Date of Award




Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Department of History

Content Description

1 online resource (pages iii, 236) : color illustrations.

Dissertation/Thesis Chair

Dan White

Committee Members

Richard Fogarty, Carl Bon Tempo


Aftermath, Defeat, Missing, Mourning, Mythmaking, Postwar, Prisoners of war, Loss (Psychology), War, Conspiracy theories, Collective memory, World War, 1939-1945, Vietnam War, 1961-1975

Subject Categories



This dissertation examines a postwar phenomenon that it describes as the secret camp myth. That myth arises from uncertainty about the fates of POWs and MIAs, and its advocates argue that the MIAs must survive in secret captivity after the war. This dissertation examines two historical examples of this phenomenon: West Germany following World War II, and the US after the Vietnam War. These two examples have been examined individually, but have not been compared extensively, and prior historiography has only examined each within the context of German and American histories of those wars. This dissertation argues that both cases are national variations of a larger phenomenon, and reactions to the traumas of personal loss and national defeat. The inability to mourn loss in the absence of a corpse drives the creation of the myth, and the political desire to reconceptualize MIAs into nationally redemptive war heroes sustains it. Consequently, such a comparative examination of two secret camp myths necessarily is both an examination of mourning and memorialization, and also the creation of national mythology from morally ambiguous defeats. The two examples differ in that the West German secret camp myth only lasted approximately ten years, while the American version persists in diminished form to this day. The dissertation argues that the main reason for this divergence lies in the politicization of each myth, and how figures on the American right artificially sustained belief in MIA survival and abandonment in a way that has no German equivalent. It comes to this conclusion by examining national casualty statistics, governmental initiatives and hearings, private POW/MIA activist groups, and public sentiments on men who remained unaccounted for following these defeats.

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