Copyright © 2013 by H. Bruce Franklin . All rights reserved.
Missing in Action in the 21st Century
by H. Bruce Franklin
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 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.
colorless banner implies that the Vietnam War may never end. It demonstrates to the world both the
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
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
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?"
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
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
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
Then there is the question of motive. Why in the world would
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
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.
comprehend the POW/MIA myth, we need to trace its history. For the first fifteen years of
Nixon had no intention of ending the Vietnam War without preserving a
however, had several formidable problems.
Negotiations had already opened in
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.
issue created, for the first time, sizable emotional support for the war. It deadlocked 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
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
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
were soon to witness even worse pictures and accounts of
first goal was to deadlock the
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
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.
November 6, Congress unanimously passed and President Nixon signed a bill
declaring November 9 a National Day of Prayer for
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
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.
day after the rally, Stockdale presided in
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
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.
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).
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
meanwhile the Tet Offensive, as well as ensuing offensives mounted by the
insurgents throughout 1968 and 1969, had made talk of
few months later, members of VIVA and Robert Dornan, later a Republican
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).
American combat in
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
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
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
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."
Nixon administration's four-year campaign to secure the release of American
prisoners of war separate from
21 of the Peace Agreement guaranteed that "the
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,
no intention of honoring the
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
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
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,
character central to the POW/MIA story as mythologized in the 1980s was retired
Special Forces Colonel "Bo" Gritz, who organized raids into
other men of action were at least available to help: Captain Kirk of the
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.
was one man in
AND I MET WITH PRESIDENT ON 27TH.
PRESIDENT SAID: QUOTE, IF YOU BRING OUT ONE
raids, however, did not turn out like a
had been preparing for this since early 1981, when his Administration had sent
Congressmen Billy Hendon and John LeBoutillier to
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.'"
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
reestablishes patriarchal order by recruiting a team composed of
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."
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
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!"
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
the beginning of the movie, Rambo himself is a prisoner in
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
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.
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
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
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).
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
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
monster became a more serious problem as corporations from Europe and Asia
began to stake out major investments in
April 9, 1991‑-one month after declaring "By God, we've kicked the
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
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.
on July 17 began one of the most spectacular media coups in
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
himself as the lone outsider from
the closing days of the presidential campaign, George Bush claimed he was on
the verge of ending hostilities by forcing
President was responding to two events.
instead of following his own Road Map, Bush merely allowed
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
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."
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
years later, the U.S. Embassy sponsored a breakthrough conference in
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
2000, Senator John McCain, running as
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
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
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.
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
The short answer is that those flags seem to
symbolize our culture’s dominant view of
See Edwin Martini, Invisible Enemies: The American War on
 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
Memorandum from Peter Flanigan, June 30, 1969, Nixon Presidential Materials
Project, National Archives and Records Administration, White House Special
 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
 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
 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
 "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,
 "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
 "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
 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
 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,
 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
 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
Public Papers of the Presidents of the
 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
Richard Nixon, "Remarks at a Reception for Returned Prisoners of War, May
24, 1973," Public Papers of the Presidents of the
 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
 "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,
 "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,"
 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
 Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, 155.
 Ibid., 305-310, 334-335.
 Ibid., 221, 276-280.
Richard Freedman, Star-Ledger (
 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
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
For a more thorough explication of Rambo, see M.I.A. Or Mythmaking in
"Reagan Cites `Rambo' as Next-Time Example," Star-Ledger (
 "`Machismo' on Capitol Hill," New York Times, July 14, 1985.
"Iraq Spurns `U.S.-imposed' Council Solution; Saddam Vows Fight for
 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.
 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; "
 "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
"Corporations Ask Bush to Lift
“Nixon Opposing U.S.-Vietnam Normalization Policy: He Could Influence Any Move
by Bush Administration to End Trade Embargo,"
"President Clinton, Normalize Ties With
 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.
Ted Sampley, “John McCain: The Manchurian Candidate,”
For an exploration of the Swift Vets campaign and its media links, see my
 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.
 Democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=103x385452; dailykos.com/story/2008/9/28/24017/1623/180/613073; huffingtonpost.com/peter-dreier/mccain-no-friend-to-vets_b_129847.html; alternet.org/election08/99721?page=entire; democracynow.org/2008/10/23/report_mccain_suppressed_info_on_fellow.