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How We Still Live with the Vietnam War

Book shows POW/MIA activism moved American politics to the right

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October 5, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- For Northwestern University historian Michael Allen -- born a year after the withdrawal of American combat troops from Vietnam and who came of age in Kansas -- the specter of American POWs abandoned in Vietnam was omnipresent.

In "Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs and the Unending Vietnam War," Allen explores the origins and implications of that image, arguing that the POW/MIA movement not only helped erode support for the Vietnam War but also moved American politics in a distinctly conservative direction.

His book suggests that POW/MIA politics helped frame Vietnam as a story not simply about American defeat but as a story in which the U.S. government, antiwar activists and voices of moderation bear the blame for that defeat.

The result is an enduring but debatable depiction of a Vietnam War in which the U.S. government "threw in the towel and abandoned its servicemen after antiwar activists allegedly caused Americans to lose heart instead of taking the necessary steps to achieve victory," says Allen, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences assistant professor of history.

Allen's work is one of a small number of book-length studies that use archival sources to understand the war's end and postwar effects. "Historians have tended to focus on the origins of the war, leaving cultural studies scholars to explore its legacies," Allen says.

That means that in their efforts to make sense of the Vietnam War's legacies, scholars have focused more on  the Vietnam of movies, memorials and popular culture than on political activists and policymakers. Allen's book title borrows from the 1984 Chuck Norris film "Missing in Action," but his research draws from government archives, Congressional records and unpublished materials from POW and MIA organizations.

By publicizing POW/MIA suffering, POW/MIA families declared themselves the final arbiters of what is a just war, who is a victim of war and who has the right to talk about war. Similarly, Allen says, Iraq war critics have used the multiple deployments of today's military to challenge U.S. policy, suggesting that professional military and their families are prisoners to an endless war.

Allen's look at POW/MIA politics explains why such arguments proved attractive to many Americans during the Vietnam War, but it also suggests reasons for caution.

"In the end, the POW/MIA perspective represents Americans as victims of U.S. foreign policy and tends to erase the suffering of America's opponents in war," Allen says. "What's more, it ultimately avoids more probing questions about the wisdom and ethics of waging war." 

For more about "Until the Last Man Comes Home," visit The University of North Carolina Press Web site at http://uncpress.unc.edu/browse/book_detail?title_id=1666.