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"Fewer Americans were captured or missing during the Vietnam War than in any previous major military conflict in U.S. history. Yet despite their small numbers, American POWs inspired an outpouring of concern that slowly eroded support for the war. Michael J. Allen reveals how wartime loss transformed U.S. politics well before, and long after, the war's official end." Throughout the war's last years and in the decades since, Allen argues, the effort to recover lost warriors was as much a means to establish responsibility for their loss as it was a search for answers about their fate. Though millions of Americans and Vietnamese took part in that effort, POW and MIA families and activists dominated it. Insisting that the war was not over "until the last man comes home," this small, determined group turned the unprecedented accounting effort against those they blamed for their suffering. Allen demonstrates that POW/MIA activism prolonged the hostility between the United States and Vietnam even as the search for the missing became the basis for closer ties between the two countries in the 1990s. Equally important, he explains, POW/MIA families' disdain for the antiwar left and contempt for federal authority fueled the conservative ascendancy after 1968. Mixing political, cultural, and diplomatic history, Until the Last Man Comes Home presents the full and lasting impact of the Vietnam War in ways that are both familiar and surprising.
"Michael Allen's rich and beautifully written book becomes the new starting point for understanding Vietnam era POW/MIA politics and their centrality to American history over the last four decades. It is a splendid achievement and will serve as a model for the study of the cultural politics of war and memory in the twentieth century."—Mark Bradley, The University of Chicago
"Michael Allen offers a compelling and nuanced analysis of a difficult topic, combining archival rigor with a true sensitivity to the tangled emotions of Americans in the years following the nation's loss in Vietnam."—Beth Bailey, author of America's Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force
"Allen's first-rate analysis deals with an extremely important and much misunderstood and oversimplified subject, and it does so with authority, originality, subtlety, and nuance. It will become required reading for all students of the Vietnam War, changing the way in which the POW and MIA controversies are understood and interpreted."—Robert McMahon, Ohio State University
On 22 September 1992, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger appeared before the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs to rebut charges that he and President Richard Nixon had abandoned American captives at the end of the Vietnam War. "That allegation is a flat-out lie," Kissinger objected. "What has happened to this country that a congressional committee could be asked to inquire whether any American official of whatever administration would fail to move heaven and earth to fight for the release of American POWs and for an accounting of the missing? Can anyone seriously believe that any honorable public official would neglect America's servicemen, and especially those who had suffered so much for their country, or, even worse, arrange for a conspiracy to obscure the fate of the prisoners left behind?"
These questions warrant more sober consideration than scholars have yet shown them. For despite Kissinger's attempt to dismiss such ideas as absurd, this book will show that belief in POW/MIA abandonment was so serious and widespread as to alter U.S. politics and foreign policy over four decades. Kissinger was, after all, appearing before some of the Senate's leading policymakers and savviest politicians to dispute claims that Americans were left behind in Vietnam. And the ferocity of his response, as he accused committee chairman John Kerry of "unforgivable libel" and charged Kerry and other antiwar activists with having tied his hands as he negotiated the release of American captives, showed how seriously Kissinger took such claims, as did Kerry's curt reply. "Look, I didn't ask for this job. I'm here because twenty years later this question confounds America."
Had he wished, Kerry could have cited polling data to substantiate his claim. A 1991 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that 69 percent of Americans believed that their countrymen were being held against their will in Indochina, and over half believed that their government was doing too little to rescue them. He could have pointed to President George Bush's July 1992 address to the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, which disintegrated into a shouting match after audience members interrupted his remarks with chants of "No more lies! Tell the truth!" He could have discussed dozens of congressional hearings on POWs and MIAs dating to 1969, or efforts of the House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia in 1975–76 and the 1977 Presidential Commission on Americans Missing and Unaccounted for in Southeast Asia (widely known as the Woodcock Commision), all of which failed to resolve questions about the fate of the missing. He could have brought up the diplomatic and economic embargo that Kissinger imposed on Vietnam in 1975 for its alleged failure to account for missing Americans, policies still in place when Kissinger came before the Select Committee seventeen years later, ostensibly for the same reason.
He could have mentioned all this and more, but there was no need. Despite Kissinger's rhetorical naiveté, he knew as well as anyone how politically charged the issue was from his long and bitter history with the POW/MIA lobby. Still, there were legitimate reasons for Kissinger's bewilderment. The degree of concern expressed over imprisoned and missing Americans during and after the Vietnam War was unprecedented, despite the fact that their numbers were modest by historical standards. The 2,500 Americans who failed to return from the war, less than 5 percent of all Americans killed in the conflict, paled in comparison to the 170,000 Union troops, nearly half of all Union dead, left unrecovered or unidentified in the Civil War. One-fifth of all Americans killed in World War II—over 78,000—were never found and 8,500 more were never identified. More than 8,000 Americans are still missing from the Korean War, nearly a quarter of American losses. Even relatively brief American military engagements in the Mexican War and the First World War left greater numbers missing than America's longest war, particularly when measured against smaller populations.
And while each of these wars was followed by attempts to find, identify, and bury the dead, nothing so extensive as the post-Vietnam accounting effort had ever been attempted in the history of warfare. When Kissinger came before the Kerry committee, that effort was entering its third decade, involved hundreds of Department of Defense personnel, and consumed over 100 million annually. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush had declared "the fullest possible accounting" for missing Americans to be "the highest national priority," a commitment Bill Clinton reiterated when he became president, and the fate of these men had defined U.S.-Vietnam relations since the war's end. "There is no military mission more relentless than the United States' hunt for its missing soldiers in Indochina," observed the New York Times in a 2002 article that described one site in Laos excavated repeatedly over many years and at great expense in order to recover a single tooth denture. Today that hunt continues, though in recent years it has come to include missing casualties from earlier conflicts, as the search for the Vietnam missing has renewed interest in their long-neglected forebears.
If fewer Americans were missing after the Vietnam War than after earlier wars, and the U.S. government went to greater lengths than ever to recover them, how was it that Kissinger and dozens of other senior government officials were being called before Congress to answer charges that they had abandoned American servicemen in Southeast Asia? What caused so many Americans to suspect that their leaders had betrayed these men and to allege an ongoing conspiracy to conceal that fact? Where did these ideas come from, why did they persist, and how did they shape U.S. politics and policy after the Vietnam War?
"Because in Vietnam we lost!" answered MIA activist Donna Long. Her response is the starting point for addressing these questions. As this book will show, the ordeal of captivity during the war and the inability to recover missing Americans at its end became the dominant means through which millions of Americans addressed their nation's defeat in Vietnam. Because most captive and missing Americans were well-educated, white, middle-class airmen that civilians came to know more intimately than other populations fighting in Vietnam, their loss came particularly hard to Americans, many of whom lacked more direct connections to the war. And because the circumstances of their loss—most were shot down or crashed over enemy territory, often in forbidding environments at high rates of speed—made their survival uncertain and their recovery difficult, efforts to retrieve these men often proved futile. After the release of 591 American prisoners following the Paris Agreement in 1973, only one American—Robert Garwood—returned from Vietnam alive, and his 1979 homecoming was decidedly dispiriting, occurring independently of U.S. accounting efforts and resulting in his court-martial conviction for collaborating with the enemy and striking a fellow POW. Despite the unrelenting search, just over 900 Americans have been accounted for through the recovery and identification of remains, roughly one-third of the total missing at war's end.
For many Americans, the inability to recover these men was proof not of their demise but of their betrayal. This conviction had less to do with the facts of their disappearance than with wartime activism that made them and their families the foremost victims or beneficiaries of the nation's military commitment in Vietnam. From its start, opponents of the war publicized their plight to encourage an end to that commitment while its promoters insisted that any lessening of resolve would abandon them to the enemy. As chapter 1 shows, these arguments and those who made them played an important, if complicated, part in the erosion of public support for the war, and in the pace and timing of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. But once withdrawal was completed and the last American captives were returned, the idea that those still missing were forsaken persisted as a way to establish the war's costs and assign responsibility for its failures. Talk about lost warriors became a way to talk about a lost war, and the effort to account for them was as much a means to establish accountability for their loss as it was a search for their remains. "We family members are not here beating on your doors because we believe our loved ones are alive," the chairman of the Minnesota League of POW/MIA Families testified before the Senate Select Committee; "we are here because we know the government is lying about them." "You are going to have to account for those men," otherwise "we will always pursue you."
As his admonition suggests, it was the families of the missing, particularly those active in the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, who were responsible for the stubborn persistence of the postwar accounting effort. By insisting on a full accounting and refusing to accept anything short of this elastic standard, they exerted intense pressure on U.S. government officials and their Vietnamese counterparts to continue the search indefinitely. Never numbering more than a few thousand members, the League was among the most formidable interest groups in wartime and postwar Washington. Its influence, like that of the POW/MIA population, was a function of symbolism, not size. The League's exclusivity gave it a cultural coherence that a larger group would have lacked, enhancing its appeal to millions of Americans who sympathized with its wounded nationalism and middle-class respectability. As a group dominated by the wives, mothers, siblings, and children of missing men, with its top leadership posts typically occupied by women, the League's power was rooted in gender conventions and popular concerns about the family. By presenting the nation's failure in Vietnam as a private trauma, League families illustrated the costs of defeat in terms that were easily grasped and difficult to refute, giving them unrivaled authority in debates about the war.
Initially, MIA families and their supporters directed their demands and their ire at the Vietnamese. As we will see, Vietnamese communists used American POWs to great effect in their wartime diplomacy. In accusing the enemy of torturing American prisoners during the war and withholding them afterward, League members voiced their sense of injury at the other side's triumph and tried to reverse communist successes through economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. Unable to disprove League accusations, the Vietnamese were denied billions of dollars in promised reconstruction aid. But as in the war's combat phase, the Vietnamese were more than passive victims, insisting on economic assistance in return for their cooperation in returning American remains. Vietnam never gained the billions Nixon pledged in the Paris agreement, but by the late 1980s its leaders had persuaded U.S. officials to pay steep fees in order to search for remains, including humanitarian aid for victims of the American war. Only after this recognition of each side's war wounds did the former adversaries move toward normalized relations.
For most MIA activists, though, punishing Vietnam was less important than punishing those Americans they blamed for their loss. With mounting ferocity as the war receded in time, the MIA lobby reserved its full fury for domestic opponents. Kissinger and Kerry were near the top of its enemies list, with Kissinger representing the political elites who sent Americans to war only to abandon them, and Kerry representing the antiwar activists alleged to have stabbed them in the back. But they were only symbols of larger populations deemed insufficiently supportive of U.S. forces in Vietnam, and anyone could join their ranks by breaking with League positions. One irony of the POW/MIA issue is that while public officials often seized on it as a means to shape public attitudes toward the war, in so doing they empowered a movement that invariably turned against them. For if the League would not have attained such influence without official support, by war's end its members were profoundly hostile toward the national state and those who served it. Turning the official accounting effort to their own ends, they insisted that the war was not over "until the last man comes home."
Since most missing Americans would never be found, this was less a formula for ultimate victory than a prescription for persistent ideological warfare about the past. Rather than a road to redemption, the accounting effort served as an ever-present reminder of loss, a ritual that focused attention on a small and unrepresentative band of missing Americans and made them into victims rather than perpetrators of the war in Vietnam. Through the search for the missing, families and activists elevated exceptional American casualties over wholesale Vietnamese suffering, and implicated Vietnamese communists, antiwar activists, and U.S. officials in their disappearance. Its utility in asserting their grievances made activists ambivalent about its progress yet reluctant to see it end. U.S. search teams "go to the field and run around," League executive director Ann Mills Griffiths charged in 1993, and return with "a lot of ash and trash." "The bone fragments are crap," the stepmother of one missing man declared. "He could live without these bones." Such views were not universal among MIA families, most of whom welcomed information that resolved the fate of their loved ones, but they were characteristic of those who insisted that the accounting effort continue even as they challenged its legitimacy and turned its limits into a new source of injury.
As the effort to retrieve POWs and MIAs taught some Americans to see themselves as victims of the Vietnam War, it turned other Americans into the guilty parties who victimized them. For it was not the perils of war that threatened captive and missing Americans, according to their advocates, or even a racial and ideological enemy thought to be especially cruel. Such risks were inherent to the nation's Cold War mission and were bearable with proper leadership and resolve. The real threat that endangered the white middle-class volunteers who made up the POW/MIA population came from a feckless government and a faithless citizenry, or so their surrogates claimed. And it was through efforts to liberate these men and to recover their missing comrades that the treachery of their domestic enemies would be revealed and punished. These ideas were not at all obvious, nor easily substantiated by the historical record, and they did not go unchallenged. But through years of repetition and elaboration by League families, backed by a chorus of public officials, media propagandists, and returned POWs, such claims achieved currency in American politics. What proof was required came from the accounting effort. Always ongoing but forever unable to resurrect the proverbial last man, the search for the missing offered inexhaustible evidence of the nation's betrayal of its martyred warriors.
The guilty parties were seldom named with precision. The accounting effort endured because it lent itself to all sorts of Americans aggrieved by the war, including politicians from both parties who sought to capitalize on widespread unhappiness with the war by associating themselves with the POW/MIA cause. Among the surprises of this study is the degree to which opponents of the war engaged in POW/MIA activism, and the extent to which that activism was a vehicle for dissent against the war among populations presumed to support it. Still, POW/MIA politics privileged some Americans over others, granting the families of missing Americans a platform to condemn those they blamed for their loss. If they rarely named names, their contempt for antiwar activists, for government bureaucrats, and for the Vietnamese was unmistakable. And in more subtle ways, the League's insistence on drawing distinctions between those who served and those who did not, and its dramatization of the deadly stakes of that decision, reinforced the notion that white warriors were more deserving than other citizens at the very moment those ideas were being challenged by various reform movements. To those who claimed that martial values, racial arrogance, or patriotic orthodoxy had led the nation astray in Vietnam, POW and MIA families argued the opposite: that decadent and disloyal domestic elements were responsible for the debacle in Vietnam, and accountable for the men lost there.
Excerpted from Until The Last Man Comes Home by Michael J. Allen Copyright © 2009 by THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted November 23, 2009
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