By Sydney H. Schanberg
Published in New York Newsday November 10, 1992
For the last several months, this column has frequently been devoted to the American prisoners who were left behind in Indochina after the Vietnam War. Despite all the official denials, there can no longer be any doubt that many of the prisoners did not come home in 1973.
Documents that have recently been unearthed, largely by the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs, further establish that the Washington intelligence community and the White House knew that a number of these men were still alive as recently as 1989. Some – no one knows how many – may still be alive, particularly in Laos. “Live sightings” have continued to come in, though these reports are not revealed to the public or even sometimes to the families of missing men.
The newly emerging information sketches a cover-up that began with the Vietnam peace accords in 1973 and has extended across five presidencies. Over two decades, both sides, Hanoi and Washington, have told uncounted lies to preserve the fiction that everyone who didn’t come home was dead.
At the start, the two sides had different motives for lying, but eventually the motives converged.
The White House in 1973 was a besieged palace, with Watergate dragging down Richard Nixon’s administration. Thus the desire to get out of Vietnam became a desperate, headlong rush. The American diplomats at the peace talks signed the treaties even before they had received a list of prisoners from the Vietnamese – a list that turned out to be woefully incomplete.
The Vietnamese, for their part, had held on to prisoners as bargaining chips, hoping to use these captives to pry out of Washington the $4 billion in reconstruction aid that they believed had been promised them. Congress, however, was never told that the release of the remaining, unacknowledged prisoners was contingent upon this money, and it thus rejected the idea of further aid. As time passed, the executive branch told the Vietnamese that the aid pledge was no longer valid because Hanoi had constantly violated the peace accords. Yet Hanoi kept pressing. We now know of at least one official overture made by the Vietnamese – to President Ronald Reagan in 1981 – to return live POWs in exchange for aid. Reagan and his circle, which included Vice President George Bush, rejected the proposal as a demand for ransom — a factor that did not seem to distress the White House later on in the arms-for-hostages transactions in the Iran-contra affair.
Finally, and this is where the two sides converge, the problem for both Hanoi and Washington has become one of figuring out how to admit to the world at this late date that prisoners were kept or left behind.
How do the Vietnamese admit it without being labeled as brutal and barbaric – at the very time when Hanoi, after 20 years under a U.S.-led embargo, is feverishly trying to regain acceptance in the international community in order to revive its enfeebled economy? And how can Washington admit it without appearing to have abandoned and betrayed its own soldiers – and lied openly to the American public?
And how, if live POWs are still in Indochina, can you bring them out without revealing that you knew they were there the whole time? Possibly it could be done with an elaborate cover story, such as that the prisoners had been held not by Hanoi or Vientiane but by tribal warlords in remote areas of Indochina little touched by any government’s writ and had only recently been discovered. Perhaps Americans would accept such a story, despite its hard-to-believe elements, simply because they were happy to have the men home.
Still, some of the families of the missing men, having been manipulated and lied to for two decades, have come to doubt that official Washington ever wants to bring these men home.
To this day, the intelligence community continues to withhold information from the families, such as the names and addresses of Indochinese refugees, many now settled in the United States, who have reported that they have seen and talked to specific American POWs. The intelligence agencies say they must control the interview process because they are the only ones with the skills to assess the information. But who would be better equipped to judge whether someone was faking having met a POW than a close relative of that POW with intimate knowledge of his mannerisms and personal history?
Many family members and others who have seen the emerging document trail that reveals the cover-up are beginning to wonder about some of the recent activities of the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs. All the talk about increased cooperation from Hanoi has led to understandable suspicion that the committee leadership may be under severe pressure to examine the “new” information from Vietnam’s archives and then announce that no prisoners remain alive and the books can now be closed on the missing.
Sad to say, this is a distinct possibility. For the POWs have never captured public attention as a major political issue. One reason for this is that the press has shown little interest in it. Under these conditions, a false burial could take place.