of American Prisoners in Southeast Asia. With Henry Kissinger advising that our “propaganda offensive in the POW issue” required an ostensibly independent citizens’ movement and stressing the need to make it appear that “there is no U.S. Government involvement with the ladies,” the White House meticulously choreographed every step in building and using this organization.
In the spring of 1970, Sybil Stockdale received a phone call from Republican Senator Robert Dole, who asked whether she could “deliver 1,000 family members” to a POW/MIA “extravaganza” he was planning for May 1 in Constitution Hall if he were to arrange government transportation for them. Dole pledged to orchestrate political support, putting Vice President Spiro Agnew and a bipartisan lineup of senators and representatives on the stage, and having Democratic Representative Clement Zablocki turn his Subcommittee on National Security Policy into a publicity forum just prior to the event. Dole, Stockdale, and Perot collaborated in organizing the festivities, aided by a host of senators and representatives including such prominent Democrats as Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Senator Edmund Muskie. The Zablocki committee devoted days of hearings to doing publicity work for Senator Dole’s May 1 POW/MIA rally, as exemplified by this exchange:
MR. ZABLOCKI. Just a final question, Senator Dole. What arrangements are being made for national television coverage, which could be used, then, worldwide?
SENATOR DOLE. We are contacting the networks, and there will be press conferences Friday with Mrs. Stockdale and Mr. Perot and others. I will be on the “Today Show” tomorrow with reference to this program. . . . We have talked to Peter Kenney at NBC, he is working on it; we have talked to Mr. Galbraith of CBS, and ABC has been most helpful, and generally they are coming around.
The day after the rally, Stockdale presided in Washington over the constitutional convention that transformed her network into the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. Its structure and bylaws had been defined three days earlier by Stockdale, a handful of wives chosen by her, and attorney Charles Havens, with whom she had worked when he was in the Office of International Security Affairs. Within three weeks of its incorporation, the National League received its IRS tax-exempt status as a “non-partisan, humanitarian” organization.
From then through the rest of the century, the National League of Families would play changing but always crucial roles in the evolution of the POW/MIA issue. Almost all its principal organizers and activists were wives or parents of career officers, not draftees, mainly because the vast majority of missing and captured men were flight officers. Sponsored in its early years by the White House, the Department of Defense, and the Republican National Committee, the League would become in the 1980s the official liaison between the Department of Defense and the American public on all POW/MIA matters. The League designed the POW/MIA flag and gets much of its current income from selling it to the U.S. government, the fifty state governments that have mandated its display, and private organizations and citizens.
Meanwhile, Congress obediently placed in the Rotunda of the Capitol a POW exhibit designed and financed by Perot. On June 4, 1970, House Speaker John McCormack was the featured speaker during the televised ceremony inaugurating Perot’s display, with figures of two POWs besieged by huge cockroaches and rats. By the end of the year, this tableau was being set up in state capitols across the country, the Steve Canyon cartoon strip was featuring POW/MIA relatives in its daily sagas, the ABC television network had presented a “POW/MIA Special,” President Nixon had created a national Prisoner of War Day, the Ladies’ Home Journal had published an article with a tear-out letter for readers to mail, and the U.S. Post Office, amid special fanfare by the president, had issued 135 million POW/MIA postage stamps.
America’s vision of the war was being transformed. The actual photographs and TV footage of massacred villagers, napalmed children, Vietnamese prisoners being tortured and murdered, wounded GIs screaming in agony, and body bags being loaded by the dozen for shipment back home were being replaced by simulated images of American POWs in the savage hands of Asian Communists. Second only to the POW/MIA flag in inculcating the POW/MIA myth is the POW/MIA bracelet. It was devised by the militant pro-war organization known as VIVA (originally Victory in Vietnam Association).
Applauded by the right-wing press for counter demonstrating in 1965 against “peaceniks,” VIVA soon got an important patron. By October 1966, Gloria Coppin, wife of Los Angeles industrialist Douglas Coppin, whose Hydro-Mill Corporation manufactured airplane parts for major military contractors, was providing a headquarters and contacts with wealthy and influential members of southern California society. In March 1967, the Victory in Vietnam Association received a state charter from California as an educational institution, and less than two months later the IRS granted it tax-exempt status as a “charitable and educational” organization. VIVA was now able to hold the first of its lucrative annual Salute to the Armed Forces formal dinner dances, organized by its Ladies Auxiliary (made up of wives of wealthy business, military, and political leaders), which allowed the guests‑-including Barry Goldwater, Alexander Haig, H. Ross Perot, Bob Hope, Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, and California Governor Ronald Reagan‑-to receive tax deductions for their contributions. With brimming coffers, VIVA expanded rapidly and planned ever more ambitious campaigns to thwart the antiwar movement.
But meanwhile the Tet Offensive, as well as ensuing offensives mounted by the insurgents throughout 1968 and 1969, had made talk of U.S. “victory” in Vietnam ring hollow and become politically embarrassing. By the time of the November 1968 elections, “peace,” not “victory,” had become the catchword, as the nation bet on Nixon’s secret peace plan. So in 1969, VIVA ceased to be the Victory in Vietnam Association and became Voices in Vital America.
A few months later, members of VIVA and Robert Dornan, later a Republican representative from California, then a right-wing Los Angeles TV talk show host and close friend of Gloria Coppin, contrived the idea of selling bracelets engraved with the names of POWs and MIAs to promote and fund the POW/MIA campaign. In addition to Gloria Coppin, who was chair of VIVA’s board of directors from its founding until 1974, one of the prime movers in VIVA’s bracelet manufacturing was Carol Bates, who was to take over the directorship of the National League of Families in 1976 and then in 1984 become a principal coordinator of the POW/MIA issue for the Defense Intelligence Agency. The prototype bracelets were produced just in time for the May 9, 1970, Salute to the Armed Forces Ball, where Governor Ronald Reagan was the keynote speaker, Bob Hope and Martha Raye were made co-chairs of the bracelet campaign, and H. Ross Perot was named Man of the Year.
The bracelet idea quickly mushroomed into a propaganda coup and financial bonanza for the POW/MIA campaign, especially for VIVA, which was soon wholesaling bracelets to the National League, Perot’s United We Stand, and Junior Chambers of Commerce across the country. By mid 1972, VIVA was distributing more than ten thousand bracelets a day. Bracelets were prominently worn by such luminaries as President Nixon, General William Westmoreland, Billy Graham, George Wallace, Charlton Heston, Bill Cosby, Pat Boone, Cher and Sonny Bono, Fred Astaire, Johnny Cash, Steve Allen, Princess Grace of Monaco, and Bob Hope, who personally distributed more than a thousand. The bracelet also became a kind of fetish for sports stars such as Willie Shoemaker, Don Drysdale, Lee Trevino (who claimed it saved his golf game), and Jack Kramer (who swore it cured his tennis elbow).
Before American combat in Vietnam ended, perhaps ten million Americans were wearing POW/MIA bracelets. The influence on the national imagination cannot be calculated. Each person who wore a bracelet vowed never to remove it until his or her POW/MIA was either found to be dead or returned home from Vietnamese prison. Millions of people thus developed profound emotional bonds with the man on their wrist. Countless American schoolchildren went through formative years linked to these amulets. How could they not continue to believe that their POW/MIAs were alive?
With growing popular and almost unanimous congressional support on the POW/MIA issue, the Nixon Administration was able to stalemate the Paris talks for almost four years by demanding that Hanoi must account for America’s missing in action and negotiate the release of American prisoners separately from the question of U.S. withdrawal. Throughout 1969, the other side insisted that the release of prisoners of war could not be considered separately from a resolution of the war itself. Although this was the customary position of warring powers, it was denounced by the Administration and the media as “unprecedented,” “inhuman,” and “barbaric.” What the Vietnamese wanted to talk about was ending the war and the U.S. occupation of half their country. But the more Hanoi and the insurgents refused to negotiate separately about the POW issue, the more Washington made it the central issue of the negotiations. In the final negotiating session of the year, the head of the U.S. delegation “scarcely mentioned the question of peace, devoting his formal remarks to the prisoner problem.”
Nixon had in fact carried out a brilliant propaganda coup. At first, the Vietnamese simply denounced the POW/MIA issue as a “perfidious maneuver to camouflage the fact that the United States is pursuing the war . . . and misleading public opinion, which demands that the United States end the war and withdraw its troops.” When they became more flexible and suggested that they would set a date for the release of all prisoners of war if the United States would set a date for withdrawal from their country, the administration accused them of “ransoming” the POWs and using them as “hostages” and “bargaining chips.” The administration’s line was echoed by the media. For example, The Christian Science Monitor ran a five-part series that labeled Hanoi’s position “a cruel ploy” and concluded with this bizarre argument: “Never before, in any other war . . . have prisoners been held as international hostages, ransomed to a political and military settlement of the war.” This dizzying inversion of history conveniently ignored the fact that the United States, like most nations, had never been involved in a war in which either side released all its prisoners prior to an agreement to end the war. But through the strange logic of the administration’s negotiating position and its masterful public relations campaign, the American prisoners of war had indeed been successfully transformed–in the public mind‑-into “bargaining chips” and “hostages” held for “ransom.” These metaphors not only would increasingly influence the debates about negotiations to end the war, but also would eventually become central to the postwar POW/MIA myth.
How is it possible to comprehend this truly astonishing position, which seemed ready to trade countless American and Vietnamese lives for several hundred prisoners who would presumably be released anyhow at the conclusion of the war? By early 1971, President Nixon could explicitly declare that U.S. ground and air forces would remain in Vietnam “as long as there is one American prisoner being held prisoner by North Vietnam.” Since North Vietnam was making the release of the prisoners contingent on U.S. withdrawal, the logic of Nixon’s position could be, as Tom Wicker put it, that “we may keep both troops and prisoners there forever.” If that seems absurd, what would follow if it could be made to appear that North Vietnam was concealing some of its prisoners? Then, since it could never be proved that some missing American was not “being held prisoner by North Vietnam,” the war could literally go on forever.
Rationality, however, has never been a component of the POW/MIA issue. As Jonathan Schell observed, by 1972 “many people were persuaded that the United States was fighting in Vietnam in order to get its prisoners back,” and the nation’s main sympathy was no longer for “the men fighting and dying on the front,” who “went virtually unnoticed as attention was focused on the prisoners of war,” “the objects of a virtual cult”: “Following the President’s lead, people began to speak as though the North Vietnamese had kidnapped four hundred Americans and the United States had gone to war to retrieve them.”
Perhaps the most startling and penetrating judgment comes from Gloria Coppin, VIVA’s longtime chair. Although still a fervent believer in the existence of live POWs, she has also come to a painful sense of how she and many others may have been manipulated. As she put it in a 1990 interview: “Nixon and Kissinger just used the POW issue to prolong the war. Sometimes I feel guilty because with all our efforts, we killed more men than we saved.”
The Nixon administration’s four-year campaign to secure the release of American prisoners of war separate from U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam was doomed, along with its other war goals, by the peace accord signed in Paris on January 27, 1973. The Agreement called for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Vietnam within sixty days and the return of all prisoners of war to be “carried out simultaneously with and completed not later than the same day” as the U.S. withdrawal.
Hanoi had already delivered to Washington a complete list of its prisoners of war and those who had died in captivity. Within the stipulated two months, all the living prisoners on the list were repatriated. Both Vietnam and Laos returned or accounted for more, rather than fewer, than those listed by the Pentagon and State Department as probably captured in each country. The return of the prisoners was staged as Operation Homecoming, an event transformed by an awesome media blitz into a public relations coup for President Nixon, who boasted at his formal White House dinner party for the ex-POWs that he had achieved “the return of all of our prisoners of war” as part of his successful conclusion of the war in Vietnam.
Article 21 of the Peace Agreement guaranteed that “the United States will contribute to healing the wounds of war and to postwar reconstruction of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam.” On February 1, Richard Nixon wrote a secret letter to Hanoi Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, pledging that this reconstruction aid to Hanoi would be at least $3.25 billion. But when Henry Kissinger brought this document to Hanoi in early February, he simultaneously confronted the Hanoi government with “some 80 files of individuals who we had reason to believe had been captured,” as he testified during the September 1973 Senate hearings to confirm him as Secretary of State. Because “we are extremely dissatisfied” with Hanoi’s accounting for these MIAs, Kissinger concluded, “we cannot proceed in certain other areas such as economic aid.” In other words, Kissinger and Nixon were using the MIA issue to renege on Nixon’s secret pledge, whose very existence was denied by the White House until 1976.
Why did Kissinger’s list contain 80 names? The highest number of such “discrepancy” cases (unaccounted-for men deemed by the Pentagon as likely to have been captured or whose fate would be known by the Vietnamese) then publicly claimed or secretly listed by the government was 56. The truth finally came in 1992 when Roger Shields, head of Pentagon POW/MIA affairs in 1973, acknowledged that Washington had deliberately included on Kissinger’s list a number of cases that the Vietnamese could not possibly account for. Thus the Nixon Administration created an issue that could never be resolved.
Having no intention of honoring the U.S. pledge of aid, Nixon made accounting for the MIAs the issue. But accounting is a meaningless issue unless there is some belief in the possibility of live POWs. Hence each postwar Administration tried to exaggerate this possibility of live POWs. But no administration could afford to claim there actually were POWs, because then it would be expected to rescue them. True believers, however, knew that reconnaissance, espionage, and the debriefing of defectors would have to reveal POWs to U.S. intelligence. Hence by the late 1970s the POW myth was beginning to incorporate belief in a government conspiracy precisely the opposite of the real one. While the government was pretending that there might be POWs, the POW/MIA myth saw the government pretending that there might not be POWs.
Not all the machinations of the Pentagon, political opportunists, scam artists, the media, and presidents can create a true myth unless that myth resonates with deep psychocultural needs of a society. There are some fairly obvious needs being met by the images of American POWs tortured year after year by sadistic Asian Communists. We, not the Vietnamese, become the victims as well as the good guys. The American fighting man becomes a hero betrayed by his government and the antiwar movement, especially by unmanly people such as the bureaucrats in control of the government, “peaceniks,” cowards, and those who would rather make love than war. This stab-in-the-back theme, with its loud echoes of the myth of national betrayal central to the rise of Nazism, is one way of convincing ourselves that we didn’t really lose the war. It also suggests that American manhood itself is threatened and must be rescued if we are to restore America’s military might and determination. So it is no surprise that the POW/MIA myth has been functioning as a potent agent of militarism.
Yet the POW/MIA myth expresses even deeper psychocultural cravings. Sometimes it’s hard to see what is most peculiar about something in one’s own culture because the culture is, after all, also inside one’s own head. So I remained only dimly conscious of another level of meaning of the POW/MIA myth until I had a startling encounter in 1991 while I was a visiting professor at Meiji University in Tokyo. Several Japanese scholars of American Studies expressed their keen interest in the POW/MIA myth. They said that on some levels they thought they understood the myth, that from their study of the POW movies and other cultural artifacts they saw that the prisoner of war was functioning in American society as an icon of militarism. “But,” one said, “that’s what we find so puzzling. When militarism was dominant in Japan, the last person who would have been used as an icon of militarism was the POW. What did he do that was heroic? He didn’t fight to the death. He surrendered.” I was flabbergasted. Here I had been studying the POW/MIA myth for years and had missed its most essential and revealing aspect. Only then did I realize that this is a myth of imprisonment, a myth that draws deep emotional power by displacing onto Vietnam the imprisonment, helplessness, and alienation felt by many Americans in an epoch when alien economic, technological, and bureaucratic forces control much of their lives.
Because the postwar POWs are imaginary beings, elaborating the POW/MIA myth and implanting it deep in America’s collective imagination has been the job of art forms specializing in imaginary beings: novels, comic books, TV soaps, video games, and, of course, movies. Although the story of American prisoners abandoned in Southeast Asia could not become a major American myth until the dream factory geared up its assembly line for mass production of the essential images, Hollywood was actually involved in creating bits of the history that its POW rescue movies would soon fantasize.
The character central to the POW/MIA story as mythologized in the 1980s was retired Special Forces Colonel “Bo” Gritz, who organized raids into Laos to rescue POWs he imagined as captives of Asian communists. Gritz claimed that he had to accept this mission because the only two other men capable of such intense “action” were unavailable: “both Teddy Roosevelt and John Wayne are dead.”
But other men of action were at least available to help: Captain Kirk of the starship Enterprise, Dirty Harry, and a Hollywood star who had just moved into the White House. William Shatner put up $10,000 and received movie rights on the Gritz story. Clint Eastwood contributed $30,000 and was assigned a crucial role in the adventure. And Ronald Reagan’s Administration was secretly arranging funding and logistics.
By 1980, the POW myth envisioned a conspiracy high in the government to deny the existence of American prisoners. The villains were government bureaucrats, devious CIA operatives, and liberal politicians, personified by President Jimmy Carter. With the inauguration of Reagan in early 1981, the myth evolved a new twist: the good President walled off by a cabal of scheming bureaucrats and liberals now known collectively as the “gatekeepers.” There could be no doubt about the President’s sincerity. After all, Ronald Reagan had been active with POW issues ever since he himself had actually been a POW of Asian communists during the Korean War‑-as the star of the 1954 movie Prisoner of War.
There was one man in America who could get by the all-powerful gatekeepers and bring the truth to the good President: Clint Eastwood. Gritz’s plan hinged on two tête-à-têtes between Eastwood and Reagan. On the night of November 27, 1982, after receiving confirmation that Gritz’s team had crossed the Mekong River into Laos, Eastwood was to fly from his Shasta, California, ranch to a prearranged meeting at Reagan’s Santa Barbara ranch to inform the President about the raid. When the raiders had actually released live American POWs, they would relay the message to Eastwood, who would then once again fly to see his old friend Reagan, who would then have to do what he wanted to do all along: send U.S. aircraft and military forces to rescue the POWs. When the raiders returned from Laos to Thailand on December 3rd, they found this message from a team member in California:
CLINT AND I MET WITH PRESIDENT ON 27TH. PRESIDENT SAID: QUOTE, IF YOU BRING OUT ONE U.S. POW, I WILL START WORLD WAR III TO GET THE REST OUT. UNQUOTE.
Gritz’s raids, however, did not turn out like a Hollywood production. The American heroes did not ambush and wipe out hordes of Asian communists. In fact, almost as soon as they arrived in Laos they were ambushed, routed, and forced to flee back to Thailand. The raiders of course encountered no POWs. Yet three days before the news of Gritz’s first raid burst upon the public and while he was conducting an unsuccessful second raid, President Reagan, who had been kept closely informed, publicly declared that from now on “the government bureaucracy” would have to understand that the POW/MIA issue had become “the highest national priority.”
Reagan had been preparing for this since early 1981, when his Administration had sent Congressmen Billy Hendon and John LeBoutillier to Laos, partly to prepare for the raids that Gritz was organizing. LeBoutillier, working closely with White House liaisons and National League of Families head Ann Mills Griffiths, set up “Skyhook II,” an organization that raised large sums of money, ostensibly to free POWs. Griffiths set up covert bank accounts in Bangkok to receive the funds. Carol Bates (wartime coordinator of VIVA’s bracelet campaign) and Griffiths, operating with White House help, then moved Skyhook II funds through the Bangkok accounts to mercenary forces in Laos known as the “Lao resistance.” This byzantine, illegal funding of covert operations outdid Iran-Contra, for it included a self-sustaining mechanism. The “Lao resistance” produced a stream of phony evidence of live POWs for LeBoutillier to use in his Skyhook II propaganda to raise more funds for the “Lao resistance,” which was then able to supply still more phony evidence of live POWs to raise still more funds and so on. Reagan would soon make Griffiths coequal with the State and Defense Department representatives in his POW/MIA Interagency Group, and in 1984 he placed Bates in a key position in his expanded POW/MIA section of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The first POW rescue movie began shooting amid the media hoopla about the Gritz raids. Starring Gene Hackman as a thinly-veiled counterpart of Gritz, Uncommon Valor made it to the screen for the Christmas season of 1983. Reviewers, who at first dismissed it as a “grind actioner” and “bore” with “comic-strip-level heroism,” were soon trying to comprehend the startling audience response to what turned out to be the “biggest movie surprise” of the 1983-84 season. The best explanation seemed to come from “an ordinary moviegoer who said with satisfaction of the bloody ending in which dozens of the enemy are mowed down by the Americans, ‘We get to win the Vietnam War.'” [emphasis added]
Uncommon Valor presents a tableau of a nation run by bureaucrats, politicians, and shadowy secret agents in business suits who revile and betray its true warrior heroes. Hackman is a retired colonel whose efforts to rescue his MIA son are continually menaced by “the politicians” and omnipresent government agents equipped with high-tech spy mikes and phone taps. The idealism, virility, martial powers, and heroism of men who dedicate their lives to rescuing their abandoned comrades, sons, and fathers are presented as the alternative to a weak, decadent America subjugated by materialism, hedonism, and feminism. This perspective is a familiar element in the culture of fascism and Nazism.
Hackman reestablishes patriarchal order by recruiting a team composed of Vietnam veterans who have all been victimized by an American society that castrates military and manly virtue. Their rescue mission also rescues them from the corrupting and degrading bonds of civilian life. The most revealing salvations are for two team members liberated from women.
An expert on conducting ambushes has been kept from his true identity by a wife who now convinces him to hide from Hackman, whom she tries to block physically as she shrieks, “It’s taken me ten years to get that goddamn war out of his head.” Shoving her aside, Hackman rends these enfeebling domestic fetters, shouting: “What did you send your wife out here for? Don’t you have the guts to come out here and talk to me yourself?”
A helicopter pilot has become an even more miserable prisoner of peace, permanently shut in from the world behind sunglasses and headset, and married to a blond floozy whom we see about to traipse out to happy hour at a local club. Embodying the fusion of American women with hedonism and materialism, she finally asks Hackman, “If he did go, how much would he be paid?”
Hackman himself is called to his mission by the memory of his son as a young boy coming to his parents’ bedroom for help. While his wife lies oblivious in sleep, he reaches out to clutch his son’s hand, a bond that becomes the pivotal symbol of the movie. His sleeping wife (who never speaks a word in the film) personifies women’s irrelevance to the bonds between warriors and between fathers and sons. Hackman explicitly articulates the central message: “There’s no bond as strong as that shared by men who have faced death in battle.”
The bonding among the men is first consummated in their training camp, a world without women where they regain their killing skills. The pleasures of this buddy-buddy society are ritualized as the men dance with each other, some holding their assault rifles at upright angles from the groin as they bump bottoms. Thus primed, these rugged heroes are ready to slaughter hordes of puny little Asians, rescue their enslaved comrades, give the Vietnam War a noble ending, and redeem America.
The following year came Missing in Action, with Chuck Norris as retired Special Forces Colonel James Braddock, a fantasized version of retired Special Forces Colonel James “Bo” Gritz. Here the myth took more potent shape, with Norris as lone superhero‑-incarnate in a fetishized male body‑-replacing Hackman’s buddy-buddy team of manly warriors and graphically dramatizing how much more erotically exciting it is to make war, not love. There is no secret about the meaning and tremendous popular allure of Missing in Action, which were expressed in full-page ads showing Chuck Norris, headband half-restraining his savage locks, sleeves rolled up to reveal bulging biceps, and a huge machine gun seeming to rise from his crotch, which is blackened by its great shadow. Below ran the message: “THE WAR’S NOT OVER UNTIL THE LAST MAN COMES HOME!”
Because the powers of these movies flow from some of the deepest elements of American culture, they were able to transform the POW/MIA issue into a true myth. After all, one foundation of American culture is the mythic frontier, with its central images of white captives tortured by cruel non-white savages until they can be rescued by the first great American hero, the lone frontiersman who abandons civilized society to merge with the wilderness. The movies that transmuted what had been a fringe right-wing political issue of the mid-1970s into a central national myth did so precisely by using these primal cultural materials. Hollywood moved us from seeing American POWs in Vietnam as quintessential symbols of betrayed American manhood in The Deer Hunter (1978) through the formative POW rescue movies Uncommon Valor (1983) and Missing In Action (1984) to the apotheosis of the myth in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). The Deer Hunter explicitly calls attention to its use of the mythic frontier and frontiersman, fleshed out in the early nation state by James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer. But it is Rambo that uses the old mythic elements to turn Sylvester Stallone, as muscled as the giant he-men in Nazi propaganda posters, into the true American superhero of our epoch.
At the beginning of the movie, Rambo himself is a prisoner in America. Thoroughly alienated from civil society by his experience in the Vietnamese wilderness‑-what GIs called “Injun country”‑-, he is the only one who can rescue the tortured white captives from their savage captors. Rambo can do this by merging with the wilderness even more completely than the Vietnamese can. Why? Because he, like the mythic frontiersman, has coalesced with the Indian and the wilderness. Rambo is of “German-Indian descent,” “a hell of a combination.” Rambo–his long, dark hair restrained by a headband, a necklace dangling above his bare muscled chest, armed with a huge caricature of a bowie knife and a bow that shoots exploding arrows–conceals himself behind trees and waterfalls and literally rises out of the mud and water to ambush the savages in their own primitive land.
Rambo’s vast powers‑-over his enemies and his audiences‑-derive also from other American mythic heroes. America’s most popular author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, created two of Rambo’s forebears: a veteran of a defeated army who uses his expertise in martial arts to fight for good causes in alien lands against seemingly insurmountable odds (John Carter); and a bare-chested muscular he-man who merges completely with the tropical jungle to carry out spectacular deeds of heroism (Tarzan). Rambo also incorporates one of America’s most distinctive cultural products, the comic-book hero who may seem to be an ordinary human being but really possesses superhuman powers that allow him to fight, like Superman, for “truth, justice, and the American way” and to personify national fantasies, like Captain America. No wonder Rambo can stand invulnerable against the thousands of bullets fired at him, many from point-blank range, by America’s enemies.
Like the mythic frontiersman, Rambo confronts his antithesis not in the Indian but in feminized, devious, emasculating civil society as embodied by Murdock, the arch bureaucrat who represents the Washington administration and those who manipulate the computerized technology used to control the lives of everyday men. The climax comes when Rambo, after rescuing the POWs, hurls himself on top of the prostrate Murdock and forces this fake man to whimper and moan in terror of our hero’s gigantic phallic knife.
Thus Rambo projects a fantasy in which the audience gets to violate the enemies of everyday life, the boss and his computerized control over work life, the bureaucrats and politicians who conspire to emasculate America’s virility and betray the American dream. American men find their surrogates both in the POWs who embody humiliated, betrayed, enslaved American manhood and in the warrior hero who can rescue them when he escapes the imprisonment of post-Vietnam America.
Six weeks after the opening of Rambo, President Reagan projected himself in its star role‑-while hyping the film with a presidential plug‑-as he declared (ostensibly as a microphone test before his national address on the release of U.S. hostages in Beirut): “Boy, I saw Rambo last night. Now I know what to do the next time this happens.” Two weeks later, members of Congress “signaled a new tough-minded attitude” on foreign relations by invoking the image of Rambo a dozen times in debating a foreign aid bill. Rambo’s political repercussions ricocheted around the world. For example, President Saddam Hussein of Iraq defiantly responded to the 1990 U.S. threat of war with his own bluster in the guise of cultural criticism: “The Americans are still influenced by Rambo movies, but this is not a Rambo movie.”
As Rambo packed theaters with audiences who howled with pleasure and wildly cheered every slaying of a Vietnamese or Russian by its invulnerable hero, the nation was flooded with Rambo “action dolls,” watches, walkie-talkies, water guns, bubble gum, pinball machines, sportswear for all ages, TV cartoons, and even “Rambo-Grams,” messages delivered by head-banded musclemen sporting bandoleers across their bare chests. A Rambo TV cartoon serial, designed by Family Home Entertainment “for ages 5-12,” transformed Rambo into “liberty’s champion,” a superman engaged in global struggles against evil. And for “adult” audiences there were the pornographic video spin-offs such as Ramb-Ohh! (1986) and Bimbo: Hot Blood Part I! (1985) and Bimbo 2: The Homecoming! (1986).
The advent of Rambo helped make the MIA religion not only a prominent feature of American culture but also a lucrative market. Rescuing POWs from the evil Vietnamese Communists now became almost a rite of passage for Hollywood heroes, as the formula degenerated through P.O.W.: The Escape, the 1986 Israeli production starring David Carradine, to Operation Nam, a 1987 Italian production starring John Wayne’s son Ethan Wayne, which might be called the first spaghetti rescue movie. In 1987 appeared the first issue of Vietnam Journal, a comic book prominently displaying on every cover the POW/MIA logo next to a lead about an MIA feature. In 1985, Jack Buchanan published M.I.A. Hunter, a mass-market POW rescue novel featuring Mark Stone, a former Green Beret who “has only one activity that gives meaning to his life‑-finding America’s forgotten fighting men, the P.O.W.’s the government has conveniently labeled M.I.A.’s, and bringing them back from their hell on earth.” By 1991, Buchanan had published fourteen more volumes in what had become the immensely popular M.I.A. Hunter series, each promising more blood than the last, including M.I.A. Hunter: Cambodian Hellhole (1985); M.I.A. Hunter: Hanoi Deathgrip (1985); M.I.A. Hunter: Mountain Massacre (1985); M.I.A. Hunter: Exodus from Hell (1986); M.I.A. Hunter: Blood Storm (1986); and M.I.A. Hunter: Saigon Slaughter (1987), and Back to Nam (1990).
The cultural products that disseminate the MIA mythology and give it potent forms in the popular imagination have tended increasingly to project a vast government cover-up and conspiracy. Vietnam Journal, for example, in 1990 ran a three-part series entitled “Is the U.S. Hiding the Truth About Missing Soldiers?” (numbers 11, 12, 13). The answer of course was yes. In the 1989 TV movie The Forgotten, starring Keith Carradine and Stacy Keach, high government officials actually conspire to torture and assassinate POWs held by Vietnam until 1987 so they won’t reveal that these officials had colluded with North Vietnam to sabotage a POW rescue mission. Jack Buchanan’s M.I.A. Hunter constantly battles against “Washington” and its sinister operatives; in M.I.A. Hunter: Cambodian Hellhole he can pursue his quest only “after demolishing a C.I.A hit team sent to arrest him.” So by the end of the 1980s, the POW/MIA myth had emerged from American popular culture in the shape of an ominous Frankenstein’s monster beginning to haunt its ingenious creators in Washington.
The monster became a more serious problem as corporations from Europe and Asia began to stake out major investments in Vietnam, barred to U.S. corporations by the U.S. embargo. Pressure was building for normalization of relations. On April 9, 1991‑-one month after declaring “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!”‑-President George Bush handed Vietnam a “Road Map” toward normalizing relations within two years‑-contingent upon Vietnam making what Washington deemed satisfactory progress in resolving “all remaining POW/MIA cases.” Instantly the smoldering POW/MIA issue was fanned into a firestorm.
In May, Senator Jesse Helms released, in the name of all Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a hundred-page pseudohistory alleging that thousands of U.S. POWs were abandoned in Indochina, and that some were still alive, betrayed by a vast Washington conspiracy. Although at no time during the war did the Pentagon or White House believe there could be more than a few hundred U.S. POWs, Helms’ treatise claimed that Hanoi had held “5000” U.S. POWs. Where did Helms get the figure 5,000? From a 1973 New York Times story. However, the figure 5,000 in the Times story referred not to U.S. POWs but to the number of prisoners Hanoi was demanding from Saigon. The report’s principal author was later exposed as having falsified much of its “evidence” about abandoned POWs. Nevertheless, well over a hundred thousand copies of the Helms volume continued to be mailed out by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator Bob Smith, who helped engineer the Helms document, next tried to set up a Senate committee to ballyhoo its thesis. But Smith’s efforts seemed doomed because the Senate was due to recess on August 2, 1991.
Suddenly on July 17 began one of the most spectacular media coups in U.S. history, orchestrated largely by Smith and associates. A photograph purportedly showing three U.S. POWs from the Vietnam War still held captive in Indochina exploded as the lead story on the TV and radio networks. Newspapers across the country front-paged the picture under banner headlines. The “prisoners” were identified as three pilots shot down over Vietnam and Laos between 1966 and 1970. Within a week photographs ostensibly showing two more POWs in Indochina‑-identified as Daniel Borah Jr. and Donald Carr‑-hit the media. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 69 percent of the American people now believed that U.S. POWs were being held in Indochina and 52 percent were convinced that the government was derelict in not getting them back. A headline in the August 2 Wall Street Journal read “Bring on Rambo.” The same day a stampeded Senate unanimously passed Bob Smith’s resolution to create a Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs‑-along with a resolution to fly the POW/MIA flag over federal buildings.
The photos that launched the Senate Committee later proved as bogus as all other “evidence” of postwar POWs. “Daniel Borah” turned out to be a Lao highlander who had happily posed because he never had his photograph taken before. “Donald Carr” was a German bird smuggler photographed in a Bangkok rare bird sanctuary. The picture of the three alleged POWs was a doctored version of a 1923 photograph reproduced in a 1989 Soviet magazine; the three men were actually holding a poster extolling collective farming (mustaches had been added and a picture of Stalin subtracted).
All the photographs were the handiwork of notorious scam artists. Each was used to blitz the media and the public‑-and thus help create the Senate Select Committee. Senator Smith displayed the “Daniel Borah” pictures on the Today show. The picture of the threesome had been released by Captain Red McDaniel, head of the right-wing American Defense Institute, who has been promising the faithful since 1986 that as soon as they contribute enough money he will produce live POWs. McDaniel got it from Jack Bailey, head of a crooked POW/MIA fundraising operation known as Operation Rescue. Bailey, who had conspired to fake the “Donald Carr” photos, assaulted two ABC reporters on camera when they confronted him in the rare bird sanctuary where the pictures had been shot.
Bob Smith was made Vice Chairman of the Senate committee. Chairman was John Kerry, who may have been unaware of how the POW/MIA issue had been used back in 1971, when he joined hundreds of other antiwar Vietnam veterans to throw their medals at the Capitol. Panic-stricken by these actions and the growing antiwar movement among POW/MIA wives, Nixon aide H. R. Haldeman had then ordered the White House staff “to be doubly sure we are keeping the POW wives in line.”
Ironically, Kerry now accepted the spurious history of the POW/MIA issue promulgated by those bent on continuing the conflict, including the preposterous notion that the government during the war and ever since had been minimizing and perhaps concealing the possibility of prisoners being kept after the U. S. withdrew. The Committee refused to permit testimony about how the POW/MIA issue was created and used by the government to legitimize hostilities against Vietnam from 1969 on. The only witnesses allowed to testify were either government apologists or POW/MIA movement militants. Although the Select Committee found not a shred of credible evidence of postwar POWs, its final report asserted that the POW/MIA issue should continue to have the “highest national priority.” But this conclusion did not satisfy the POW/MIA zealots, who claimed that the POWs still languishing in Vietnam had been betrayed by Kerry and committee member John McCain. In the twenty-first century, the political future of both Kerry and McCain would suffer from this alleged betrayal.
Two months after the Select Committee issued its voluminous report, a Wall Street Journal poll disclosed that two-thirds of Americans believed that U.S. POWs “are still being held in Southeast Asia.” The poll did not measure how many of the other third believed Brzezinski’s fable of hundreds of American officers being massacred in “cold blood.” Though conveniently disposing of the belief in live POWs‑-which eventually would be biologically impossible anyhow‑-this scenario has become a fantasy that may allow the POW/MIA myth to endure indefinitely.
While the Select Committee had the media spotlighting the POW/MIA issue in 1992, President Bush was fighting for his political life. The very man who had boasted about healing America’s Vietnam wounds was now trying to win reelection by reopening them, turning what Bill Clinton had or hadn’t done during the Vietnam War into the Republicans’ main campaign issue. Meanwhile Ross Perot was campaigning as the wartime champion of the POWs and a Rambo-like hero who would rescue the dozens allegedly still alive in Indochina as well as the nation itself.
Unlike Bush and Clinton, Perot had no national party apparatus. What he used as a remarkably effective substitute was a ready-made national infrastructure, a network of activists motivated by religious fervor and coordinated by grassroots organizations: the POW/MIA movement. Perot chose ex-POW James Stockdale as his running mate and ex-POW Orson Swindle as his campaign manager. At his typical rally, Perot sat with former POWs and family members on a stage bedecked with POW flags. POW activists and organizations were central to the petition campaigns that got Perot on the ballot in every state.
Portraying himself as the lone outsider from Texas ready to ride into Washington to save us from its sleazy bureaucrats and politicians who had betrayed the POWs and the American people, Perot cut deeply into President Bush’s constituency. Without the Perot candidacy, Bush probably would have beaten Bill Clinton in a one-on-one race [emphasis added]. If so, then the POW/MIA issue was central to the election’s outcome.
In the closing days of the presidential campaign, George Bush claimed he was on the verge of ending hostilities by forcing Vietnam into resolving the POW/MIA issue. He now presented himself as the man who was about to lead the nation to “begin writing the last chapter of the Vietnam War.”
The President was responding to two events. One was Vietnam’s all-out efforts to resolve the POW/MIA issue, including actions utterly unprecedented between hostile states, such as opening their military archives to U.S. inspection, conducting joint searches throughout their country, and allowing short-notice U.S. inspection of suspected prison sites. The other was the pressure from U.S. corporations anxious not to lose lucrative business opportunities to foreign competitors already swarming into Vietnam. But neither corporate anxiety nor Vietnamese cooperation could overcome the potent forces wielding the POW/MIA issue, forces still including its original engineer, Richard Nixon. On December 30, 1992, Nixon sent a judiciously leaked memo to the Senate Select Committee, insisting that “it would be a diplomatic travesty and human tragedy to go forward with normalization” until Hanoi “fully accounts for the MIAs.” As the Los Angeles Times observed, “Nixon’s written statement provides the strongest evidence so far that he and officials of his former Administration constitute a powerful and determined, though largely hidden, lobby against normalization.”
So instead of following his own Road Map, Bush merely allowed U.S. enterprises to begin negotiating for future business. This left a curious situation in the early months of the Clinton Administration: U.S. corporate interests, which had supported and profited from the Vietnam War, furtively leaning on the former anti-war demonstrator to end the war. Even the Wall Street Journal, for decades one of the master builders of the POW/MIA myth, ran a major story headlined “President Clinton, Normalize Ties With Vietnam” and arguing that “by any account, the Vietnamese have more than met” all the conditions of the Road Map, including the requested “help in resolving the fate of American MIAs.” The Clinton Administration began tiptoeing toward normalization. “Bill Clinton may be on the verge of finally ending the Vietnam War,” declared the April 12 Wall Street Journal, which went on to warn, however, of “an orchestrated campaign” to stop him.
Right on cue, the same day’s New York Times featured a sensational front-page story about a “top secret” document “discovered” in Moscow by “Harvard researcher” Stephen Morris and “authenticated by leading experts” (unnamed) as a Russian translation of a 1972 report to Hanoi’s Politburo. This “smoking gun” “proves” Vietnam withheld “hundreds” of U.S. POWs. For an “expert” opinion, the Times turned to Zbigniew Brzezinski, who in 1978 had persuaded Jimmy Carter not to normalize relations with Vietnam. Since, as Brzezinski knew, there has never been any credible evidence of postwar U.S. POWs in Vietnam, he offered an explanation which was sooner or later destined to become part of the POW/MIA mythology: “‘the Vietnamese took hundreds of American officers out and shot them in cold blood.'”
In a replay of the phony photos of 1991, the “smoking gun” now exploded as the lead story on every TV network, including PBS, whose balanced coverage showcased a MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour panel on April 13 consisting of three disinterested “experts”‑-Brzezinski, Kissinger, and Morris himself. Brzezinski’s massacre scenario was repeated in newspaper editorials across the country. Headlines blared “North Vietnam Kept 700 POWs after War: ‘Smoking Gun’ File Exposes ’20 Years of Duplicity'”; “POWs: The Awful Truth?”; “We Can’t Set Up Ties with Killers of Our POWs.”
Not one of the “facts” about POWs in this spurious document conforms to the historical record. Yet this clumsy hoax helped maintain the trade embargo for almost a year. And when President Clinton finally did call off the embargo in 1994, he claimed that he was doing so to get more “answers” about the MIAs, because “any decisions about our relationships with Vietnam should be guided by one factor and one factor only‑-gaining the fullest possible accounting for our prisoners of war and our missing in action.” Then in 1995, fifty years after the beginning of U. S. hostilities against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Washington at long last established diplomatic relations with this first nation to break free from colonialism after World War II. To do so, President Clinton had to deftly undercut the POW/MIA lobby by naming as the first U.S. Ambassador Douglas (“Pete”) Peterson, a former Air Force fighter pilot who had spent six-and-a-half years as a POW in Hanoi.
Four years later, the U.S. Embassy sponsored a breakthrough conference in Hanoi, which brought together American Studies scholars from Vietnam and the United States. At a reception for the conference in Ambassador Peterson’s residence, I asked his opinion of the POW/MIA issue. He called it a “hoax,” and went on to expound on all the damage it had caused. Peterson thus expressed the virtually unanimous view of the 591 actual POWs released at the conclusion of the war, who were well aware that there were no hidden or secret prisoners. One of these actual former POWs is Senator John McCain.
The POW/MIA myth may not be as politically potent today as it was in 1992, when it helped prevent George H. W. Bush’s reelection and thus allowed Bill Clinton to begin his eight years in the White House. But it has been deployed as a political weapon, with significant effects, in all of the first three twenty-first century Presidential elections. In each one, the potency of the weapon derived from the now almost unchallenged belief that there were—and might even still be—American POWs left in Vietnam. And in each case, the candidate targeted by the weapon lost.
In 2000, Senator John McCain, running as America’s late twentieth-century iconic hero—the Vietnam POW—overwhelmed his four Republican opponents in the New Hampshire primary, crushing runner-up George W. Bush by 19 points. But in the next primary, in South Carolina, his “Straight Talk Express” was violently derailed by a series of explosive charges. Especially damaging was the charge that as a member of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs he had viciously betrayed those hundreds or thousands of his fellow POWs left behind in Vietnam. The main ingredients for this charge came from a 1992 article by Ted Sampley, “John McCain: The Manchurian Candidate,” which argued that he had been brainwashed by the Vietnamese and might very well be acting as their secret agent. McCain’s campaign never recovered from the electoral defeat or the shattered image inflicted in South Carolina.
In 2004, the defeat of Senator John Kerry by incumbent President George W. Bush has been widely attributed to the heavily bankrolled “swiftboating” by “Swift Vets and POWs for Truth,” an assault that torpedoed Kerry’s status as a heroic Vietnam veteran. But more than three months before the Swift vets first went public in a May 4th press conference, the campaign to use the POW/MIA issue to destroy Kerry’s Vietnam credentials was launched by Sidney Schanberg, one of the most fanatical of the POW/MIA cultists. Using long discredited “evidence” that after the war Vietnam held “many” American POWs to be used “as future bargaining chips,” Schanberg’s “When John Kerry’s Courage Went M.I.A” appeared on February 24th in the Village Voice and was soon widely disseminated in various forms. Schanberg claimed that as chair of the Senate Select Committee, Kerry had deliberately “covered up voluminous evidence” of “perhaps hundreds” of these left-behind POWs.
In 2008, Schanberg recycled his anti-Kerry article, plus other articles that he had been reissuing for decades, as “McCain and the POW Cover-up,” an especially vitriolic assault on John McCain, who was then in what seemed to be a tight presidential race with Barack Obama. As he had done in earlier articles, Schanberg drew heavily on Ted Sampley’s 1992 article about “The Manchurian Candidate.” There was nothing surprising or even new in Schanberg’s piece. But what some people found startling, indeed shocking, was where it was published: in The Nation, one of America’s leading liberal journals and historically a major opponent of both the Vietnam War and the postwar revanchist campaigns against Vietnam.
Even more appalling, liberal and progressive media responded by deliriously ballyhooing Schanberg’s POW/MIA fantasy. DemocraticUnderground.com ran excerpts from and links to The Nation article, along with ads for POW/MIA flags, pins, and bracelets. Daily Kos, Huffington Post, Alternet.org, and many others reprinted The Nation piece, some adorning it with large images of the POW/MIA flag. Democracy Now, the nationally syndicated progressive radio and TV show, on October 23 ran a long adulatory interview with Schanberg and linked on its web site to a longer version of his article published online by The Nation Institute. Scattered protests from some historians, antiwar activists, and Vietnam Veterans Against the War were drowned out by denunciations—from right, left, and center—of McCain as a betrayer of all those POWs abandoned in Vietnam. The true history of the phony POW/MIA issue has evidently now been buried under a myth so sacred, and so central to our nation’s cultural memory, that to question it amounts to heresy.
In the decades since the Vietnam War, joint U.S.-Vietnamese search teams have combed the country for possible remains; the remains of scores of men whose names were engraved on POW/MIA bracelet have been positively identified; swarms of U.S. tourists, businesspeople, and returning veterans have visited all parts of Vietnam; Hanoi has actually opened its secret records of those captured to American researchers. Today we should know, with as much certainty as could ever be possible, that there are not now, and never have been, American prisoners held in Vietnam after the war. So why are those hundreds of thousands of POW/MIA flags still flying in every part of America?
The short answer is that those flags seem to symbolize our culture’s dominant view of America as the heroic warrior victimized by “Vietnam” and then reemerging as Rambo unbound. Maybe that’s what George H. W. Bush meant in 1991when he celebrated the beginning of our endless wars in the middle east and southwest Asia with his proclamation, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” [emphasis added]
• See Edwin Martini, Invisible Enemies: The American War on Vietnam, 1975-2000 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2007).
• “Clinton on Vietnam’s Legacy,” The New York Times, July 12, 1995.
• Nixon Speaks Out: Major Speeches and Statements by Richard Nixon in the Presidential Campaign of 1968 (NY: Nixon-Agnew Campaign Committee, 1968), p. 235.
• Nixon, Speech to the Overseas Press Club, March 29, 1954, in Vietnam and America, ed. Marvin Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn Young, and H. Bruce Franklin (New York: Grove Press, 1995), p. 52
. • Memorandum from Peter Flanigan, June 30, 1969, Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Archives and Records Administration, White House Special Files, Haldeman Box 133, Perot Folder. For a more extensive account with additional documentation, see my M.I.A. Or Mythmaking in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993), pp. 50-56, 188-92.
• Law 10/59, together with other documents on the formation of the NLF, is reprinted in Vietnam and America, pp. 156-191. The NLF estimated that prior to its formation, the Diem government had killed 90,000 and imprisoned 800,000, including 600,000 crippled by torture (South Vietnam: From the N.F.L. to the Provisional Revolutionary Government, Vietnamese Studies 23, ed. Nguyen Khac Vien [Hanoi, 1970], p. 12).
• In the Name of America: A Study Commissioned and Published by Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, January 1968 (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968; John Duffett, ed., Against the Crimes of Silence: Proceedings of the International War Crimes Tribunal, Stockholm-Copenhagen (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968).
• Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1980), pp. 469-70; Seymour Hersh, My Lai 4 (New York: Random House, 1970); Vietnam and America, pp. 403-404.
• Article 12 of the Geneva Convention stipulates: “Prisoners of war may only be transferred by the Detaining Power to a Power which is a party to the Convention and after the Detaining Power has satisfied itself of the willingness and ability of such transferee Power to apply the Convention”; South Vietnam was not a party to the Convention. For a description of South Vietnam’s Con Son prison island, see Don Luce, “Behind Vietnam’s Prison Walls,” Christian Century, February 19, 1969, 261-4. Luce, who speaks Vietnamese, later led Representative Augustus Hawkins and William Anderson through the secret access to the tiger cages, which were photographed for Life by Tom Harkin. The chief American adviser to the South Vietnamese prison system, Frank “Red” Walton (former police commander of the Watts district of Los Angeles), had first told the visiting congressional delegation that Con Son was like “a Boy Scout recreational camp”; after they found the cages, Walton angrily told them, “You aren’t supposed to go poking your nose into doors that aren’t your business” (“The Tiger Cages of Con Son,” Life, July 17, 1970, pp. 27-29).
• Final Report of the House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, December 13, 1976, 136.
• Ibid., 106, 135; “Laird Appeals to Enemy To Release U.S. Captives,” New York Times, May 20, 1969; Captain Douglas L. Clarke, The Missing Man: Politics and the MIA (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 1979), 32.
• “Inhuman Stance on Prisoners” (Editorial), New York Times, May 29, 1969.
• Memorandum from Arthur Burns, April 9, 1969, and memorandum from Peter Flanigan, June 30, 1969, Haldeman Box 133, Perot Folder; Robert Fitch, “H. Ross Perot: America’s First Welfare Billionaire,” Ramparts, November 1971, 42-51.
• “Projects Proposed by Ross Perot,” Memorandum from Butterfield to Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Kissinger, and Harlow, October 24, 1969, White House Special Files, Haldeman Box 133, Perot Folder.
• Haldeman Box 55, John Brown folder.
• American Prisoners of War in Vietnam: Hearings before the Subcommittee on National Security Policy and Scientific Developments of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, 91st Congress, 1st Session, November 13, 14, 1969, 2, 6.
• American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1970: Hearings before the Subcommittee on National Security Policy and Scientific Developments of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, 91st Congress, 2nd Session, April 29, May 1, 6, 1970, 2.
• “Message from Perot,” Memorandum for the President from Alexander Butterfield, President’s Handwriting Files, Box 4. Nixon has written a big double-underlined “Good!” on this.
• “Wives Organizing to Find 1,332 G.I.’s Missing in War,” New York Times, July 31, 1969; Joseph Lelyveld, “`Dear Mr. President’‑-The P.O.W. Families,” New York Times Magazine, October 3, 1971, 56; Jim and Sybil Stockdale, In Love and War (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 133-46, 206-8, 210-13, 230-31, 306-7.
• Ibid., 310-11; testimony of Sybil Stockdale, American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1970, 61.
• “POW Policy in Vietnam,” Memorandum for the President from Henry A. Kissinger, October 2, 1969, White House Special Files, President’s Office Files, Series A: Documents Annotated by the President, Box 3. The first major media event using the wives was a methodically planned meeting to be held on December 12 between the President and a carefully selected delegation led by Sybil Stockdale. “Dick Capen and his people have worked hard to put together the package,” Alexander Butterfield wrote to fellow White House staffer Colonel Hughes on December 4, but “a final decision has been made that there will be no fathers among those invited so wives and mothers must be substituted for the 2 sets of parents,” the “demographic spread” must be widened, and “there must be at least 1 and preferably 2 more enlisted men represented, without exceeding a total of 23 ladies.” (Memorandum from Butterfield to Colonel Hughes, December 4, 1969, Haldeman Box 55, Hughes folder.) Lyn Nofziger asked Butterfield for “a brief bit on each POW wife we might be able to make use of . . . on the Hill.” (Nofziger to Butterfield, December 4, 1969, White House Special Files, Butterfield, Box 8.) Butterfield asked Hughes to forward the President’s preplanned answers to possible questions from the press “so that I can complete the required scenario.” (Butterfield to Hughes, December 8, 1969, Haldeman Box 55, Hughes Folder.)
• Stockdale, In Love and War, 373.
• American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1970, 20.
• Ibid., 27.
• Stockdale, In Love and War, 375-76; Clarke, Missing Man, 32; Iris R. Powers, “The National League of Families and the Development of Family Services,” in Family Separation and Reunion: Families of Prisoners of War and Servicemen Missing in Action, ed. Hamilton I. McCubbin, Barbara Dahl, et al. (Washington, DC: GPO, ), 5.
• See Clarke, Missing Man, 34-35, on early government connections with the League; Representative Les Aspin introduced into the Congressional Record of January 22 and January 31, 1972, letters proving that the Republican National Committee was actually managing the fund-raising campaign of the National League and that Senator Robert Dole, of the Republican National Committee, had placed “advisers” in the League’s structure who coordinated its activities and public statements with his own.
• American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1970, 66-79; “Exhibit to Stir Opinion on P.O.W.’s Open in Capitol,” New York Times, June 5, 1970.
• Jon M. Van Dyke, “Nixon and the Prisoners of War,” New York Review of Books, January 7, 1971, 35; Richard A. Falk, “Pawns in Power Politics,” reprinted in American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1971: Hearings before the Subcommittee on National Security Policy and Scientific Developments of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, 92nd Congress, 1st Session, March 23, 24, 25, 30, 31; April 1, 6, 20, 1971, 474; Lieutenant Colonel Charles F. Kraak, Family Efforts on Behalf of United States Prisoners of War and Missing in Action in Southeast Asia (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Army War College, 1975), 16, 18.
• Russell Kirk, “Students for Victory,” National Review, May 31, 1966, 535; Janet L. Koenigsamen, Mobilization of a Conscience Constituency: VIVA and the POW/MIA Movement, Unpublished Dissertation, Kent State University, 1987, 36, 38.
• Ibid, 37, 77-78.
• Clarke, Missing Man, 40; Koenigsamen, Mobilization, 65, 72; telephone interview with Mike Sasek, Defense Intelligence Agency, October 9, 1990.
• Koenigsamen, Mobilization, 44-46; “Reminder of Vietnam Stays on Hand,” Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1989; telephone interview with Gloria Coppin, September 23, 1990. Coppin reports that at the ball Perot refused to help finance the bracelets and even refused her plea for a loan to initiate production.
• Koenigsamen, Mobilization, 44-50, 78; “Unit for P.O.W.’s Has New Project,” New York Times, February 26, 1973. Other VIVA publicity products included matchbooks, bumper stickers, “missing man” stationery, Christmas cards, T-shirts, and sweatshirts; many of these were wholesaled to other political organizations. • Koenigsamen, Mobilization, 55; “Unit for P.O.W.’s Has New Project”; “Reminder of Vietnam Stays on Hand.
• “U.S. Gives Enemy List of Missing,” New York Times, December 31, 1969.
• “U.S. Gives Enemy List of Missing,” The New York Times, December 31, 1969.
• “Vietnam Unique: PWs Languish as Political Pawns,” Christian Science Monitor, December 12, 1970; the series had begun on November 27.
• Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon, 1971, 541; Tom Wicker, “Illogic in Vietnam,” New York Times, May 25, 1971.
• Jonathan Schell, “The Time of Illusion IV: For the Re-election of the President,” New Yorker, June 23, 1975, 76; reprinted in Schell, The Time of Illusion (New York: Knopf, 1976), 231.
• Telephone interview with Gloria Coppin, September 23, 1990.
• “Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Viet-Nam” in Vietnam and America, 472, 473.
• Richard Nixon, “Remarks at a Reception for Returned Prisoners of War, May 24, 1973,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon, 1973 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1975), 558.
• Nixon’s secret letter is reprinted in M.I.A. or Mythmaking In America, 204-207.
• Confirmation Hearings of Dr. Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State, September 7, 10, 11, and 14, 1973, as reprinted in “Americans Missing in Southeast Asia,” Hearings before the House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia, Part 5, June 17, 25, July 21, and September 21, 1975, p. 175.
• “Long Shadow of the M.I.A.’s Still Stalks a Pentagon Official,” The New York Times, September 20, 1992.
• Quoted in Charles J. Patterson and Colonel G. Lee Tippin, The Heroes Who Fell from Grace: The True Story of Operation Lazarus, the Attempt to Free American POW’s from Laos in 1982 (Canton, Ohio: Daring Books, 1985), 102. Patterson, who was Gritz’s second in command during the first raid, published an account in Soldier of Fortune magazine while Gritz was still in Southeast Asia, leading to a break between the two who had fought together in the Special Forces in Vietnam. Getting to the truth about Bo Gritz’s adventures is a formidable task, especially since each of the three participants who have written extensively about them‑-Gritz, Patterson, and Scott Barnes‑-accuses the other two of being inveterate liars.
• “Daring Search for POWs Told,” Los Angeles Times, January 31, 1983; “`Star-studded’ Raid Fails to Free POWs,” Star-Ledger, February 1, 1983; “Private Raid on Laos Reported,” New York Times, February 1, 1983; Patterson, 52. Most of the stories about the Gritz raids were broken by the Los Angeles Times, which received a series of oral and written messages from him in January and February, 1983.
• Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, United States Senate (Washington: U.S. GPO, 1993), 302.
• “Daring Search for POWs Told”; Patterson, 50, 70, 92-107. • Patterson, 146; a less theatrical version is reported in “Eastwood Told Reagan of Planned POW Raid,” Los Angeles Times, February 25, 1983.
• Patterson, 128-9, 147, 176; Scott Barnes, with Melva Libb, Bohica (Canton, OH: Bohica Corp, 1987), 34.
• “Remarks at a Meeting of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, January 28, 1983,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald Reagan, 1983 (Washington, 1984), 131.
• Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, 155.
• Ibid., 305-310, 334-335.
• Ibid., 221, 276-280.
• Richard Freedman, Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), December 16, 1983; Aljean Harmetz, “2 Holiday Movies Turn into Surprise Successes,” New York Times, February 13, 1984.
• For an incisive analysis of the protofascist content of the POW rescue films and other movies, see J. Hoberman, “The Fascist Guns in the West: Hollywood’s `Rambo’ Coalition,” Radical America 19 (no. 6, 1985), pp. 53-61, which also appeared in a revised form in American Film, March 1986.
• My analysis of the role of gender in the POW rescue movies owes a considerable debt to Susan Jeffords, The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).
• Jeffords, 148.
• See Tony Williams, “Missing in Action: The Vietnam Construction of the Movie Star,” in From Hanoi to Hollywood (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 129-44, for an excellent analysis of the creation of Norris’s persona in the Missing in Action films. Louis J. Kern, “MIAs, Myth, and Macho Magic: Post-Apocalyptic Cinematic Visions of Vietnam,” in Search and Clear: Critical Responses to Selected Literature and Films of the Vietnam War, ed. William J. Searle (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988), 37-54, offers an exceptionally insightful overview of the psychosocial significance of what he calls “the POW-MIA/Avenger subgenre,” tracing its cinematic history back to Norris’s 1978 (not 1977, as indicated by Kern) film Good Guys Wear Black. A detailed explication of Missing in Action is given in M.I.A. Or Mythmaking in America, 146-50.
• Any exploration of the role of the frontier myth in American culture owes much to Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), together with Slotkin’s The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (New York: Atheneum, 1985). John Hellman, American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), cogently relates the frontier myth to the imagined role of the Green Berets in Vietnam. My analysis is also indebted to Gaylyn Studler and David Desser’s fine essay “Never Having to Say You’re Sorry: Rambo’s Rewriting of the Vietnam War,” Film Quarterly 42 (Fall 1988), 9-16. Other important writings on the cultural implications and effects of Rambo include Don Kunz, “First Blood Redrawn,” Vietnam Generation 1 (Winter 1989): 94-111, and Gregory A. Waller, “Rambo: Getting to Win This Time,” in From Hanoi to Hollywood, 113-28.
• For a more thorough explication of Rambo, see M.I.A. Or Mythmaking in America, pp. 150-59.
• “Reagan Cites `Rambo’ as Next-Time Example,” Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), July 1, 1985; “Reagan Gets Idea from `Rambo’ for Next Time,” Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1985.
• “`Machismo’ on Capitol Hill,” New York Times, July 14, 1985.
• “Iraq Spurns `U.S.-imposed’ Council Solution; Saddam Vows Fight for Kuwait,” Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), December 1, 1990.
• Jacket copy, Jack Buchanan, M.I.A. Hunter (New York: Jove, 1985).
• “`Road Map’ to Renew Ties with Hanoi Could Lead to Some Trade by Year End,” Wall Street Journal, April 15, 1991; “Concerned Citizen Newsletter,” National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, May 31, 1991.
• U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Republican Staff, An Examination of U.S. Policy Toward POW/MIAs, May 23, 1991, 5-8. • Ibid, November 1991 edition, 5-8.
• Hearings before the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, Part I of II, November 5, 6, 7, and 15, 1991, 443-47.
• Poll reported in “Minor Memos,” Wall Street Journal, August 2, 1991.
• Telephone interview with Commander Gregg Hartung, Public Affairs Office, Department of Defense, September 23, 1991. Since then, the Lao highlander has been extensively interviewed and photographed.
• Interview with James Bamford, the investigative reporter who led the ABC team that exposed the fraud, February 28, 1992. Bamford played for me the extensive videos showing the bird sanctuary, the bird smuggler, and the unmasking of the scam.
• Defense Department press conference, July 2, 1992; “U.S. Is Sure Photo of Missing Is Fake,” The New York Times, July 19, 1992.
• “Baker Presses Vietnam on MIAs, Cambodia,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, July 25, 1991; UPI story datelined Olney, IL, story tag “mia-borah,” July 22, 1991; Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, 319.
• Peter Jennings’ World News, ABC, February 11 and February 12, 1992.
• Memorandum from H. R. Haldeman to General Hughes, April 26, 1971, and “POW/MIA Wives,” Memorandum from General James D. Hughes to Haldeman, April 29, 1971, Haldeman Box 77, General Hughes folder.
• My own efforts to testify, which persisted from February to December 1992, were officially rebuffed not only by the staff and in letters from Senator Kerry but also by Senators Kerry and Grassley when I appeared with each of them on national television.
• Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, 164.
• Wall Street Journal, April 23, 1993.
• David Jackson, “MIAs’ Kin Want Perot as President,” Dallas Morning News, May 19, 1992; telephone interview with David Jackson, May 18, 1992; telephone interview with John LeBoutillier, June 12, 1992; “It’s Businessman Perot and Not War Hero Bush Who Attracts a Following Among U.S. Veterans,” Wall Street Journal, July 2, 1992.
• “Bush Sees Gain in Vietnam Ties,” Los Angeles Times, October 24, 1992.
• “Corporations Ask Bush to Lift Vietnam Ban,” The New York Times, May 9, 1992; “Vietnam: The Big Buildup Begins,” Washington Post, December 9, 1992.
• “Nixon Opposing U.S.-Vietnam Normalization Policy: He Could Influence Any Move by Bush Administration to End Trade Embargo,” Los Angeles Times, January 9, 1993.
• “President Clinton, Normalize Ties With Vietnam,” Wall Street Journal, March 8, 1993.
• “Clinton Prepares to Relax Policy on Vietnam As U.S. Business Urges Access to New Market,” Wall Street Journal, April 12, 1993.
• “U.S. to Press Hanoi to Explain ’72 P.O.W. Report,” The New York Times, April 13, 1993.
• Washington Times, April 12; USA Today, April 12; Washington Post, April 15; Jersey Journal, April 18.
• References are to a photocopy of the English-language text sent by fax from the Moscow Bureau of The New York Times to the Times Foreign Desk with a cover letter referring to it as a “Sept 15, 1972 Vietnamese Top Secret report, recently discovered in Soviet Communist Party archives – confirming that Vietnam was holding on to far more US POWs than it had publicly [sic] admitted.” I am grateful to Times reporter Steven A. Holmes for this copy. For detailed exposés of the document, see Nayan Chanda, “Research and Destroy,” Far Eastern Economic Review, 6 May 1993, 20, and H. Bruce Franklin, “M.I.A.sma,” The Nation, May 10, 1993, 616.
• “In Clinton’s Words: `Fullest Possible Accounting’ of M.I.A.’s,” The New York Times, February 4, 1994.
• Ted Sampley, “John McCain: The Manchurian Candidate,” U.S. Veteran Dispatch, December 1992.
• For an exploration of the Swift Vets campaign and its media links, see my “‘Vietnam’ in the New American Century,” The United States and the Legacy of the Vietnam War (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). 33-50.
• The article appeared in mid September in the issue dated October 6. The Nation had evident amnesia about articles it had printed years earlier that had exposed and debunked the very “evidence” cited by Schanberg.