By Sydney H. Schanberg
Published in New York Newsday December 10, 1993
Sending a high-level delegation to another government usually suggests acceptance of that government and its policies. On the other hand, a message of dissatisfaction can be carried by a low-level functionary, whose secondary status reinforces the reproof.
My reference is to Washington’s gentle dealings with the government in Hanoi, which has for years told a steady stream of face-saving lives about the prisoners it kept from the Vietnam War and never returned.
The latest demonstration of willingness to overlook those lies will be made next week, when Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord leads a delegation to the Vietnamese capital.
For public consumption, the State Department’s advance rhetoric searched for a firm tone. A spokesperson said that Lord, in his talks with the Vietnamese, “would reiterate that any further steps in U.S.-Vietnamese relations will depend strictly on tangible progress in the POW-MIA accounting.”
But Lord himself, while stressing the need for a full accounting, gave the Hanoi regime high marks. “They have been going all out,” said the assistant secretary of state. “I think it’s fair to say this is the single best year in terms of… cooperation and so on that we’ve had since the war. The prospect is, on the basis of continued Vietnam cooperation, you will continue to see an incremental approach to better relations.”
This is the language of softball diplomacy, not hardball démarche.
President Bill Clinton, in his brief time at the helm, has already further relaxed the 18-year-old economic embargo against Vietnam. This carries on a tradition begun by George Bush that seems based on the theory of history that you can put a national trauma behind you by pretending that the truth has been told and the questions answered.
This pretense, regrettably for the White House, runs smack in the face of the hard evidence of unreturned prisoners, evidence that has surfaced and multiplied so markedly in recent years that no shred of credibility remains of the contention by the cover-uppers that all prisoners came home in 1973.
The question has never been whether men were held back by Hanoi as bargaining pieces for economic reparations but rather what happened to them. Highly credible sources report that very recent intelligence, including Washington’s own satellite photography, suggests that some may still be alive, if not on Vietnamese soil itself, then in Hanoi-dominated Laos.
The lies have not been told by Vietnam alone. Washington has known since the signing of the peace accords in 1973 that the 591 men sent back represented a list that was short by several hundred of the numbers held by Hanoi. But just as North Vietnam could never admit it had kept these men, neither could Washington tell the American people that in its haste to extricate itself from that war, it had broken faith with captured soldiers. As time passed, the truth became even harder to tell, for short of admitting a hostage situation and reviving the war, there was nothing to do but engage in eventually futile covert cross-border probes and pretend there was nothing wrong. Hanoi wanted reparations money and Washington steadfastly refused to pay ransom. History offered a different model, one provided by the French who had failed before us in Vietnam and who brought back their prisoners over the years. In five successive White Houses, from Richard Nixon through Bush, ransom was viewed as an option that could make a president look weak and cripple his political future.
And now we wait to see whether bill Clinton can stand up to history and take on its political risks. The signs are not encouraging.
I offer you today but one of those signs — the makeup of the Winston Lord delegation to Hanoi. He is taking along, among others, Edward Ross, a man from the Pentagon who has made a career out of keeping the prisoner evidence out of public view.
He has not been punished for this. On the contrary, he has risen. His latest promotion came under Clinton’s defense secretary, Les Aspin. Ross was put in charge of the Pentagon policy office that supervises the prisoner issue — the DPMO — the Defense POW/MIA Office.
Most recently, he tried to discredit what is known as the Quang report, a document found in Soviet archives dated Sept. 12, 1972, just six months before the 591-man prisoner return. Described by the Russians as a Vietnamese general’s report to the Hanoi politburo, it said the Vietnamese were actually holding 1,205 American prisoners.
Ross’ unit is a policy office, yet he has been allowed to put the Pentagon’s POW intelligence operation under his control umbrella, violating a fundamental canon against making an intelligence apparatus vulnerable to political pressures.
This is but a small sampling of Ross’ activities, and yet he was chosen to represent the Pentagon at the upcoming Hanoi talks.
As long as men like him, and there are many, are running Washington’s POW/MIA operation, we are never going to get the truth. And without the truth, how in the world can we put Vietnam to rest?