Walking into Boston’s venerable Fenway Park on a windy Sunday last summer, I chanced to notice the flagpole on the roof behind home plate.
There it was again. Under the Stars and Stripes was the black and white POW-MIA flag, with its silhouette of a prisoner of war, starched in the stiff breeze.
I’m not sure why I noticed that particular flag, since similar banners fly over town halls, businesses, union halls, post offices, the White House and other ballparks across the country.
January 27 will be the 50th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords, which got U.S. forces out of the Vietnam War and brought nearly 600 prisoners home. A way to mark the anniversary would be to consider whether the POW-MIA flag, a confused relic of that ill-considered conflict, belongs on the same staff as the national flag.
If serving in that war gave me a vote, I’d vote no. The flag has too much baggage. A prisoner of war as an official symbol of the Land of the Free? Does that sound right?
The flag connects to a Richard Nixon ploy that kept the war going. When Nixon took office in 1969, support for the war was ebbing quickly. The peace talks were under way and the antiwar movement was growing. Nixon did not want to be the first American president to lose a war.
“Richard Nixon had no intention of ending the Vietnam War without preserving a U.S. client government in Saigon,” wrote retired Rutgers University history professor and cultural historian H. Bruce Franklin, author of “M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America” and lengthy essays (here and here) on the POW-MIA situation.
Nixon needed something to get the country behind the war again. His solution: The prisoners and their families. Who could not empathize?
A couple of years earlier, wives of captured Americans, mostly fliers, had begun networking, to pressure the government for more information, better treatment and ultimately the release of their husbands. The Nixon people embraced the group, helping it become a high-profile national organization, The National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, and providing it with various forms of assistance.
The League introduced the black-and-white POW-MIA symbol and flag, which features a prisoner surrounded by a guard tower and shred of barbed wire above the words You Are Not Forgotten, in early 1972.
The Nixon trick worked, for a time. Along with the flags, the country soon was flooded with millions of POW-MIA bumper stickers, postage stamps and bracelets, the latter from a group called VIVA.
New Yorker Magazine writer Jonathan Schell observed (June 23, 1975 issue) that the prisoners “became the objects of a virtual cult” and that “many people were persuaded that the United States was fighting in Vietnam to get its prisoners back.” With the focus on the prisoners “the wounded, the dying and the dead went virtually unnoticed.”
With the POWs front and center, Nixon could demand their release as a condition of ending the war, though prisoner exchange was traditionally done at the end of hostilities. The North Vietnamese, on their third war in three decades, would not release the men until the U.S. agreed to withdraw its troops. The peace talks deadlocked.
The focus on the torture of American prisoners conveniently drew attention away from the growing revelations of prisoner torture by the U.S. and our South Vietnamese allies.
So consider: Thousands of men were fighting and dying — this includes some of my friends — for several hundred prisoners who would be released anyway when the war ended. It was a hostage situation, wrote Northwestern University history professor Michael J. Allen in “Until the Last Man Comes Home – POWs, MIAs and the Unending Vietnam War.”
Finally, in 1973, Nixon and Henry Kissinger did the deal. The U.S. agreed to pull out its remaining troops, and Hanoi released 591 prisoners. Nixon said that was all of them. It was one of the rare government statements about the Vietnam War that was true.
Nixon had been using the prisoners to buy time, hoping the shaky regime we were propping up in South Vietnam could hold its own. It fell in 1975.
The shooting war was over, but the League was just getting started. Once its nose was under the Washington tent the League became a powerhouse, gaining official status as a liaison on POW-MIA matters and getting access to classified briefings. It got Congress to adopt its flag as a national symbol, first requiring it to be flown over federal installations on certain holidays, then, as recently as 2019, every day.
After 1973, Allen writes, many of the wives of now-released prisoners left the League. Those who remained involved, or joined other POW-MIA groups, were mostly relatives of the missing, and many were hardcore POW-MIA activists.
Group leaders opposed clemency for draft evaders, demanded a full accounting for each missing man and widely promoted the idea that there might still be live U.S. POWs being held in Southeast Asia. Some believed the U.S. government was conspiring to keep this quiet.
“Activists in the League nourished conspiracy theories and revenge fantasies” aimed at “enemies at home and abroad,” Allen wrote.
The “live prisoner” hypothesis became a tragic fiasco.
Groups offered money for information about live POWs, which spawned a “cottage industry” in phony leads, doctored photos and fake dog tags, a Senate panel found in 1973, as well as unauthorized (and unsuccessful) raids into Laos.
Prisoner rescue movies such as the hugely popular “Rambo: First Blood” further promoted the notion that there were live prisoners in Southeast Asia.
It was nuts, all a hoax. There never were any live prisoners after 1973, save one collaborator, as several government investigations found. But the live prisoner notion offered false hope to families and helped keep a crushing economic embargo in place against Vietnam for two decades and denied the country promised humanitarian aid.
I served in the Army in Vietnam in the Nixon era (1969-70) and went back to Vietnam in 1989 as a journalist. The country was struggling with such things as unexploded ordnance and children born with birth defects related to the dioxin we so mindlessly sprayed on their country. They could have used the help. Interestingly, groups of veterans were going back then and helping out, building clinics or bringing maps of land mines. It was something to see.
By then, search teams from the U.S., Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia had begun crisscrossing the region, searching for the mortal remains of U.S. servicemen killed in the war. Normalization of relations and the end of the embargo came a few years later, under President Bill Clinton.
The League, remarkably, is still in existence, though much diminished from its heyday in the early 1970s. Its most recent IRS Form 990, which nonprofit organizations are required to file, is from 2019, and indicates total revenues of $264,183, up from $177,110 in 2018.
Ann Mills-Griffiths, sister of a downed flier, has headed the organization since 1978 and has became a skilled, controversial and feared Washington operator. Now 81, she still serves as the organization’s chairman. According to the Form 990 she is the organization’s only paid employee, at about $40,000 a year.
She and the League can take credit for pushing the government, as well as governments in Southeast Asia, to do a better job of finding and repatriating the remains of U.S. servicemen. More than 1,000 sets of remains have been identified and brought home for military burial — impressive considering the U.S. did not control the battlefield at the end of the war.
Today, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, there are 1,581 men still unaccounted for in the region, 1,241 of them from Vietnam. About a third of are considered “nonrecoverable,” such as pilots who crashed in the ocean or men so badly blown up there are no remains.
This is a vastly smaller number than those unaccounted for from the Korean War (7,518) or World War II (72,262). It is the result of the most extensive and expensive recovery effort — the government spends more than $150 million a year, according to the DPAA, though nearly all of the remains they’re bringing these days are from World War II and Korea.
Mills-Griffiths insisted in a telephone interview that there is evidence the Vietnamese are still holding some remains. She cited the 1979 testimony of a Vietnamese mortician who said he processed 200-300 American remains for storage in a former prison camp in downtown Hanoi from 1969-1977, and that he had seen 400 boxes of remains in the same facility.
Allen took issue with this in his book. He said if Hanoi held any remains it is “doubtful that they numbered anywhere near 400, and impossible to verify in any event, which became clear as analysts (and journalists) failed to confirm his (the mortician’s ) testimony.”
While the Vietnamese used prisoners and remains during and after the war for diplomatic gain, it is hard to see what advantage they would gain today from remains they say they don’t have. The Vietnamese have opened the military archives on prisoners, allowed inspections of prison sites and are aiding in the search for those still unaccounted for.
The League still promotes the idea that there could be living Americans held in Southeast Asia. It seems extremely unlikely. Tourists, business people and, as of October, Peace Corps volunteers, are traveling the country, and no one that I am aware of has seen any American prisoners.
Vietnam has become a major U.S. trading partner. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, trade between the two countries rose from $2.9 billion in 2002 to more than $110 billion in 2021. Vietnam its now the sixth largest source of U.S. imports and 28th largest destination for U.S. exports. As far as I know they are not manufacturing POW-MIA flags, though some are made in China.
I suspect most Americans barely notice the black flag, or if they do, consider it a kind of “Support Our Troops” gesture.
But to me, the black flag represents years of war and suffering that didn’t have to happen.
Congressional action notwithstanding, it is the flag of a special interest group. It greatly honors one cohort of veterans, the missing or imprisoned, and that’s appropriate. But what about the known dead, more than 58,000 in the Vietnam War, or the men who fought so bravely at Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill or the Ia Drang Valley, or the veterans in shelters or under bridges, struggling with the demons of war.
And yet, many veterans and veterans organizations, including Vietnam Veterans of America, endorse and support the POW-MIA flag. Which makes me wonder if I am missing something.
Do Vietnam vets connect with the flag because it reflects the disconsolation of being sent to a crummy war and then treated shabbily for going? Or something else?
When teaching in Japan some years ago, Bruce Franklin was approached by Japanese scholars puzzled that a prisoner of war would be an icon of militarism.
Franklin said he then realized that the flag’s symbol represented a “myth of imprisonment, a myth that draws deep emotional power by displacing onto Vietnam the imprisonment, helplessness, and alienation felt by many Americans in an epoch when alien economic, technological, and bureaucratic forces control much of their lives.”
I reached Franklin, once an Air Force intelligence officer, and asked him about the POW-MIA flag. He said: ”It gets more bizarre every year.”
I see no need for it. Old Glory gallantly streamed over Fort McHenry, was raised by fighting Marines on Mount Sirabachi and was planted on the surface of the moon. It should stand alone.