“THE Navy Wife,” a U.S. military-approved protocol guide written by former military wives, was first published in the early 1940s. This military manual offered plenty of practical advice, but it also propagated not-so-subtle social prescriptions to military wives.
The 1965 edition of “The Navy Wife” ominously claimed: “Wives influence their husbands in many ways, and the excellence of a man’s performance of duty has a direct relationship to the happiness and stability of his home life.”
In exchange for their devotion to duty and relegation primarily to the domestic sphere, military wives could expect support, protection and assistance from their branch of the military service when tragedy struck.
“You are more of a VIP than you know, and the Navy looks at you not just as another statistic but as a vitally important part of the Navy team.”
Yet during the Vietnam War, when American pilots were shot down by the hundreds, becoming prisoners of war and missing in action, the military and government support that military wives had been promised turned out to be almost nonexistent.
Most 1960s era POW and MIA wives had spent their entire married lives following traditional domestic codes. They were supportive, patriotic military spouses who had willingly moved from base to base, city to city in support of their husband’s careers. They raised their children, headed up women’s groups at their churches, and fundraised for charitable groups.
These experiences armed the women with resources they would need for a fight they never knew was coming.
Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the military ordered POW MIA wives and their families to adhere to a “Keep Quiet” policy regarding POWs and MIAs in Vietnam. At the start of the Vietnam conflict, the wives were informed that if they talked about their husbands’ capture, it might negatively affect the men’s treatment in prison. Speaking out might diminish their chances of ever returning home.
West Coast Navy POW wife Sybil Stockdale was the first to realize that her government’s approach was misguided and that time was running out for American prisoners of war and missing in action.
Sybil and other POW wives knew for a fact that their husbands were being tortured due to the coded letters that some wives were sending back and forth to their imprisoned husbands. Still, LBJ’s administration denied that such torture was going on for fear it might derail negotiations with the North Vietnamese.
As it turned out, “Keeping Quiet” was in fact killing captured American servicemen as their years of torture, starvation and neglect passed.
When Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, the government’s attitude changed. The new administration quickly understood the power these women held and their public relations value. Helping American POWs and MIAs was a unifying cause for the entire country.
Sybil and POW MIA wives realized that their individual voices were quickly dismissed. Instead, the women formed a national, non-political group: The National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.
Soon, they gained powerful allies such as Kansas Sen. Robert Dole, California Gov. Ronald Reagan, and Texas mogul Ross Perot. Sybil and her League of Wives found that they had the ability to dramatically change public awareness of the POW MIA situation using their best ally-the media- to transmit their May Day distress call for help
These ladies would never have called themselves “feminists.” Still, POW MIA wives were taking note of the words and actions of feminist leaders as well the techniques of civil rights leaders as they plotted their strategy. These conservative military wives swam in the subversive soup of 1960s home front ferment and became savvy human rights activists by necessity.
The Vietnam War POW and MIA wives rose to impossible challenges and prevailed. The women of the National League exposed the torture of captured American servicemen; took the North Vietnamese to task for their violations of the Geneva Conventions; and helped force them to the negotiating table.
Ultimately, these women helped to bring the American prisoners home and demanded an accurate accounting of the missing.
Along the way, they changed the role of military wives from one relegated primarily to the domestic sphere to that of an empowered diplomatic force both at home and abroad.
Heath Hardage Lee, author of “The League of Wives,” will speak in the Crawley Great Lives Series on Tuesday, April 9. The talk will be at 7:30 p.m. in Dodd Auditorium on the University of Mary Washington campus, and is open to the public free of charge.