Left Behind:

Cinematic Revisions of the Vietnam POW

Former President Reagan



1979 -1986


   Starting in 1979 and continuing into the early 1980's, POW films would revisit Vietnam and the POW image in superhero rescue films. Evidence that North Vietnam had not returned all of our prisoners of war trickled into the popular culture's radar screen and started to play out in the medium of film, which attracted a huge audience. Characters such as Rambo not only combat North Vietnamese but also government officials who do not want it revealed that prisoners are still being held. This reflects the widespread publicity of the POW myth. Further lending high profile support to the cause was former President Ronald Reagan, who promised he would make finding any remaining POWs a national priority.


   The 1980s ushered in a resurgence of American pride. Reagan gives POW bracelet he had worn to prisoner who returned Ronald Reagan’s August 1980 campaign speech reference "to Vietnam as a noble cause” (Auster and Quart, 80) allowing the public to view Vietnam veterans and Vietnam POWs in a different light. Those vehemently against the war, including some intellectuals and writers, now spoke more highly of the Vietnam veteran. Michael Blumenthal, a draft resister, wrote in a 1981 New Yorker article that "the Vietnam veterans have something that we haven't got...I'm not sure they didn't turn out to be better men in the best sense of the word" (qtd. in Auster and Quart 97). This new feeling of regret that those who didn't fight in the war owed something to those who did was labeled Vietnam guilt chic. Another draft resister, James Fallow, an editor for the Atlantic Monthly, asserted that "veterans were strengthened and became more mature through the experience" (qtd. in Auster and Quart 97). Vietnam's invasion of Laos and Cambodia and Pol Pot's genocide after the United States pulled out contributed to the idea that America's presence was needed and wanted in Vietnam. The antiwar movements portrayal of the North Vietnamese as "freedom-loving, anticolonialists, peasant revolutionaries was proven false" (Auster and Quart, 82).

   Beginning in 1982, public awareness about possible POWs in Vietnam gained momentum. For the first time, some high profile military personnel revealed evidence of past and present government ineptness Parade magazine coversurrounding this issue. J.C. Pollock's best selling 1982 novel Mission M.I.A. included an introduction by Major General John K. Singlaub who stated that "exhaustive interrogation sessions, including polygraph tests, have convinced even skeptical U.S. authorities that many of the Vietnamese refugee reports are valid" (Pollock, 1) concerning POWs still in Vietnam. The construction of the Vietnam memorial in 1982 and the POW flag substantially highlighted the issue. The memorial creators placed a special mark next to the names of men who were still MIA. The black POW flag picturing a prisoner, guard tower, and the words "you are not forgotten" haunted America. The POW flag has the distinction of being the only flag other than the stars and stripes to fly over the White House; it has flown there once a year since 1982. In May 1985, 25,000 vets marched down Broadway in a traditional shower of ticker-tape with veterans wearing POW bracelets and T-shirts with the POW symbol. Some veterans wished that this belated homecoming included POWs they believed still remained in Vietnam and Laos. These media generating events made the public start to examine the past administrations' policies regarding POWs.

   One military officer attempted to find out first hand if POWs remained. In 1982, Special Forces Colonel James "Bo" Gritz organized a search and rescue team with donated money from Clint Eastwood and William Shatner among others, to go into Laos. Eastwood wanted the movies rights if the mission proved successful. At one time, Gritz had been part of the secret Pentagon agency know as "The Activity" (Franklin 160). But Laotian forces ambushed his team when they arrived and captured one man. The American was released only after a $17,500 ransom was paid. Supposedly Reagan sent a message to Gritz that stated "if you bring out one American POW, I will start World War III to get the rest out" (Muse 197). Subsequently, Colonel Gritz mission inspired the movie Uncommon Valor. Unfortunately, Gritz botched escapade put a damper on any other attempts. Some believe that Gritz's failure destroyed any hope of finding prisoners even if they existed.

Vietnam Memorial

   Reagan committed to finding any remaining prisoners. In 1983, White House officials meet in New York with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach to discuss joint crash site searches, emphasizing "the importance of the live prisoner issue" (Stern 30). Officials stated that the numbers released in 1973 seemed inexplicably small, just 591, and included only healthy men. Robert C. McFarlane, President Reagan's national security adviser announced in October of 1985 to a forum of business executives and political consultants that "there have to be live Americans there" (Franklin 157). Why were these proclamations being made now after all of this time? Specific cases appeared that led families and some government officials to believe that the Vietnamese had not been truthful.

    One such case occurred Richard Armitage, Pentagon Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs meets with Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister on August 14, 1985, when Vietnam returned the remains of black American aviator Clemie McKinney who had been listed as MIA since the end of the war. An anthropologist from The United States Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii stated that the "time of death as not earlier than 1975 and probably several years later (Sauter & Saunders 214). Incidences such as these convinced some officials that Americans were still living in 1973. Whether they were still alive or had been killed in the late 70s was something that had to be discovered. Another incident occurred in 1988, when a US spy satellite photographed a rice paddy in a Laotian town. A giant "USA" along with a smaller K appeared across the rice paddy. "Pentagon escape and evasion experts" from the JSSA testified that the K possibly was a "classified symbol used by pilots in need of rescue" (Stevenson & Stevenson 304). Nothing was done about this finding until word of it leaked out in the Senate hearings of 1992.

   Marian Shelton, wife of Colonel Charles Shelton, the only American still listed as a POW in General Eugene Tighe, former DIA director1985, told 60 minutes in that same year that "different agencies have a mind set to ignore the intelligence they're getting, and I don't think they are giving it to the President. Maybe in the beginning it was neglect on wanted the war to be over. People didn't want to think we'd left men over there, then they got ashamed of themselves, regretted it, and just like any lie, it all got bigger and bigger" (Stevenson & Stevenson 108). Evidence seemed to support Mrs. Shelton's assertions. In September of 1985, Admiral Thomas Brooks, a former DIA official stated that "follow-up actions have not been pursued" and a "mindset to debunk [possible leads] has resulted in sloppy analysis" (Sauter & Saunders 298). General Eugene Tighe, the former Director of the DIA, stated in September of 1986 that "there is evidence that Americans remain alive in Vietnamese custody against their will, even in the limited sample of reports we reviewed" and that the "greatest problem associated with the POW/MIA issue is the lack of professional analysis of the available intelligence" (Sauter & Saunders 299). Movies during this time period would symbolically settle this issue without a corrupt government's help and get the prisoners home.