The Invisible Bridge
CHAPTER ONE “Small and Suspicious Circles”
ONCE UPON A TIME WE had a Civil War. More than six hundred thousand Americans were slaughtered or wounded. Soon afterward, the two sides began carrying out sentimental rituals of reconciliation. Confederate soldiers paraded through the streets of Boston to the cheers of welcoming Yankee throngs, and John Quincy Adams II, orating from the podium, said, “You are come so that once more we may pledge ourselves to a new union, not a union merely of law, or simply of the lips: not . . . of the sword, but gentlemen, the only true union, the union of hearts.” Dissenters from the new postbellum comity—like the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who argued that the new system of agricultural labor taking root in the South and enforced by Ku Klux Klan terror hardly differed from slavery—were shouted down. “Does he really imagine,” the New York Times indignantly asked, “that outside of small and suspicious circles any real interest attaches to the old forms of the Southern question?”
America the Innocent, always searching for totems of a unity it can never quite achieve—even, or especially, when its crises of disunity are most pressing: it is one of the structuring stories of our nation. The “return to normalcy” enjoined by Warren Harding after the Great War; the cult of suburban home and hearth after World War II; the union of hearts declaimed by Adams on Boston’s Bunker Hill parade ground after the War Between the States.
And in 1973, after ten or so years of war in Vietnam, America tried to do it again.
On January 23, four days into his second term, which he had won with the most commanding landslide in U.S. history, President Richard Nixon went on TV to announce, “We have concluded an agreement to end the war and bring peace with honor in Vietnam and South Asia.” The Vietnam War was over—“peace with honor,” in the phrase the president repeated six more times.
But “it wasn’t like 1945, when the end of the war brought a million
people downtown to cheer,” Mike Royko, the Chicago Daily News’ regular-guy columnist, wrote. “Now the president comes on TV, reads his speech, and without a sound the country sets the clock and goes to bed.” He was grateful for it. “There is nothing to cheer about this time. Except that it is over. . . . Mr. Nixon’s efforts to inject glory into our involvement were hollow. All he had to say was that it is finally over.”
Royko continued, “It is hard to see the honor. . . . Why kid ourselves? They didn’t die for anyone’s freedom. They died because we made a mistake. And we can’t justify it with slogans and phrases from other times.
“It was a war that made the sixties the most terrible decade our history. . . . If we insist on looking for something of value in this war then maybe it is this:
“Maybe we finally have the painful knowledge that we can never again believe everything our leaders tell us.”
Others, though, longed for the old patriotic rituals of reconciliation. And their vehicle became the prisoners of war held in Hanoi by our Communist enemies. “The returning POWs,” Secretary of Defense Elliot Richardson told the president, “have dramatically launched what DOD is trying to do to restore the military to its proper position.” The president, pleased, agreed: “We now have an invaluable opportunity to revise the history of this war.”
It began twenty days after the president’s speech, at the airport in Hanoi. What the Pentagon dubbed “Operation Homecoming” turned the network news into a nightly patriotic spectacle. Battered camouflage buses conveyed the first sixty men to the planes that would take them to Clark Air Base in the Philippines; a Navy captain named Galand Kramer unfurled a homemade sign out the window, scrawled on a scrap of cloth: GOD BLESS AMERICA & NIXON. The buses emptied; officers shouted out commands in loud American voices to free American men, who marched forth in smart formation, slowing to accommodate comrades on crutches. On the planes, and on TV, they kissed nurses, smoked too many American cigarettes, circulated news magazines with their wives and children on the cover, and drank a pasty white nutrient shake whose taste they didn’t mind, a newsman explained, because it was the first cold drink some of them had had in eight years. On one of the three planes they passed a wriggling puppy from lap to lap. “He was a Communist dog,” explained the Navy commander who smuggled him to freedom in his flight bag, “but not anymore!”
At Clark, the tarmac was thronged by kids in baseball and Boy Scout
uniforms, women in lawn chairs with babes in arms, airmen with movie cameras, all jostling one another for a better view of a red carpet that had been borrowed at the last minute from Manila’s InterContinental Hotel because the one Clark used for the usual round of VIPs wasn’t sumptuous enough. In a crisp brocaded dress uniform with captain stripes newly affixed, Navy flier Jeremiah Denton, the first to descend, stood erect before the microphone and pronounced in a slowly swelling voice:
“We are honored to have the opportunity to serve our country—”
(A stately echo: “country–country—country . . .”)
“We are profoundly grateful to our Commander in Chief and our nation for this day.”
(“Day—day—day . . .”)
(“God—God—God . . .”)
(“Bless—bless—bless . . .”)
(“America—America—America . . .”)
In days to come cameras lingered on cafeteria trays laden with strawberry pie, steak, corn on the cob, Cornish game hens, ice cream, and eggs. (“Beautiful!” sighed a man in a hospital gown on TV to a fry cook whipping up eggs.) When the men were in Hawaii for refueling on Valentine’s Day, the cameras luxuriated over the nurses who defied orders and broke through the security line to bestow leis on their heroes. Then the cameras followed the men to the base exchange, where a boom mike overheard Captain Kramer gingerly trying on a pair of bell-bottomed pants: “I must say, they’re a little different from what I would normally wear!”
The next stop was Travis Air Force Base in California, where for twelve long years the flag-draped coffins had come home. Now it was the setting for Times Square 1945 images: wives leaping into husbands’ arms; teenagers unabashedly knocking daddies off their feet; seven-year-olds bringing up the rear, sheepish, shuffling—they had never met their fathers before. From there the men shipped out to service hospitals around the country, especially prepared for their return with color TVs and bright yellow bedspreads to mask the metallic hospital tone; once more words like “God—God—God” and “duty—duty—duty” and “honor—honor—honor” and “country—country—country” echoed
across airport tarmacs. The first men to touch ground had been given expedited discharge to comfort terminally ill relatives. Press accounts credited at least one mother with a miraculous recovery. Miracles, according to the press, were thick on the ground.
“The first thing she did when she raced to embrace her husband . . . was slip his wedding ring on his finger. The ring, she told reporters, had been sent to her, along with her husband’s wallet. . . .”
“?‘By all rights he should have come out on a stretcher. But he refused and was determined he was going to come out walking.’?”
“When Captain John Nasmyth Jr. landed after years of captivity, a dozen strangers rushed up to him and thrust into his hand metal bracelets bearing his name. The strangers had been wearing the bracelets for as long as two years or more, as amulets of their concern and their faith in his safe return.”
Those bracelets: invented by a right-wing Orange County, California, radio host named Bob Dornan, they became a pop culture phenomena in 1970 after being introduced at a “Salute to the Armed Forces” rally in Los Angeles hosted by Governor Ronald Reagan. By the summer of 1972, they were selling at the rate of some ten thousand per day. Wearers vowed never to remove them until the name stamped on the metal came home. Some, the New York Times reported, believed them to “possess medicinal powers”—and not just the children who displayed them two, ten, a dozen to an arm. A Wimbledon champ said one cured his tennis elbow. The pop singers Sonny and Cher wore them on their hit TV variety show. Lee Trevino insisted his bracelet saved his golf game. And now that they were no longer needed, there was talk of melting them down for a national monument on the Mall in Washington, D.C.
When Captain Nasmyth arrived in his hometown, he was led to a billboard that read HANOI FREE JOHN NASMYTH. He chopped it down with a ceremonial ax, his entire community gathered round as a fifty-three-piece band blared “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” A black POW addressed a undergraduate classroom at a black university in Tennessee. The students examined him as if they had unearthed, a newspaper said, a “member of a nearly extinct sociological species: American Negro, circa 1966.” He told them, “We have the greatest country in the world.” That made front-page news, too.
One of the most quoted returning warriors was a colonel who
noted all the signs reading “We Love You.” “In a deeper sense,” he said, “I think what people are saying is ‘We Love America.’?” Another announced the greatest Vietnam miracle of all: that the POWs had won the Vietnam War. “I want you all to remember that we walked out of Hanoi as winners. We’re not coming home with our tails between our legs. We returned with honor.”
NBC broadcast from a high school in a tiny burg in Iowa—John Wayne’s hometown—where wood shop students fashioned a giant key to the city for a POW native son; then the anchorman threw to his correspondent in the Philippines, who filled five full minutes of airtime calling the names, ranks, service branch, and hometowns of twenty exuberant Americans as they bounded, limped, or, occasionally, were borne upon stretchers, down the red carpet, to their next stop, the base cafeteria. (“Scrambled eggs!” “How many?” “How many can you handle?”) The screen filled with a red-white-and-blue banner. NBC’s Jack Perkins signed off: “The prisoners’ coming back seems the one thing about Vietnam that has finally made all Americans finally, indisputably, feel good.”
Not all Americans. Columnist Pete Hamill, on Valentine’s Day in the liberal New York Post, pointed out that the vast majority of the prisoners were bomber pilots, and thus were “prisoners because they had committed unlawful acts”—killing civilians in an undeclared war. He compared waiting for the POWs to come home to his “waiting for a guy up at Sing Sing one time, who had done hard time for armed robbery.”
There was the New York Times, which in one of its first dispatches from the Philippines reported, “Few military people here felt the return of the prisoners marked the end of the fighting. ‘They’re sending out just as many as come back,’ said a young Air Force corporal who works at the airport. ‘They’re all going to Thailand, they’re just moving the boundaries of the war back.’?”
Not even all POWs agreed they were heroes. When the first Marine to be repatriated arrived at Camp Pendleton, every jarhead and civilian employee on base stood at attention to receive him. After the burst of applause stopped, Edison Miller held up a clenched fist in the manner favored by left-wing revolutionaries, then turned his back to the crowd.
In fact nothing about the return of the POWs was indisputable; the defensiveness of the president’s rhetoric demonstrated that. At a meeting of the executive council of the AFL-CIO in Florida on February 19, Nixon spoke of the “way that our POWs could come off those planes with their heads high, knowing that they had not fought in vain.” The next day, before a joint session of the South Carolina legislature, he answered a Gold Star Mother who wrote to him questioning the meaning
of her son’s sacrifice: “I say to the members of this assembly gathered here that James did not die in vain, that the men who went to Vietnam and have served there with honor did not serve in vain, and that our POWs, as they return, did not make the sacrifices they made in vain.”
With honor, not in vain: a whole lot of people must have been worrying otherwise. Or else it wouldn’t have been repeated so much.
“The nation begins again to feel itself whole,” proclaimed Newsweek. Time speculated how “these impressive men who had become symbols of America’s sacrifice in Indochina might help the country heal the lingering wounds of war.” However, some stubbornly refused to be healed. It would take more than a “Pentagon pin-up picture,” a Newsweek reader wrote, to make her forget “that these professional fighting men were trained in the calculated destruction of property and human life.” A Time reader spoke up for his fellow “ex-grunts,” who had received no welcoming parades: “Why were we sneaked back into our society? So our country could more easily forget the crimes we committed in its name?”
TURN ON THE TV, OPEN a newspaper or a dentist-office magazine, and a new journalistic genre was now impossible to avoid: features that affected to explain to these Rip van Winkles all they had missed while incommunicado in prison camps at a time when, as NBC’s gruff senior commentator David Brinkley put it, “a decade now is about equal to what a century used to be, because change is so fast.”
On February 22 the Today show devoted both its hours to the exercise. “Generally, they’ve been years of crisis,” the anchorman began.
A DEMAND EQUALITY sign:
“They walked in picket lines, they badgered congressmen, they formed pressure groups”—Who? The attractive blond newscaster (there weren’t any of those in 1965), whose name was Barbara Walters, was speaking of women, only ordinary women. “They strived for ‘lib,’?” she continued—“as in liberation.”
A mob of long-haired young men:
“Protest, demonstrations, disorders, riots, even death flared” on elite college campuses, where students “didn’t trust anyone over thirty” and contested “the whole fabric of Western Judeo-Christian morality.”
Gene Shalit, Today’s bushy-haired entertainment critic, reported how “federal legislation brought the vote to two million more blacks,” and that “in 1964, when the first POWs were taken in Vietnam, most of us thought that was what was wanted. The phrase most often used was
‘equal opportunity.’ . . . Then came 1967 and a riot in Detroit. . . . There was Malcolm X, a failure in every way according to the ‘white’ code; he became a folk hero among blacks.”
Nineteen new nations, from Bangladesh to Botswana; a war in Israel won in six days—“but terrorism followed”: cue picture of a man in a ski mask on a balcony in Munich, at the 1972 Olympics.
Bonnie and Clyde, the hit movie from 1967, made the criminal life “look like fun and games” and changed Hollywood; The Godfather, from 1972, “the biggest moneymaker since 1965’s Sound of Music,” “at once glorified and sentimentalized the mafia.” Last Tango in Paris, in theaters now, featured “clear depictions of the most elemental sexual acts, and perhaps some aberrations as well, but what it shows most is that here in New York at five dollars a ticket the film is a sellout, and that ordinary respectable folks like you are all going to see it.”
Finally there came a familiar Hollywood image: a tall, handsome man in a Stetson. But the still was from Midnight Cowboy, and the camera pulled back to show that the titular cowboy was hugging a shrunken and disheveled Jewish man, and Barbara Walters explained it signified the new Hollywood trend “toward dealing openly with homosexuality.”
Assassinations and attempted assassinations: Malcolm X. Martin Luther King. Robert F. Kennedy. George Wallace.
Fashion: “Unisex—remember that word. . . .”
Some ninety minutes later, two chin-stroking penseurs were asked by the stern-voiced anchorman what was the most profound change the POWs faced. Answered the editor of Intellectual Digest: “For the first time Americans have had at least a partial loss in the fundamental belief in ourselves. We’ve always believed we were the new men, the new people, the new society. The ‘last best hope on earth,’ in Lincoln’s terms. For the first time, we’ve really begun to doubt it.”
THIS PRETENSE THAT SOME SIX hundred POWs newly returned to their families would want to waste two hours of their lives learning about the latest slang from Gene Shalit felt a little bit fantastic. But the ritual was not for them. It was for us—all those Americans doubting for the first time that America might just not be the last best hope on earth. “Having missed much of the destructiveness of these past few years,” one letter writer to the Washington Post exulted, they had “preserved a vision of the way America ought to be.” As if these men might somehow be able to mystically deliver us across the bridge of years—to the time before the storm. It was their gift to us.
On the CBS Evening News the same day as that Today show, a lovely bride was seen with a man in officer’s dress, a wedding march pealing forth from the organ. Walter Cronkite narrated:
“Dorothy said her husband’s return was like a resurrection, and that for her it was like a new life beginning. So she went out and bought an all-new white wedding gown. And Dorothy and Johnny Ray reaffirmed the marriage vow they first made four and a half years ago.”
(Cut to ten seconds on the long white train of her gown, then the cross above the altar; fifteen seconds of him slipping on the wedding ring.)
“It was a short, simple ceremony.”
(Kiss, organ, recessional.)
“Captain and Mrs. Johnny Ray will soon be home to their three children in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma. David Dick, CBS News at the post chapel, Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas.”
That was one sort of homecoming story. Here was another: at Balboa Naval hospital, where many POWs convalesced, a wife later told an oral historian, “It was like the Spanish Inquisition. Everyone asked how the wives had behaved. I could hear beatings in some rooms. A lot of women had been swinging.”
Certain outlets told many similar stories—like the “newspaper of record,” the New York Times, which in 1878 had scolded the “small and suspicious circles” who dared suggest the Civil War had not ended America’s racial ordeal. The Times was a very different institution almost a century later. Most American institutions were very different from what they had been even a decade before. For the small and suspicious circles had expanded exponentially.
On its front page on February 5 you could meet Alice Cronin, dressed in faded hip-hugging bell-bottomed jeans and no shoes, smoking cigarettes, hair flopping loose, posing outside her San Diego home as movers unloaded the fashionable puffy white leather couch she bought “for the return of her husband, a Navy pilot held by Hanoi for six years.” She was worried: “Mike married a very traditional wife. . . . Now my ideas and values have changed. . . . I can’t sit home and cook and clean house. I’m very career oriented, and I just hope he goes along and agrees with that . . . he’s missed out on a lot—liking a more casual lifestyle, being nonmaterialistic.” She hoped he understood why she didn’t trust a single thing the administration said about Vietnam. She also hoped he would go along with something else: “shifting sexual mores, the whole thing about relationships not necessarily being wrong
outside of marriage. I know myself really well sexually, and he’s missed out on a good deal of that.”
She was contrasted to Sybil Stockdale, a classic by-the-book officer’s wife, who spoke from “her sunny kitchen,” where she was busy mending the rug left over when her husband, James Stockdale, the highest-ranking Navy POW, took off for his first bombing mission over the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. For his return, she explained, “I want the living room to look the same.”
There were two groups of POW wives, Alice Cronin explained. “I’m definitely in the second group.” There were, by 1973, two groups of just about everything. Two kinds of POW reports, for instance. Some played up the sentimental rituals of reconciliation. An example of the other kind ran on NBC—cutting from Operation Homecoming footage at Travis Air Force Base to the hospital bed of a sad-eyed, fidgety Marine private, paralyzed from the waist down, complaining, “We were kind of snuck in the back door.”
Newspapers in small towns like Bend, Oregon; Reading, Pennsylvania; and Lewiston, Maine, ran with the Navy’s press release about the poetry written in captivity by a Navy commander in tribute to the “women who wait at home” (“Are not these women, of men gone to war / The unsung heroes, today as before. . . .”). But in the New York Times, columnists like Tom Wicker rued “the warped sense of priorities on the home front” that allotted so much more attention to “these relatively few POW’s than the 50,000 dead boys who came home in body bags, some of them with smuggled heroin obscenely concealed in their mangled flesh,” and “for whom the only bracelet is a band of needle marks.” He noted that the administration had frozen funding for treatment for drug-addicted veterans and in its fiscal 1974 budget proposed to arbitrarily limit the allowable number of patients in veterans hospitals. Meanwhile the Times editorialized that in the “succession of hand salutes, stiffly prepared statements, medical bulletins, and canned handouts concerning the joys of steak and ice cream” of Operation Homecoming, the “hard-won lessons of Vietnam are in danger of being lost.” Which, on the merits, was sound editorial judgment. For that had been Richard Nixon’s intention for the POW issue from the start.
When American pilots were first taken prisoner in North Vietnam, U.S. policy had been pretty much to ignore them—part and parcel of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s determination to keep the costs of his increasingly futile escalation from the public. The enemy, though, preferred publicity—which was why, in June 1966, they announced to the
world these pilots would be put on trial as “air pirates,” and paraded them through Hanoi past jeering crowds for the cameras on the Fourth of July. In 1967 the first American flier was tortured into appearing on film to say he was being treated humanely. Also in 1967, the first American peace activists visited North Vietnam, documented widespread civilian carnage, and returned with a devastating argument: The Pentagon claimed its laser-guided bombs were the most accurate in the history of warfare. But if that was true, pilots had to know they were targeting civilian areas—and if that was false, then who knew what else the Pentagon was lying about?
A war of position emerged, peaceniks versus the Pentagon, with the POWs tossed about like political footballs. Communist officials began releasing to antiwar activists small numbers of prisoners who had arrived at doubts about the war. The Pentagon worked to silence them. Meanwhile, Sybil Stockdale organized, against the Pentagon’s wishes, a “League of Wives of American Prisoners of War” (later the National League of Families of Prisoners of War), which agitated for attention to the prisoners’ plight. From two directions at once, Johnson’s attempt to play down the existence of hundreds of American prisoners came a cropper. And in 1969, the new Republican president had spied in the dilemma a political opportunity.
One day in the first spring of Richard Nixon’s presidency, reporters at a routine Pentagon briefing perked up when the Secretary of Defense himself, Melvin Laird, took the podium. He confirmed the existence of from 500 to 1,300 of what he termed “POW/MIAs.” This was new phraseology, partly cynical and strategic: downed fliers not confirmed as actual prisoners used to be classified not as “Missing in Action” but “Body Unrecovered.” Soon the administration began referring to these 1,300 as if they were, every one of them, actually prisoners. “The North Vietnamese claimed they were treated humanely,” Secretary Laird intoned gravely. “I am distressed by the fact that there is clear evidence that this is not the case.”
It was the American public’s introduction to these men. Laird demanded that the enemy reveal their names, send home the sick and wounded, and allow impartial inspections and free exchange of mail—the Geneva Conventions, he announced, required no less. “Most importantly, we seek the prompt release of all American prisoners,” he said, before launching into an emotional peroration about the enemy’s cruelty: “Hundreds of American wives, children, and parents continue to live in a tragic state of uncertainty caused by the lack of information concerning the fate of their loved ones.”
The North Vietnamese officials’ astonishment was like that of the British officer after the Great War who, witnessing the way America trampled on logic and good military order to get its troops home first, remarked, “How odd it is that only American boys have mothers.” These Vietnamese men had lost children themselves—to American bombers that by their lights flew in plain defiance of the most basic Geneva Convention requirements: that wars be declared, that civilians be spared. They had seen schools, hospitals, farmers’ fields obliterated. They had lined streets with mile after mile of underground concrete cylinders in which Hanoi residents cowered every time they heard the approaching airborne hum. They answered Secretary Laird that they would not so much as give out prisoners’ names “as long as the United States does not cease its war of aggression and withdraw its troops from Vietnam.”
For Nixon, this was a political boon. A Washington Post editorial enshrined the bomber pilots as pluperfect victims: “It is hard to see how so retrograde a response advances the interests of any government that seeks to present itself to the world as fair and humane.” The Pentagon and State Department sent forth public relations cadres and co-opted Sybil Stockdale’s embryonic League of Wives of American Prisoners of War, sometimes inventing chapters outright. When Hanoi announced on July 4—a favorite day for Communist propaganda aimed at international opinion—that North Vietnam would be releasing more prisoners to antiwar activists, the Pentagon reversed its ban on its members speaking to the press. Images of families without fathers began showing up in the weekly picture magazines—martyrs to an enemy so devious, as the Armed Forces Journal put it, they denied hundreds of little boys and girls “a right to know if their fathers were dead or alive.” Their North Vietnamese captors, yet more astonished, reflected on the tens of thousands of prisoners whom America’s South Vietnamese allies kept likewise incommunicado, and redoubled their defiance.
On Labor Day, 1969, the campaign intensified: the Pentagon put two freed prisoners behind a press conference podium, where they described solitary confinement in dark stone rooms, beatings, bodies bound in cruel contortions for hours with straps and ropes. They added cinematic embellishments: that POW Fred Cherry had been hung from the ceiling by his broken arm, which became so infected he almost lost it (on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base four years later, it became plain Cherry’s arm was in fact perfectly intact); that Navy flier Richard Stratton had had his fingernails pried loose (they weren’t). The timing was strategic: a peace group had just reported back on the treatment of
prisoners by our South Vietnamese allies, in prison camps designed and built by us; they were manacled to the floor in crippling underground bamboo “tiger cages,” many merely for the crime of advocating peace, but the American military’s advisor had described these prisons as being like “a Boy Scout recreation camp.”
At the peace talks in Paris, the “POW issue” became the cornerstone of Nixon’s stalling tactics to settle the war on his preferred terms—another astonishment for the North Vietnamese: in previous wars, the disposition of prisoners had been something settled following the cessation of hostilities. Meanwhile, stateside, a dialectic unfolded: whenever the public showed signs of turning away en masse in disgust from the war, the martyrs in the Hanoi Hilton were symbolically marched to the foreground, their suffering families walking point.
At Christmastime, precisely one month after investigative reporter Seymour Hersh revealed the My Lai Massacre, POW wives were invited to stand mute beside the president in the Oval Office while he lied that “this government will do everything that it possibly can to separate out the prison issue and have it handled as it should be, as a separate issue on a humanitarian basis.” On Christmas Eve, three airliners leased by Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot lifted off. One, christened “The Spirit of Christmas,” bore fifty-eight POW wives and ninety-four of their children to demand a meeting with Communist negotiators in Paris. The others, christened “Peace on Earth” and “Goodwill Toward Men,” tried to deliver thirty tons of Christmas dinners, holiday gifts, clothing, and medical supplies directly to the prisoners in Hanoi. (In Paris, the wives were lectured on truths stern-faced North Vietnamese diplomats considered self-evident: that the way to free their husbands was to prevail upon their government to stop the futile and sadistic terror bombing of North Vietnam, for which there was no sanction in international law. A wife asked: “What should I tell my son, age nine, when he asks where is my father and when is he coming home?” An apparatchik responded: “Tell him his father is a murderer of North Vietnamese children and that he is being punished.” The wives emerged too shattered to speak to the press.)
In spring 1970, which bloomed in the shadow of the expansion of the ground war into Cambodia and the martyrdom of four college students at Kent State University in Ohio, seven hundred POW/MIA relatives were flown to Washington at taxpayer expense for a rally hosted by the Daughters of the American Revolution and funded by defense contractors. Ross Perot testified before Congress of the North Vietnamese’s incredulity at all this concern over “just 1,400 men.” (Americans were
plainly more morally sensitive than Communists.) He then relayed how, when they told him of hospital wards shattered by American bombs, he promised to pay to rebuild them himself, as if that solved the problem. The first POW bracelets were unveiled at that spring’s annual “Salute to the Military” ball in Los Angeles. Governor Ronald Wilson Reagan presided, and Hollywood choreographer LeRoy Prinz, who had worked with Reagan on the 1944 film Hollywood Canteen, directed the grand cavalcade.
By then, Jonathan Schell of the New Yorker observed, the American people were acting “as though the North Vietnamese had kidnapped 400 Americans and the United States had gone to war to retrieve them.” Matchbooks, lapel pins, billboards, T-shirts, and bumper stickers (“POWs NEVER HAVE A NICE DAY!”) proliferated; fighter jets made thunderous football stadium fly-bys; full-page ads blossomed in every newspaper, urging Hanoi to have a heart and release the prisoners for the sake of the children. “They just dig holes in the ground and drop them in,” one wife explained to a magazine of her understanding of the Hanoi Hilton. “They throw food down to them, and let them live there in their waste.” She was confused. In fact she was precisely describing how prisoners were treated in South Vietnam, as revealed in a stunning photo essay from the American-built prison camp at Con Son Island in a July 1970 issue of Life.
Here was how the Vietnam War had deformed America: by making such intellectual distortion systematic—a “lunatic semiology,” as a wise historian later described it, where “sign and referent have scarcely any proportionate relation at all.” It was one of the reasons the suspicious circles began expanding exponentially, even into the ranks of POW families themselves—who reasoned that if Nixon said there would be war so long as there were prisoners, and the Communists said there would be prisoners so long as there was war, as Tom Wicker wrote, “we may keep both troops and prisoners there forever.”
In 1971, the summer the Times published the Pentagon Papers, revealing in the government’s own hand that most of what the American people had been told about Vietnam for twenty-five years had been lies, a rump group of antiwar wives broke off from Sybil Stockdale’s League of Families, demanding the White House stop treating their husbands as “political hostages.” They appeared on platforms with Jane Fonda and John Kerry, wrote letters to the president demanding “a complete troop withdrawal NOW!” and seconded the nomination of 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, who pledged to remove all American forces from Vietnam within sixty days of his inauguration.
But Richard Nixon said that this would be surrender, and that Americans did not surrender. He won his reelection mandate, 61 percent and forty-nine states. Seventy-eight days later he triumphantly announced “peace with honor.” His critics argued there had been no honor: that the terms he had arrived at were the same ones on the table when Lyndon Johnson began peace negotiations in 1968—purchased at the expense of 15,183 more American dead and four million more tons of American ordnance over North and South Vietnam. The evening news, meanwhile, showed skirmishes still breaking out in all three Southeast Asian nations, and American bombing runs continuing into Cambodia, where the government had almost ceased to function despite hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid—it sounded a little like South Vietnam ten years earlier. The story the administration was telling about prisoners of war was instrumental to how it was attempting to occlude these facts.
The POWs returned. God bless America. Let the healing begin.
FOUR HUNDRED PHOTOGRAPHERS, CAMERAMEN, JOURNALISTS, and support staff encamped at Clark Air Base in the Philippines to cover the return. Then they learned their contact with the heroes would be third-hand and censored—the better to preserve the men’s health, the Pentagon insisted, though according to the telegram the New York Times fired off to the secretary of defense “they were healthy enough to eat anything, horse around in the hospital, go shopping, see movies, and talk to virtually everyone else who runs into them.” So why couldn’t they speak with reporters? The Los Angeles Times printed the concerns of a sociology professor: “The last thing the Pentagon wants is the inevitable necessity of the public—via its surrogate, the press—confronting these men and discussing, in however imperfect form, the war they wasted their years upon.” Then, the explanation shifted: access to POWs would be limited to protect their privacy. The New York Times responded to that on the news pages: “They did not say, however, why the prisoners would be placed under orders forbidding public statements if they wanted to make them.” Then the Times reported a Pentagon policy that civilian POWs would be given medical treatment only if they agreed not to talk to the press.
On February 21 the newspaper of record, noting how the POWs’ praise for Richard Nixon sounded suspiciously close to the administration’s own catchphrases, reported that “the military’s repatriation effort was carefully programmed and controlled” by a team of nearly eighty military public relations men. The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Robert C. Maynard, echoed the argument the next morning in an essay
headlined “Return of the Prisoners: Script by the Military.” “Not surprisingly,” he concluded, “we received a number of paeans to ‘honorable peace’ and could only wonder how that phrase happened to be among the first to pop out of the mouths of men in captivity for such long periods of time.” He also said, “They return to a society more surely programmed in ‘them-against-us’ terms than the one they left.”
That was true enough. The Post, led by its investigative reporting team of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, had led all other media in foregrounding the scandal that ensued after men tied to Nixon’s White House and reelection campaign were caught breaking into the Watergate hotel and office complex back in June. The White House had made excoriating the Post’s alleged vendetta against it—and characterizing the Post as a pillar of the “liberal establishment”—central to its campaign rhetoric. And in March 1973, Nixon’s opinion of the Post was echoed when the entire letters page was given over to readers’ responses to the ombudsman’s report. Many defended the president. The POWs’ “feel gratitude toward [Nixon] for sticking out the war and making their own sacrifice meaningful,” a Henry T. Simmons of Washington wrote. “This has got to be intolerable to the Washington Post.” A retired Air Force officer wrote: “The media . . . must be embarrassed and galled. . . . Most Americans were thrilled. . . . You can be sure that I am not following a military script when I say, as I now do, ‘God bless America!’?” A housewife from Staunton, Virginia, signing her letter “Mrs. Frank J. McDonough,” noted, “Imagine Maynard’s reaction . . . if the men had returned bitter at their country and praising Hanoi the way he wanted them to. No mention would have been made of Hanoi propaganda, or the one-sided views of America presented in newspapers like yours that they were undoubtedly permitted to read. We would have heard nothing but praise for their ‘courage’ and ‘forthrightness’ in presenting ‘the truth.’ As a matter of fact, if even one POW does attack America, I’m sure it will be all over your front page.”
Others, however, spoke for the suspicious circles: “You really told it like it is,” a Dorothy Woodell of Sacramento, California, wrote, noting she had made Xerox copies of the article to send “to everyone I know.” She was certain “there is more to be said on the issue,” but added “I’m sure that if you had said it, it never would have been printed anyhow.”
THE POW STORY TOOK SHAPE as a domestic civil war. A new york Times dispatch from the Philippines recorded, “When one man deplaned here, his wife rushed toward him—but he warned her off with a stern whisper: ‘I have to salute the flag, don’t bother me.’?” A
February 23 front-page story by Seymour Hersh reported that “camp life included occasional fist fights, a few near-suicides, and many cliques. . . . One pilot reportedly pulled a knife on another prisoner during an argument.” It ran the day of returnees’ first stateside press conferences, where they insisted that with most of their comrades still in the hands of the enemy, they wouldn’t comment on what had happened in captivity. Aggressive network correspondents pushed and pushed, as if to break them. Rattled, Captain James Mulligan (who had recently learned his own wife had been an antiwar leader) grabbed a microphone. “I feel very strongly that it’s about time the American people started pulling together. It’s about time we all realize where we’re going! It’s about time we start raising the flag instead of burning it. I know people have strong feelings! . . . But we are all Americans. And it’s about time we all get back to, to—the main thing!”
The follow-up questions grew sharper. (“Are you 100 percent satisfied with the way the Nixon administration handled the war?”) The answers became more defensive. One POW said he was “fantastically impressed with the courage that President Nixon displayed in an election year”; Robinson Risner, one of the most famous of the POWs, who had been on the cover of Time in 1965 as “the classic example of the kind of dedicated military professional who was leading the American effort in Vietnam,” felt “beyond any doubt” that war protesters “kept us in prison an extra year or two.” “What do you think of the divisiveness?” an airman was asked. He responded, “Once a week we would get up and say the Pledge of Allegiance; we could not understand how people could be so unpatriotic as to condemn the Government in time of war and like Captain Mulligan said—and I think it’s a beautiful phrase—I think it’s time we start raising flags instead of burning them.” (The president underlined those words in his briefing on the press conferences.)
The New York Times kept rolling out exposés—for instance, reporting that the California-based organization known as VIVA, or “Voices in Vital America” (originally formed, with the intention of harassing campus antiwar activists, as the “Victory in Vietnam Association”), had earned $3,693,661 in 1972, “almost entirely” from sales of POW bracelets, which it marked up for a 400 percent profit, and that it hoped “sales of the bracelets with the names of those still missing may pick up now.” NBC ran an exposé from the South Vietnamese prison island of Con Son. Anchorman John Chancellor began by reminding viewers that North Vietnam had always offered to release American prisoners in exchange for prisoners held by South Vietnam, and that still, a month after
the peace settlement, “the South Vietnamese are holding about 100,000 political prisoners.” He appeared stricken by the cruel absurdity of the facts he was forced to relate. The reporter in the field, who had long hair, interviewed two American hospital workers in South Vietnam who said that if prisoners didn’t give the right answers to interrogators they “reached under the ribs and cracked the rib,” and presented before the cameras a feeble old woman, a former Con Son prisoner, her eyes swollen shut, being hand-fed like a baby because she could not eat by herself. Time’s correspondent described the released prisoners he had seen as “grotesque sculptures of scarred flesh and gnarled limbs. They move like crabs, skittering across the floor on buttocks and palms.”
On Wednesday, February 28, a shouting match broke out on the floor of the New York State Assembly. One assemblyman offered a resolution honoring Vietnam Veterans Week—“in support of liberty and freedom of all men” and in “rededication to the precepts that have made America such a tower of strength among the nations of the world.”
“This is a lot of bunk!” exploded Assemblyman Franz S. Leichter, Democrat of Manhattan. “We were fighting for Thieu and bamboo cages for his political opponents!”
A Republican from Brooklyn: “Your opposing this resolution is a disgrace as far as I’m concerned!”
A conservative Democrat: “I have stood this nonsense long enough. For three years I’ve listened to him and his peace movement. I ask you all in the spirit of America and the spirit of the American flag to vote in favor, and God bless America.”
A liberal: “There’s a lot of difference between blessing America and blessing Richard Milhous Nixon.” He added that it was “a credit to a nonwhite race who’d been invaded and pillaged that they did treat the prisoners the way they did.”
That Thursday, newspapers ran a United Press International interview with a Minnesota POW who reported that his darkest day in captivity came when he heard of the reelection of the president. On Friday the Nixon administration worked furiously on political damage control after its controversial announcement that North Vietnam would enjoy reconstruction aid as part of the postwar settlement. Routine in the case of previous wars, this time the proposal brought down a rain of political vituperation. After all, hadn’t the president himself said these Communists were merciless torturers?
On Sunday the next batch of 106 POWs left Hanoi, their cult more insistent, more pious, more defensively reactionary: “We wanted to come home, but we wanted to come home with honor,” a colonel
boomed from the tarmac microphone at Clark. “President Nixon has brought us home with honor. God bless those Americans who supported our President during our long ordeal.” On Monday the Post featured a profile headlined “Free Navy POW Sure U.S. Right in Asia,” whose subject said he was “glad to put my wife back in skirts. I think a woman should be a woman and not whatever they’re trying to be with all these movements.”
The skeptics were growing more insistent, too. “These people had their feet on the ground while in prison,” a Pentagon source told the Times’ Seymour Hersh for his article “POWs Planned Business Venture.” “They heard enough and knew enough . . . ‘to realize that there would be demands for books, speeches, and endorsements. . . . There’s really nothing sinful in taking advantage of what’s left,’ the officer said. ‘That’s the way to play the game.’?” “The POWs: Focus of Division,” the Times reported the next morning in a summary of Operation Homecoming so far. “It scares me in a way,” they quoted an official of the National League of Families as saying. “If the prisoners are not careful they will destroy their credibility. They’ve been away so long, they don’t realize the depth of division in this country.”
That depth of division: the same afternoon CBS announced a program it would be featuring in prime time, two nights later, an adapted version of a surreal off-Broadway drama that would soon win the Tony Award for best play, Sticks and Bones, by Vietnam veteran David Rabe. It opened on a bucolic suburban sitcom family. A sergeant shows up at the door to return their son, blinded in Vietnam. He can’t stay for coffee: “I’ve got trucks out there backed up for blocks. . . . And when I get back they’ll be layin’ all over the grass; layin’ there all over the grass, their backs been broken, their brains jellied, their insides turned into garbage. No-legged boys and one-legged boys. I’m due in Harlem; I got to get to the Bronx and Queens, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Reading. I don’t have time for coffee. I’ve got deliveries all over this country.” The father is named “Ozzie.” The mother is “Harriet.” They are so horrified that their son has fallen in love with a Vietnamese woman that they manipulate him into killing himself, then throw out his body with the trash.
Newsweek’s reviewer, a fellow traveler of the New Left who wrote under the pen name “Cyclops,” rhapsodized of the playwright: “Like a wounded Dreiser or a young O’Neill, he blunders into deep terrors and thrashes there. Such is his strength that he pulls us in after him. We are back among primal things, evil ceremonies, the sacrifice of the blind seer, the scapegoat become garbage, the rites claustrophobic. The final image on the TV screen is so perfect and so perfectly appalling that your
mind will want to throw up.” The Times’ critic thought the production “not very good,” though he said it went without saying that it had to be broadcast nonetheless.
Local CBS affiliates disagreed. “We did not feel it was appropriate for TV in Detroit, where our working-class audience would be offended,” said one station manager. An executive in Mississippi said, “They can’t sanitize it enough to what suits me.” After only two minutes of commercials were sold for the two-hour block, CBS’s president released a statement: “In light of recent developments, many of us both at the network and among the stations are now convinced that its presentation on the air at this time might be unnecessarily abrasive to the feelings of millions of Americans whose lives or attention are at the moment emotionally dominated by the returning POWs and other veterans who have suffered the ravages of war.”
The producer, Joseph Papp, said CBS was obligated to put on the show no matter who objected; it was a First Amendment issue. The American Civil Liberties Union got involved. A Syracuse, New York, station manager begged to be allowed to carry the feed: “Dammit, it’s real. Life isn’t just a bowl of cherries.” But when the network broadcast was canceled, he was forced to show a Steve McQueen movie just like every other affiliate. “Only a society with a great deal more self-confidence than ours could stand the disruptiveness of high art on TV,” wrote a liberal columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
On March 28, the last POW shot down over North Vietnam landed at Clark Air Base. His last name, coincidentally, was “Agnew,” just like the jingoistic vice president. But this Agnew brazenly told the press there was neither honor nor peace in the Paris settlement. It was a cover-up, he said, predicting that as soon as the last American troops left, Communist troops would overrun South Vietnam. That same day, the Yale psychology professor Robert J. Lifton, who a decade and a half earlier had helped explain how Communist captors had “brainwashed” American POWs during the Korea War, argued in the New York Times that it was the American people who now were being brainwashed—in the very act of sanctifying men whose job was “saturation bombing of civilian areas with minimal military targets,” but who were now held up as vessels of “pure virtue,” propaganda tools for the “official mythology of peace with honor,” in order to prevent the possibility of “extracting from this war its one potential benefit: political and ethical illumination arising from hard appraisals of what we did and why we did it.”
And also on that same day, CBS president William Paley gave word on Sticks and Bones: “We will run the show when things have calmed
down.” When things have calmed down: that had been what Operation Homecoming was supposed to have done.
There were two tribes of Americans now.
One comprised the suspicious circles, which had once been small, but now were exceptionally broad, who considered the self-evident lesson of the 1960s and the low, dishonest war that defined the decade to be the imperative to question authority, unsettle ossified norms, and expose dissembling leaders—a new, higher patriotism for the 1970s. They lived, for example, in the sleepy suburb in Northern California visited by a New York Times writer who reported back that “people think and feel differently from what they once did. They ask questions, they reject assumptions, they doubt what they are told.” They said things like, “Now I’d rather not say the pledge; it has such little meaning to me. The things that are in it just aren’t true.” They even included, among their numbers, career military men, like the returned POW who told NBC how much he appreciated returning to a country finally willing to reconsider its prejudices—“shedding its Linus blankets, starting to think for itself.” They included officials of the big, “mainline” Protestant churches, who took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, on the day the last POW came home, criticizing Nixon for hosting South Vietnam’s torture-master president, for whose preservation the nation had sacrificed some fifty-eight thousand soldiers and billions of dollars of treasure, as a “spiritual disaster for America”; and the American Psychological Association which proclaimed that the POWs had “been assigned the role of heroes in a war that has no heroes, the central role in an elaborate drama staged to provide justification for the President’s policy, to create the illusion of victory and to arouse a sense of patriotic fervor.”
And they included Lyndon Johnson’s former press secretary, Bill Moyers, whose job had once been to sell America on the nobility of the Vietnam cause, and who now was an avuncular commentator for the Public Broadcasting Service. On TV he grilled General Maxwell Taylor about whether the recent “unworthy and unwinnable war” had made it harder to recruit forces for the new all-volunteer force, now that the draft had ended with the beginning of 1973. The general responded that those who had fought in Vietnam would refuse that characterization. Moyers asked why, if that were so, record numbers of them had deserted. The general insisted that was only because they had been poisoned by the liberal media. Moyers then asked why, if that was the case, so many of our allied European governments opposed the Vietnam War, too. Taylor responded that this was because they read the U.S. press—which, he said, should have been subject to wartime censorship.
General Taylor had once been a favorite general of Kennedy-era liberals. Robert F. Kennedy had called him “relentless in his determination to get at the truth,” and named one of his sons after him. Now Maxwell Taylor was a tribune of the other tribe, the one that found another lesson to be self-evident: never break faith with God’s chosen nation, especially in time of war—truth be damned.
This was Richard Nixon’s tribe. The one that, by Election Day 1980, would end up prevailing in the presidential election. Though Richard Nixon, like Moses, would not be the one who led them to that promised land.
THE LAST FREEDOM BIRD ARRIVED at Travis Air Force Base in California to a spontaneous chorus of “God Bless America” from the crowd of 6,500 who had waited hours through typhoon-like rains that tore chunks off nearby buildings. A new round of celebrations blossomed: local boys throwing out first pitches for opening day; drum and bugle corps; ice cream, steak, endless proud patriotic bluster from bunting-draped platforms. The ceremonial bestowing of gifts: Free use of a brand-new Ford LTD for a year. Free admission to Walt Disney World. Free passes, plated in gold, to every major-league baseball game—forever. Captain John Nasmyth appeared, impromptu, on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.
And on the first of April, VIVA held a grand ball at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel hosted by Governor Reagan. Lorne Greene, who played the frontier patriarch on TV’s Bonanza, introduced the distinguished personages on the dais, including John Wayne and astronaut Buzz Aldrin. All wore POW bracelets. Singer Martha Raye, a veteran of USO tours, was escorted by a Green Beret, and wore a green beret, too. Pat O’Brien, who costarred as Knute Rockne with Ronald Reagan in Knute Rockne, All-American, announced the color guard, and led the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The president of Pepperdine University quoted Kipling.
Lorne Greene gestured for silence. The guests of honor marched forth in grand procession, two by two with their consorts, as the band struck up the anthem “Stout-Hearted Men”: “Start me with ten who are stout-hearted men, and I’ll soon give you ten thousand more.”
The man held longest in Hanoi finally took the stage. “Let it loose!” Greene commanded. The crowd rose as one. Their ovation lasted eight minutes.
The evening’s host took to the podium. Governor Reagan’s final peroration was addressed to the men: “You gave America back its soul.
God bless a country that can produce men like you.” He soon would sign a bill exempting them from state taxes on their earnings while they were in captivity—which could run, with combat pay and family allowances and retroactive promotions, to a lump sum, in 2010 figures, amounting to half a million dollars per POW. “It Won’t Be Enough,” read a headline in the Los Angeles Sentinel.
Then Reagan flew east—“back on the sawdust trail,” he told the cloud of reporters who had started following him everywhere, because it looked like he might be running for president. To an ecstatic reception at a luncheon of Young Republicans in Washington, he said this business about the Watergate bugging caper was not relevant to their party’s future: the presidential election of 1972 was “the most clear-cut choice in the last forty years,” a “head-on confrontation between two opposing philosophies that have polarized this nation.” Conservatism won, and would continue to win, he said—a curious argument given that the candidate who won had proposed programs of such dubiously conservative provenance as wage and price controls, a guaranteed minimum income, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Reagan traveled to New Orleans, where he extolled the virtues of free enterprise, cajoled his partisan audience to elect more Republicans to lesser offices, boasted of his recent welfare reform in California, and plugged his new tax limitation proposal. Then he brought up the stout-hearted men—and nearly couldn’t continue. He apologized afterward to reporters backstage: “I guess I’m going to have to quit talking about those fellows. I can’t do it without choking up.”
The reporters followed up a bit rabidly—asking whether he wrote his own speeches; about the recent appearance on TV of the last movie he made, The Killers, the only one in which he played a villain (“I wish they would stop showing it”); about whether he was running for president. (They always asked that; he always demurred, insisting, “The office seeks the man.”)
Next, in Atlanta, he called Watergate a partisan witch hunt. The president already had his own Justice Department prosecuting the burglars, he said—“What more can you ask?”
He struck reporters as foolishly blithe. One of the Watergate burglars had just told the nation that the White House had pressured him to lie, in a cover-up he suspected went straight to the Oval Office, and that “members of my family have expressed fear for my life if I disclose the facts in this matter.” Barry Goldwater said, “It’s beginning to be like Teapot Dome.” Republican officials reported fund-raising was near a standstill.
Only Reagan was calm. “This man has just been elected,” he had reassured the anxious Young Republicans in Washington. Republicans possessed a “2-to-1 majority philosophically.” Watergate did not matter—except if the liberals obsessively pursuing what he privately called the president’s “lynching” were allowed to let it matter. At his weekly press conference in Sacramento, he called the president “a truthful man.” In Atlanta he praised Nixon for refusing to allow his aides to testify before the Senate investigating committee. A reporter promptly pointed out that, no, the president had recently reversed course and ordered his aides to cooperate. Blithely indifferent to the contradiction, Reagan said he supported that, too, then promptly dismissed the whole matter with a quip. Democrats were in hysterics about someone bugging their office? “It seems to me that they should have been happy that somebody was willing to listen to them.” Then he excused himself to meet with twenty-five top party contributors.
Let some cry havoc. Just this sort of performance of blitheness in the face of what others called chaos was fundamental to who Ronald Reagan was. It was fundamental to why he made so many others feel so good. Which was fundamental to what he was to become, and the way he changed the world.