A retired U.S. Navy officer, who spent seven excruciating years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, is blasting the argument made in a recent Newsweek column that the POW/MIA (prisoners of war, missing in action) flag was a political concoction of the Nixon administration that is really a symbol of racist hate.
On Monday, Newsweek published a column by Washington Spectator National Correspondent Rick Perlstein titled “It’s Time to Haul Down Another Flag of Racist Hate.”
“You know that racist flag? The one that supposedly honors history but actually spreads a pernicious myth? And is useful only to venal right-wing politicians who wish to exploit hatred by calling it heritage? It’s past time to pull it down,” wrote Perlstein. “Oh, wait. You thought I was referring to the Confederate flag. Actually, I’m talking about the POW/MIA flag.”
Perlstein then proceeded to assert that President Richard Nixon used the POW families and their movement for his advantage.
“The flag was the creation of the National League of Families of Prisoners of War, later the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, a fascinating part of the story in itself,” wrote Perlstein.
He continued, “The organization was founded by POW wife Sybil Stockdale, during the Johnson administration, in an effort to embarrass LBJ and challenge his line that all in Vietnam was going swell. Johnson tried to silence them; Nixon’s people, however, spying opportunity, co-opted the group, sometimes inventing chapters outright, to fan the propaganda flames.”
Perlstein further alleges that the Nixon administration engaged in a public relations effort by demanding to know what happened to downed pilots and to know the names of every prisoner of war. He said this flew in the face of previous wars, in which prisoners were only discussed after the war, and that the movement was aimed at painting the U.S. as the primary victim of the war and its enemies as “some species of Oriental despotism.”
Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Gerald Coffee was held captive from February 1966 to February 1973, much of that time in the infamously brutal Hanoi Hilton. Coffee finds Perlstein’s argument ridiculous and insulting.
“This takes this whole political correctness crap to a whole new level. I’m just so disappointed that this flag, the symbol of our incarceration, got dragged into it,” said Coffee, who went on to receive a Silver Star, two awards of the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Bronze Stars and many other citations for his heroism.
He said the prisoners were aware of the flag and were greatly inspired by it.
“It was something that was very comforting to us there in Hanoi when we realized there was a flag in our honor and was flying with our country’s flag. It honored us more and did more for our morale,” Coffee said. “That flag is a symbol of the sacrifices that are sometimes required to defend our freedom.”
Coffee said he personally knows the history of the flag and the people behind it, adding the real history and Perlstein’s version are very different.
“I know the people involved in the design and conception of that flag, and there’s not a racist bone among them,” he said.
Listen to the WND/Radio America interview with Capt. Gerald Coffee:
Perlstein admits in his piece that Coffee and the other U.S. prisoners were treated badly, but he said the ongoing adoration of the flag covers up the fact that U.S. enemies were supposedly treated far worse in the hands of its South Vietnamese allies.
Coffee said that misses the point.
“It doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “Our treatment was horrendous. It’s been verified. Just read any POW book, and there’s a dozen or so out there. My own book, ‘Beyond Survival,’ tells it like it was. I had no reason to exaggerate or embellish.
“People who come off with these half-cocked ideas like Perlstein, without having read something that a POW has written, at least one book, God, at least one book,” Coffee said, “to speak out of total ignorance is just beyond the pale.”
For Coffee, this is the second slap in the face for POWs in recent weeks.
“What the hell does Perlstein know? What does he care anyway?” Coffee asked. “He’s just inserting himself into something about which he knows nothing, just like Donald Trump did a few [weeks] ago talking about John McCain’s behavior as a POW.”
Beyond the perils of the men held captive in Vietnam, Coffee said the flag also reminds Americans of the character needed to keep America strong since its founding, and that, he believes, is sorely needed again.
“The service of the POWs in Hanoi characterized the kind of dedication and patriotism and determination that through the years has helped to keep our country free, that is until the last six-and-a-half years or so,” Coffee said.
Rather than accuse the government of using the POWs as a political smokescreen, Coffee said Perlstein and everyone else should see the story of Americans prisoners in Vietnam as one of the nation’s finest chapters.
“Almost to a man, the performance was equally dedicated. We looked at our POW time as a different form of combat. We communicated with each other. We formed ourselves up into military organization. We had command structure, a chain of command. We didn’t consider ourselves to be out of combat because we were POWs,” Coffee explained.
The backlash to the Perlstein story has been intense. Both Newsweek and the Washington Spectator have changed the headline to the more benign, “The Story Behind the POW/MIA Flag.” The content of the story is unchanged, however, and Perlstein’s apology mostly keeps arguing his initial case.
“I sincerely regret the use of the word ‘racist’ to describe how the POW/MIA flag distorts the history of the Vietnam War. The word was over the top and not called for,” said Perlstein in his statement.
“I’m deeply sorry it hurt people – especially people who’ve selflessly served their country. Most of all, I’m sorry because many of the people offended by the word ‘racist’ are the same people who were hurt when the experiences and feelings of common soldiers and veterans were manipulated to serve the powerful interests and individuals who blithely and perennially send men and women to war, then don’t take care of them when they return home,” he continued.
Coffee flatly rejects the political arguments, particularly the one suggesting the war should not have been fought.
“Just ask any of the Vietnamese who’s one of the boat people that spent 10 years incarcerated under the communists when they took over,” Coffee said. “They’ll tell you what we were trying to accomplish was worthwhile. We saw this. Saigon fell. South Vietnam was in a blanket of communist hatred and repression. It was exactly like we thought it was going to be.
“It was a shame, too, because we had the war won and Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of our victory,” he added.
As for Perlstein, his column and his effort at apology, Coffee sees no good that can come from such an effort.
“I’m very gratified Perlstein is getting static for this,” Coffee said. “He deserves it. He deserves all the static he’s getting, for trying to open old wounds like this.”