MIGHTY HISTORY

The largest formal White House dinner ever was for Vietnam POWs

Say what you want about President Nixon, the man knew what the greatest asset in the U.S. military was – the people who served. As a veteran himself, he could appreciate what it was like to be in the military during wartime. What Nixon couldn't know as a vet was what it was like to be captured and tortured by the enemy. As Commander-In-Chief during the Vietnam War, he knew exactly how many Americans were held captive.

When they came home, he showed his appreciation in style.


President Richard Nixon and Pat Nixon on stage at the White House Dinner for the American Prisoners of War (POW) who were returned by the North Vietnamese government. On stage with President Nixon and Mrs. Nixon are singer Vic Damone, comedian-actor Bob Hope, "God Bless America" songwriter Irving Berlin, and singer-actor-dancer Sammy Davis, Jr.

(National Archives)

It was three months after the repatriation of American POWs from North Vietnam that a huge tent was erected on the back lawn of the White House. The President and the First Lady were about to throw the largest White House dinner in the history of the American Republic. The guests of honor were every single Vietnam POW who just came home, more than 590, 34 of which couldn't make it due to continued treatment. Along with them came a star-studded guest list that included John Wayne, Bob Hope, and Jimmy Stewart.

"President Nixon made us feel like we were the stars," said retired Air Force Col. Robert Certain. "President Nixon is one of our heroes." Nixon also took the time to meet every single of the POWs."

"He was a hero to us. He will always be revered by us as a group because he got us home," said retired Marine Corps Capt. Orson Swindle, who spent more than six years in a Hanoi prison camp.

Some 40 years later, the same POWs re-gathered for a reunion at the Richard Nixon Memorial Library in Yorba Linda, Calif. They brought their families along to celebrate the anniversary of their release as well as the unforgettable dinner the President threw for them, taking them from eating with their hands in a cell to eating on White House china and shaking hands with the stars.

As of the 2013 reunion, the 1973 dinner was still the largest dinner ever held at the White House.

First Lady Pat Nixon greets touring POW families during the evening events.

The POWs were also given unfettered access to areas of the White House normally off-limits to the public. They were able to tour the historic mansion without guides or maps. One pair of veterans even told ABC news they accidentally walked into President Nixon's private study, with the man himself seated at its desk. He told them it was alright and he would be out to greet them in a minute.

But the President could not stay up all night with the troops and retired before the evening was over, ordering the staff to let everyone stay until they wanted to go. But before leaving he told the POWs:

"I have spoken to many distinguished audiences. I can say to you today that this is the most distinguished group I have ever addressed, and I have never been prouder than I am at this moment to address this group."