By Sydney H. Schanberg
Published in New York Newsday October 26, 1993
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, in his haste to carry out his agenda of getting the White House to remove the embargo against Vietnam, has done some extraordinary things. One of his recurring feats has been to try to turn fiction into truth. The following is an example.
The senator, in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, announced about a year ago that, on the basis of what he called fresh and “impressive” evidence, he had concluded that four American soldiers who went missing in Vietnam on April 21, 1967, had been killed instantly in an ambush on that day.
“At least in our judgment,” Kerry said, “we believe we can say we know what happened. We believe they died…” he spoke these definitive words about the four soldiers at a press conference in Hanoi in November, 1992, after being handed the so-called evidence by a Vietnamese official who said it was his personal diary from the war. The official, Col. Pham Duc Dai, now the director of Vietnam’s military museums, said he had been an eyewitness to the deaths of the four Americans in 1967 in the central province of Quang Ngai. The diary, he said, contained a full account.
This diary has since been exposed as hearsay or worse. Reliable American intelligence reports say that the four men were captured alive. Yet Kerry has never retreated from his declaration that the four died in an ambush.
He continues to say, as he did at that Hanoi press conference, that Vietnamese cooperation on the issue of missing Americans has been “significant” and needs to be rewarded. In a reference to relaxing or lifting the U.S. trade embargo that has been in place since the end of the war in 1975, Kerry said then that he would “urge the president to take certain actions.”
About a month after the press conference, Kerry’s spokeswoman said that his meeting with Dai had been “a very compelling moment emotionally” and that “in his mind, this resolves the fate of the four, and maybe their families can accept that.”
But the overwhelming evidence on this case — and on many, many others — gives the families no earthly reason to accept the stories they’ve been told. They also have no reason to trust Kerry and all the others in Congress, the executive branch and the Pentagon who have been toiling for nearly two decades to cover up the intelligence data that demonstrate large numbers of American prisoners were never returned and never credibly accounted for by Hanoi.
Let us look, as an example, at the case of the four men whom Kerry wrote off as having died on April 21, 1967. Nine months before Kerry declared them dead on the basis of Dai’s diary, the American investigative team in Hanoi handed the Vietnamese the U.S. intelligence summary of the case. It said that after the four disappeared on a riverbank near Binh Son in Quang Ngai province: “Several sources reported that a Binh Son district Vietnamese communist unit had captured four Americans on 21 April at this location on the Thuong Hoa River. This information can relate only to Specialist—— and the three other missing soldiers.”
Shortly after the four men disappeared in 1967, a number of intelligence sources — sources deemed reliable — came in with sightings and details that, in the language of one Pentagon report, “coincide so closely as to fairly well substantiate that these four men were in fact captured.”
Another document, this one from the Central Intelligence Agency, cited credible agency informants who also reported that the four had been captured alive and were being readied for movement “soon to a western area.”
The intelligence documents I quote from in this column were given to me by a relative of the four men. The relative obtained them through a request to the pentagon. These documents, though declassified, are not made available to the general public and are given only to those MIA families who file official requests. I am not using the names of the four men here because I do not know how much the other families have been told by the government.
To get back to the evidence, Dai’s diary has been rendered valueless. After telling reporters at the Kerry press conference last November that he was an eyewitness to the incident (“I saw the ambush, and all four soldiers were killed right then.”), he admitted five months later to American MIA investigators that he had not been at the site and had seen nothing. The whole “diary” account, he said, was hearsay provided to him later by villagers in the area. The investigators’ report said: “Source never personally saw the bodies nor remains associated with this case.”
Further, most of the central details in Dai’s account do not stand up against the body of evidence. For instance, when the four disappeared, other soldiers on the same patrol were no more than 250 yards ahead of them, traveling in a sampan on the way back to their base. Had there been an ambush, as Dai’s “diary” says, these men would have heard shots. They heard none. This information comes from the debriefings done at the time.
I do not suggest that the four men are alive today, only that the evidence says they did not die in an ambush on April 21, 1967.
The Vietnamese took them prisoner. The Vietnamese know what happened to them. We can understand why Hanoi might be uncomfortable telling us the truth. But why are Kerry and others like him uncomfortable with it?