Politics

Reflecting on Bob Dole’s efforts on behalf of American Prisoners of War and Missing in Action in Vietnam

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When Bob Dole arrived in the Senate in 1969, he had already been in the Washington political arena for years. A World War II veteran seriously wounded in battle, he had a special place in his heart for veterans so it’s no surprise that the young senator was stunned and angry at the lack of attention given to the American Prisoners of War and Missing In Action in the Vietnam War as well as their families on the home front. Under President Lyndon Johnson, the POW/MIA spouses were told to “Keep Quiet” about their loved ones, lest they upset the North Vietnamese and hinder the government’s negotiations. As it would turn out, this silence was killing the captured American servicemen — and Bob Dole stepped in to change that.

When I interviewed Sen. Dole in 2016, he visibly bristled at the recollection of the treatment the wives and families of the POWs and MIAs during the Johnson administration. Dole claimed that even by 1969, “no one [in the House or Senate] knew what a POW or an MIA even was.” Shocked at the ignorance or in some cases the willful denial of his congressional colleagues, he vowed to draw more awareness to the POW/MIA issue. And he teamed up with a new administration and a powerful group of unlikely allies.

With the support and backing of the Nixon administration, Dole brought attention to The National League of Families for American Prisoners of War and Missing in Southeast Asia, led by POW wives Sybil Stockdale, Jane Denton, Andrea Rander, and many others.

Working with Stockdale, her “League of Wives” and the Nixon administration, Dole filled DAR’s Constitution Hall with more than 3,000 supporters on May 1, 1970, at the inaugural meeting of the National League of Families. Dole then worked with President Nixon to build a supportive platform for the ladies to stand on.

And only then did the POW/MIA issue become one of the few unifying causes during one of the most divisive eras in American history. There is no doubt that Sen. Dole helped bring the American POWs home and helped to account for those Missing in Action.

Unlike his work on the The Americans with Disabilities Act and his tireless championing of the World War II Memorial, the fight Dole undertook on behalf of American POWs and MIAs and their families during the Vietnam War has now fallen into the dimmer recesses of the American consciousness.

But the senator’s death earlier this month at the age of 98 provides us with an opportunity for reflection to highlight some of his lesser-known efforts. Dole’s work with Sybil Stockdale and her National League reflects many of his best traits: his fighting spirit, his ability to collaborate across the political aisle to reach a goal, and his work on behalf of those left behind or left out of mainstream society. Five hundred ninety-one of these servicemen returned home at the end of the war thanks to the National League efforts supported and amplified by Sen. Dole and the Nixon administration.  

As our American flag flew at half-mast for Sen. Dole last week, remember to look at the flag flying next to it; the black and white POW/MIA flag reminds us, “You Are Not Forgotten.”  

Like our POWs, Senator Dole will not be forgotten. 

Heath Hardage Lee’s narrative nonfiction 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,” was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2019. Actress Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine and Sony 3000, have optioned The League of Wives for a feature film. Her latest exhibition developed for Sen. Bob Dole and the Dole Institute of Politics is entitled “The League of Wives: Vietnam POW MIA Advocates & Allies.” Heath’s new book coming in 2024 from St. Martin’s Press is a biography of First Lady, Pat Nixon.

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