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The Vietnam War POW/MIA issue concerns the fate of United States servicemen who were reported as missing in action (MIA) during the Vietnam War and associated theaters of operation in Southeast Asia. The term has also referenced issues related to the treatment of affected family members by the governments involved in these conflicts. Following the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, 591 American prisoners of war (POWs) were returned during Operation Homecoming. The U.S. listed about 1,350 Americans as prisoners of war or missing in action and roughly 1,200 Americans reported killed in action and body not recovered. Many of these were airmen who were shot down over North Vietnam or Laos. Investigations of these incidents have involved determining whether the men involved survived their shoot down; if they did not survive, then they considered efforts to recover their remains. POW/MIA activists played a role in pushing the U.S. government to improve its efforts in resolving the fates of the missing. Progress in doing so was slow until the mid-1980s, when relations between the U.S. and Vietnam began to improve and more cooperative efforts were undertaken. Normalization of U.S. relations with Vietnam in the mid-1990s was a culmination of this process.
Considerable speculation and investigation has gone to a hypothesis that a significant number of these men were captured as prisoners of war by Communist forces in the two countries and kept as live prisoners after the war's conclusion for the United States in 1973. A vocal group of POW/MIA activists maintains that there has been a concerted conspiracy by the Vietnamese government and every American government since then to hide the existence of these prisoners. The U.S. government has steadfastly denied that prisoners were left behind or that any effort has been made to cover up their existence. Popular culture has reflected the "live prisoners" theory, most notably in the 1985 film Rambo: First Blood Part II. Several congressional investigations have looked into the issue, culminating with the largest and most thorough, the United States Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs of 1991–1993 led by Senators John Kerry, Bob Smith, and John McCain. It found "no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia."
The fate of those missing in action has always been one of the most troubling and unsettling consequences of any war. In this case, the issue has been a highly emotional one to those involved, and is often considered the last depressing, divisive aftereffect of the Vietnam War for the United States.
The origins of the POW/MIA issue date back to during the war itself. Suffering from a lack of accurate intelligence sources inside North Vietnam, the U.S. never had solid knowledge for how many American prisoners of war were held. Indeed, the U.S. often relied upon possibly inaccurate North Vietnamese newspapers and radio broadcasts to find out who had been captured, as well as memorized lists of names brought out by the few American POWs given early release. As the Department of Defense built up lists of those in the categories of killed in action, killed in action/body not recovered, prisoner of war, and missing in action, its tentative numbers fluctuated, but most of the time, the number of expected returnees upon war's end was around 600. However, the Nixon administration had made return of the POWs one of its central arguments to the American public for prolonging the war and bringing North Vietnam to terms. In doing so, the administration exaggerated the number of POWs at issue, at one point stating that there were "fifteen hundred American servicemen" held throughout Southeast Asia. These higher numbers would be the focus of much of the controversy in the issue to come.
Following the Paris Peace Accords of January 1973, U.S. prisoners of war were returned during Operation Homecoming during February through April 1973. During this, 591 POWs were released to U.S. authorities; this included a few captured in Laos and released in North Vietnam. U.S. President Richard Nixon announced that all U.S. servicemen taken prisoner had been accounted for. At that time, the U.S. listed 2,646 Americans as unaccounted for, including about 1,350 prisoners of war or missing in action and roughly 1,200 reported killed in action and body not recovered. The low numbers of returnees from Laos caused some immediate concern, as previous Pentagon estimates were as high as 41 for prisoners held there, although only a few had been known to be captured for certain.
Investigation of the fate of all the missing service personnel would end up residing with the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command also played a major role in subsequent investigations. In 1973, the Defense Department established the Central Identification Laboratory–Thailand to coordinate POW/MIA recovery efforts in Southeast Asia.
The U.S. conducted some limited operations in South Vietnam in 1974 to find the remains of those missing, and pursuant to the Paris Accords, the North Vietnamese returned some remains too. These efforts halted following the collapse of the Accords and the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, and over the next ten years, little progress was made in recovering remains.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, the friends and relatives of unaccounted-for American personnel became politically active, requesting the United States government reveal what steps were taken to follow up on intelligence regarding last-known-alive MIAs and POWs. When initial inquiries revealed important information had not been pursued, many families and their supporters asked for the public release of POW/MIA records and called for an investigation.
In 1979, the re-emergence of U.S. Private First Class Bobby Garwood constituted the only POW to surface following the end of the war and release of prisoners. Garwood is considered by the Department of Defense to have acted as a collaborator with the enemy after he was taken prisoner, while it is claimed by proponents of the "live prisoners" belief, and by Garwood himself, that he was an American POW abandoned by the military.
The National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia was created by Sybil Stockdale, Evelyn Grubb and Mary Crowe as an originally small group of POW/MIA wives in Coronado, California and Hampton Roads Virginia in 1967. Sybil Stockdale's husband, Navy Commander James Stockdale, was shot down in 1965 and she was determined to make the American people aware of the mistreatment of U.S. POWs. This publicity resulted in better treatment of U.S. POWs from fall 1969 on.
After the war, the National League of Families became the leading group requesting information about those still listed as missing in action. It was led by Ann Mills Griffiths. Its stated mission was and is "to obtain the release of all prisoners, the fullest possible accounting for the missing and repatriation of all recoverable remains of those who died serving our nation during the Vietnam War in Southeast Asia." The League's most prominent symbol is its POW/MIA flag. This group was more established, less radical, and more connected to the government.
The National Alliance of Families For the Return of America's Missing Servicemen was founded in 1990. Its goal was and is to resolve the fates of any unreturned U.S. prisoners of war or missing in action from World War II on forward, not just Southeast Asia, and to gain the return of any live prisoners. It is a 1980s-origined splinter from the National League of Families, created by members who were dissatisfied with Ann Mills Griffiths' leadership. Compared to the older group, the National Alliance took a more activist, radical stance, especially towards belief in the existence of live prisoners in Southeast Asia.
The chair and co-founder of the group is Dolores Apodata Alfond, whose brother was shot down in 1967 during the Vietnam War. The group was visible during the Kerry Committee hearings of the early 1990s, but disagreed with the committee's findings that there was no compelling evidence of any live prisoners in Southeast Asia.
In the mid-1980s, the U.S. and Vietnam increased the frequency of high-level policy and technical meetings to help resolve the POW/MIA issue. The U.S. government viewed this work as a humanitarian obligation. The Vietnamese slowly began to return American remains that they had previously collected and stored; eventually they permitted the U.S. to excavate a few crash sites. The Lao government, with whom the USG maintained diplomatic relations, also agreed to several crash-site excavations in the mid-1980s. This resulted in the return and identification of the remains of a few dozen Americans. In Cambodia, political turmoil prevented such efforts.
A number of individuals were not satisfied with or did not trust U.S. government actions in this area and took their own initiative. Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jack Bailey created Operation Rescue, which featured a former smuggling boat named Akuna III and solicited funds from POW/MIA groups. Bailey never produced any prisoners and the boat spent years never leaving its dock in Songkhla in Thailand, but the effort proved adept at bringing in money through the Virginia-based Eberle Associates direct mail marketing firm. It was later revealed that Bailey had greatly exaggerated his military record.
During the 1980s, former United States Army Special Forces member Bo Gritz undertook a series of private trips into Southeast Asia, purportedly to locate American POWs whom some believed were still being held by Laos and Vietnam, for example at location Nhommarath. These missions were heavily publicized, controversial and widely decried as haphazard — for instance, as some commentators stated, few successful secret missions involve bringing to the border towns women openly marketing commemorative POW-rescue T-shirts.
One such mission in 1982 was to free POWs reported to be in Laos; Gritz led 15 Laotians and 3 Americans, but they were ambushed shortly after crossing the border from Vietnam to Laos and the mission failed. CSM Eric L. Haney, a former Delta Force operator, claims that the unit was twice told to prepare for a mission involving the rescue of American POWs from Vietnam, but both times the missions were scrubbed, according to Haney, when Gritz suddenly appeared in the spotlight, drawing too much attention to the issue and making the missions too difficult to accomplish. The U.S. National Security Council would eventually say of him: "Throughout his years of involvement, Mr. Gritz contributed nothing of value to the POW/MIA issue. In fact, his activities have been counter-productive."
Another figure of the 1980s was Scott Barnes, who claimed he had both been in a secret operation in Cambodia and had seen an American POW. His actions caused significant dissension among POW/MIA activists, especially once he claimed that he had seen more American POWs in Laos but had been ordered by the CIA to assassinate them. The National League of Families ended up accusing him of exploiting the MIA issue for personal gain, as one wife had mortgaged her house to fund him. Barnes, who had concocted much of his purported military background, would subsequently become a controversial figure within Ross Perot's 1992 presidential campaign.
In the words of one analysis, "The notion that the United States may have left men behind was hard to fathom, and Americans chose to partly solve this complex problem through fictional characters."
This was especially true in American films. The first was Chuck Norris's 1978 Good Guys Wear Black, which postulated a cynical U.S. government writing off MIAs with a bogus mission. 1983's Uncommon Valor, starring Gene Hackman, followed suit, as did Norris again in 1984 with Missing in Action.
By far the most visible film in this theme was Sylvester Stallone's Rambo: First Blood Part II in 1985, which did the most to popularize the idea that American POWs had been left behind after the war and that the government had no real interest in their rescue. The Rambo character, who in this film may have been partly modeled after Bo Gritz, was a Vietnam veteran commando still haunted by the multiple failures of the war. The pivotal moment of the film occurs when Rambo, realizing he was betrayed by the U.S. government and under torture from the Vietnamese and their Soviet allies, is put into radio communication with the officer who ordered the mission and tells him, "Murdoch. I'm coming to get you!" Rambo and the Norris films were commercially successful in both the United States and in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia, and did much to perpetuate the stock image of American prisoners held in bamboo cages.
Rambo was followed by Norris's 1985 prequel Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, as well as other films such as P.O.W. The Escape (1986) and Dog Tags (1990) that shared similar conceits. The Vietnam war POW/MIA issue was explored in some U.S. television series, such as the 1997 The X-Files episode "Unrequited". The television series Magnum, P.I. included multiple episodes whose central theme was the possibility of American POW's remaining in Vietnam.
For Vietnam veteran Bob Smith, Representative and later Senator from New Hampshire, the fate of possible missing or captured Americans in Vietnam had been Smith's major issue since his arrival in Congress in 1985. His interest was partly motivated by his own experience growing up without knowing how his own father died in World War II.
North Carolina Congressman Bill Hendon, who served two terms in the early-mid-1980s, was also quite active on the issue. He and Smith met with President Ronald Reagan in January 1986 to discuss their belief that Vietnam was still holding American prisoners, and that U.S. intelligence agencies knew this but that the bureaucracy within the agencies was covering it up from even the Secretary of Defense. Reagan termed Hendon "way out yonder" on the issue, and after Vice President George H. W. Bush reported that even Smith would not agree with Hendon on some of these claims, Reagan concluded that "Bill is off his rocker".
New York Congressman John LeBoutillier, who served one term in the early 1980s, became interested in politics due to POW matters. After leaving Congress, he continued to be active in POW/MIA affairs. He founded the Sky Hook II Project, dedicated to recovering living American POWs in Southeast Asia. He has made frequent trips to Laos and Vietnam and also met with Laotian and Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Vientiane, and western cities.
Another political figure active in the POW/MIA issue was Tom Walsh, who became mayor of Casper, Wyoming, and a three-term member of the Wyoming House of Representatives. Walsh made fourteen trips, at his own expense, to search for information on POWs and MIAs.
The POW/MIA issue heated up in the early 1990s. Serious charges were leveled at the Bush administration (1989 to 1993) regarding the POW/MIA issue. The United States Department of Defense, headed by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, was accused of covering up information and failing to properly pursue intelligence about American POW/MIAs.
Ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, became interested in the matter. In October 1990 his chief staff aide, James P. Lucier, prepared a report stating that it was probable there were live POWs still being held and that the Bush administration was complicit in hiding the facts. The report also alleged that the Soviet Union had held American prisoners after the end of World War II and more may have been transferred there during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Helms stated that the "deeper story" was a possible "deliberate effort by certain people in the government to disregard all information or reports about living MIA-POWs." This allegation was followed in May 1991 by Helms' release of a minority report of the Foreign Relations Committee, entitled An Examination of US Policy Toward POW/MIAs, which made similar claims and concluded that "any evidence that suggested an MIA might be alive was uniformly and arbitrarily rejected...." The issuance of the report angered other Republicans on the committee, and after charges were made that the report contained errors, innuendo, and unsubstantiated rumors, Helms distanced himself from the POW/MIA issue. (This and other personnel matters led to Helms firing Lucier in January 1992.)
A July 1991 Newsweek cover photograph purported to show three American POWs still being held against their will, which increased general public interest in the issue. However, the photograph would turn out to be a hoax. Polls showed that a majority of Americans believed live POWs were indeed still being held captive; a July 1991 Wall Street Journal poll showed 70 percent of Americans believing this, and that three-fourths of them believed the U.S. government was not doing what needed to be done to gain their release.
Interest in the matter intensified in June 1992 when President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin told NBC News in an interview that some Americans captured during the Vietnam War may have been transferred from Hanoi to the Soviet Union: "Our archives have shown that it is true, some of them were transferred to the territory of the former U.S.S.R. and were kept in labor camps. We don't have complete data and can only surmise that some of them may still be alive."
Ross Perot stated that he believed that hundreds of American servicemen were left behind in Southeast Asia at the end of the U.S. involvement in the war, and that government officials were covering up POW/MIA investigations in order to not reveal a drug smuggling operation used to finance a secret war in Laos.
Retired United States Army General, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and current head of the American POW/MIA delegation in Hanoi, John Vessey, defended administrations' and the military's role in trying to get the Vietnamese to improve their efforts in ascertaining the fate of missing U.S. personnel. Vessey had succeeded in 1988 in convincing the Vietnamese to permit U.S. search teams to operate throughout the country. Vessey categorically rejected the notion of a government conspiracy, saying that he had never seen evidence of one at any time in his military career, and adding that, "American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are not conspirators." United States Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said that Vietnamese cooperation was improved but still needed much more improvement.
For critics and skeptics, the allegations fail to convincingly answer the question as to what reason the Vietnamese (and other neighboring countries) would have to hang on to living prisoners. They could have been returned post-war, or being inconvenient witnesses to abuse more easily simply murdered. Proponents of the theory often claimed that the prisoners were initially held back as part of a scheme to gain war reparations from the U.S., and then were continued to be held so that the Vietnamese would not have to admit to what they had done.
Senator Bob Smith introduced a 1991 resolution to create a Senate Select POW/MIA Committee. Senator and fellow Vietnam War veteran John Kerry was the chair of the committee, and its third key member was Senator and former Vietnam War POW John McCain. Compared to earlier congressional investigations into the POW/MIA issue, this one had a mandate to be more skeptical and ask harder questions of government officials than before. The committee's work included more visits to Vietnam and getting the Department of Defense to declassify over a million pages of relevant documents. Kerry and McCain said that they had gotten the Vietnamese to give them full access to their records, and that they had spent thousands of hours trying to find real, not fabricated, evidence of surviving Americans.
Some of the most publicized testimony before the committee came in September 1992, when former Nixon Defense Secretaries Melvin Laird and James Schlesinger said that the U.S. government had believed in 1973 that some American servicemen had not been returned from Laos, despite Nixon's public statements to the contrary. Schlesinger said, "As of now, I can come to no other conclusion. [But] that does not mean there are any alive today." Laird said in retrospect of Nixon's assurances that all POWs were coming home, "I think it was unfortunate to be that positive. You can't be that positive when we had the kind of intelligence we had." In reaction to the testimony, Kerry said, "I think it's quite extraordinary when two former secretaries of defense both give evidence documenting that they had information, or they believed personally, that people were alive and not accounted for in Operation Homecoming."
The committee issued its unanimous findings on January 13, 1993. In response to the central question of whether any American POWs were still in captivity, it stated:
While the Committee has some evidence suggesting the possibility a POW may have survived to the present, and while some information remains yet to be investigated, there is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.
With specific regard to the "some evidence", the committee said this: "But neither live-sighting reports nor other sources of intelligence have provided grounds for encouragement, particularly over the past decade. The live-sighting reports that have been resolved have not checked out; alleged pictures of POWs have proven false; purported leads have come up empty; and photographic intelligence has been inconclusive, at best." Two senators, Smith and Grassley, dissented at note 12, with the report saying "they believe that live-sighting reports and other sources of intelligence are evidence that POWs may have survived to the present."
With regard to the possibility that American POWs survived in Southeast Asia after Operation Homecoming, the committee said this: "We acknowledge that there is no proof that U.S. POWs survived, but neither is there proof that all of those who did not return had died. There is evidence, moreover, that indicates the possibility of survival, at least for a small number, after Operation Homecoming."
Committee vice-chairman Smith seemed to back away from the committee's findings within months of their being issued, appearing in April 1993 on Larry King Live with POW/MIA activist Bill Hendon, stressing his partial dissent from the majority report and touting new evidence of North Vietnam having held back prisoners in 1973, and then in the Senate in September 1993, saying he had "very compelling" new evidence of live prisoners. He also asked the Justice Department to investigate ten federal officials for perjury and other crimes in conjunction with a cover-up of POW/MIA investigations, In what he dubbed "Operation Clean Sweep", Smith said the targeted officials had a "mind-set to debunk". Kerry and McCain both denounced Smith's actions, with McCain saying "In my dealings with these people, it is clear that mistakes may have been made in a very complex set of issues. But at no time was there any indication that they were giving anything but their most dedicated efforts. I frankly don't feel it's appropriate to publicly make these charges without public substantiation." Defense Secretary Les Aspin said the charges were unwarranted.
In 1994, journalist Sydney Schanberg, who had won a Pulitzer Prize in the 1970s for his New York Times reporting in Cambodia, wrote a long article for Penthouse magazine in which he said the committee had been dominated by a faction led by Kerry that "wanted to appear to be probing the prisoner issue energetically, but in fact, they never rocked official Washington's boat, nor did they lay open the 20 years of secrecy and untruths." Schanberg stated that key committee staff had had too close a relationship with the Department of Defense, and that while other committee investigators were able to get evidence of men left behind into the full body of the report, the report's conclusions "were watered down and muddied to the point of meaninglessness." Kerry denied that the committee had engaged in any cover-up.
The Kerry committee did little to soften the attitudes of those directly involved in the issue. To skeptics, "live prisoners" remained a conspiracy theory unsupported by motivation or evidence, and the foundation for a cottage industry of charlatans who preyed upon the hopes of the families of the missing. As two skeptics wrote in 1995, "The conspiracy myth surrounding the Americans who remained missing after Operation Homecoming in 1973 had evolved to baroque intricacy. By 1992, there were thousands of zealots—who believed with cultlike fervor that hundreds of American POWs had been deliberately and callously abandoned in Indochina after the war, that there was a vast conspiracy within the armed forces and the executive branch—spanning five administrations—to cover up all evidence of this betrayal, and that the governments of Communist Vietnam and Laos continued to hold an unspecified number of living American POWs, despite their adamant denials of this charge." Believers continued to strongly reject such notions; as one wrote in 1994, "It is not conspiracy theory, not paranoid myth, not Rambo fantasy. It is only hard evidence of a national disgrace: American prisoners were left behind at the end of the Vietnam War. They were abandoned because six presidents and official Washington could not admit their guilty secret. They were forgotten because the press and most Americans turned away from all things that reminded them of Vietnam."
The actions of the committee were designed to allow for improved ties between the U.S. and Vietnam, for which the unresolved fate of American MIAs had long been a sticking point. The belief by Americans from a few years earlier that live prisoners still existed had mostly passed; in the words of Time magazine, "most people seemed resigned to the idea that the fortunes of war are bound to leave a few mysteries." In 1994 the Senate passed a resolution, sponsored by Kerry and McCain, that called for an end to the existing trade embargo against Vietnam; it was intended to pave the way for normalization.
When President Bill Clinton lifted the trade embargo on February 3, 1994, he stated:
I have made the judgment that the best way to ensure cooperation from Vietnam and to continue getting the information Americans want on POWs and MIAs is to end the trade embargo. I've also decided to establish a liaison office in Vietnam to provide services for Americans there and help us to pursue a human rights dialogue with the Vietnamese government.
I want to be clear; These actions do not constitute a normalization of our relationships. Before that happens, we must have more progress, more cooperation and more answers. Toward that end, this spring I will send another high-level U.S. delegation to Vietnam to continue the search for remains and for documents.
In response, columnist Dan Rather wrote the following:
In an obvious attempt to blunt criticism, President Clinton actually characterized lifting the embargo as creating the best opportunity to get the true story of what happened to America's missing. This was especially ill-advised. Because it was obvious that lifting the embargo wasn't designed to resolve doubts about the fate of the missing. It was designed to make money. It was a trade initiative, plain and simple. The people least likely to mistake it for anything else were the families of America's missing.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton normalized diplomatic relations with the country of Vietnam, with McCain's and Kerry's visible support during the announcement giving Clinton, who came of age during Vietnam but did not serve in the military, some political cover.
During his time on the committee and afterward, McCain was vilified as a fraud, traitor, or "Manchurian Candidate" by many of the POW/MIA activists who believed in live prisoners. McCain's high profile on the Vietnam issue also cost him the friendship of some fellow former POWs; In return, McCain continued to attack those he saw as profiteers exploiting the families of those missing in action.
In the 1990s, the Joint Task Force–Full Accounting in conjunction with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command was established to focus on achieving the fullest possible accounting of Americans missing from the Vietnam War. It has interviewed thousands of witnesses regarding the fate of missing Americans, and conducts ten missions per year in Southeast Asia to search for remains of those still listed as missing.
Schanberg would return to the POW/MIA subject during John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign in a series of articles for The Village Voice; he claimed that Kerry had shredded documents, suppressed testimony, and sanitized findings during his time as chairman of the committee. Kerry denied these allegations and responded overall by saying, "In the end, I think what we can take pride in is that we put together the most significant, most thorough, most exhaustive accounting for missing and former POWs in the history of human warfare."
In 2007, the former Congressman Bill Hendon published his book An Enormous Crime, which chronicled his view of the history of American soldiers abandoned in Southeast Asia following the war and the circumstances that left them there. A companion website allows readers to examine actual intelligence reports and decide if the Defense Intelligence Agency acted properly in dismissing each case. The book ranked to #34 on the New York Times Best Seller list.
A year later, Schanberg would again publish articles, this time for The Nation and The Nation Institute, during John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, in which he recapped his previous arguments and additionally claimed that McCain had helped cover up the long suppression of evidence concerning live prisoners. Former Congressman LeBoutillier was also vocal in his opposition to McCain, in part due to McCain's failure to acknowledge what he saw as evidence of live American POWs left behind. However, while the group of activists on the topic still felt very strongly about it, the matter had largely faded from the American public, and McCain's actions with regard to the POW/MIA issue never were a factor in his eventually losing campaign.
By the late 2000s, the remains of over 700 Americans killed in Southeast Asia had been returned and identified. The controversy continued to pop up on occasion in the following decade, with the 2013 Canadian documentary Unclaimed telling the story of an elderly man in Vietnam claiming to be a U.S. soldier thought killed in action in 1968. However, Defense Department officials said the man was an imposter with a history of impersonating American POWs.
Efforts continued to recover Americans who remained unaccounted for, who numbered 1,643 as of November 2013. Working jointly, American and Vietnamese experts focus on "Last Known Alive" cases, which involve missing Americans whom the U.S. believed might have survived their initial loss incident. Outcomes of these investigations helps resolve the live prisoners question. The U.S. has identified 296 individuals as Last Known Alive cases in all of Southeast Asia, and following full investigations, the Defense Department confirmed the wartime death of 245 of these individuals by March 2012.