Vietnam War POWs: Their Unsettled Legacy at Fifty Years

Jerry Lembcke

I like people who weren’t captured

Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s 2015 dismissal of American military personnel captured and held prisoner in Hanoi during the war in Vietnam was aimed at Arizona Senator John McCain who had been shot down over North Vietnam in 1967. McCain was held prisoner until the peace accords ending the war were signed in January 1973. He came home to a hero’s welcome that he parlayed into a political career. 

Trump’s putdown of McCain was made at made an Iowa campaign stop on July 17 when Trump was in a battle for the Republican Party nomination for president. His barb “prompted disbelief—as well as a wave of public outrage,” wrote Felicia Sonmez in the Washington Post.[1]

The indignation with candidate Trump’s slough-off of the POWs was not surprising. Rendered through a near-half-century of literature, film and folklore, the hero stature of the POWs was all but sanctified. A comparison with Barack Obama’s 2012 Memorial Day speech sets Trump’s indecency in relief: With Vietnam veteran and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at his side and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall behind him, Obama invoked the image of Vietnam veterans abused by war protesters and neglected by the public to pledge that that would not happen again—a message that Trump apparently did not get.[2]

Obama also used the Memorial Day setting to launch a twelve-year series of fiftieth anniversary events commemorating the years 1961-1973 of the war in Vietnam. The return of 591 POWs from Vietnam in February and March of 1973 was the symbolic end of the war for most Americans. As the punctuating event on President Obama’s timeline for remembrances, the POW story warrants a look back at how it stood in 1973. Additionally, Donald Trump’s aspersive quip on the hero-prisoner aura piques our interest in how that narrative was formed in the post-war years and what about it made Trump’s words so compelling.

The POWs Before Release and Return

American prisoners of war were comprised of ground troops captured in South Vietnam and taken to Hanoi and pilots shot down over North Vietnam. They became critical figures in the negotiation that led to the end of the war—President Nixon insisting that U.S. troops would not be withdrawn from South Vietnam until the POWs were released, and the communist negotiators vowing to hold the prisoners until the U.S. pulled out. 

The wholesale repatriation of prisoners in early 1973 was sealed in American memory by the news footage of families greeting their heroic loved ones deplaning from massive Air Force C-141s. But they were not the first captives to have been released. Records of prisoners taken by guerrilla fighters in the early years of the war are sketchy, but what is known is that their treatment and length of captivity varied widely, some being let go within months or even days: George Fryett, captured in December 1961, was freed in six months; George Groom and Francis Quinn taken in April 1962 were set free in 22 days. The first negotiated prisoner release in South Vietnam in 1967 freed James Jackson, Dan Pitzer, and Edward Johnson, who had been held for five years.[3]

The first pilot shot down over North Vietnam and captured was Everett Alvarez. On August 5, 1964, Alvarez had flown off the carrier USS Constellation in retaliation for alleged attacks against U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin a few days earlier.[4] Hit by antiaircraft fire near Haiphong, he parachuted into Ha Long Bay. Vietnamese fishermen plucked him out of the water and turned him over to the military. 

Alvarez was North Vietnam’s first American POW—and they had no idea what to do with him. He was taken to Hanoi, about 100 miles west. There, military authorities were not expecting any war prisoners and had no accommodations for him. They turned to the city police who offered some empty office spaces and then a few actual cells in the town lockup, Hỏa Lò Prison, later known to Americans as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Until kitchen facilities were available, guards went to local restaurants for take-out for Alvarez.[5]

The United States increased retaliatory air strikes after communist forces attacked its bases at Biên Hòa in November 1964 and Pleiku in February 1965. Code-named Rolling Thunder, the air war resulted in fifty or more shot-down pilots by December 1965, many of them held in Hỏa Lò. As the prisoner-pilot population grew, the social chemistry for a hero-prisoner narrative began to stir.

Prisoners of War or Prisoners at War?

As it stood in 1965, there was little in the pilots’ POW experience that bespoke heroism: they had lost multimillion-dollar war machines to enemy fire; they were mission-failures; tackled in the other team’s endzone, they were sidelined, out of action, losers scripted for putdown by candidate Trump a half-century later. 

Along with the rest of America, the POWs processed their imprisonment through the memory of the Korean War POW experience. When that war ended in 1953, about twenty U.S. servicemen held captive by the communists declined to come home. Their defection to China fueled paranoia about communist mind control techniques—if these men had been brainwashed, what about the others? —and triggered a national reassessment of American masculinity—why had the turncoats not withstood Marxist entreaties?  

Hollywood films like The Rack (1956), starring Paul Newman, cast an aspersive shadow over those who had come home from Korea—had they evaded torture and brainwashing by cooperating with prison interrogators? The Manchurian Candidate (1963), starring Frank Sinatra, imagined Sgt. Raymond Shaw as having been programmed by the Chinese to carry out an assassination plot after he returns to the United States. Shaw is portrayed as a weak-willed mama’s boy unable to resist authority figures.[6]

The American pilots entered captivity in Vietnam mindful of the sniveling flaccidity popularly associated with Korean War POWs. Carrier air wing commander James Stockdale had learned in his Master’s class at Stanford that U.S. captives in Korea had been brainwashed; in Hỏa Lò, he enforced a strict noncompliance order on his underlings. Lieutenant Colonel Robinson Risner learned about torture and mind control from his Air Force survival training and “reading fiction magazines,” and went into his POW experience certain that he could take whatever the communists handed out.[7]

Not wanting to come home as “men of weak character,” senior officers such Stockdale and Risner were determined to write their own story: a hero-prisoner story in which Hỏa Lò is made a theater-of-war, with torture and mind control as the enemy’s weapons. The POWs were now recast as prisoners at war, who fought gallantly “behind enemy lines” and came out on top.

Historian Craig Howes says the hero-POW story is the product of a power struggle within the prison population over how they should behave as captives. Article IV of the Code of Conduct for military personnel and extended to POWs allowed for senior officers among the prisoners to establish a command structure. In late 1970, the Vietnamese began consolidating prisoners who had been scattered in small camps around Hanoi into Hỏa Lò, putting a larger number of prisoners under direct control of a few senior ranking officers, or SROs. About five months later, prisoners who had been taken in South Vietnam also arrived at the Hanoi prison system, most of whom were enlisted-rank army G.I.s and Marines having survived for months by their own wits and beyond the purview of formal leadership. 

Howes argued that the SROs constructed a kind of bad-old-days fable in which they casted themselves as the heroic survivors of brutal torture that had been dished out in the earlier years of their captivity. They portrayed themselves as hardcore resisters to guards’ offers of leniency if they would renounce the war; they were the never-say-die tough guys who willingly “went to torture” rather than reveal sensitive information or contribute to communist propaganda that might demoralize fighters in the field or encourage opposition to the war on the homefront. They were warrior-prisoners still in the fight.

A handful of SROs then fed that story to the new arrivals to leverage deference from them. It was a virtual curriculum that was committed to memory for later recall; upon their stateside return, it was this version of their incarceration that news reporters heard. Historian John G. Hubbell turned the story into a six-hundred-page book published in 1976 by Reader’s Digest Press with the help of the Pentagon—it became known as “the official story.”

The validity of the torture claims remains a point of contention in the history of the POW experience. While it is impossible to account for every soldier’s experience, many POWs pushed back against claims about widespread, systematic torture. Navy pilot Gene Wilber told 60 Minutes anchor Mike Wallace in a 1973 post-release interview that he had not been tortured. Wallace reminded Wilber of “awful tales of torture” we’ve heard and pressed the matter: “Surely you have no reason to disbelieve the stories we’ve been hearing from your fellow officers.” Wilber replied, “No sir, I would not disbelieve them or attempt to repudiate them in any way. It’s something that each person has to tell his own story.”[8]

Inadvertently, Wilber had exposed the conundrum that would bedevil studies of the POW experience to the present: The glaring disparities in the POWs’ accounts of torture and the absence of corroboration for any of them; none of the POWs claim to have witnessed anyone else’s torture. 

The principle that one “cannot prove the negative,” that torture did not happen, limits scholars to searches for evidence that it did. The only claims that torture occurred are in the memoirs written by a small number of former prisoners, most of them senior-ranking pilots. Despite defections, emigration, and political realignments over the years, no former prison guards or staff have admitted to having tortured POWs. Forty army POWs tell their story in the edited volume We Came Home and none describe having been tortured. On a peace delegation to Hanoi in 1967, Carol McEldowney wrote in her journal that the “decent treatment” of the POWs had been verified. Amnesty International reported in 1975 that the mental and physical condition of the former POWs was “really good,” an observation consistent with a 1978 report that found former POWs to be in better health than a control group of never-captured Vietnam veterans.[9]

Return and Retractions

At home, the tainted reputation of the Korean War prisoners that had kickstarted the efforts of the Hỏa Lò prisoners to tell a different story, gnawed, as well, on the wives of POWs. Immersing herself in the history of Korean War experience, James Stockdale’s wife Sybil set out “to make the Vietnam POWs’ image the obverse of its [Korean War] predecessor”—they would be known as warriors-behind-the-walls, not hapless victims of the war. Stockdale formed The National League of Families that lobbied the Nixon administration to publicly confirm that its POWs were being tortured, which it did on May 19, 1969.[10]

For the next four years, the Nixon administration fueled pro-war domestic sentiment with tales of POW suffering—we must fight on, went the government line, to rescue our POWs from communist cruelty. A handful of the POWs in Hỏa Lò, however, weren’t having it. Ordered by the SROs to not speak to the foreign press or American peace delegations about the prison conditions or their views on the war, they went public with personal stories and opinions that raised doubts about Washington propaganda. In a December 1970 interview with Canadian television reporter Michael Maclear, Navy commander Bob Schweitzer described packages received from home and trips into the city for cultural events before saying, “I feel that the future of our country as well as Vietnam and Indochina cannot be served by the prolongation of this war, whatever the reasons and causes.”[11]

By 1971 at least 30 percent of the prisoners were “disillusioned about the war,” but the SROs warned newly arrived captives to stay away from the dissenters and threatened to court martial the rebels when their prison stays were over. By the 1973 return, the hero narrative had insinuated itself in the Hỏa Lò culture and dampened political dissent.  Most of the war resisters, including Bob Schweitzer, either retracted their views or went silent when arriving home.[12]

The veneration of POWs began with President Nixon’s May 24, 1973, White House reception for POWs.  It was a gala affair with former prisoners in dress uniforms and spouses and dates in evening wear. Horn-honking caravans and parades ushered the POWs into hometowns as heroes. The POW’s represented the end of the war and, as well, the spoils of victory—the last years of fighting had, after all, been waged to get them home. The freed men were trophies.  

But Nixon’s White House spectacle papered-over stories that were discordant with the developing hero narrative. The March 12, 1973, Time magazine carried a letter from Sam Bunge: “Sir, as an ex-grunt I feel a certain churlish resentment about the solicitous attention the returning POWs are getting. It seems to me the draftees who faced the war 24 hours a day are deserving of somewhat more than . . . a dismal employment rate.”[13] Winter Soldier, the newspaper of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, pointed out that ground troops “fought a dirty war,” slept on the ground,” and “ate out of cans,” whereas “the pilots ran milk-runs [and]went back to their bases to eat steak and sleep between the sheets.”[14]

How consciously Donald Trump was plucking some strings of resentment that had lain quiet for nearly 50 years, we cannot know. But he was surrounded at the time by advisors such as Steve Bannon who trafficked in the politics of vengeance, the mustering of populist sentiments for electoral advantage—and we do know he won the election with the plurality of white working-class votes.[15]

More certainly, Trump’s dig at McCain struck different chords in the ears of conspiratorial rightists. In 1990, freelance journalist and Vietnam veteran Ted Sampley self-published his article “John McCain: The Manchurian Candidate,” claiming that prison staff tried to turn POWs into communist agents and McCain fit the description of “a high-ranking naval officer who agreed to work with the Soviets upon his repatriation . . . and has frequently appeared on U.S. television.”[16]

Rumors that the Vietnamese communists were not telling the truth about the numbers of POWs they held fueled post-war imaginations that some had been “left behind”—perhaps intentionally so by Washington “insiders” who cut deals with the communists to end the war.[17]

Betrayal themes course the folklore that grew out of the POW chapter of the post-war years. The most inventive of the allegations was that John McCain knew that some of the abandoned POWs had actually been traded to the Soviets.[18] The tale had roots in Nelson DeMille’s 1988 novel Charm School which leaves readers wondering if the missing Americans were POWs . . . or defectors? In June 1998, CNN broadcast a stunning version of Charm School, “Valley of Death,” narrated by legendary war reporter Peter Arnett. A month later, CNN retracted the story as “insupportable” by the facts and fired its producer, April Oliver, then a rising star at the network.[19]

Norman Pearlstein the editor of the Columbia School of Journalism remarked at the time that the CNN affair pointed to “the enduring sensitives, the unhealed wounds of Vietnam.” “There is so much emotion about the war,” he said.

The “golly gee” tone of Pearlstein’s comments suggests that the news establishment at the time was caught unawares by the emotional energy brought to the surface by Valley of Death. It was the same wellspring of sentiment that Donald Trump would tap fifteen years later. 

. . . . 

Trump’s cashiering of the pilots while concurrently trolling for votes with a populist vow to “Make America Great Again” seemed contradictory: The MAGA slogan invoked patriotism; the attack on McCain cutdown a patriot. The words appeared incongruous with the campaign. 

But Trump was not pitching to the Republican base, or any constituency in particular. It didn’t matter that many Americans revered John McCain while others lumped him in with the dissenting POWs, accepting, even, the rumor that he had sold-out his prison mates. Instinctively perhaps, Trump was exercising a rhetorical form that allowed him to spread rumor and innuendo to disparate audiences—popularity rather than truth or consistency being the measure of its effect.[20]

The Trump strategy was to play on peoples’ fears, anxieties, and resentments for votes—fire-up the emotions and use their heat to bend and shape the polls.[21]

The end of the war in Vietnam and return of the POWs will be commemorated as the campaigns for the 2024 elections get underway. The Republican party’s penchant for baiting its liberal opponents as socialists could find traction in the betrayal narratives for the war’s loss—this or that Democrat is a sixties-generation retread. Historians would do well to identify the triggers in post-war culture likely to be pulled for political effect and prepare to enter the fray.

Author

Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor Emeritus at College of the Holy Cross. With Tom Wilber, he is co-author of Dissenting POWs:  From Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison to America Today, and four other books on post-Vietnam War American culture. 

Notes

[1]Felicia Sonmez, “Donald Trump on John McCain in 1999: `Does Being Captured Make You a Hero?,’” Washington Post, August 7, 2018.

[2]Michael McGough, “Obama takes sides in the `spitting on vets’ debate,” Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2012.

[3]Stuart L Rochester and Frederick Kiley, Honor Bound: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia 1961-1973 (1999), 59-74.

[4]Fredrik Logevall in Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (1999) p. 196, 200 writes that “American officials engaged in deliberate and repeated deception about what went on in the Gulf in the days surrounding the affair . . . . [while] looking for a pretext to flex American strength in Vietnam . . . “

[5]Rochester and Stuart, Honor Bound, 88-92; Tom Wilber April 4, 2017, interview in Hanoi with Nguyen Minh, retired Army officer, who worked at Hỏa Lò during Alvarez’s confinement.

[6]Elaine Tyler May, Fortress America: How We Engaged Fear and Abandoned Democracy (2017).

[7]Stockdale would later be the vice-presidential running mate for H. Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign for president.

[8]A segment of Wallace’s interview with Wilber can be found in Tom Wilber and Jerry Lembcke, Dissenting POWs: From Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison to America Today (2021), 53-54.

[9]Amnesty International Report on Torture (1975), 161; Carol Cohen McEldowney, Hanoi Journal, 1967 (2007), 100.

[10]Elliot Gruner, Prisoners of Culture: Representing the Vietnam POW (1993).

[11]Portions of the interview are in Wilber and Lembcke, Dissenting POWs, 45-49.

[12]The thirty percent comes from John Hubbell, P.O.W.: A Definitive History of the American Prisoner-of-War Experience in Vietnam, 1964-1973 (1976).

[13]“Letters,” Time Magazine, March 12, 1972.

[14]“POWs on Trial,” Winter Soldier, July 1973, 12.

[15]Joseph Darda in How White Men Won the Culture Wars: A History of Veteran America (2021) shows the convergence of race, class, and victim-veteran imagery in the construction of Vietnam veterans as an oppressed minority.

[16]John McCain: The Manchurian Candidate – (vietnamveteransagainstjohnmccain.com)

[17]H. Bruce Franklin, M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America: How and Why Belief in Live POWs Has Possessed a Nation (1992).

[18]“Perot Slams McCain,” Newsweek, March 13, 2000. www.newsweek.com/ross-perot-slams-mccain-86763.

[19]Jerry Lembcke, CNN’s Tailwind Tale: Inside Vietnam’s Last Great Myth (2003).

[20]Jennifer Mercieca, “A Field Guide to Trump’s Dangerous Rhetoric,” The Conversation, June 19, 2020.

[21]The Twisted Genius of Trump: His Appeals to Emotion Are Dangerous, Alternet.org