At the beginning of the Vietnam War hundreds of American soldiers were considered either missing or captured, and President Johnson’s administration approached their families with a simple message: keep quiet. With little information sharing, most families did just that. But then footage started appearing from North Vietnam confirming the worst. In one video, Admiral Jeremiah Denton discusses how great he’s been treated, but his eyes tell another story— literally, he blinks out a message in Morse Code: TORTURE.
And that’s when most wives of service members could no longer remain quiet.
There are some stories that are so unbelievable that it’s imperative for historians to eventually explore what happened for a broader audience. Fortunately, author Heath Hardage Lee has expertly crafted these wives’ experiences into an engrossing, revealing narrative. She’s done this by tapping into a common thread for these women— frustration. Frustration at war. Frustration at being unable to speak publicly in their grief. Perhaps above all else, frustration at the lack of attention when they finally did go public. This is palpable on the page as they navigate the bureaucracy of Washington and the stubbornness of Hanoi all in the name of finding answers.
While the broad history of this movement is fascinating, it’s Lee’s exploration of how this frustration shaped the individual women that makes this work so compelling. There’s a rotating cast, though Lee remarkably keeps each of the wives distinguished and memorable. Led by the captivating and focused Sybil Stockdale, most balked at the idea of becoming activists. And yet they bonded to form support groups that eventually expanded into the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.
Today, it’s frustrating that the story of this courageous group of women isn’t more renowned. However, Lee’s tremendous work finally gives them some of the celebration they’re due.
Title: The League of Wives
Author: Heath Hardage Lee
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: April 02, 2019
Classification: History, Nonfiction
Note: I received a free ARC of this book through NetGalley.