Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and the Politics of Loss at the End of the Vietnam War

by Michael J. Allen, University of North Carolina Press, 2009

Michael Allen is a historian at Northwestern University. Until The Last Man Comes Home is his first book, and is based on his doctoral thesis. It is not a description of POW capture and captivity. Instead, it is a thoroughly researched and compelling account of the impact American POWs and MIAs have had on American politics, with an emphasis on the role of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia (the League). Allen provides a history of commemoration of U.S. war dead that shows Vietnam was an aberration, that the recovery of war dead is not a timeless American tradition. The idea of burying dead soldiers at public expense only dates to the Battle of Gettysburg.

There were fewer American POWs and MIAs in Vietnam than in previous American wars. Nevertheless, the level of public concern for them was unprecedented. Efforts to find and bring home American dead in Vietnam were the most extensive in the history of warfare. Although the United States spent as much as $100 million annually on POW/MIA recovery, almost two decades after the war the majority of Americans believed U.S. soldiers were still being held prisoner in Southeast Asia and the government was not doing enough to rescue them. POWs and MIAs dominated much of the public discussion of the war after 1968. Richard Nixon’s administration made it a reason for continuing the war: We were fighting in order to get our prisoners back. Before 1969, the Communists regularly released POWs, often to American antiwar activists. Their purpose was propaganda— to show Americans the cost of involvement (pilots captured) and the benefits of withdrawal (return of POWs). The League, composed mostly of the wives of captured pilots, was founded in 1970 to counter Hanoi’s propaganda campaign. They supported Nixon, and encouraged him to make the POW/MIA issue a national priority. Nixon joined forces with the League in order to seize the issue from activists who opposed the war. Nixon hoped generating support for the POWs would translate into support for the war.

The League insisted Hanoi account for all 1,400 missing Americans. Given the circumstances under which they went missing (more than 400 were lost over water), this was impossible. In March 1973, 591 prisoners were released by Hanoi. League members claimed the 1,400 MIAs had been “abandoned” by the U.S. government in order to secure “peace with honor.” This insistence on a full accounting long blocked attempts at national reconciliation and the establishment of peaceful relations with Vietnam. The 1973 Vietnam peace agreement obligated both parties to help each other recover missing personnel. The United States publicly claimed North Vietnam’s lack of cooperation suggested prisoners were still being held, giving false hope to MIA families. Privately, the U.S. government felt Hanoi had returned them all. The returnees themselves felt no POWs remained in captivity. By insisting on a full accounting, MIA activists ensured government attempts to put the war behind us would be premature.

Historically, the passage of seven years without proof of life has been grounds for the legal presumption of death. The League resisted government attempts to reclassify MIAs as KIA. However, over time the League became smaller, more reactionary, and more militant. After 1973 POW wives left the organization and increasingly the League was composed of activists with no legal relationship to MIAs. When President Gerald Ford proposed amnesty for draft evaders as an act of reconciliation, the League opposed it.

There were 712 American POW/MIAs when Jimmy Carter became president in 1977. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan revived the POW/MIA issue and embraced the League when he announced that as many as 2,500 individuals were missing in action. Refugees from Southeast Asia told League leaders that Americans were being held in captivity in Southeast Asia. The League paid for such reports and got what it paid for—there were more than 400 “live sightings” in 1979 alone. The Iran hostage crisis also kept the MIA issue alive. The League had greater political influence under Reagan than at any time in its history. Under the leadership of Ann Mills Griffiths, it became the most important force in shaping U.S. policy toward Vietnam.

With the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the search for MIAs ceased being a cause of diplomatic friction between the United States and Vietnam. The U.S. paid large fees to the Vietnamese for their MIA recovery assistance, and recovery rates increased. In 1995, the United States normalized relations with Vietnam, a move the League opposed.

Digging for the remains of missing Americans continues. The League is still around, selling POW/MIA flags and asking Americans to write their Congressmen to get an “accounting for America’s missing” Vietnam War soldiers. Michael Allen has written an interesting and provocative account of how the POW/MIA issue kept a firm grip on American politics long after the shooting ended and our prisoners came home.

 

Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.