Week of May 26

Week of May 26

The National League of Families was founded in 1969. Its official incorporation on May 28, 1970, was the culmination of numerous smaller movements started throughout the United States in the 1960s by the families of prisoners of war (POWs) and those missing in action (MIA). At that time, many families were frustrated by what they felt was a lack of focus on behalf of the federal government on the plight of American prisoners of war. A number of people, primarily the spouses and children of those imprisoned or missing, formed local organizations in places like San Diego, California, Norfolk, Virginia, and elsewhere. Many of these organizations and their memberships were instrumental in the creation of the larger National League of Families.

The league’s stated objective was “to obtain the release of all prisoners, the fullest possible accounting of the missing, and repatriation of all recoverable remains of those who died serving our nation during the Vietnam War.” This objective, with the help of the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, remains the league’s mission today.

One of the league’s founders and first chairperson was Sybil Stockdale, who was married to U.S. Navy pilot and Vietnam War POW James Stockdale. Sybil famously worked with Navy intelligence officers to communicate in cryptographic code with James in captivity through their personal letters to each other. Other early members of the league included Louise Mulligan, Jane Denton, Doris Day, Anne Purcell, Carol O. North, Maureen Dunn, Phyllis Galanti, and Valerie Kushner.

The league helped raise consciousness about the ongoing plight of prisoners, the missing, and their families through activities such as letter-writing campaigns, POW bracelet sales, and presentations in local communities. The league worked outside the United States as well, as when a handful of members met with North Vietnamese officials in Paris on more than one occasion. Though these meetings never resulted in any permanent concessions on the part of North Vietnam, they indirectly helped ensure that the prisoners and missing for whom the league was fighting remained on the international political agenda. After its incorporation in May 1970, the National League of Families quickly became the largest of the POW/MIA family organizations, and it helped focus the national and international public on POW issues. Partly in response to the formation of the National League of Families and the numerous other POW/MIA organizations across the country, President Richard M. Nixon commissioned the “Go Public” campaign in 1969, with the goal of pressuring Hanoi to reveal a complete list of POWs in captivity and to comply with the Geneva Conventions for humane treatment of prisoners of war.

After the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 and the return of POWs in Operation HOMECOMING, the National League of Families began to shift most of its focus to those still missing in action. Since then, the United States, through the Defense Department’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency, has accounted for 1,026 American servicemen who were once listed as MIA in Southeast Asia. As of May 12, 2016, 1,620 individuals remain unaccounted for. The National League of POW/MIA Families remains active in the nation’s capital and throughout the country today. It is based in Falls Church, Virginia, and is almost wholly staffed by volunteers.1

1Spencer C. Tucker, The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History (2nd edition; Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 796–97, 1167–68; “About the League,” The National League of POW/MIA Families, http://www.pow-miafamilies.org/about-the-league/ (accessed 4/22/14) (see this page for quoted material); “Vietnam-Era Statistical Report” Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, http://www.dpaa.mil/portals/85/Documents/VietnamAccounting/2016_stats/Stats20160512.pdf (accessed 5/24/16). See also the agency’s home page at http://www.dpaa.mil (accessed 5/24/16); Stuart I. Rochester, The Battle Behind Bars: Navy and Marine POWs in the Vietnam War (Washington, D.C.: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2010), 57; Vernon E. Davis, The Long Road Home: U.S. Prisoner of War Policy and Planning in Southeast Asia (Washington, D.C.: Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2000), 220–22; Thomas M. Hawley, The Remains of War: Bodies, Politics, and the Search for American Soldiers Unaccounted for in Southeast Asia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 18–19, 224; Maureen Ryan, The Other Side of Grief: The Home Front and the Aftermath in American Narratives of the Vietnam War (Amherst, MA: University Of Massachusetts Press, 2008), 127.