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About the Author:
Natasha Zaretsky is assistant professor of history at Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Prisoners of War, National Defeat, and the Crisis of Male Authority
On 6 March 1970, the House of Representatives Committee on Armed Services gathered to hear the testimony of a small group of military wives whose husbands had disappeared over the jungles and waters of Southeast Asia. The purpose of the hearing was to call attention to the failure of the North Vietnamese to comply with the guidelines for prisoners of war laid out in the 1949 Geneva Accords. The accords, which the North Vietnamese had signed in 1957, required that the names of all captured prisoners of war be released, that all prisoners receive adequate medical care and food, that camps be inspected by a neutral third party, and that captives and their families be allowed to exchange mail. The United States accused North Vietnam of flagrantly violating these requirements, but the North Vietnamese countered that because the United States had never formally declared war against North Vietnam, the 1949 Geneva Accords did not apply. In their estimation, the men being held captive were not prisoners of war but were war criminals.
The women who appeared before theHouse committee hoped to remind the public that these captured men, regardless of their official, wartime status, were also husbands, fathers, and sons. What made the North Vietnamese violation of the Geneva Accords so egregious, both the wives and the committee members agreed, was that by failing to release vital information about the condition of the prisoners, the North Vietnamese were drawing innocent women and children into the fold of war. According to the chairman of the House committee, the North Vietnamese were "a bunch of heathens" and were guilty of "toying with these ladies' tender feelings." In a phrase that would be repeated over and over again, these women wanted to learn whether they were "wives or widows," and they needed to be able to tell their children, many of whom had "never seen their fathers," the truth. By depriving them of information, angry committee members charged, the North Vietnamese were engaging in a form of sadistic psychological warfare that blurred the boundaries between public and private, soldier and civilian, war front and home front. For their part, these women, most of them newcomers to political mobilization, recognized that the only weapon at their disposal was public opinion. As one POW wife told the committee, "I am a wife and a mother. I have no accoutrements of modern warfare at my disposal, no rifle, no ammunition. The only weapon which I have is opinion-public opinion here in this country, and throughout the world."
The mounting public anxiety surrounding the status, treatment, and eventual repatriation of American prisoners of war in Southeast Asia brought together a number of international and domestic themes that had come to the fore in American cultural and political life by the early 1970s. The first and most obvious theme was the specter of American military defeat in Vietnam. By the late 1960s, public revelations that American fighting men were being tortured and placed in solitary confinement by their Vietnamese captors emblematized the growing perception that U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia was failing-and failing badly. This is not to say that POWs were identified solely with failure or powerlessness; on the contrary, as this chapter will show, the POW was often portrayed as the lone hero in a war devoid of heroism. But there is no question that as the war dragged on, the American prisoner of war, reportedly tortured at the hands of his Vietnamese aggressor, became a powerful metaphor for the growing intractability and futility of the war itself.
The anxiety over the POWs also reflected the widespread fear that the private realm of the family was being absorbed by the public world of war and politics. This fear had surfaced first in 1968, when the Nixon administration prepared to launch a full-blown campaign to call attention to Hanoi's alleged refusal to comply with the rules for prisoners of war laid out in the 1949 Geneva Conventions. At the heart of the campaign was the specter of an innocent family drawn into a war over which it had no control. Between 1968 and 1973, a range of sentimental images designed to elicit both rage at the North Vietnamese and sympathy for the relatives of POWs bombarded the American public: bewildered children growing up without fathers, frightened wives living in a state of quasi-widowhood, and mothers and fathers desperate for any information about their captured sons. With little information available about the captives, prisoners themselves were conspicuously absent from the campaign. Instead, the campaign focused on the prisoners' families, precipitating a host of questions: When and how could the stories of POWs and their families be "made public"? What was the connection between private suffering and war? What was the relationship between the POW's identity as a husband, brother, father, or son and his status as a fighter pilot?
Understanding the POW campaign in this way adds a new layer to the history of the Vietnam War. Noting the ubiquity of the POW in post-Vietnam literature, film, and television, Elliot Gruner and Susan Jeffords have suggested that the POW embodied the rebirth of heroism out of defeat, a rebirth tied to the project of national remilitarization in the 1980s. What defined the POW, they have argued, was hyper-masculinity: the complete and successful exclusion of any traits traditionally identified with the feminine, including weakness, passivity, vulnerability, or loss. According to Gruner, the POW represents a nation "whose most recent heroes are over muscled male bodies bristling with an array of lethal weaponry." According to Jeffords, POW narratives conform to standard American war narratives. Their defining feature is that they are "a 'man's story' from which women are excluded." The story of the POWs, like that of American war in general, Jeffords concludes, was shaped by what it repressed-the feminine realm.
I take issue with this contention and argue in this chapter that the original campaign to publicize the POW issue proceeded from a radically different logic. Far from stressing masculinity, it consistently identified the captured soldier with those realms traditionally linked to femininity and womanhood: domesticity, sentimentality, the private sphere, and the affective ties of the family. By linking captured men to their families and transforming the POW story into a domestic drama, the campaign simultaneously vilified the North Vietnamese and portrayed America as victim rather than aggressor. In this way, the campaign constructed the private world of the family as a wounded and violable space of national injury, one under threat from a foreign adversary.
But the POW publicity campaign also changed over time in ways that disturbed any simple identification of the family with national victimization. By the early 1970s, journalistic and psychological accounts of the POW family were still preoccupied with the impact of male absenteeism on women and children left behind, but the picture was becoming more complicated. Significantly, what differentiated POWs in Vietnam from their historical antecedents was not the number of men held in captivity (the number of Vietnam War POWs was considerably smaller than the number of men captured during the Korean War and World War II), but rather the duration of captivity. The longest-held POW in North Vietnam was captured in 1964 and was not released until 1973, and many POWs lived in captivity for five years or longer. Thus, as the military prepared for their repatriation in February 1973, the media portrayed these returning men as "Rip Van Winkles" whose homecoming constituted a form of time travel. News accounts were quick to point out that the years that the POWs had spent in captivity were ones of profound social upheaval, and they cited the women's liberation movement and the sexual revolution as the most shocking evidence of just how much had changed in American society. These broader cultural discussions were mirrored by individual portraits of POW families, in which wives frequently described their own transformation from deferential, loyal dependents into assertive, self-sufficient women during their husbands' captivities, and in which children had not only survived but had thrived in the fathers' absences. Coming at the time that the women's liberation movement was gaining public attention, these stories raised the question of whether male authority within the family had been rendered obsolete in ways that made a true homecoming impossible.
This book begins with the POW publicity campaign for several reasons. More than any other single event of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Vietnam War challenged earlier conceptions of American power, morality, and authority. Many who supported the war effort believed that the failure of U.S. military forces to meet their declared objectives in Southeast Asia had its roots in neither political, tactical, nor strategic errors, but rather in a collective collapse of national will, determination, and resolve on the part of the American people. As we will see, all of the debates about national decline that followed in the wake of the war-from the OPEC oil embargo to lagging productivity to détente-were filtered through the lens of national military defeat abroad. I begin with the POW/MIA story because it captured how intimately this sense of national defeat was bound up with anxieties about the state of the American family, and it sets the stage for a number of this book's recurring themes. Perhaps more than any other perceived threat, observers of the family feared an "epidemic of fatherlessness" during these years, and the POW controversy captured that fear in a particularly acute way. POW families seemed to confirm what many feared-that a failure of national leadership had dire implications for leadership within the family, and vice versa. An epidemic of fatherlessness, so pronounced within the black community, was now extending its reach into the sanctified realm of the white, middle-class domestic sphere. This epidemic was further exacerbated by the women's liberation movement, which was characterized throughout the POW controversy as a destructive domestic force with the power to further demoralize an already-demoralized nation. Finally, as the POW controversy gave way to the MIA controversy after 1973-and families shifted their blame from Hanoi to the U.S. government-the story of national military defeat abroad became entangled with a renegotiation of the relationship between the family and the state. Although accusations against the State and Defense Departments ranged from charges of incompetence and bureaucratic bungling to theories of deception and outright conspiracy, MIA activists were in agreement on one critical point: the U.S. government had abandoned its military men in order to bring false closure to a contentious war. The charge of abandonment not only proceeded from the premise that the U.S. government had failed in its execution of the war, but it also constructed the federal government as an impediment to the reunited, intact, male-headed household. The allegation that the U.S. government had abandoned men in Southeast Asia advanced another argument that would reappear in debates about American national decline after Vietnam: the state itself, rather than any foreign adversary, was exacerbating an epidemic of male absenteeism with dire consequences for family and nation alike.
Mothers in a Fatherless World: The Go-Public Campaign, 1966-1972
Although U.S. personnel were captured and taken prisoner of war in Southeast Asia as early as 1961, the dramatic story of POWs and their families did not receive public attention until 1966. Prior to that time, the government pursued what it called a policy of "quiet diplomacy," later dubbed the "keep quiet policy" by one disillusioned POW wife. Premised on the assumption that publicizing information about POWs might jeopardize their safety and derail ongoing negotiations with the North Vietnamese, this policy advised the families of captured and missing men to stay out of the public eye, refrain from contacting the press, and keep their private concerns about their men precisely that-private.
Beginning in 1966, a number of international and domestic forces converged to undermine this policy. As the government began to receive reports of prisoner mistreatment, the Johnson administration became more proactive on the POW issue, establishing a Committee on Prisoner Matters within the State Department in April of 1966. Around the same time, both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency became heavily involved in POW information gathering. Two months later, the matter assumed greater public urgency when the North Vietnamese, in what U.S. intelligence forces interpreted as a misguided attempt to garner international sympathy, released film footage showing manacled American prisoners being marched at gunpoint through the streets of Hanoi, surrounded by hostile crowds. Less than a year later, in April 1967, Life magazine featured a full-page photograph of captured naval officer Richard Stratton at a Hanoi press conference, apparently bowing in submission. It was, according to one sympathetic POW chronicler, an arresting image of "a big, husky pilot" now looking "like an automaton, like someone who had been made into a puppet." A haunting reminder of the speculations about brainwashing and collaboration that had surrounded the experience of Korean War POWs, Stratton's "Pavlovian performance" alarmed his family, government officials, and the American public.
However disturbing these images, the "go-public" campaign did not take off in earnest until late 1968, when the mounting demands of POW families converged with the political interests of Richard Nixon's presidential campaign. By the late 1960s, many relatives of POWs had grown angry and frustrated, not only by the dearth of information coming out of Vietnam, but also by the policy of quiet diplomacy, which they had come to see as an excuse for government inaction. Sybil Stockdale, a mother of four whose husband, naval commander James Stockdale, had been captured in 1965, had met on numerous occasions with officials in the Naval and State Departments and had come to the disheartening conclusion that "official silence and secrecy can cover up incompetence and just plain inertia." On 27 October 1968, she defied the government's policy and went public with her husband's story in the San Diego Union Tribune. Stockdale was not acting alone but was part of an informal network of POW wives, parents, and siblings who were taking matters into their own hands and engaging in grassroots organizing, many for the first time in their lives. They launched letter-writing campaigns to members of Congress and the White House, appealed to the press, attempted to establish direct contact with Hanoi in the hope of gathering information, and sent POW wives to Washington, D.C., and to the Paris peace talks to demand North Vietnamese compliance with the terms of the Geneva Convention. In 1970, this informal network of family lobbyists became the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, still in operation today.
By 1969, the Nixon administration had its own reasons for wanting to publicize the POW issue. With opposition to the war growing, the new president recognized that Hanoi's refusal to disclose information about missing and captive men could prove to be a public relations boon, one that could deflect attention away from disturbing reports coming out of Vietnam-about the My Lai massacre, the indiscriminate killing of Vietnamese civilians, the free-fire zones, napalm, and defoliation. Indeed, it was only within this context of widening scrutiny of American war conduct that the interests of POW families, the Nixon White House, and Congress converged, however provisionally. On 19 May 1969, Defense secretary Melvin Laird ended the policy of quiet diplomacy, publicly charging Hanoi with prisoner mistreatment and demanding that if the Vietnamese did not release the prisoners, they at least had a humanitarian obligation to disclose vital information about their conditions.
Excerpted from No Direction Home by Natasha Zaretsky Copyright © 2007 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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