By Sydney H. Schanberg
Published in New York Newsday September 3, 1993
In less than two weeks, on Sept. 14, the White House is due to make its annual assessment of whether or not to ease the economic embargo that was imposed on Hanoi 18 years ago, when North Vietnam’s army overran South Vietnam and placed the unified country under communist rule.
A muscular American business lobby has, with one hand, been pressing the Clinton administration to end the embargo while, with the other, it strokes and courts the Hanoi government for the chance to turn profits in this market of 70 million people. This corporate bloc has gone about its lobbying in the manner of the ostrich, pretending that the problem of the hundreds of American prisoners held back by Hanoi at the war’s end — and never acknowledged — has been solved and is no longer an issue.
The trouble with that approach is that it runs smack into the face of an ever-increasing flow of disclosures about these men who were never returned after the peace accords in 1973 — and were eventually abandoned by Washington.
The situation presents President Bill Clinton with a thorny problem that the five presidents who preceded him have all ducked. The collective shame of leaving those men behind — and the want of courage to admit what had happened — has produced a cover-up that has lasted for 20 years.
It started of course with a Watergate-besieged Richard Nixon, who wanted so badly to get Vietnam off is back that he accepted the deeply flawed peace accords and announced that Hanoi had released all our POWs. He did this even though he knew from his intelligence reports that large numbers of them had been kept behind, held as bargaining chips for reparations from Washington that never came.
After Nixon, his successors did little over the years but give lip service to demanding a full prisoner accounting from the Vietnamese, who saw it was lip service and paid no attention. Meanwhile, the Pentagon and the CIA spent their time trying to debunk all intelligence information about prisoners and to trash all sources of such data. To admit that we had left prisoners in Indochina would be to admit that we had broken faith with our fighting men.
The mainstream press has apparently been almost as embarrassed by the issue as the White House and other policymakers who created it. Though they had sent hundreds of reporters to Vietnam to cover the war, the establishment media never devoted any significant resources to its aftermath and no resources at all to finding out what happened to the missing prisoners. By and large, the press — certainly the Washington press corps — continues to accept the ridiculous official line, purveyed in Hanoi as well as Washington, that there is no evidence of unreturned prisoners.
It seemed at times that nearly everyone in America wanted to erase Vietnam. But how does a nation put a piece of unpleasant history behind it, if crucial questions about that history remain unanswered? In other words, in a democratic country how can the public “forgive and forget”– the current catch-phrase rationale for lifting the embargo — if we are not first told the truth about what it is we are granting pardon for?
Clearly, forgiving is a necessary function of relations among nations, if we are to get done with disputes and move ahead, particularly after hellish upheavals like wars. But what happened to the prisoners? Men who are taken into custody do not vanish into the night. If they are executed, their captors carry out the executions. If they die of beatings or illness, their captors witness their demise. And if some of them are still alive, as is possible, then their captors can tell us where they are. I do not think this is too much to ask for wiping the slate clean.
It is time, too, for the people on our side to come forward with the truth about their part in the coverup. Richard Nixon, a private citizen, was not required to testify under oath last year by the Senate POW/MIA committee that had pledged it would leave no stone unturned to get at the truth. Nixon also refused to turn over White House tapes of conversations he had with advisers in 1973 about the prisoners.
Ronald Reagan, too, was not required to testify. Neither was George Bush. Further, the Senate committee, bowing to pressure from the Bush White House, decided not to seek testimony from a former Secret Service agent, who had told congressmen privately that he was present at a White House meeting in 1981 where the participants discussed a Vietnamese offer to return live prisoners for ransom. The agent said that both President Reagan and then-Vice President Bush were at the meeting.
The unturned stones by now constitute a mountainous pile. We need to see what is underneath, and we can do so without recriminations, without seeking punishment against those on both sides who are responsible for this shaming piece of history.
Bill Clinton can do this by first making a public declaration that men were indeed left behind. Then he can grant full amnesty to all involved, including former chiefs of state. And as he confers this forgiveness, he can stand up and say it is conditional upon the truth finally being told.
And, then, after the truth is told, if it is told, we can end the embargo — and put Vietnam behind us.