Military wives fought to bring their husbands home from Vietnam

'The League of Wives' traces the challenges they faced, including stonewalling by Congress and dismissal by Pentagon brass.

'The League of Wives' by Heath Hardage Lee, St. Martin's Press, 336 pp,

As the wife of a Navy officer in the 1950s, Sybil Stockdale had her own guidebook. It was called "The Navy Wife," and within its dog-eared pages it contained all the rules and regulations a woman like Sybil was supposed to need. There were etiquette guides to writing thank you notes and leaving calling cards, information about shrimp forks and dessert spoons, and admonitions about how to help advance the career and morale of one’s husband – and thus, the guidebook concluded, the security and effectiveness of the United States military.

But that guidebook, along with the sparkling social scene and well-ordered midcentury life on the Coronado, California, naval base where her family lived, quickly became obsolete after her husband, Jim Stockdale, was shot down in Vietnam.

It was Sept. 9, 1965, a bit more than a month after an alleged – and later debated – attack on a U.S. warship in the Gulf of Tonkin, when Commander Stockdale’s A-4 Skyhawk was hit by enemy fire. He ejected from his aircraft and was promptly taken by the North Vietnamese to the Hỏa Lò Prison, which American inmates would soon dub the “Hanoi Hilton.” Stockdale was one of the early prisoners of war in Vietnam; by the time the Paris Peace Accords ended the conflict in 1973 there were hundreds with him.

When Sybil and other military wives learned that their husbands had been taken as prisoners, their first inclination was to act by the guidebook. Numbly, they stumbled through visits by well-meaning neighbors, carefully recording who brought casseroles. They tried to shelter their children, keep the house clean, and manage the family finances. And most of all, they tried to follow to the advice of military and State Department officials who told them that they should stay quiet. They should be wary of discussing their situation outside their immediate family, they were told, let alone publicly.

But the women soon realized that they needed to change their approach.  

As Heath Hardage Lee describes in her intriguing 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, a growing fear that officials were ignoring their husbands’ plight pushed Sybil Stockdale and the scores of other POW wives to slowly, and often painfully, shed the trappings of "proper" military spouse behavior. They began to organize, lobby, and even participate in espionage. And like millions of other Americans, they began to mistrust the dominant rhetoric coming out about the Vietnam War.

Lee argues that the wives’ lobbying campaigns elevated the POW issue in Washington. Before their work, she shows, few in Congress had thought much about the prisoners of war, or they had bought into the narrative perpetrated by the North Vietnamese and some peace activists that American prisoners were being treated humanely. The fact that prisoner release was part of the peace deal to end the conflict, she argues, was only because of the work that Sybil and others did in the face of near-constant stonewalling and patronization, and in the face of a plodding and demoralizing war.

It is this last bit that comes across most strongly through the pages of “The League of Wives.” Although the text is occasionally overly detailed, with a battalion’s worth of names and the inside-baseball intricacies of who formed which League of Wives chapter when, the slog of new women joining the “reluctant sorority” of POW and Missing In Action wives is a testimony to the hopeless march of the Vietnam War. And despite Lee’s attempts to show the power of this group of increasingly emancipated women, what seems most clear reading “The League of Wives” is the complete futility not only of the war itself, but also of anyone trying to achieve goals in a wartime environment.

Much has been written, of course, of this tortuous moment in American history. Lee’s work – although in need of more editing to avoid writing mishaps such as repeated phrases and unnecessary cliffhangers – gives a fresh lens, not only into a group long ignored, but also into the seeds of some of today’s deep political and social divide.

The wives’ interactions with the government – their treatment by what many in the military considered an “effete” State Department and the Johnson administration, versus the respect they felt they received from President Richard Nixon – should be illuminating for those on the left, even those still skeptical about Nixon’s motives. So, too, should be the wives’ tricky relationship with peace activist Cora Weiss and her Committee of Liaison with Families of Servicemen Detained in North Vietnam (COLIAFAM). Although Weiss’s connections with the North Vietnamese often resulted in much longed-for information about imprisoned loved ones, Lee claims that the way Weiss and fellow peace activists disseminated this information caused much pain for already grieving women – releasing details about men in public rather than to families, for instance, or requiring wives to listen to what many of the women saw as “peace propaganda” before turning over letters from imprisoned husbands.

As imperfect as the writing might be, one cannot read “The League of Wives” and view POWs or MIAs in the same way; similarly, one cannot enter into the current debate about politics, gender, and the military without thinking of women like Sybil Stockdale and her journey. The ripples of the Vietnam War, Lee shows us, are lasting, and they are personal and political.  

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