‘The League of Wives’: Learning the untold story of the wives of MIA, POW soldiers in Vietnam
SHEPHERDSTOWN — “The National League has always been nonpolitical, nonpartisan, but at the end of the war in 1972-1973, they started to splinter. The real strength of the league, everybody thought, was its nonpartisan position,” said author Heath Hardage Lee at the Robert C. Byrd Center on Friday night.
Visiting Shepherdstown to discuss her new book, “The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the U.S. Government to Bring Their Husbands Home from Vietnam,” Lee gave audience members a taste of her book’s revelations on the role of the wives whose husbands were prisoners of war or missing in action during the Vietnam War.
According to Lee, the wives were faced with a country that didn’t understand their situation and a war that seemed to have no end.
“I’ve worked with Senator Bob Dole a lot on this story for my book,” Lee said. “Bob Dole said when he came to Congress, no one knew what ‘POW’ or ‘MIA’ meant — it was almost like a national denial that this was going on. It was at this time the National League was formed.”
The National League of Families began with the wives on the West Coast creating support groups for themselves, as they dealt with raising their children and having to live the semblance of a normal life, not knowing if their husbands would return. Some of the MIA soldiers were in the hands of the People’s Army of Vietnam for as long as eight years.
“By 1967, they formed the San Diego League of Wives, which turned into the national group,” Lee said. “It was sort of like a therapy group, but then they got serious about lobbying.”
Some MIA wives were encouraged by the government to use their letters for espionage, using hidden writing or codes to get and receive information about their husbands’ treatment in the northern Vietnamese concentration camps. When they learned the horrific details of their husbands’ incarceration, they realized they needed to make it public knowledge.
Publicizing the details of the People’s Army of Vietnam’s inhumane treatment started with one San Diego newspaper guest column written by Sybil Stockdale. Other wives followed suit, and then as the National League formed in Washington, D.C., the lobbying took a national and international turn. National League leaders visited the White House and Europe, leaving hundreds of letters at the doors of the northern Vietnam consulates in Paris, France and Sweden.
“They go to demand information about their husbands, but their real meaning to do it, is to get publicity,” Lee said, mentioning the lobbying paid off, with many of the pilots returning home a couple of years later.
The rights to Lee’s book have been bought by Reese Witherspoon’s movie company, and Lee will be a consultant and producer on it, if it is made into a movie. The book is also being featured by the traveling exhibit, “The League of Wives: Vietnam POW MIA Advocates & Allies,” which is currently in the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.