Book Reviews -- M. I. A. or Mythmaking in America by H. Bruce Franklin

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M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America. H. Bruce Franklin. Brooklyn: Lawrence Hill Books, 1992. 225 pp. 1 $17.95 clothbound.

The history of the United States's obsession--no other term is strong enough--with the notion that its soldiers are still alive in Southeast Asia, tortured and imprisoned and awaiting rescue, is fascinating and in of itself, a story that needed to be told. Professor Franklin, a one-time intelligence officer with the Strategic Air Command and currently member of the Rutgers faculty with numerous books to his credit, has pulled together a history that has long been buried in the clouds of dust raised by this issue. If this work has two failings, they do not include his grasp on the facts of the case.

The national reaction to Vietnam was without precedent, as was the war itself, being one of the first wars delivered to mass media with relatively little filtering. Unlike the journalism of Ernie Pyle, whose writings were subject to time-lag and military censorship, Vietnam became a video laboratory for combat journalism. Images were carried "live" (or at least as live as film could make them) to television in several hard news formats, from the authorized Defense Department clips to the documentaries sponsored by the networks. When the war took an ugly turn, and confounded the optimistic line out of Washington, with the 1968 Tet Offensive, the American viewing public saw more than they cared to see.

Enter the villain of the piece, in Franklin's eyes: Richard M. Nixon. Here was a man who traded on appearance throughout his political career, from exploiting Whittaker Chambers' set-up of Alger Hiss (who Russian files revealed in November 1992 to have been innocent of espionage) to his Checkers speech, a masterful deflection of charges of financial impropriety, to his advice to the Watergate handlers to "PR it through." Franklin contends that Nixon, who vaguely promised peace in the 1968 campaign, consciously decided to redefine the war issue by rallying public opinion for the release of American prisoners of war from Hanoi. There followed a Machiavellian numbers game as Washington commingled the military categories, kept separate until then, of Missing in Action and Prisoners of War. The former category, which consisted in large part of fliers lost at sea, in jungles or other circumstances where recovery of a body was at best unlikely, were linked to the Prisoners of War known to be kept captive by the North Vietnamese. By pushing at the Paris peace talks for, in effect, an accounting of the unaccountable from Hanoi, Franklin argues, Nixon was able to maintain a troop presence in Vietnam throughout his first term that, otherwise, public opinion would have demanded he reduce or remove. When the war did end and the POWs were repatriated, the Nixon White House turned it into a media event labeled Operation Homecoming.

At this point the Frankenstein monster (Franklin's metaphor) starts getting out of hand. The numbers game played between Washington and Hanoi meant that not all the supposed POWs came back in 1973. Some activists turned fanatic, obsessed with the notion that Americans still were kept, for some reason or other, by the Vietnamese. These theories, ranging from slave labor to convoluted drug-running scams involving the Central Intelligence Agency to the POWs being held hostage by Hanoi to protest Nixon's refusal to provide reparations money, have two things in common: they strain logical credulity, and yet they find adherents among the POW activists. These flames have been fanned both in fact (by POWS such as Jeremiah Denton, Vice Presidential candidate James Stockdale and the flamboyant "Bo" Gritz) and fiction, notably the pulp novels of Jack Buchanan and the "Rambo" films.

This is one of the flaws of the book: that, as far as Franklin goes in examining the very aspect of mythmaking, he does not go far enough. (The other flaw is his stridently political tone. He seems in too much of a rush to condemn Nixon et al. …