Forgotten Women? Did Americans Care about Wives of American Servicemen in Vietnam

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Forgotten Women? Did Americans care about wives of American servicemen in Vietnam?. Or were many wives' suspicions well-founded, was W. H. Auden right? About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters: how well they understood Its human position; how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just/walking dully along. [WH Auden quoted in The Living and The Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of A Lost War]. Indeed, national magazine stories of the Vietnam Era suggest that editors thought Americans cared. Wives did not hold center spotlight, but a synthesis of their images provides a new and fascinating look at the Vietnam Era and the social and cultural upheaval of the Sixties, and provides a number of questions for further research.

My research into the history of wives of American men serving in Vietnam, 1961 to 1975, began with a search of national magazines for stories about these women. Although I assumed that I would find little because of my lingering sense that the public did not care what happened to those involved in Vietnam, I hoped to find much. My search was rewarded by a fascinating collection of articles found in news magazines, human interest magazines, women's magazines, and an initial foray into the New York Times files. Repeated readings revealed connections between stories, and a chronological pattern that reflected developments in American public opinion and society as well as in the course of the war. It is important to remember that these stories presented only images of the women that were dictated by editorial policy, or the mission of the writers, or what the public seemed to want to know and would sell magazines.

In the early period, through 1965, the images of wives of servicemen were 1950s version of attractive, home keeping, home loving white middle class women. As women whose husbands had made the military a career, the women appeared dutiful, self sacrificing, and fully supportive of the military's mission in Vietnam. As a study of military families put it, "The military wife really came into her own, for better or worse, the period between 1945 and 1965. She was encouraged to be adaptable, uncomplaining, compliant, flexible, supportive and competent in any situation."(1) The stories suggested that the wives formed communities of women for support, advice, and perhaps military regulation. The press applauded these wives as they watched their husbands fly off to suppress the communist insurgency in Vietnam. Protest against the war in Vietnam increased and reached fever pitch between 1966 and 1968. As Americans and the American press examined the war and their society's cultural, social, racial and gender biases in the turbulent mid- 1960s, multiple images of military wives replaced the single image of the early war. Articles about black, Vietnamese, and other foreign born military wives appeared. Magazines presented draftees' wives as well as career wives. The sense of communities of wives faded although traces could be found. The press tracked wives' political opinions and growing ambivalence about the war. A mocking tale of a poor, white military couple presented a shocking contrast to the glamorous White House wedding of Lynda Byrd Johnson, offering her sacrifice to her father's war.

From 1969 to 1972, new messages and new images emerged from the previous chaotic years. Magazines instructed and analyzed wives' political, mental health and wifely responsibilities to their homecoming husbands, admitting that the conduct of this war had posed new problems for the men. But the more dramatic and powerful set of stories concentrated on the POW/MIA wives, many of them career military wives, who took responsibility for the very homecoming of their husbands. This community of women pushed aside the constraints of civilian and military authorities and publicized, lobbied, and demanded attention to their husbands' plight, and magazine writers followed them with avid attention. …