The Story Behind the POW/MIA Flag

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The POW/MIA flag waves near the Lincoln Memorial before Memorial Day in Washington May 23, 2013. The flag was designed during the Vietnam War as a symbol of national concern about U.S. military personnel taken as prisoners of war or listed as missing in action. Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Rick Perlstein is the national correspondent of  The Washington Spectator, on whose site this article first appeared. This piece was updated by the Spectator on August 13 to remove the word "racist" from the headline, and has been similarly adjusted here. An apology from the author and a response from Spectator editor Lou Dubose were also appended to the original article and have been replicated here at the bottom of the piece. 

You know that racist flag? The one that supposedly honors history but actually spreads a pernicious myth? And is useful only to venal right-wing politicians who wish to exploit hatred by calling it heritage? It’s past time to pull it down.

[Related: The Real Meaning of the POW/MIA Flag]

Oh, wait. You thought I was referring to the Confederate flag. Actually, I’m talking about the POW/MIA flag.

I told the story in the first chapter of my 2014 book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan: how Richard Nixon invented the cult of the “POW/MIA” in order to justify the carnage in Vietnam in a way that rendered the United States as its sole victim.

It began, as cultural historian H. Bruce Franklin has documented, with an opportunistic shift in terminology. Downed pilots whose bodies were not recovered—which, in the dense jungle of a place like Vietnam meant most pilots—had once been classified “Killed in Action/Body Unrecovered.”

[Related: The POW/MIA Flag Isn't 'Racist Hate,' It's Support for Veterans and Their Families]

During the Nixon years, the Pentagon moved them into a newly invented “Missing in Action” column. That proved convenient, for, after years of playing down the existence of American prisoners in Vietnam, in 1969, the new president suddenly decided to play them up.

He declared their treatment, and the enemy’s refusal to provide a list of their names, violations of the Geneva Conventions—the better to paint the North Vietnamese as uniquely cruel and inhumane. He also demanded the release of American prisoners as a precondition to ending the war.

This was bullshit four times over: first, because in every other conflict in human history, the release of prisoners had been something settled at the close of a war; second, because these prisoners only existed because of America’s antecedent violations of the Geneva Conventions in bombing civilians in an undeclared war; third, because, as bad as their torture of prisoners was, rather than representing some species of Oriental despotism, the Vietnam Communists were only borrowing techniques practiced on them by their French colonists (and incidentally paid forward by us in places like Abu Ghraib): see this as-told-to memoir by POW and future senator Jeremiah Denton. And finally, our South Vietnamese allies’ treatment of their prisoners, who lived manacled to the floors in crippling underground bamboo “tiger cages” in prison camps built by us, was far worse than the torture our personnel suffered.

(Time magazine quoted one South Vietnamese official who was confronted with stories of released prisoners moving “like crabs, skittering across the floor on buttocks and palms,” and responded with incredulity that such survivors even existed: “No one ever comes from the tiger cages alive.”)

Be that as it may: It worked. American citizens enacted a bizarre psychic reversal. A man from Virginia Beach, Virginia, described to a reporter the supposed treatment of American prisoners in North Vietnam: “They just dig holes in the ground and drop them in. They throw food down to them, and let them live there in their own waste.” In fact, that was how prisoners were treated in South Vietnam—as recently revealed in a shocking Life magazine exposé.

Children began wearing “POW bracelets,” drivers sported “POWs NEVER HAVE A NICE DAY” bumper stickers. As the late Jonathan Schell of The New Yorker memorably wrote during the war, the Americans were acting “as though the North Vietnamese had kidnapped 400 Americans and the United States had gone to war to retrieve them.”

Actually, it was worse: Whenever Nixon or one of his minions talked about the problem, they tended to use the number 1,400. The number of actual prisoners, was about 550. The number of downed, missing pilots were spoken of, prima facia, as if they were missing, too, although almost all of them were certainly dead.

And in 1971 that damned flag went up.

The flag was the creation of the National League of Families of Prisoners of War, later the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, a fascinating part of the story in itself.

The organization was founded by POW wife Sybil Stockdale, during the Johnson administration, in an effort to embarrass LBJ and challenge his line that all in Vietnam was going swell. Johnson tried to silence them; Nixon’s people, however, spying opportunity, coopted the group, sometimes inventing chapters outright, to fan the propaganda flames.

Then the war ended, the POWs (yes, all the POWs) were repatriated to great fanfare, one of them declaring: “I want you to remember that we walked out of Hanoi as winners”—a declaration that seemed to suggest, almost, that by surviving, the POWs had won the Vietnam War.

The moral confusion was abetted by the flag: the barbed-wire misery of that stark white figure, emblazoned in black.

It memorializes Americans as the preeminent victims of the Vietnam War, a notion seared into the nation’s visual unconscious by the Oscar-nominated 1978 film The Deer Hunter, which depicts acts of sadism, which were documented to have been carried out by our South Vietnamese allies, as acts committed by our North Vietnamese enemies, including the famous scene pictured on The Deer Hunter poster: a pistol pointed at the American prisoner’s head at exactly the same angle of the gun in the famous photograph of the summary execution in the middle of the street of an alleged Communist spy by a South Vietnamese official.

By then, the league and its flag had become the Pentagon’s own Frankenstein’s monster. You can read about the mess that resulted in the definitive book on the subject: Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and the Unending Vietnam War by Northwestern University’s Michael J. Allen.

Allen describes how Vietnam’s “refusal” to “account for” a thousand phantoms became an impediment to reconciliation and diplomatic recognition between the two nations. (How bizarre, how insulting, how counterproductive this must have been to a nation that must have suffered missing corpses in the thousands upon thousands?)

A delegation led by Congressman Gillespie “Sonny” Montgomery (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Missing in Action in Southeast Asia, traveled to Vietnam in 1975, convinced of the Nixon administration’s deception that hundreds of “MIAs actually” existed. The members of Congress returned home, having found their Communist hosts warm and accommodating, doubting there were any missing at all. In hearings, a CIA pilot captured there in 1965 testified: “If you take a wallet-full of money over there, you can buy all the information you want on POWs on the streets.”

The House committee also produced evidence that China had manufactured stories of MIA in Vietnamese prison camps in order to keep the U.S. from normalizing relations with China’s Asian rival. No matter that the flag’s promoters were abetting an actual, real-live Communist conspiracy, from its original sightings above VFW and American Legion posts, the “You Are Not Forgotten” flag became as common as kudzu.

Midwifing an entire metastasizing Pentagon bureaucracy, the League of Families would also become an irritant to every future president. By 1993, 17 Americans were stationed in Hanoi in charge of searching for the missing and working to repatriate remains. They were provided a budget of $100 million a year, “over 30 times the value of U.S. humanitarian aid paid to Vietnam,” Allen writes.

It would have been evidence of Ronald Reagan’s old saw that the closest thing to eternal life is a government program—if Reagan were not a prime culprit: In 1988, he became the first president to fly the flag over the White House. The next year, Congress installed the flag in the Capitol rotunda.

In 1990, it was designated “a symbol of our nation’s concern and commitment to restoring and resolving as fully as possible the fates of Americans still prisoner, missing and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia.” Thus ending the uncertainty for their families and the nation. 

The League of Families also still exists, and “continues to work at keeping the pressure on both Washington and Hanoi to bring complete resolution to this issue on behalf of each family with a loved one still missing in Vietnam.” My own state of Illinois holds a ceremony every year to honor the “66 Illinoisans listed as MIA or POW in Southeast Asia.”

And Bernie Sanders posted an image of the POW/MIA flag on Facebook in response to Donald Trump’s insult against John McCain. The message read: “They are all heroes.”

Actually, as I document in The Invisible Bridge, it’s more complicated than that: many of the prisoners were anti-war activists. One member of the “Peace Committee” within the POW camps, Abel Larry Kavanaugh, was harassed into suicide after his return to the U.S. by the likes of Admiral James Stockdale, who tried to get Peace Committee members hanged for treason.

Stockdale would become one of the nation’s most celebrated former POWs and a vice-presidential candidate. Kavanaugh took his life in his father in law’s basement in Commerce City, Colorado, in June 1973. Americans would agree that one of them—Stockdale or Kavanaugh—is not a hero—though they would disagree about which one is which.

That damned flag: It’s a shroud. It smothers the complexity, the reality, of what really happened in Vietnam.

We’ve come to our senses about that other banner of lies. It’s time to do the same with this.

A Writer’s Apology

I sincerely regret the use of the word “racist” to describe how the POW/MIA flag distorts the history of the Vietnam War. The word was over the top and not called for.

I’m deeply sorry it hurt people—especially people who’ve selflessly served their country. Most of all, I’m sorry because many of the people offended by the word “racist” are the same people who were hurt when the experiences and feelings of common soldiers and veterans were manipulated to serve the powerful interests and individuals who blithely and perennially send men and women to war, then don’t take care of them when they return home. And, of course, I regret the pain caused to the families of those who gave the last full measure of devotion to their country in Southeast Asia.

I would ask the people I angered to consider carefully reading the article, which explains, for example, that the Chinese Communists cynically leaked lies about the existence of live POWs in the years after the war in order to harm their rival Vietnam.

Most of all, I wish to express my regrets. Other than that, I stand by my article. —Rick Perlstein

The Editor’s Response

We published Rick Perlstein’s article on the POW/MIA flag, because it insightfully examines the cynical manipulation of public opinion at the expense of the downed pilots and foot soldiers the creators of the MIA movement claimed to represent. Perlstein is an accomplished historian who has spent years researching the Nixon and Reagan years. He knows this material. Our prolonged national discussion of the tragic Southeast Asian war that extended beyond Vietnam is often framed in what can be reasonably described as racist terms. The defenders of an Asian country that was invaded, bombed, defoliated and savaged (see: Kill Anything that Moves by Nick Turse) are vilified, while the invaders are beatified. Neither position is correct or fair. It was a persistent yet perhaps understandable disregard for the “other” victims of a war, beyond our own nation’s tragic losses, that informed the piece.

Nowhere is it suggested, nor do we imply, that individuals who remain devoted to the POW/MIA flag are racist. And it was neither Mr. Perlstein’s intent, nor ours, to dishonor those who served in Vietnam, although based on comments of readers, many were offended. A more careful editor would have moved the term “racist” lower in the body of the story and kept it out of the headline, where it was an unintended red flag that provoked the understandable ire of many readers. —Lou Dubose

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