By Sydney H. Schanberg
Published in New York Newsday September 18, 1992
Our historical memories are so short, especially about matters unpleasant to contemplate, that all too frequently we find ourselves astonished and outraged about ‘revelations’ that roused no surprise the first time they appeared in our morning newspaper when our mortgages were much younger.
Today’s example has to do with the Vietnam War, specifically with American prisoners who were knowingly left behind by Washington.
On Jan. 28, 1973, The New York Times gave over much of its front page to the signing the day before in Paris of the so-called Vietnam peace accord. One of the front page stories was about how both sides had produced lists of the prisoners who were now to be exchanged.
This story’s fifth paragraph was as follows: “Frank A. Sieverts, the State Department official charged with prisoner affairs, said that Hanoi apparently did not include any information on Americans captured or missing in Laos or Cambodia, despite the provision in the cease-fire agreement to account for all Americans throughout Indochina.”
The very next day, The Times had another story that elaborated on the absence of a prisoner list from Laos. It said: “The Pentagon lists 6 prisoners and 311 men missing in Laos, but officials believe the number of prisoners held by the Pathet Lao guerrillas is probably substantially higher.”
The story went on to say that American officials had given conflicting statements about whether North Vietnam was required under the Paris accords to provide a list of prisoners held in Laos. Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, said that the North Vietnamese, as the controlling mentors of the Laotian Communists, were indeed responsible; he told the press that “American prisoners held in Laos and North Vietnam will be returned to us in Hanoi.” And the Pentagon, too, said that Hanoi had promised a prisoner list from Laos.
“But,” said the Times’ story, “State Department officials indicated that North Vietnam — which has never admitted the presence of its troops in the ostensibly neutral territory of Laos — has not given a firm commitment to supply a Laos list.”
Thus everybody knew in 1973, almost 20 years ago, that more than 300 Americans were missing in Laos. And they also knew that it was likely that many, if not most, of the men held there were still alive. In fact everyone in official Washington spoke of the more than 300 men in the present tense, as living prisoners.
Initially, in diplomatic approaches, Washington pressed North Vietnam and Laos for return of the prisoners. But the peace agreement, to no one’s surprise, had begun unraveling and simultaneously the Watergate scandal started devouring the Nixon White House. The prisoners were written off. It was no longer politically expedient to make an issue out of getting them back. This could only embarrass the men who, in their rush to get out of Vietnam, had signed a vague and weak “peace” agreement which they knew they had no way of enforcing.
In April, 1973, only three months after the government said there were more than 300 men missing in Laos and still having received no list or accounting of them, the Defense Department announced they were “all dead.” So we watched the cover-up take place with our own eyes. We expressed neither astonishment nor outrage. We were distracted by other events, as was the government. We wanted to put Vietnam behind us, as did the government. Only the families of the prisoners cried out, and we were too distracted to listen.
Let us shift forward now to the present.
A special Senate POW/MIA committee has been digging into this story. Lots of evidence has been unearthed — intelligence data, classified memos, radio intercepts showing that certain prisoners in Vietnam were taken to the Soviet Union for interrogation and never released. And then there is a growing pile of documents and testimony that not only reveal the cover-up about the men in Laos but suggest that some of these men might still be alive.
A former Pentagon official for POW/MIA affairs, Roger Shields, testified to the Senate committee that at a meeting in 1973, his superior, Deputy Defense Secretary William Clements — who was part of the White House inner circle of Nixon and Kissinger — told Shields to announce, about the missing Americans, that “they’re all dead.”
“You can’t say that,” Shields replied, according to his testimony.
“You didn’t hear me,” Clements responded with force. “They’re all dead.”
In that same time period, as revealed by the Senate panel, Defense Secretary Elliot Richardson — who unlike Clements was being kept in the dark on prisoner affairs — sent a secret memorandum to Nixon and Kissinger “regarding our men who are still being held prisoner or missing” in Laos. He gave the number of men as 350 and proposed strong measures to get them back, such as halting the removal of mines from North Vietnamese harbors.
Richardson was wasting his memo paper. Two weeks later, on April 13, 1973, came the official Pentagon statement. “There are no more POW’s in Southeast Asia. They are all dead.”
Maybe the cover-up will finally be stripped away now. But in any case, we have no cause to be surprised. It was all in the newspapers 20 years ago.