The League of Wives
- By Heath Hardage Lee
- St. Martin’s Press
- 336 pp.
- Reviewed by Tom Glenn
- April 4, 2020
Meet the courageous spouses who beat the odds to help their POW partners.
The League of Wives tells the story of women married to prisoners of war (POWs) and to men missing in action (MIAs) during the Vietnam War and the women’s unflinching, and eventually successful, efforts to ameliorate the barbaric treatment accorded the men by North Vietnam.
At the height of its power, the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia consisted of almost 3,000 members. It was led by Sybil Stockdale on the West Coast; Jane Denton, Louise Mulligan, and Phyllis Galanti on the East Coast; and later, by Helene Knapp in the inland. It was officially formed on May 28, 1970.
It was long before that, however, when wives of POWs and MIAs found one another in their grief. Beginning in 1965, as air attacks against North Vietnam were launched, pilots shot down were confined to prisons that became notorious for their cruelty. Their wives clung to one another for comfort.
To appreciate the nature of the league and its eventual success, the reader must understand the traditional role of a military wife in the 1960s and 1970s. Wives of soldiers, sailors, and airmen had to accept the regimen that the military imposed on them. They had to face long periods of separation while their husbands were abroad.
They had to appear self-effacing yet were also required to be as strong as their husbands. They had to establish and maintain a platform of support for their husbands, who faced life-threatening action. Among other things, they needed to stay out of the limelight; they had to be all but invisible.
As the war in Vietnam dragged on and the number of POW and MIA wives grew, they approached the federal government for information on their husbands: where they were and how they were being treated. As the government counseled them to “keep quiet,” stories of ill treatment and torture of POWs surfaced. The women became more strident in their demands that the government act.
The women found one another. They eventually formed the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia and went public with their demands for action. They traveled to Europe to meet with North Vietnamese officials, publicized North Vietnamese mistreatment of prisoners, and roused international denunciation of the cruelty their husbands were being subjected to.
Ross Perot became one of their supporters, and the women were finally invited to meet with high U.S. government officials, eventually including President Nixon. Thanks primarily to the women’s efforts, the North Vietnamese gradually improved the conditions the POWs were subjected to. In short, by dint of skillful organization, hard work, and dogged perseverance, the league and the women who formed it were spectacularly successful.
The League of Wives is a galvanizing read, animated by the forceful leadership by Sybil Stockdale and other wives who made history. Author Heath Hardage Lee’s skillful organization of her vast amount of raw material (39 pages of notes and bibliography) renders this complex story clear and powerful.
That said, the book, like all others, is imperfect. Lee’s writing is occasionally less than pristine, and she sometimes repeats herself. But more important to me was her imperfect understanding of the Vietnam War. She fails, for example, to identify the Viet Cong (VC) as minions of the North Vietnamese rather than an independent force, and she sometimes get Vietnamese place names wrong (e.g., Hoa Loa for Hoa Lo and Bien Ho for Bien Hoa).
Most readers, of course, won’t even notice these small flaws. They will instead be mesmerized by the story of the strong and determined women of the league and what they achieved. I am among those who bow in admiration of them.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2019.]
Every year between 1962 And 1975, Tom Glenn, who speaks Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, spent at least four months in Vietnam as a clandestine signals intelligence operative before escaping under fire when Saigon fell. He has 17 short stories and four novels in print, with another novel and a collection of short stories due out next year. Most of his fiction is about Vietnam.