Why the POW-MIA Flag Now Flies Over AmericaHistorians in the News
tags: Vietnam War, POW-MIA
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.
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.