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Have You Forgotten Him?

How the POW/MIA flag took over America

The Biden administration promised a return to normalcy, but one of its most telling acts of restoration passed with barely any comment. Early last year, the administration hoisted the POW/MIA flag above the White House, where it had flown for decades until Donald Trump abruptly relocated it to the South Lawn in 2020. In an era when even the most minor symbolic sparks can ignite endless outrage, few Americans noticed Biden’s gesture—and why should they? Reverence for the POW/MIA flag is a truly bipartisan position. Left, right, and center united when Senators Elizabeth Warren, Tom Cotton, and Maggie Hassan penned a letter asking Biden to “restore the flag to its place of honor” just days after his inauguration.

The only non-national flag that any modern state has ever required to be regularly flown, the POW/MIA flag can now be seen above the U.S. Capitol, every military installation, and every single post office in the country. Most states have enacted similar requirements, steadily proliferating the venues in which the black-and-white silhouette of a gaunt American soldier announces its promise to Vietnam vets who are still prisoners of war (POW) or missing in action (MIA): “You are not forgotten.”

But this universal piety sits awkwardly with the facts of the war. Since the 1970s, bipartisan congressional committees have repeatedly concluded that there is no evidence that a single American was held prisoner in Vietnam after the war’s end. Not only that, but far fewer soldiers ended up MIA in Vietnam than in other American wars: at least four times as many were never found after the Korean War, at least forty times as many after World War II. And all of these totals are dwarfed by the estimated three hundred thousand Vietnamese who went missing during the conflict. In terms of the number of American service members who ended up captive or missing, the Vietnam War was, sadly, unremarkable.

Individual efforts to account for those lost to the war have been admirable, but their outsized impact on American politics merits close inspection. For decades after the war’s inglorious end, every U.S. president issued a full-throated pledge to undertake the “fullest possible accounting” for Americans who went missing in Vietnam. In the 1980s, the Department of Defense made it a matter of official policy that “at least some Americans” were still being held captive, despite Congress’s conclusions to the contrary. In large part due to this angst over the alleged missing, the United States refused to normalize relations and lift its trade embargo against Vietnam for more than twenty years after its military withdrawal. By the early 1990s, over 70 percent of Americans believed that U.S. soldiers were still being held captive by their one-time communist foes, and the government was spending over $100 million annually to close the books on the missing.

Behind all this was an uncompromising and organized movement. Its activists are an often-forgotten segment of the coalition that historians have dubbed the New Right, which reinvigorated postwar conservatism in the 1970s with grassroots campaigns against school integration, abortion rights, and gender equality. The POW/MIA movement won hearts and minds by sublimating chauvinist grievances about a lost war and a wayward nation into concern for “forgotten Americans,” but it won its policy victories and symbolic hegemony through the cowardice and short-sightedness of its would-be opponents. Of all the sectors of the New Right, it was unique in the degree to which it was emboldened rather than moderated by its march through America’s institutions. The energies it gathered as it did so continue to haunt our politics today.

President Nixon in the White House with telegrams, 1969. | Library of Congress

When Richard Nixon famously addressed a “silent majority” of Americans in 1969, he asked for their support to continue the Vietnam War. The only way America could lose, he argued, was if left-wing activists were allowed to aid and abet the enemy unchallenged. To counter them, this majority would need to break its silence. But Nixon officials did not want to leave this up to chance, so they went out looking for representatives of their vaunted majority. They found them in the cradle of midcentury conservatism: the suburbs of Southern California.

Two years earlier, Sybil Stockdale, whose husband was the highest-ranking Navy officer imprisoned in North Vietnam, had organized dozens of wives to highlight the plight of their captured husbands, which they argued was being downplayed by a Johnson administration that wanted to distance itself from an unpopular war. With logistical assistance from the state’s right-wing governor, Stockdale’s organization delivered an estimated two thousand telegrams to Nixon during his first weeks in office, demanding that he prioritize the treatment of American prisoners in Vietnam.

In the all-American, seemingly apolitical grief of Stockdale and her ilk, Nixon saw a chance to put a new face on a war that most Americans by then opposed. Who could be against pushing for the humane treatment of prisoners of war and the reunion of military families? The one problem was that in any war, both sides take prisoners, so it was unclear what moral superiority Nixon was appealing to in order to argue that the United States must win the war.

As Rick Perlstein documents in his 2014 book The Invisible Bridge, the peculiar “POW/MIA” portmanteau emerged as a solution to this dilemma. Introducing the term in a 1969 press briefing, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird decried the treatment of American POWs as an affront to the Geneva Conventions (while conveniently ignoring the bearing of such regulations on the United States’ indiscriminate bombing of schools and hospitals) and suggested that the return of POWs was a primary goal of continuing the war—rather than something to be negotiated in its aftermath, as it would have been in any other conflict.

Most important, perhaps, Laird inflated the number of American prisoners that were likely being held, perhaps anticipating unfavorable comparisons with the tens of thousands of communist fighters held in squalid, American-made camps in South Vietnam. The range he provided—five hundred to thirteen hundred—included all known prisoners plus hundreds of pilots who had been killed in action but whose bodies had not been recovered. Pretty soon, the administration began reflexively reaching for the higher figure in its laments about prisoners’ plights—with Nixon himself occasionally inflating the figure by a few hundred—leading their families and millions of others to believe that there were nearly three times as many POWs as the war’s belligerents knew there to be.

Lurid captivity narratives have long had a hold on the American imagination.

In the weeks after Nixon’s “silent majority” speech, newspapers nationwide ran full-page ads reading “The Majority Speaks: Release the Prisoners,” in which an image of a woman and two children praying asked readers to write in to express support for a hardline policy on POWs. Though the ads were funded by Texas tycoon Ross Perot and not clearly connected to the administration, they had been ghostwritten by Nixon’s speechwriter, William Safire. Why Nixon allies would call on Americans to urge the president to support a policy that he already held might seem confusing—until one considers the photo ops that ensued, with Nixon reading a large volume of mail supporting his cause.

At the end of his first year in office, Nixon met with Stockdale’s group and suggested that they formalize their organization. They became the National League of Families of Americans Missing in Southeast Asia, which remains active today (it’s now called the National League of POW/MIA Families). Despite its tax-exempt, nonpartisan status, the League’s government ties were strong. The administration provided it with a long-distance telephone line with direct access to the White House, the Pentagon mailed a League membership application to every single POW/MIA family in the country, and Vice President Spiro Agnew personally donated $10,000. This largesse was fully intended to keep the organization from deviating too far from the party line: when some of the wives began to defect and oppose the war, the Republican National Committee shared its donor list with League leaders, lest they get any ideas.

From these seeds a mass movement blossomed. Nixon and the League gave America’s chastened pro-war forces a second life: defending the war no longer meant endorsing a corrupt South Vietnamese government, or an abstract geopolitical argument, or an obviously impossible strategy. It meant defending innocent U.S. service members from inhumane treatment—and returning noble patriarchs to wholesome American families. The POW/MIA flag that the League unveiled in 1972 symbolized this line of argument. POW/MIA iconography soon blanketed the nation in the form of billboards, T-shirts, and tens of millions of bumper stickers. The flag flew over VFW and American Legion halls all over the country. The pro-war group formerly known as the Victory in Vietnam Association, or VIVA, got in on the action as well, raking in millions of dollars from the sale of bracelets bearing the names of those MIA in 1972 alone.

After the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, however, the grassroots energy channeled by the League and harnessed by Nixon to prolong the war took on a life of its own. The most obvious problem was that, though the nearly six hundred actual POWs were returned home, more than one thousand listed MIA were not—and hadn’t the administration said it would stop at nothing to recover them? (In reality, the vast majority of the “missing” were bomber pilots who had almost certainly died in fiery crashes, their bodies unrecoverable.)

“Have you forgotten him?” asked a full-page newspaper ad taken out by VIVA a month after the Accords, referring to a navy lieutenant for whom the ad claimed “there is proof of capture, whose name does not appear living or dead” on official lists. “When you abandon thirteen hundred men there is no peace with honor,” the mother of an MIA man said at a protest on Capitol Hill in November 1973. “For us the war still goes on,” added another. A group of military families in Chicago claimed that photographic evidence and returning POW testimony proved that many soldiers were still alive—and trapped in Vietnam.

Radical factions within the League, which around this time undertook a de facto merger with VIVA, began to use similar rhetoric, and seized control of the organization’s leadership. While their stated goal was for the government to execute the “fullest possible accounting” of those MIA, what exactly this entailed was never made clear. What was clear, though, was that the League would support no closure on any issues related to the Vietnam War absent this elusive “accounting.” As a result, they opposed amnesty for draft dodgers, reconstruction aid, and the normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam. For them, the war never ended, and the MIAs were still fighting. The “fullest possible accounting” proved to be the inarguable cudgel through which they made these reactionary positions widely palatable.

Yet while the League succeeded in slowing official efforts to close the book on the war, their militancy alienated them from the more pragmatic sensibilities of Ford and Carter (who nevertheless paid lip service to POW/MIA true believers in their presidential debates, arguing over whether a “full accounting” or “complete accounting” would better honor America’s missing). When a young, chain-smoking hardliner named Ann Mills-Griffiths assumed leadership of the League in 1978, the organization found itself at a crossroads: it could either maintain its right-wing populist bona fides by embracing the anti-government conspiracies its positions entailed, or it could attempt to find a foothold within the very government it opposed in order to pursue its ends.

The League brilliantly split the difference. First, it exploited the waves of Vietnamese refugees entering the United States at the end of the decade, looking for eyewitnesses to allege that they had seen live Americans in captivity after the war—a claim that refugees, desperate for entry into the country, were all too willing to make. Not a single one of these “live sighting” reports was ever verified. Nevertheless, they made headlines, reinvigorated popular outrage over troops that had allegedly been left behind, and turbo-charged an entire pop culture ecosystem of revanchist, racist pulp novels and action films, the best-known of which is the Rambo franchise.

At the same time, Griffiths was strong-arming her way into government. As the conduit for all these “live sighting” reports, she was able to convince sympathetic intelligence officials to take the highly unusual step of granting her a security clearance so she could participate in the government’s investigation of these claims. She then suggested an official interagency panel on POW/MIA affairs be created, on which she would be the sole civilian representative. As the panel’s only permanent member—Griffiths had to worry about neither reelection nor presidential reappointment—she soon became its de facto chair. By the early 1980s Griffiths’s savvy maneuvering positioned her at the helm of national POW/MIA policy. But all this would have meant nothing without a sympathetic ear in the Oval Office. This is where the League’s biggest bet paid off.

Ronald Reagan had long been the most high-profile politician to support the POW/MIA activist line. Besides helping POW wives flood the White House with thousands of telegrams after Nixon’s inauguration, he had presided over VIVA’s unveiling of the first POW bracelets in 1970, reliably stumped for the issue in columns and speeches over the course of the 1970s, and staunchly objected to any sign that the Ford and Carter administrations were normalizing relations with Vietnam. The League began covertly electioneering for Reagan by coordinating attacks against Ford administration official Henry Kissinger in the leadup to the 1976 GOP convention, when Reagan and Ford were in a dead heat. Reagan promised League members, “The first week that I am president, a new secretary of state will begin immediately taking every reasonable and proper step to return any live Americans still being held in Southeast Asia.”

Though Ford eked out a victory in the 1976 GOP contest, POW/MIA activists continued to ally with Reagan. Reagan and Griffiths collaborated to provide the foreword and afterword, respectively, for a book of POW biographies titled We Came Home, released in 1977. Griffiths made frequent contact with the Reagan campaign during his 1980 presidential bid, making no secret of the League’s enthusiasm for the candidate, and its disdain for Carter’s supposed disinterest in POW accounting. The League also gave the campaign a boost when it worked with intelligence officials to inflate the official number of Vietnam MIAs to twenty-five hundred. That dubious sum just so happened to be the number that Reagan had been insisting on all along.

Reagan’s resounding victory owed a debt to the League, but by all accounts he was a true believer in their cause: Griffiths, who has called the former president a “knight in shining armor,” remembers moving him to tears with her accounts of the hardships endured by POWs. Reagan’s national security advisers recalled the president’s “obsession” with the idea that actual American hostages were still being held in Southeast Asia. His chief of staff traced this fixation to the former actor’s identification with his own role in the 1954 film Prisoner of War. When asked at a White House press briefing if he believed any of the soldiers who went missing were actually still being held captive in Southeast Asia, Reagan replied, “I don’t think we can afford to believe there aren’t.”

As a result, Reagan took office determined to champion the League’s positions. On the tenth anniversary of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, he gave the keynote at their annual meeting, where he declared the recovery of MIAs “the highest national priority.” The Pentagon’s official position on the matter was revised from “we have no indications at this time that there are any Americans alive in Indochina” to the “assumption that at least some Americans are still held captive.” League allies assumed prominent roles within the administration, and Griffiths herself participated in more than a dozen official diplomatic meetings with the Vietnamese—including the highest-profile bilateral talks in Hanoi since the end of the war, briefing the president for forty-five minutes upon her return.

Vietnamese officials, however, had little incentive to negotiate with an administration whose rhetoric consistently demonized them. As a result, the recovery of MIA remains—the only realistic goal the POW/MIA movement could hope for by that point, though almost nobody would admit it—promptly stalled out. Instead, the president turned to his preferred method of pursuing foreign policy goals: covert paramilitary operations.

Just a few months into his presidency, after being briefed on satellite images depicting a Laotian prison camp where U.S. intelligence analysts decided that the shadows were too long to belong to Asian prisoners, Reagan gave the green light to a mercenary raid on the encampment. Though no Americans turned up, intelligence officials remained determined to try to find live U.S. prisoners in Laos, steering $25,000 to a retired Green Beret named James “Bo” Gritz, who assembled a motley team of American and Laotian adventurers to execute another raid several months later. They were ambushed more or less upon arrival in Laos, and Gritz only escaped after a desperate swim across the Mekong River in his underwear. While no captives were found, the operation actually increased the number of American prisoners in Laos by one, a Gritz associate who was quickly ransomed for $17,500.

The Reagan years were the peak of the POW/MIA lobby’s power and influence.

Despite this folly, Gritz’s reactionary bluster and brash indefatigability made him something of a folk hero: here was someone who was taking matters into his own hands. The administration was careful not to formally associate with Gritz after its initial outlay, but Reagan confidantes welcomed the perception that Gritz was acting on the president’s behalf, and they made sure he got wind of their support through intermediaries like Clint Eastwood. Gritz would spend the rest of the decade tapping funding from the likes of Eastwood and Ross Perot for other ill-advised rescue missions, before a brief foray into politics as David Duke’s running mate on the Populist Party line in the presidential campaign of 1988. The dark fantasies rendered plausible by this high-profile vigilantism were typified by a fundraising pitch Charlton Heston made for an amateur rescue operation in the mid-1980s, which described American prisoners “locked in bamboo cages . . . used as slaves, forced to drag plows in rice paddies.”

Less public paramilitary efforts proliferated in the backwaters of the administration: National Security Council officials worked with League allies to revive a defunct POW nonprofit that went on to collect private funds for Laotian anti-communist resistance fighters who claimed they could help liberate American POWs in their country. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were delivered overseas for similar efforts over the course of Reagan’s presidency. The funding came from archconservative donors like oil baron and John Birch Society member Nelson Bunker Hunt, who had been similarly galvanized by the administration’s support for the Nicaraguan Contras. Indeed, the contours of the entire scheme—cash for hostages (in this case, fake ones), de facto money laundering, and a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude in Reagan’s inner circle—bore an eerie resemblance to those of the affair that would define Reagan’s second term.

Unlike Iran-Contra, however, these schemes never led to official scandal (though they did temporarily sour relations with the government of Laos). Instead, when reckless adventures by administration-aligned elements made headlines, they only served to bolster Reagan’s conservative bona fides as he coasted to a landslide reelection, helped grow the League’s membership and funding, and above all persuaded large swaths of the American public that the Rambo films then playing in multiplexes were fact and not fiction. By the end of Reagan’s presidency, the POW/MIA flag was flying over the White House for the first time—the first flag other than the stars and stripes to ever do so.

The Reagan years were the peak of the POW/MIA lobby’s power and influence. Cooler heads prevailed in the Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations, though both were harassed by perennial POW conspiracy theorist Ross Perot, who rode his loyalty with POW/MIA true believers to the most successful third-party presidential bid since Theodore Roosevelt. The writer John Ganz has argued that Perot’s seemingly sui generis popularity has to be understood in light of his decades-long connection to the far-right of the POW/MIA movement. Perot’s selection of Sybil Stockdale’s POW husband James as his running mate in the 1992 presidential campaign suggests that Perot himself understood it well.

The few policymakers who made genuine efforts to dispel POW/MIA myths got little help from the American press. In 1991, Newsweek and USA Today both ran bogus front-page photographs that were alleged to prove the continued existence of POWs in Southeast Asia. The New York Times, for its part, had been muddying the waters for decades, beginning with its editorial board’s credulous acceptance of the Nixon administration’s circular logic that first established the POW/MIA issue in 1969. During the height of the vigilante hysterics of the 1980s, the paper ran an op-ed from a right-wing congressman who claimed he had “private sources” confirming that Americans who served in Vietnam were still being held captive. And in 1993, after Bill Clinton took office and normal relations with Vietnam finally seemed within reach, the Times’ Moscow bureau chief published a front-page story suggesting that a newly acquired Soviet intelligence report from 1972 constituted a “‘smoking gun’ that proves Hanoi has been withholding information about the fate of American prisoners of war in Vietnam.” (It proved no such thing: a secondhand, translated account of a briefing by a North Vietnamese Army official, the report contained enough glaring factual errors to lead any reasonable interpreter to doubt its authenticity.)

Nevertheless, during Clinton’s administration the United States finally managed to lift its trade embargo and fully normalize relations with its former foe. Still, the POW/MIA movement’s legacy persists in U.S. policy, even beyond the official sacralization of its flag: the United States today spends just over $130 million annually to try to recover American service members it last listed as POW or MIA—not just in Vietnam, but in all of its twentieth century wars. Despite the thirteen hundred sets of American remains that have been excavated from the Vietnam War thus far, the League remains unappeased, insisting to this day that not enough is being done by either the United States or Vietnam to achieve the “fullest possible accounting” that has long been its stated goal. The League is now pushing to increase POW/MIA recovery funding to $175 million per year.

President Ronald Reagan at the signing ceremony for Proclamation for National POW/MIA Recognition Day, 1981. | Wikimedia Commons

Lurid captivity narratives have long had a hold on the American imagination. In his 1974 book Regeneration Through Violence, the historian Richard Slotkin documents the rise and immense popularity of such accounts in pre-Revolutionary North America. The broad contours of these stories, most famously penned by the clergyman Cotton Mather, go something like this: A god-fearing Puritan settlement is invaded by heathenish Indians, who tear apart families and take captives back to the wilderness with them. The captives are debased by their immersion in Indian ways, and a spiritual impurity dogs them even after their rescue. Only a total submission to the purifying wrath of God can restore them. This wrath found its worldly outlet in genocidal wars against the Indians, which constituted the regenerative violence from which Slotkin’s book takes its title.

Slotkin observed a similar psychodynamic in the rhetoric attending the Vietnam War—little surprise given the tendency of American service members to refer to enemy territory as “Indian Country.” But the violence that might have redeemed their captivity was cut short by U.S. withdrawal in 1973. For the rest of the twentieth century, it would take place in the realms of pop culture and domestic politics. (When he’s asked to return to Vietnam to rescue his compatriots, Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo asks, “Do we get to win this time?”)

Rolling Thunder still feels that those who went missing in Vietnam are at risk of being forgotten.

Much ink has lately been spilled on the rise of modern American conservatism, but few commentators besides Perlstein and the historian Michael J. Allen—whose excellent 2009 book Until the Last Man Comes Home meticulously details much of the material recounted in this essay—have recognized the centrality of the POW/MIA myth to the movement’s ascent. Because it portrayed American troops as innocent victims of vicious communists, the myth emboldened Cold War hawks whose views might otherwise have been reformed by the U.S. experience in Vietnam. Likewise, the myth’s account of “forgotten Americans” betrayed by a decadent liberalism in their home country attracted socially conservative culture warriors. (These “forgotten Americans” were almost always coded as white men.) It’s no wonder not only that Reagan made the issue a hallmark of his career but also that POW/MIA grievance was a regular hobby horse in publications like National Review, as well as a frequent fundraising pitch to the conservative donor network that exploded in the 1970s.

Though it’s no longer the defining issue that it was when the war was still a recent memory, the POW/MIA myth continues to fuel insurgent energy on the American right, as the writer George Black has recently argued in the Washington Spectator. POW/MIA conspiracist Ted Sampley, who achieved infamy for accusing John McCain of being a “Manchurian candidate,” helped found a federation of biker clubs called Rolling Thunder in the late 1980s, which was intended to organize annual rides to Washington to call attention to the plight of POWs. With tens to hundreds of thousands of members participating every year, it’s by far the largest contemporary POW/MIA event. The 2016 Rolling Thunder rally hosted Donald Trump as a marquee speaker in an early sign of where grassroots energy lay on the right; the group would ultimately formally endorse him.

Trump-supporting, POW-flag-waving biker clubs in the mold of Rolling Thunder were among the earliest and most enthusiastic proponents of the Stop the Steal movement and the call for a march on the Capitol in advance of January 6. A longstanding, growing refrain in the POW/MIA movement has been that the real enemies are not foreign hostage-takers but the corrupt American government that appeases them (or worse). The lying, sniveling, diminutive government bureaucrat is a stock character in POW literature and film, the negative image of the forthright, comically oversized Rambo. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that this mythology fueled the belief that nothing short of the destruction of the entire administrative state could redeem the long captivity of the POWs—and indeed all forgotten Americans. So it’s of little surprise that the rioters of January 6 took time to pose for selfies in front of the Capitol building’s POW/MIA flag, or that the flag became, for some, a symbol of the unjust detainment and prosecution of those who stormed Congress that day.

According to Black’s reporting, one of those who called for his “fellow warriors” to converge in Washington on January 6 was William Scott Magill, a former Marine who served in Vietnam and is now a power player in Missouri state politics, as well as a fixture on far-right radio programs. He called the election of Trump “the intercession of Divine Providence” and has spent much of his energy the past few years organizing groups of right-wing veterans to face off with antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters. Magill is not shy about his view that decent Americans are locked in a life-or-death struggle between good and evil, piety and godlessness.

Despite his belief that a “socialist-Communist takeover” of the country is imminent, Magill does not spend all his time preparing for civil war. In fact, just after divine providence delivered Trump the presidency, Magill made a play to finally secure one of Rolling Thunder’s longtime goals: getting an empty chair installed as a monument in the Capitol rotunda. The ubiquity of the POW/MIA flag notwithstanding, Rolling Thunder still feels that those who went missing in Vietnam are at risk of being forgotten, and as a result it pushes state legislatures to install “chairs of honor” for missing POWs. Magill used his clout with Missouri senator Roy Blunt to finally get one placed in the rotunda in November 2017.

The unveiling ceremony was an all-American affair. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Elizabeth Warren, and Nancy Pelosi all delivered prepared remarks attesting to the importance of the chair. Nobody knew then that legislators would be forced to hide under chairs in their offices when Magill’s “fellow warriors” stormed Congress three years later. But had they thought through the subtext of the symbol they were endorsing—that the government they represented had allowed and was still allowing innocent American warriors to be held in captivity for decades—they might have recognized the ways it implicitly sanctions insurrection. For many, the Capitol riot was a death knell for the American project. For others, it signaled its regeneration.