By Sydney H. Schanberg
Published in New York Newsday April 13, 1993
A legion of American and Vietnamese officials have spent the past two decades denying that any more American prisoners were alive in Indochina after Hanoi released 591 men in the immediate aftermath of the peace accords in 1973. As many times as this denial has been shown by solid evidence to be a lie, just that many times have the Americans and Vietnamese officials clung to their fiction, afraid of the embarrassment or worse that could accompany the telling of the truth.
Now a new piece of evidence has surfaced — a North Vietnamese military document written just four months before the peace accords were signed in January 1973. The document reveals that Hanoi was holding twice the number of prisoners it returned. Written in September 1972 by Gen. Tran Van Quang, then deputy chief of staff of the North Vietnamese Army, it said, in part: “1,205 American prisoners of war (are) located in the prisons of North Vietnam – this is a big number. Officially, until now, we published a list of only 368 prisoners of war, the rest we have not revealed. The Government of the USA knows this well, but it does not know the exact number of prisoners of war, and can only make guesses based on its losses. That is why we are keeping the number of prisoners of war secret, in accordance with the (Hanoi) Politburo’s instructions.” Later in his report, Gen. Quang wrote that the prisoners could be used as bargaining chips to pry war reparations out of Washington for the destruction caused to Vietnam during the war.
This is stunning confirmation of what a small number of people who have researched the POW-MIA issue, including this reporter, have been saying and writing for some time: that the Nixon administration left prisoners behind in its political haste to extricate itself from the Vietnam War and that the Vietnamese held those men back to get the reconstruction aid they believed had been promised them by Henry Kissinger at the negotiating table.
This next part is only speculation, but maybe both sides thought the issue would be successfully resolved after the peace agreement and, therefore, the original deceit in Washington and Hanoi would be forgotten by the American and Vietnamese publics. But it didn’t get resolved and the mutual lies took hold, as did the elaborate cover-ups necessary for the maintenance of those lies.
Now 20 years have passed, and the cover-up has been carried through five presidencies. It makes Watergate look like child’s play.
The new document, judged authentic by both Soviet and American experts, was discovered in January by a respected Harvard University scholar, Stephen J. Morris, who works out of the university’s Center for International Affairs. He found the Vietnamese top-secret report — or rather a Russian translation of it — in the archives of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow. The discovery was reported in the Russian newspaper Izvestia on Saturday and in The New York Times Monday in a story by Celestine Bohlen.
“On the basis of this,” Morris said, “we can conclude that more than 700 Americans had been held back by the Vietnamese … This is the biggest hostage-taking in the history of American foreign policy, and we still don’t know where the hostages are, what happened to them, if they are still alive.”
I have just returned from a three-week reporting trip to North Vietnam (about which I shall be writing in detail shortly), and it is fair to say that the withholding of POW-MIA information continues on both sides.
Though the poverty-stricken Vietnamese, frantic to get the American embargo lifted after two decades of economic strangulation, are indeed being more cooperative than ever on surface issues such as the return of a relatively small number of remains of Americans who died in plane crashes and battles, they have offered no more information than before on the fundamental issue of what happened to those who were alive when the U.S. involvement in the war ended.
As for the American military teams now established in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia for the ostensible purpose of getting final answers, their investigations cannot be described as anything approaching exhaustive, or even thorough. When they travel to the areas of crash sites or reported sightings of live Americans, they do not interview witnesses in private but rather in the presence of Vietnamese officials. Also, the Americans have no independent language capability, relying entirely on official Vietnamese interpreters. I discovered, too, that they do the interviewing in central spots like district towns, instead of going into the villages and hamlets where the witnesses live and where those witnesses, farther away from official purview, are more likely to be forthcoming. I found that the Americans’ main interest is in finding remains, not in finding out when and how the men died. Furthermore, in Laos, the American teams are actually barred by the Vientiane government from going into key areas where Americans and distress signals have been sighted over the years.
Morris has shown White House officials the document stating that 1,205 live prisoners were in Vietnamese custody in September 1972 (and that doesn’t include the hundreds of prisoners believed held in Laos who were never accounted for). Among other repercussions, this evidence would clearly seem to add one more lie, an exceedingly cruel one, to the portfolio of Richard Nixon, who in a speech from the Oval Office on March 29, 1973, the day the last of the 591 prisoners released by Hanoi were turned over to American officials, said: “All of our American POWs are on their way home.”
There’s only one way that Nixon’s statement could have been true. Leaving aside Laos, Hanoi would have had to have executed more than 600 prisoners between September 1972 and March 1973. And the evidence is overwhelming that this did not happen. Highly credible information that the Reagan and Bush administrations sought to suppress has established that Hanoi made at least one, and possibly several, attempts from 1981 onward to return live Americans in exchange for economic aid. The overtures were turned aside.
Secrets are still being closely guarded. Nixon and his lawyers have to this day succeeded in blocking public access to Oval Office tapes of his conversations in 1973 on the POW issue. Debriefings of American pilots and ground troops who witnessed the capture of U.S. servicemen are still being kept classified. And the CIA continues to deny access to pivotal operational files on the missing men.
Against this background of crucial information still being denied the American public, the Clinton administration curiously did something last week that seemed like a continuation of the Reagan-Bush behavior on the issue. It disclosed that it was sending retired Army Gen. John Vessey Jr. on a “fact-finding” mission to Hanoi next week to determine whether Vietnamese cooperation in accounting for the missing men warranted an easing or lifting of the embargo and some form of liberalized relations.
Vessey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the Bush administration’s special envoy to Hanoi on MIAs. As such, he generally adopted the Washington line that no prisoners were left behind. He is given to talking in bureaucratese about “the real difficulties in finding the answers to the questions.” In his testimony last December before a Senate committee examining the issue, he tended to dismiss as “emotional” the extensive research showing that Hanoi did not return all our servicemen.
Like all the others in high places who have, for whatever reasons, sought to paper over this issue, Vessey is hardly a credible figure now. The new document discovered in the Russian archives makes this clearer than ever.
The American people can handle the truth. The families of the missing men deserve the truth. We do not have to link this issue irrevocably to whether we normalize relations with Vietnam, but we need some honest explanations about our prisoners — now. Twenty years of dissembling is enough.