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The End of Rolling Thunder? We Can Only Hope So!

How a Nixon campaign dirty trick turned into a full-blown psychosis among America's paranoid fringe.

Rolling Thunder, Memorial Day 2014. (Photo: Stephen Luke/Flickr/cc)

The news media inform us that Rolling Thunder (always described in the press as a veterans’ advocacy group or some other such positive term) will run its final annual Memorial Day weekend motorcycle rally in Washington, D.C., in 2019. The organizers reportedly do not have the money to pay for security, logistics, and cleanup. This is an eventuality devoutly to be wished.

In their usual stab at upbeatness with a matter-of-fact tone, the media invariably cover these yearly events in the same manner they would report on some legitimate service organization, like the American Cancer Society, holding a convention in the nation’s capital. Advocacy for veterans: who could be against that? The truth is less savory, revealing our nation’s propensity to wallow in lunatic conspiracy theories while succumbing to hucksterism, misplaced guilt, and culture war agendas.

It’s all right there in Rolling Thunder’s mission statement: “The major function of Rolling Thunder®, Inc. is to publicize the POW-MIA issue: To educate the public that many American Prisoners of War were left behind after all previous wars and to help correct the past and to protect future Veterans from being left behind should they become Prisoners of War-Missing In Action.” Helping veterans also gets a subsidiary mention, but the major purpose of the organization is advocacy on behalf of the POW-MIA issue. Well, so what?

In all its wars prior to Vietnam, United States military forces were subject to being taken prisoner (sometimes in staggering numbers, as in the Philippines or the retreat from the Yalu); likewise, large numbers were reported as missing in action. And at the conclusion of each war, the military made careful efforts to account for each prisoner and to search for the missing. DoD’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is the organization now in charge of accounting for and recovering the missing. Its 2018 budget is $146 million – no small sum of money.

As an example of the scope of its work, over 70,000 service members from World War II are still listed as missing. To this day, remains are found in virtually inaccessible places like the New Guinea highlands, or the waters around it, which are still littered with aircraft wrecks from the war. Recovered remains are carefully examined at the Pentagon’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii before burial.

In all those wars, the term “missing in action,” unless there was credible evidence to the contrary in individual cases, meant “missing and presumed dead.” But, as described in detail in Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge, during the Vietnam War that presumption was changed by Richard Nixon—for crassly political reasons.

In that war, up to 1400 men were considered missing in action and unaccounted for. They were, as in previous wars, presumed dead, but Nixon, with the cynical connivance of his defense secretary, Melvin Laird, began conflating them with the American prisoners held by the North Vietnamese. Given the suppressed guilt felt by many over the war (an emotion that often manifested itself among draft avoiders as chickenhawk hyper-patriotism) publicly “caring” about the fate of the missing became an acceptable surrogate for supporting a war that was well past the point of rational defense.

Nixon knew he had campaign gold: an issue to justify continuing the war by forcing the enemy to account for and return the men. This he duly exploited, and, once the Paris Peace Accords were agreed to, the POWs “returning with honor” became a national substitute for military victory.

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There was one small problem, not that Nixon cared: the number of men Hanoi returned was much smaller than the conflated total of POW-MIAs. Nixon was soon consumed by Watergate, and was never held to account for his deception, but the discrepancy, exacerbated by nut cases like Ross Perot and Bo Gritz, festered in the American subconscious. It only required kitschy commercial exploitation by (who else?) Hollywood, in the form of Rambo, to turn a Nixon campaign dirty trick into a full-blown psychosis among America’s paranoid fringe.

A vital job requirement of Capitol Hill staffers is having just the right touch (sharing their concern but definitely not encouraging them!) in dealing with the variety of lunatics who inhabit congressional districts. These run the gamut from crank inventors to flat earthers. I recall one woman in Ohio’s 12th District who offered her clairvoyant powers to the Air Force to locate downed pilots by “remote viewing.”

Among the most annoying of this group was the POW-MIA crowd. Given all the bogus patriotism invested in the issue, their self-righteous dogmatism in the face of facts was unpleasantly noticeable. Not only did they present no credible evidence of their theory beyond sketchy travelers’ tales, the very lack of evidence was in their eyes irrefutable proof of the meticulous perfection of the U.S. government’s coverup. When John McCain, himself a POW, supported resumption of U.S.-Vietnamese diplomatic relations, some of these zealots denounced him as a traitor and Manchurian Candidate.

As for Rolling Thunder, riding around on motorcycles without mufflers and disturbing the peace simply because it’s fun obviously has no transcendent meaning. You’re no different from Marlon Brando in The Wild One. But if you can convince yourself it’s furthering the noble cause of releasing some 80-year old POW from his tiger cage in the Golden Triangle, you’re rendering a service to a nation that ought to be grateful.

The executive director of Rolling Thunder is blaming his organization’s difficulty in staging the event on federal agencies that made it too hard: “We're just sick and tired of getting the shaft from them.” They blame DoD for making it difficult to use the Pentagon parking lots. The outfit also opposes “restrictive” DoD security guidelines, a merchandise sales ban, and limits on sponsors.

But DoD, like all federal agencies, has regulations on getting involved in commercial activities. Security guidelines, particularly at DoD, are notably inflexible: after 9/11, even as a security-cleared congressional staffer, I needed a Pentagon employee to meet me at the entrance and escort me at all times. Ten thousand riders on 800-pound steel hogs present far greater security and logistical concerns than a like number of pedestrians assembling for a rally on the Mall.

And why should the Pentagon donate services to a group that implicitly accuses it of being the linchpin in a government coverup of the fate of its own personnel? This is tantamount to the Centers for Disease Control being asked to support an anti-vaxxer confab, or NASA hosting an event for people who think the moon landings were faked in a movie studio in Culver City. For that matter, would the media be so accommodating if the group rode its motorcycles through blocked-off streets in Northern Virginia and D.C. to promote 9/11 Trutherism or Holocaust denial?

Rolling Thunder® is one more symptom of America’s magnetic attraction to fake masculinity, mawkish sentimentality, and paranoid thinking. Let us pray that some deranged billionaire, relentlessly inimical to humanity, does not front them the money to keep going.

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