We welcome a guest post today from Michael J. Allen, author of Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and the Unending Vietnam War. In his book, Allen analyzes the effects that activism by POW and MIA families had on U.S. politics before and after the Vietnam War’s official end. In this post, marking the anniversary of the first release of American POWs from Vietnam (2/12 local Vietnamese time, 2/11 in the U.S.), Allen discusses how their return didn’t end the Vietnam War saga, but rather started a new chapter in a struggle of competing narratives about how the war should be remembered.–ellen
On February 12, 1973, thirty-seven years ago, 116 American prisoners of war were released from captivity in North Vietnam. They were the first of 591 American POWs to be returned to U.S. custody over the next fifty days in what Department of Defense officials called “Operation Homecoming.” For the officials who coordinated it, Operation Homecoming marked the long-awaited end of the Vietnam War, and the best evidence they could muster of American success in that frustrating venture. President Richard Nixon used the final prisoner release as the occasion for a televised address in which he announced “We can be proud tonight that we have achieved our goal of obtaining peace with honor in Vietnam.” As he became embroiled in the unfolding Watergate scandal, the embattled president took heart in the POWs’ unabashed support for his policies, particularly his decision to resume bombing Hanoi in December 1972, a decision widely criticized at the time but one that homecoming prisoners portrayed as essential to winning their release. For Nixon and his supporters, the returning officer-aviators offered “an invaluable opportunity to revise the history of this war” and “restore the military to its proper position,” so long as they could “be used in an effective way.”
In the months and years to come Nixon and the repatriated POWs worked to turn their captivity into a story that would reunite Americans divided by the Vietnam War and transform popular doubts about the war’s wisdom and necessity. Most returnees were pilots and aviators who were deeply committed to the military and its utility in world affairs for tangled personal, professional, and political reasons. After averaging four to six years in captivity, most remained convinced that American intervention in Vietnam was worthwhile—to believe otherwise was to see their sacrifices as meaningless. Upon their return, many sought to share the hard won lessons of captivity with their families and fellow citizens, hoping that through their words and deeds they could repair the Cold War consensus that had shattered in Vietnam thus restoring the nation to its prewar foundation. “I think that we POWs, through some sort of transference, have become a symbol of the unity we would like to see in America once more,” Colonel Armand Myers told the crowd that greeted him upon his return; “the unity we had before this war precipitated so many diverging view points on what the role of America should be.” Some sought public office to further this transference, including John McCain, Jeremiah Denton, and James Stockdale. Others wrote books and made speeches about life inside Vietnamese prisons that were avidly consumed by Americans seeking heroes in a war that offered precious few. Their accounts of torture and indoctrination made Americans the war’s victims rather than its villains, elevating extraordinary American casualties over wholesale Vietnamese suffering while implicating voices of dissent and moderation in POW hardships.
While POW captivity narratives were effective in shaping perceptions of the war’s victimology, however, they did less to challenge the widespread sense that the war was a failure and a waste. If anything, they reinforced the sense that neither the war nor the political establishment that authorized it was worthy of the sacrifices POWs endured. Moreover, the anger most POWs harbored toward those they blamed for their ordeal, which included the Vietnamese, American officialdom, and millions of Americans active in the antiwar movement, and the distrust those communities harbored toward returned POWs, made it impossible for returnees to act as agents of reconciliation within the United States or on the world stage. Instead, they became avenging angels who rallied those sympathetic to their plight against those they demonized. Rather than marking the end of the Vietnam War and the restoration of peace, then, Operation Homecoming marked the beginning of the war’s last battle: the battle to control its meaning and memory. That battle continued to rage well after the POWs returned, first in the context of the Watergate saga, then in the context of South Vietnam’s collapse, and finally in running debates from the mid-1970s through the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns as to how the Vietnam War and its combatants should be remembered. As I argue in my book, those debates were essential to the development of American politics and foreign policy over the past four decades, and are partially responsible for the polarized state of American politics today, particularly with regard to national security. So today as we look back on Operation Homecoming we should remember it not as the day the war ended, but rather as the day the war came home.
Michael J. Allen