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POW-MIA stands for Prisoners Of War and Missing In Action. In the United States, it, and the associated black flag with the "POW-MIA" logo on it, are part of a widely believed conspiracy theory that the government of Vietnam secretly and maliciously continued to hold American prisoners of war long after the end of the Vietnam War into the 1980s, and may still be holding them today.
This myth is so widely believed that some municipalities fly the black POW-MIA flag over the city hall or their post office--it's even been known to fly over some states' capitol buildings, even California's. The flag is also a common sight at "Rolling Thunder" motorcycle runs, and several hucksters collected money during the 1980s for their abortive missions to Southeast Asia to locate American POWs. Four decades after the war's end, it shows no sign of dying out.
History, impact and investigations
It's a myth, folks. Vietnam released all living U.S. prisoners of war back to the U.S. in 1973. The majority of POWs taken during the Vietnam War were pilots shot down over North Vietnam, like John McCain. Most potential POW-MIAs who were ground troops would probably have been killed on the spot, since the Viet Cong were guerrilla soldiers who could not afford to keep American prisoners with them. The vast majority of "MIAs" that remained unaccounted for at the end of the Vietnam War are widely believed to have been killed in action (KIA) running secret, illegal missions within or over Cambodia, the government listing them as MIAs instead of KIAs in order to prevent the media from finding out that they were invading a neutral country.
This legend originated, like so many horrible things from its era, with Richard Nixon. Throughout his first term, Nixon used POWs as leverage in his negotiations with North Vietnam, claiming he wouldn't end the conflict unless North Vietnam and the Vietcong returned all American prisoners. Never mind that POWs are generally returned after a war concludes. Even after January 1973, with the Paris Peace Accords and the return of POWs in Operation Homecoming, Nixon still publicly insisted that the Vietnamese return (likely nonexistent) prisoners, in an effort to neutralize public criticism. Helped by right-wingers like H. Ross Perot and Congressman Bob Dornan, grassroots POW organizations and the media, the myth quickly took hold in public consciousness.
Long after Nixon resigned and Saigon fell to the Communists, the story persisted. Rambo: First Blood Part II, Missing In Action, Missing In Action II, Uncommon Valor, P.O.W.: The Escape, and numerous other movies focused on the myth, as did books and television episodes. Ronald Reagan's administration exploited the controversy to revise American perception of the war; by focusing on POWs, conservatives reframed the conflict as a valiant anti-Communist struggle instead of an unpopular, morally dubious intervention.
Throughout the '70s, '80s and even into the '90s, there were numerous "live POW sightings" by travelers in Southeast Asia. Ultimately, these resembled "live Bigfoot sightings" in that nobody ever saw one that was actually there. There were also numerous privately funded "rescue" operations by Bo Gritz and others. At least one expedition in the '80s was encouraged, if not bankrolled, by the People's Republic of China, which then had less-than-friendly relations with Vietnam.
Because of a desire to leave no man behind, the United States Senate set up a committee to investigate these claims, and found that the Vietnamese government more or less complied as best as it could with its treaty obligations. Since the normalization of relations with Vietnam in the 1990s, there have been efforts to recover and identify the remains of MIAs in Vietnam. Such efforts, as well as promoting awareness of POW/MIA issues for all wars (including Iraq) have since become the focus of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, the largest POW-MIA advocacy group, although they devote a lot of effort to the much more reasonable goal of identifying and bringing home bodies found in POW camps or other places in Vietnam and Korea.
The John Hartley Robertson Hoax
Toronto media, notably the Toronto Star and Maclean's magazine , have recently given the POW-MIA conspiracy some new lifeblood. Film critics from Toronto papers and magazines have credulously reported the notions, expressed in the 2013 Hot Doc's documentary Unclaimed, that a "left behind" vet declared KIA was found living in a village in Vietnam. Film critics seemed to ignore the wealth of information online that the man claiming to be John Hartley Robertson was a known hoaxer. Fingerprints and DNA taken from the man in the Unclaimed documentary did not match reference samples. A simple phone call by Toronto reporters or even the filmmaker to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office would have revealed this information.
- H. Bruce Franklin, M.I.A., or Mythmaking in America (1993), pp. 105-113
- Franklin, 39-75
- Franklin, 137-140
- cf. Franklin 124-125, 129-130
- Franklin, 117-120
- http://www.fas.org/irp/congress/1993_rpt/pow-exec.html The committee's report.
- Barnard, Linda. "Hot Docs premiere Unclaimed finds a Vietnam veteran left behind for 44 years", The Toronto Star, 25 April 2013. Retrieved on 15 May 2013.
- Barnard, Linda. "Unclaimed: Controversy erupts over man claiming to be missing Vietnam veteran", The Toronto Star, 2 May 2013. Retrieved on 15 May 2013.
- Johnson, Brian. "Forty years later in a village in Vietnam", Maclean's Magazine, 29 April 2013. Retrieved on 15 May 2013.
- Johnson, Brian. "Who’s the ‘slick fraudster’—the man claiming he’s an MIA or the U.S. military?", Maclean's Magazine, 2 May 2013. Retrieved on 15 May 2013.
- Mamer, Karl. "Did a Canadian filmmaker find a left behind Vietnam vet or did credulous Toronto media give new life to an old scam?", Skeptic North, 14 May 2013. Retrieved on 15 May 2013.
- Mamer, Karl. "How Western journalists in Vietnam and POW NGOs were not fooled by tales of MIA Vet back from the dead", Skeptic North, 15 May 2013. Retrieved on 15 May 2013.