The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1986, Volume 32, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

In Love and War: The Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam Years.

By Jim and Sybil Stockdale. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1984. Maps. Appendices. Index. 512 Pages. $18.95.

Reviewed by Robert C. Detweiler, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of History at California State University, San Bernardino, who has written a number of articles and books on American history.

Navy pilot Jim Stockdale was shot down while leading his squadron of fighter-bombers in an attack over North Vietnam in September 1965. Badly injured when he parachuted from his plane, he was captured and imprisoned in Hanoi for seven and a half grueling years. In Love and War is a firsthand account of his grisly experiences, a truly heroic tale. Similarly heroic is his wife’s story, told in alternating chapters. Sybil Stockdale struggled mightily with Washington bureaucrats to get our government to publicly denounce the inhumane treatment of prisoners of war in North Vietnam, all the while coping with the stress of her husband’s imprisonment and of raising four sons alone at the family home in Coronado, California.

A year before he was taken prisoner, Jim Stockdale was on the scene of the reported North Vietnamese attack on American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was this incident that led President Johnson to order the bombing of North Vietnam and to obtain a congressional resolution approving the Americanization of the war in Southeast Asia. Stockdale, however, knew the attack never occurred and that “we were about to launch a war under false pretenses.” This knowledge plagued him as a POW, always fearing that his captors would torture a confession out of him that would be “the biggest Communist propaganda scoop of the decade.” And they did torture him, yet he never divulged this secret or any other information useful to the enemy.

Stockdale was subjected to endless physical and psychic abuse, including years of solitary confinement, shackling, beatings, and a devastating torture technique called “roping” designed to force POWs to submit. But he proved a hard case for his captors. As the senior naval officer, he took command of the prisoners and established a system of “laws” and tactics of defiance that kept them a disciplined resistance group. When his political exploitation was imminent, he resorted to self-mutilation, beating his own face to a pulp and cutting himself so as to disfigure himself so badly that he was of no use for public exposure by the Vietnamese. By cunning and strength of will he managed to frustrate his captors and to survive an incredible ordeal.

These were punishing times for Sybil, too, whose ordeal involved loneliness and anxiety, financial pressure, illness, and assisting Navy Intelligence in a risky exchange of coded information in letters to her husband. She was fortunate to be living in Coronado where she was part of a supportive circle of career Navy families. As she said: “If I had to be in this hellish situation, thank God I was here.” Increasingly frustrated with the government’s failure to publicize Vietnam’s violations of the Geneva Convention rules for POWs and to actively seek their release, she began organizing the families of the prisoners. Then she took her story about the plight of our POWs directly to the public; it was published first in the San Diego Union in 1968. She helped form the National League of POW Families and became its leading spokesperson, meeting directly with Henry Kissinger and with the North Vietnamese in their Paris embassy. Finally, she met with President Nixon and began to get results, never relenting until the POWs were released in 1973.

In Love and War is a moving, inspiring volume. Unfortunately, the impact of the Stockdales’ story is diminished because the book is much too long. It would be more compelling if a hundred or more pages were cut out, particularly details about the family’s early years. Also, Jim Stockdale has a tendency to overwrite at times; his experiences themselves are so dramatic that there is no need for dramatic prose. The format of writing on two tracks – alternating chapters by Jim and Sybil – works well enough, although the homefront portion occasionally drags.

Nonetheless, this is a good book. Serious students of the history of the Vietnam war will find it valuable, particularly for Jim Stockdale’s eyewitness account of the events at the Gulf of Tonkin, his views about the obstructionist Washington bureaucracy that encroached routinely on the authority of on-site military commanders, and his vivid insider’s record of the treatment of POWs. Scholars and general readers alike will find it entertaining reading, and they will come away with a positive sense about the human spirit based on the strength this San Diego family displayed in the face of great adversity.