AN ENORMOUS CRIME: THE DEFINITIVE ACCOUNT OF AMERICAN POWs ABANDONED IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

           By Bill Hendon and Elizabeth A. Stewart

 

 

In the Twentieth Century the United States fought three wars in Asia: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.  In all three, thousands of Americans were captured and became prisoners. 

 

The fate of live American POWs in World War II was comparatively easy to establish, because the Japanese were vanquished, they surrendered unconditionally, and virtually all the territory they had occupied came under American or allied control.  After the  surrender, there were few, if any, places the Japanese could hide live American prisoners of war, nor any reason they would want to. 

 

Not so in North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union.

 

The Korean War began with a North Korean attack across the 38th Parallel that drove poorly trained, ill-equipped American and South Korean troops almost into the sea at the peninsula’s southern tip.  Many American soldiers were taken prisoner.

 

General MacArthur landed Marines amphibiously at Inchon, simultaneously General Walker’s ground forces broke out of the Pusan Perimeter, the North Korean army was crushed between them, and Seoul was retaken.  Still, the North Koreans again captured some Americans captive.

 

During Eighth Army’s and X Corps’ race to the Yalu River, the North Korea-Chinese border, large numbers of Americans were captured, especially when Chinese Communist Forces intervened massively across the entire front and surrounded Army and Marine units at the Chosin Resevoir.

 

In early 1951, the South Korean capital, Seoul, was retaken, and for two years the lines stabilized at roughly the 38th Parallel.  Seesaw fighting continued, and still more Americans became prisoners of war.

 

Soon after the armistice in the summer of 1953, POWs were exchanged.  But some 8,000 Americans were—are!—unaccounted for in the Korean War. 

 

In its June 19, 2000 issue, Newsweek magazine wrote about American POWs, reporting reported “hundreds” may have been kept against their will.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin’s archives yielded an extraordinary exchange of telegrams among Joseph Stalin, Zhou Enlai [the Chinese Communist foreign minister] and the North Korean strongman Kim Il Sung, father of the current leader.  Toward the end of the war, the Chinese suggested that if American prisoners were to be repatriated, ‘at least 20 percent should be held back.’  Mao thought he could use the prisoners as political pawns in support of his efforts to win a U.N. seat and diplomatic recognition from Washington.” (Newsweek reporting; my emphasis.)

 

Newsweek continued: “There may have been an even more sinister use for the prisoners.  Jan Sejna, a Czech general who defected to the United States in 1968, told Pentagon investigators he had been personally involved in a Soviet project that conducted medical experiments on American prisoners at a secret hospital in North Korea.  Testifying before Congress in 1996, Sejna said as many as 100 ‘human guinea pigs’ were later shipped to the Soviet Union for more tests.  Others, he said, were killed and cremated in North Korea.”  (My emphasis.)

 

The Newsweek article was not the rant of hysterical conspiracy theorists, nor the unsupported assertions of sleazy fast-buck artists seeking to play on the distress and hopes of the POW/MIA’s loved ones.  It was responsible journalism that did not rely on anonymous sources or mercenary tipsters.

 

The post-armistice sequestering of live American POW/MIAs in North Korea, and perhaps China and the Soviet Union, was facilitated by the regions’ geography.  For much of the war, North Korea had total control over its own territory, as did China and the Soviet Union throughout the war. 

 

Other than through clandestine intelligence and occasional defectors—problematic sources  in those days—the United States had no solid information about who may have been held captive in the far reaches of those closed countries, or where they might be.

 

Nor do we have meaningful intelligence today. Although occasionally some human bones and artifacts are recovered from North Korea, the fate of most unaccounted for POW/MIAs is still unknown and is unlikely ever to be known.  The North Koreans, Chinese and Russians tell us what they choose, no more, no less—and there is nothing we can do about it.

 

As to Vietnam, Vernon E. Davis has written in his monumental The Long Road Home: U.S. Prisoner of War Policy and Planning in Southeast Asia (Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense) that “[o]f the approximately 2400 men originally counted as missing [in Vietnam] after [Operation] Homecoming [in early 1973] about half had been presumed to be dead on the basis of compelling evidence—their planes were seen to crash on land or water with no indication of survivors.  Incontrovertible evidence of the status of the missing, other than by identifiable remains (unlikely to amount to more than a fraction of the total), is difficult if not impossible to come by.  The cost of this near-exhaustive search has been considerable—the Defense Department estimated that for a five-year period, fiscal years 1996-2000 [alone], it spent almost $500 million on the effort.”  (Emphasis mine.)

 

Despite that effort by the government—and other prodigious efforts by private individuals and non-governmental organizations—to ascertain what became of  POW/MIAs known, or believed, to have been alive at the end of hostilities, not a single live POW/MIA has been repatriated from Indochina, China, the Soviet Union/Russia, or anywhere else. 

 

Nor have millions of dollars in rewards and other inducements ever produced even one POW/MIA.

 

Nor is it likely that the fate of live POW/MIAs from the Vietnam War, if there were any, will ever be known for certain, even in light of normalization and diplomatic relations—or, perhaps, because of them.

 

We will probably never know because, like Churchill’s comment about divining Russia’s conduct of foreign policy, trying to sort out the Communist Indochinese’s accounting for American POW/MIAs is akin to trying to solve a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

 

Yet there are those who still try, most recently Bill Hendon and Elizabeth A. Stewart in their An Enormous Crime: The Definitive Account of American POWs Abandoned in Southeast Asia (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press).

 

Author Stewart’s father was an Air Force officer whose name appears on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (the “Wall”).

 

Bill Hendon is a former Congressman long involved, officially and unofficially, in the Vietnam POW/MIA issue.  Although Hendon has many enemies and, accordingly to the June 11, 2007, issue of The Weekly Standard, President Reagan is supposed to “have confided that he thought Hendon was ‘off his rocker’ over U.S. complicity regarding servicemen missing in action in Vietnam,” An Enormous Crime must be judged on its own merits or demerits, without consideration of Hendon’s personal baggage.  It would be a serious mistake, and unfair, to kill the message because of dislike for the messenger.

 

But inevitably, An Enormous Crime will be a controversial book, likely to be dismissed by some for a number of reasons.

 

Officialdom no longer wants to hear about Vietnam War POW/MIAs in Indochina, China, the Soviet Union, or anywhere else—especially since the Kerry Committee gave the Vietnamese a clean bill of health in the early 1990s. 

 

Some returned POWs understandably remain so seared by their experiences in captivity that the subject opens old wounds, exacerbated by even the remotest possibility that some of their number may have been left behind. 

 

Many POWMIA families, who have been able to move on with their lives, will not welcome a book that causes them to revisit the painful past with its unbearable losses.

 

Few Americans want to believe that if the North Vietnamese did withhold POW/MIAs, our government did not somehow get them back—so some may choose denial.

 

But here is this new Hendon/Stewart book, which is not going away.  In evaluating it, there is a fundamental distinction which must be made that is not adequately explained in An Enormous Crime. 

 

The Hendon/Stewart thesis—articulated in their subtitle—is that the United States government “abandoned” live POW/MIAs behind in Vietnam.  And further, that when pressed—by prominent Americans, MIA families, non-governmental organizations, and information that could not be ignored—some government officials simply went through the motions of ascertaining what happened to these men or, worse, subverted, twisted, and buried the truth about their fate. 

 

But “abandoned” presupposes that there were prisoners left behind for the government to abandon.  Thus, the authors of An Enormous Crime raise three questions: (1) Were live Americans withheld by the North Vietnamese at Operation Homecoming in 1973? (2) If they were, did our government know? (3) If it did, was there a cover up?

 

If the answer to the first question is “no”—if no live Americans were withheld at Operation Homecoming—the second and third questions are irrelevant.  There was nothing for our government to know, nothing to cover up.

 

On the other hand, if there is evidence that Americans were withheld, it has to have been such that our government had to have known (and thus, the POW/MIAs were, in fact, “abandoned”).  This, in turn, would mean that indeed there was a cover up. 

 

Why?

 

 Because with the vast human and material resources possessed by the United States even thirty-five years ago, official incompetence alone would not account for our government not having made substantial, and probably successful, efforts to repatriate those withheld by the Communists.

 

Accordingly, the first question must be addressed first.

 

Unfortunately, Hendon and Stewart unwittingly undermine their thesis that the North Vietnamese withheld American POW/MIAs at Operation Homecoming by making three serious mistakes.

 

First, they present a mind-numbing avalanche of data and irrelevant information.

 

For example, the authors often break their dramatic narrative by introducing scores of POW/MIA sighting reports which, after a while, begin to sound alike and include unpronounceable Vietnamese names that the reader can not possibly remember.  While the authors obviously believe that these sighting reports bolster their argument, it would have been better served if the reports had been presented in summary fashion with the texts of the actual sightings contained, if need be, in an appendix.  More important, however, the sighting reports are either hearsay—some triple and even more—or suffer from lack of credible first-hand, primary-source corroboration. 

 

And while interesting, lengthy discussions such as Richard Nixon’s Watergate problems and the fraudulent selection of the unknown soldier, though conceivably bearing tangentially on the POW/MIA issue, break the authors’ narrative and distract the reader from the thesis the authors have set out to prove.

 

Second, they rely considerably on dubious sources. 

 

Reliance on witnesses with axes to grind—such as the despicable turncoat Marine, Bobby Garwood (who was convicted of collaboration with the enemy and striking a POW), and former South Vietnamese military personnel seeking an edge in their efforts to immigrate to the United States—necessarily raises questions of credibility.

 

Third, for crucially important allegations they offer no sources at all.

 

This is the worse failing of An Enormous Crime—which regrettably undermines the authors’ prodigious effort.

 

When a former Congressman and the daughter of a POW/MIA accuse the North Vietnamese of withholding prisoners and the United States government of complicity by knowingly abandoning live Americans to a brutal, conscienceless Communist foe, they are obliged to make as strong a case as possible—not to rely on unsourced assertions, such as the one that follows.

 

In an eye-opening passage on pages 301-303, the authors report a 1986 conversation which, if true, by itself would provide a compelling piece of evidence in support of their argument that the North Vietnamese withheld POW/MIAs at Operation Homecoming and that our government knew the truth but did nothing.

 

They describe a meeting on October 7, 1986 in Hendon’s Congressional office “attended by [CIA Director William] Casey, a man Hendon did not know but assumed was Casey’s deputy, Robert Gates [presumably the current Secretary of Defense], two other individuals from the CIA, Hendon, [then-Representative Bob] Smith, and perhaps a half dozen of the other [POW/MIA-seeking] activist congressman.” 

 

After some back-and-forth, the CIA director, the authors assert, made the following admission: “ ‘Look, the nation knows they (the POWs) are there, everybody knows they’re there.  You guys have written the President (advising him they are there), you’re always talking about it, [Lieutenant General Eugene F.] Gene Tighe [Jr. a seasoned Air Force POW/MIA expert, and one-time head of the Defense Intelligence Agency] is always talking about it, but there’s no groundswell of support for getting the men out.’  He [Casey] continued, ‘Certainly you are not suggesting that we pay for them, surely you’re not saying we should do something like that with no public support.’  He concluded by saying, ‘look, we screwed up in 1973, we screw up all the time, and my job is to make sure that we don’t screw, Casey’s word up again.  What do you want, another hostage crisis?” 

 

Imagine if this devastating admission were true. 

 

In 1986—thirteen years after every live American was supposed to have been repatriated from, if not all of Indochina at least North Vietnam—the Director of the CIA, a close associate of the President of the United States, admits to a room full of high public officials that the North Vietnamese did in fact withhold POW/MIAs, that they remained in Vietnam, that our government knew it, that few Americans wanted them repatriated, and that they were not going to be ransomed by the United States. 

 

But how do we know if the authors are telling the truth about this extraordinay revelation?

 

Well, we have someone’s word for it.  Whose?  Why, Hendon’s.  At page 301 he discloses his source as “[a]n affidavit later filed by Hendon, based on meeting notes he recorded on the morning following the meeting . . . .”  (My emphasis.) 

 

No other source is given, even though according to Hendon the other attendees—Casey’s deputy, Gates, two CIA people, Congressman Smith “and perhaps a half dozen of the other [MIA-seeking] activist congressman”—“were deeply disturbed by what they had just heard.”

 

The authors are asking the reader to take on faith that nearly a dozen high public officials heard America’s top spook make these damning admissions, when Hendon and Stewart fail to produce even one of those witnesses as a source: not Casey’s deputy, Gates, the CIA agents, Bob Smith, or the other Congressmen.  Only Hendon himself.

 

The Casey episode is not the only one the authors use to deliver earthshaking information about POW/MIAs.  The also claim that in 1983 Richard Armitage, then a high-ranking Defense Department official, told Hendon the prisoners “serve at the pleasure of their commander in chief, and when he decides it’s time for them to come home, then they’ll come home.”

 

These deficiencies in An Enormous Crime—the mind-numbing quantity of data and irrelevant information, reliance on dubious sources and, in crucially important passages, no sources at all—seriously undermine the book. 

 

They do not, however, discredit the other aspects of the authors’ argument—some of which are formidable. 

 

Thus, in assessing their case from the perspective of what evidence a lawyer would have to produce if trying to prove the authors’ thesis in a court of law, I will necessarily ignore opinions, hearsay, newspaper articles, unsourced statements, and reports from anonymous intelligence and other sources; not only do the authors not need that sort of “verification” to advance their thesis, but that kind of “sourcing” actually undercuts it.  Breathless statements like “a CIA contact in West Germany had learned from a Vietnamese embassy employee in Bonn that the [Communists] were holding American prisoners of war as a ‘trump card’ that they planned to use in the upcoming negotiations with the United States” are probative of nothing.

 

Eliminating all the chaff, then, what wheat is left?

 

The Castro lesson

 

When John F. Kennedy pulled air cover from the American-trained Cuban invaders at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, nearly twelve-hundred of the attackers were taken prisoner.  Eventually, behind the fig leaf of “humanitarian aid,” the United States government pressured the private sector of American business a ransom of about $53 million dollars in medicine, powdered milk, and baby food, and paid it to Castro in return for the Cuban Brigade members still alive.


According to the authors, Castro boasted at a Havana rally attended by international Communist notables that “[f]or the first time in history imperialism has paid war indemnification.  They call it ransom.  We don’t care what they call it.  They had to agree to pay indemnification [for damages caused by the aborted invasion].”  (Although Hendon and Stewart fudge the source of this Castro quotation, its content and style seems consistent with what Castro would say).  The authors add, without sourcing, that “[t]he delegation from North Vietnam listened attentively.”  Whether it was their Cuban or other comrades who inspired the North Vietnamese to ransom Vietnam War POW/MIAs, the Vietnamese Communists would later employ the same “linkage-type” gambit.

 

The 1966 ransom plan 

 

Relying on an apparently declassified report, the authors write that in late 1966 during the Johnson Administration a plan was floated by Ambassador Averill Harriman, patterned after the Cuba “humanitarian aid,” which would have ransomed the POWs the North Vietnamese then held.  The idea was quickly scotched by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

 

The North Vietnamese/Viet Cong/Lao POW policy.

 

Citing CIA documents that Hendon apparently had access to during his government service, the authors claim that in 1964 the North Vietnamese Communist Party “ordered that all North Vietnamese military personnel and civilians be trained to capture American military personnel alive so that they could be used ‘as hostages to compel the U.S., in the event of a cease fire, to pay war reparations for the destruction inflicted upon NVN by the United States’.” (My emphasis.)

 

In furtherance of this policy, the North Vietnamese produced a pamphlet entitled “Policy on Treatment of American Prisoners.”

 

At the Son Tay Officers School, the CIA reported, an “instructor stated that the North Vietnamese government considered U.S. POWs to be of ‘first-level importance because they will be used as a means of obtaining payment for bomb damages from the U.S. when the war ends’.”  “To get the POWs back at the end of the war,” the authors write, citing other CIA documents dated before Operation Homecoming in 1973, “the instructor told the officer candidates, the United States would have to ‘exchange equipment for them and build up the country’.”

 

Other CIA and Department of Defense documents are cited by the authors to show the importance (unfortunately,) not always observed, that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attached to capturing, not killing, American prisoners. 

 

For example, the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) was instructed to kill as many Americans as necessary in combat—but not those who surrendered.  Wounded American POWs were to be treated at field hospitals, and those who could not walk were to be carried.  PAVN soldiers violating this order (as some did) by executing surrendering or already captured Americans were to be severely disciplined. 

 

PAVN soldiers had to memorize English phrases such as “hands up,” “hands down,” “surrender, not die,” “after me,” “go to hospital,” “go to safe area,” and they were issued “capture cards” containing Vietnamese words for English-language phrases like those above and “surrender or die,” “gun down,” “turn around,” “do not move,” “go quickly,” “silence,” “where are your men,” and “call them.”  The cards directed that American prisoners were to be removed from the battlefield into areas of safety as quickly as possible

 

The Viet Cong in the South were subject to the same policies.  Medical care for wounded American prisoners was the most adhered to Viet Cong policy.  When VC cadre and U.S. POWs “required medical treatment at the same time, the American prisoners were given attention first, unless the VC were more seriously wounded.”  If VC escorting a captured American to a headquarters area were subjected to an air strike, first priority was the safety of the prisoner.  Although some American veterans of the Vietnam War will doubtless disagree based on their personal experiences, according to MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) in 1970, “instances where the VC have killed wounded Americans in lieu of taking them prisoner are extremely rare.”

 

The authors cite other CIA and DOD documents for the proposition that the same policies were followed by the Pathet Lao.

 

The North Vietnamese policy on the table

 

At the Paris Peace Talks, the North Vietnamese quickly revealed their strategy of using American POW/MIAs as hostages to obtain reparations at war’s end.  The authors quote Philip Habib, a U.S. delegation member: “In one of the first lists of negotiating points put forward by the North Vietnamese, the Communist side bracketed [joined] the release of prisoners with what they described as ‘U.S. responsibility for war damage in Vietnam.’  In a single numbered point.  Although humanitarian issues such as POW/MIAs have been subjects of disagreement in the settlement of other past conflicts, I know of no instance in which an adversary so openly treated this humanitarian problem in this way. . . .  We thus recognized from an early date what we were up against.”  (My emphasis.)

 

Later in the talks, the North Vietnamese expressly demanded, among other things, “a massive program of postwar reconstruction of the North to be funded by the United States.”  For this aid, they would “return within sixty days [of the agreement] all American POWs they and the Vietcong held and render an accounting of Americans listed as missing in action and those who had been killed in action or died from wounds, disease.”  (My emphasis.)

 

Henry Kissinger later admitted that he had embraced the North Vietnamese offer immediately.  Although two of Kissinger’s top aides—Al Haig and John Negroponte—were skeptical and urged reflection and consultation with our South Vietnamese allies, Kissinger’s biographers would quote one official member of the delegation as saying “[b]ut no, Henry would have none of that.  He wanted the deal, and he wanted it then.”  The biographers—Marvin and Bernard Kalb—observed that a weary Kissinger with only four weeks before the presidential election “seemed more concerned about nailing down the deal than making sure that every detail was correct—an attitude that played right into Le Duc Tho’s [North Vietnam’s chief negotiator] hands.”

 

For various reasons the talks went nowhere, and after the election President Nixon unleashed “Linebacker II”: massive air assaults on the Hanoi and Haiphong areas.  This succeeded in “bombing the North Vietnamese back to the table.”  The reality was that the North Vietnamese were taking a terrific shellacking and were mostly defenseless against the bombing.  Nixon had serious domestic problems, including Watergate.  But still, there was no settlement.

 

The RAND Corporation report

 

About the same time that peace talks began, the Department of Defense (DOD) commissioned RAND, an independent “think tank,” to prepare a study addressing certain issues that would arise at the war’s termination.  Entitled “Prisoners of War in Indochina,” the study confirmed what the North Vietnamese would do: The Communists will see POW/MIA issues as material/ political rather than moral or humane; the price in “reparations” for repatriation will be high; the North Vietnamese will employ the earlier tactics of the Viet Minh, using POW to gain political objectives; release will be tied to North Vietnamese receipt of the reparations; it would be unduly optimistic to believe they and the Viet Cong will release all American prisoners on schedule, but instead they will hold some until all U.S. commitments have been met.

 

Known POW/MIAs not repatriated

 

To support their claim that POW/MIAs were withheld, the authors cite two declassified DOD manned aircraft reconnaissance photograph taken in Laos during October 1969 (long before Operation Homecoming).  They purported to show “twenty or more American prisoners at a cave prison complex.”  But “[n]one of the American POWs released at Operation Homecoming in 1973 reported they had been detained at the Ban Nakay Teu Cave Prison complex or in any of the other half dozen confirmed PL [Pathet Lao] prisons in Sam Neua Province that held American POWs.”  (Emphasis in original.)

 

The final deal

 

In January 1973, even though Nixon and Kissinger secretly agreed to pay reparations to North Vietnam of about $5 billion, Kissinger still did not know how many POW/MIAs the North Vietnamese would release, or who they were.  Thisdid not prevent him from telling the leaders of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia that: “[w]e have absolute assurance that all American prisoners of war held anywhere in Indochina will be released.”  Kissinger added that [w]e . . . do not believe they will hide any POWs”—even though no one in Washington knew how many prisoners the North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, Lao, and others actually held.  (My emphasis.)

 

When the North Vietnamese turned over the lists of POWs to be repatriated, “ ‘[w]e were stunned by the lists we got,’ Kissinger team member Peter Rodman would later tell Senate investigators.  ‘We got lists that we knew were inadequate or at least very puzzling on both Vietnam and Laos.”  (My emphasis.)  The lists even omitted the names of four crewmen who had survived a shoot down in Southern Laos only days before.  Absent from the list were the names of some Americans whom we knew for sure had been captured.  (See the Boslijevac case, below.)

 

Aftermath of the Paris Peace Talks 

 

In 1973, all the prisoners who would ever come home were repatriated.

 

Two years later, the North Vietnamese Communists successfully overran the South, “reuniting” the country.

 

The Nixon/Kissinger secret $5 billion deal then surfaced to a reception of outrage and opposition.

 

Because of the Communist violation of the peace accords, and because there was no way Congress would appropriate the funds, the reparations were never paid.

 

Adding up all these facts, we know quite a lot.

 

The North Koreans and Chinese Communists were advised to—and did—hold back American POW/MIAs to use as bargaining chips after the Korean War.

 

This tactic worked for the Viet Minh Vietnamese Communists when they forced their way into the Geneva Conference, using as their admission ticket the release of a few wounded French troops.

 

The North Vietnamese had an object lesson in how successful the ransom tactic was after the United States paid Castro to release the Bay of Pigs prisoners.

 

In 1966, the United States examined the possibility of paying ransom to the North Vietnamese.

 

The North Vietnamese had a clearly articulated and implemented policy of obtaining American prisoners, and using them as leverage to achieve Communist goals.

 

At the Paris Peace Talks, North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho explicitly used our POW/MIAs as barter for reparation funds by adamantly linking the two issues.

 

The RAND Corporation study had predicted that the Communists would not only use POW/MIAs for barter, but would withhold our prisoners until the Vietnamese squeezed every last ounce of value out of them.

 

After Operation Homecoming, the promised Nixon/Kissinger quid pro quo for the return of our POW/MIAs—some $5 billion in reparations that the North Vietnamese were adamant about receiving—was never paid.

 

At the very least all of the foregoing makes a circumstantial case that, prior to Operation Homecoming in 1973, the thesis that the North Vietnamese withheld American POW/MIAs for ransom was much more than an abstract idea.

 

As the criminal law would have it, the North Vietnamese Communists had “motive” (reparations), “opportunity” (physical control of the POW/MIAs) and “means” (the geographical vastness of Indochina, China, and the Soviet Union, which were virtually impenetrable to outsiders).

 

Accordingly, neither Hendon’s personal baggage nor the book’s flaws justify dismissing the authors’ thesis out-of-hand.  (Indeed, no one has the right to dismiss their book until they have read it, notes and all.)

 

This is especially true because much that happened after Operation Homecoming substantially adds to the authors’ thesis that some POW/MIAs were not repatriated.

 

The authors write—citing a document in the National Archives—that “[o]n March 22 [1973, in the midst of Operation Homecoming], the White House received a classified cable from U.S. Ambassador to Laos G. McMurtrie ‘Mac’ Godley stating that ‘we believe the LPF [Lao Patriotic Front, the Pathet Lao] holds, throughout Laos, more prisoners than found on the [North Vietnamese] list.”  (My emphasis)

 

“One returnee, Capt. Douglas B. Peterson, USAF, who would later become the first postwar U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, had in his homecoming debriefing told of a perfectly healthy American prisoner who was inexplicably segregated from his fellow POWs at an Hanoi prison one evening and never seen again.”  (Authors’ emphasis.)

 

Soon after South Vietnam fell, the Communists publicly linked exhumation/repatriation of remains and a related but entirely separate issue: searching for American POW/MIAs —the clear implication being that while some KIA/POWs were dead (“exhumation/reparation of remains”), perhaps others were still alive (“searching”).

 

Henry Kissinger, at a Southern Governors’ Conference not long after South Vietnam fell, stated publicly about the Vietnamese that “[f]irst they used the prisoners; now they are using the missing in action . . . I feel that they will [continue to] use the missing in action for their political purposes, [but] we do not believe that American foreign policy should be shaped by the holding of hostages—and, even less, by the remains of Americans who died in action.”  (My emphasis.)  Note that Kissinger differentiated between “prisoners” (presumably those repatriated at Operation Homecoming) and those “missing in action”—whom he then expressly referred to as “hostages.”   A mere slip of the tongue? Or did Kissinger know something few others had concrete knowledge about?

 

In late 1975 the Vietnamese ambassador to France, in pressing American officials yet again for the promised reparations, told them “that while all living POWs had been returned in 1973, agencies of his government were ‘carrying out the research of missing U.S. personnel,’ and ‘we hope we can find some’.”  Was he referring to the missing who were dead, or those who were still alive?

 

An official document supports the authors’ statement that “[o]n December 3 [1979], officials at the National Security Agency advised Pentagon officials that a recent intercept of a Pathet Lao radio transmission had revealed the presence of three American POWs in Laos on November 15 [1979], only 18 days before.”  (My emphasis.)

 

In July 1982 Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger told POW/MIA families about the administration’s new policy: “[W]e [now] proceed under the assumption that at least some Americans are still held captive by the Indochinese Communists [citing] over 400 first-hand sightings.”  (My emphasis.)  There is abundant newspaper reporting of Weinberger’s statement.

 

In September 1982 a delegation from the National League of Families traveled to Vientiane, Laos.  The delegation included a retired Green Beret colonel whose son was MIA over North Vietnam.  Hendon says (without verification) the colonel told him that “[d]uring the talks with the Lao, it became perfectly obvious that they were holding our men, and that we would not recover them until reparations were paid.”  (My emphasis.) 

 

Equally unverified by the authors is a statement Hendon/Stewart attribute to ABC news correspondent Ron Miller: “I had never seen anything like this.  The Lao as much as said, ‘Your POWs are stashed away in the caves.  Help us rebuild our country and we’ll give ‘em back’.”  (My emphasis.)  (While admittedly, the colonel’s and Miller’s statements are hearsay, neither one has publicly disavowed their alleged statements.)

 

In January 1986 on Good Morning America Richard Armitage stated that “there may indeed be some Americans held against their will” in Indochina.  Paul Wolfowitz, another high-ranking DOD official said on the Today show that of some 800 live-sighting reports in the past ten years “[t]here are roughly 100 that we believe hold up under this [sic] best scrutiny we can put to them.”  (Emphasis mine.)

 

In 1986, a Task Force led by Lt. General Eugene F. Tighe, Jr., former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, concluded after a five-month review of intelligence files that there was a strong possibility Americans were being held captive in Southeast Asia.

 

That same year Ross Perot, long-time champion of POW/MIAs who had been given access to government intelligence files, testified before a congressional committee that negotiations, not military force, were necessary if the men left behind were to be repatriated.

 

The authors write: “Perot, meanwhile, was hard at work trying to get the president and vice president to adopt the one major recommendation that had come out of his study of the POW issue, a recommendation he had earlier conveyed to Bush but upon which [then Vice President] Bush had not yet acted.  If he and the president wanted to get the POWs back, Perot had told Bush, they should appoint a presidential emissary on POWs, give him broad powers, and send him to Indochina at once with orders to negotiate for as long as was necessary to gain release of the prisoners.” 

 

Obviously, Ross Perot, no man’s fool, believed there were still American captives in Indochina.  The upshot was that Perot went to Hanoi as a private citizen.  Upon his return, he remained as sure about the captives—perhaps even more so—than before he left.

 

In August, a presidential envoy to Vietnam reported that “[t]he Vietnamese have acknowledged that there are some wild parts of their country, and the suggestion is that it is possible for there to be live Americans in Southeast Asia, not under the control of the Vietnamese government.  That is the inference I draw . . . I don’t know if there are any there, but there is evidence some might be.”  (My emphasis.)   

 

Months later, in Washington, D.C., the Vietnamese Foreign Minister repeated that somewhere in remote areas (of that closed, tightly run society) there might be live Americans that the government did not know about.

 

In 1992, former KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin reported that the Soviets had interviewed three American POW/MIAs long after the war ended.  

 

The Morris document.

 

Note 11 to Chapter 32 of An Enormous Crime reads as follows: “Untitled memorandum to Nancy Soderberg  [third-ranking official of the National Security Council at the White House; Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs] from Richard Bush, February 2, 1993, re ‘Urgent Matter Regarding POW/MIAs in Vietnam,’ with National Security Council declassification authorization contained in letter from William H. Leary, Senior Director, Records and Access Management, to Ms. Carla J. Martin, Office of Senate Security, February 11, 1997,” a copy of which is in the “authors’ files.”

 

At that time, Bush (not a relative of the presidents) was an Asia expert Democrat staffer working for the House of Representatives’ Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee.  Later, he would serve as national intelligence officer for East Asia at the National Intelligence Council and hold an endowed chair in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.

 

The authors reproduce the entire Memorandum.  Here is most of it.

 

Summary

 

I have received what appears to be credible information about American POW/MIAs in Vietnam.  The information suggests that Americans may

have been held alive by Hanoi after 1973.  (Emphasis mine.)

 

* * * Properly handled, you can use this to advantage with the Vietnamese and with the American public.

 

Background

           

"The information comes by way of Steven Morris, a researcher at Harvard’s  Center  for International Affairs and a public supporter of Clinton in the campaign.  Steven is working on a history of the Vietnam War, and has recently had a chance to do research in selected Russian archives.  During the course of that research, he accidentally came upon a Russian-language copy of a September 1972 speech by a [North] Vietnamese deputy chief of staff to the Politburo.  In the speech, the general discussed how Vietnam should use the American POWs under its control in its negotiations with the Nixon Administration."  (My emphasis..)In the course of his discussion, he provided data on the number of Americans that Vietnam held at that time, broken down by:

 

 

·        the location of their capture (North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia

·        type (fliers, saboteurs, or other—presumably ground personnel

·        rank

·        political outlook (“progressive, neutral, and reactionary”)

·        the number of prisons in which the men were held.

 

As far as Steven or I know, this is the only case where an official Vietnamese source provides Hanoi’s accounting of the number of Americans under its control.  As such, it is an important benchmark against which to judge Vietnamese claims.  (My Emphasis.)

 

After crunching the numbers, Bush firmly stated “that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that on September 15, 1972 Hanoi held 512 Americans who had been captured in North Vietnam and South Vietnam but who were not returned at the time of Operation Homecoming.  What happened to these men?” (My emphasis.)

 

Answering his own rhetorical question, Bush set forth four possibilities:

 

 

  • “They may have died from natural or unnatural causes during the September 1992-March 1993 period”;
  • “They may have been held beyond Operation Homecoming and died from natural causes”;
  • “They may have been held beyond Operation Homecoming and executed at some point, perhaps because the Americans did not provide aid to Vietnam or failed to meet some other expectations.”
  • “They may still be alive.”

 

Under the title “What Happens Now,” Bush wrote that researcher Morris had intended to give the document to The New York Times, but that Bush thought the White House “should have an opportunity to decide how this information should be used.”

 

“What I did not tell Steven,” Bush then informed Soderberg, “was that I did not want the Clinton Administration to be hit with a public bombshell on the POW/MIA issue in its early weeks.  [My emphasis] You should be able to develop a strategy for using this information—and any further information we can get out of the Russians—against the Vietnamese in a way that maximizes results for the MIA families, does not inevitably create a new obstacle to normalization, and demonstrates the Administration’s diplomatic skill.  However, as much as Steven wants to do the right thing, he does not trust the bureaucracy.  If he were told just to turn over his information to DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency], he would probably say ‘No, thanks,’ and head for the Times.  If he is handled properly, I think it will work to your advantage.”

 

Eventually, however, Morris’s document found its way to the Times.  The newspaper’s headline read: “Files Said to Show Hanoi Lied in ’72 on Prisoner Totals.” 

 

The article, as reported by Hendon and Stewart, “first stated that ‘a document described as a top secret report written by a senior Vietnamese general and delivered to the Communist Party Politburo in Hanoi in September 1972 says that North Vietnam was holding 1,205 American prisoners of war at a time when North Vietnamese officials were saying that the number was only 368,’ and then went on to quote the author of the report, Gen. Tran Van Quang, the deputy chief of staff of the North Vietnamese Army, as saying ‘1,205 American prisoners of war located in the prisons of North Vietnam—and this is a big number.  Officially, until now, we published a list of only 368 prisoners of war, the rest we have not revealed.”  The Times article quoted Morris as saying that “this is the biggest hostage-taking in the history of American foreign policy and we still [in 1993] don’t know where the hostages are, what happened to them, if they are still alive.”

 

The next day, the Times published more information from the document.  General Quang was quoted as saying that “[t]he question of the American prisoners of war, as is well known, we intend to resolve in the following manner: . . . Nixon must compensate North Vietnam for those enormous losses which the destructive war caused.”

 

That same evening, Zbigniew Brezezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, stated on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour that “[a]s far as Vietnam is concerned, I think that if this document is sustained, and it looks unfortunately to be sustainable, we have the right to ask the present Vietnamese government to place those responsible in war crimes trials.  (Note that Brezezinski does not attribute any blame to the United States government.)

 

On the same program Henry Kissinger remarked that “[i]f that document is true, and it is hard to imagine who would have forged it, for what purpose, then I think an enormous crime has been committed.”

 

Needless to say, the Vietnamese condemned the document as a “clear fabrication,” the Clinton Administration fudged the numbers, and that was the end of the Morris document.

 

In Prisoners of Hope, Susan Katz Keating claims that “[t]he Quang report was eventually determined to be a forgery.” Keating further claims that she learned that the CIA had planted the document “where an unwitting Morris would find it.”  But Keating does not tell her readers who made that determination, how she knows that the document was the CIA’s work, or why Morris was selected as the fall guy.  Like Hendon and Stewart, Keating’s failure to source an extremely important point considerably undermines her claim.

 

Whether the Quang report was an authentic document or the work of CIA forgers does not, by itself, determine whether the North Vietnamese withheld American POW/MIAs.

 

This is especially true because the  prima facie case Hendon and Stewart make in An Enormous Crime—that the Vietnamese Communists withheld American POW/MIAs as barter for the bargained for reparations—is further supported by facts the authors have not included in their book.

 

The Viet Minh French prisoners 

 

While the authors do not rely on the experiences of French POWs in the hands of the Viet Cong’s predecessor, the Viet Minh, how those prisoners were used by the Communists supports the authors’ case.

 

By the time the French surrendered at Dien Bien Ph in May 1954, some 40,000 French and French-allied prisoners were held by the Vietnamese.  Rochester and Kiley have written in their classic study Honor Bound: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973, that “[i]n so many ways Viet Minh treatment of these French P[O]Ws now seem like a rehearsal for the American experience that followed.”

 

One of the most compelling points Rochester and Kiley make that bears on the thesis of An Enormous Crime is that the Viet Minh “introduced the prisoner of war issue in negotiations leading up to Geneva [the peace conference], gaining Viet Minh admission to the conference as a full participant in exchange for returning a number of French wounded.” * * *  And “when the P[O]Ws had served their purpose in the propaganda campaign and bargaining chips in the peace negotiations, they continued to be used by Vietnamese Communists in the ongoing Cold War.”  (In Prisoners of Hope, Susan Katz Keating asserts that the assumption “that Hanoi held back French prisoners, is false,” but she offers no source and fails even to mention the Geneva extortion.)

 

POW/MIAs in East Germany

 

In The Long Road Home: U.S. Prisoner of War Policy and Planning in Southeast Asia, Vernon E. Davis has written that “U.S. representatives in Berlin reported an approach by a[n East] German ‘lawyer’ [I have used quotation marks because ‘prisoner broker’ would be a more apt term], Wolfgang Vogel . . . [who] had been involved in arranging the return to the West of detainees [i.e., prisoners] from Communist countries in Europe.” (On one occasion I corresponded with Vogel on behalf of two brothers in the Gulag.)

 

Vogel represented that he “had been authorized to mediate an exchange of 10 American P[O]Ws.”  But Vogel’s principals wanted the return of “not only10 PAVN [Peoples Army of Viet Nam] members, but two Communist spies that had been convicted in the United Kingdom, the [husband and wife] Krogers.”  (My emphasis.)  Return of the UK prisoners in an exchange between the United States and the North Vietnamese was, for the latter, a deal breaker.  The negotiations went nowhere.

 

According to Davis, “Vogel . . . [and a colleague] appeared once more in late January 1967.  They offered at least two and possibly five or six wounded U.S. flyers purportedly being held in East Germany in exchange for the Krogers.”  (My emphasis.) (Davis credibly sources this statement.)  The British would not go along.

 

In logic, either American POW/MIAs had not been held captive in East Germany, or they had. 

 

If they had not, Vogel was lying (though he probably could have obtained some POW/MIAs from his Communist comrades if the ransom deal for the Krogers had come to fruition). 

 

On the other hand, if American POW/MIAs had been held in East Germany, they vanished without a trace—because none of the Operation Homecoming returnees reported having been held in East Germany.

 

The case of Mike Bosiljevac

 

In Prisoners of Hope, Susan Katz Keating relates the story of Air Force Captain Mike Bosiljevac.  The Air Force informed his wife that he would be repatriated at Operation Homecoming, even though his name was not on the North Vietnamese-supplied list.

 

The Air Force thought he would be repatriated because the Captain, a weapons officer, had been shot down over North Vietnam only a few months before Operation Homecoming, he and his pilot (Lt. Col. James O’Neill) had safely ejected, they landed uninjured a half-mile from each other, and both had been taken prisoner.

 

O’Neill’s capture had been reported by Radio Hanoi.

 

A guard had told O’Neill that Bosiljevac was in good health.

 

But Mike Bosiljevac never returned.

 

The North Vietnamese shrugged, claiming they had somehow lost track of him.

 

Keating writes: “In October 1973 the charge d’affaires at the North Vietnamese embassy in Laos told Kay [Bosiljevac] that Mike was alive and in good health.  The charge said Mike would be released only after the U.S. government fulfilled each of fifteen policy conditions pertaining to international relations.  The exchange was likely a ploy on his part, but it was the first and last time anyone from the Hanoi regime had made such a statement.  After that one strange revelation in Laos, officials from Hanoi resumed saying they knew nothing of Captain Bosiljevac.”

 

In her next paragraph, Keating writes: "Later, a U.S. official confided to Kay that Mike might have been sent to a third country, most likely the Soviet Union.  An investigator for Task Force Russia, a Pentagon office researching whether Americans from any war had been shipped to the USSR, told me [Keating] a handful of POWs had been “loaned” to that country by North Vietnam.  All of them were highly trained in cutting-edge nuclear or electronic weaponry.  Mike Bosiljevac fit that profile and was most probably one of them."

 

In the fall of 1987, the North Vietnamese returned remains identified by the Army and an independent expert as that of Mike Bosiljevac.

 

The North Vietnamese never explained how they somehow turned up the remains.

 

The lame and the halt

 

Col. George E. “Bud” Day (USAF Ret.), a Medal of Honor recipient and long-term prisoner in Hanoi, has written in his autobiographical Return With Honor about three of his fellow POWs, code-named Max, Jig, and Kilo, all victims of unspeakable torture and “all emaciated to the point that they had difficulty walking.”  Day informed the guards that the men were about to die.

 

Soon after, Kilo and Max were taken to the hospital.  Two days later, Jig followed them.  At repatriation, the North Vietnamese reported that all three had “died in captivity.”

 

Colonel Day then writes that he later learned from his wife that, along with Max, Kilo, and Jig, he and two others (Fellowes and Pollard) were the only known POWs who were not reported by the [North Vietnamese] on the list of confirmed POWs which they furnished to the U.S. at Paris.”  Writes Day: “ I’ve wondered many times what fate was planned for Fellowes, Pollard and me originally.”  (My emphasis.)

 

He goes on to note the indisputable fact “that not one amputee, not one mental case, not one cosmetically displeasing prisoner was returned to the United States.  (My emphasis.) 

 

Since we know there were some prisoners suffering from those conditions, it is legitimate to ask what became of them.

 

 

* * *

 

One can also ask, now that the United States and Vietnam have normalized their relationship, why does it matter whether the Communists held American POW/MIAs after Operation Homecoming.

 

After all, if we assume an American was captured in 1972 at the age of 25, by now, some 35 years later, he would be about 60 years old.  Given the primitiveness and frequent savagery of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, the brutal conditions we know the returned POWs endured during their confinement, given the descriptions of the “reeducation” camps in which South Vietnamese were imprisoned after the war, and (for the sake of argument) given how POW/MIA sightings described emaciated and debilitated American prisoners as long ago as the 1970s and 1980s, it is extremely unlikely that many, if any, sequestered POW/MIAs could be alive today in Indochina, China, or Russia. 

 

So why try to uncover the truth?

 

Because if the truth is that Americans were withheld by the North Vietnamese, the following questions then have to be answered.  If there were POW/MIAs who did not come home, did our government know?  And, if it did, was there a deliberate cover up?

 

The authors conclude that the answer to these questions is “yes.”

 

It is plain from their research (and other data) that if, as they have concluded, the North Vietnamese withheld live Americans, it is likely that certain officials of our government knew and did everything possible to bury that knowledge—the slapdash papering-over by the Kerry Committee For Normalization being but one example, perhaps animated by the strong desire of many in the government to normalize relations with Vietnam, with all the perceived benefits supposedly to flow from diplomatic recognition.

 

Hendon and Stewart have chosen to title their book An Enormous Crime, after Henry Kissinger’s characterization on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.  After prodigious research (resulting in 485 pages of text and approximately 1,400 notes covering seventy-three pages), they have succeeded in, if not proving their strongly circumstantial case beyond a reasonable doubt, then at least putting a large, probably forever indelible, question mark after their title.

 

Those who have long suspected that the Communists failed to repatriate all Americans  will find much in this book’s prima facie case to support their strongly held beliefs.

 

Those who insist that everyone who was supposed to be repatriated did in fact return in Operation Homecoming are obliged to squarely confront the case presented by Hendon and Stewart. 

 

Simply dismissing An Enormous Crime out-of-hand is not an argument. 

 

The debate over Vietnam POW/MIAs is not over.  It has been revived by Bill Hendon and Elizabeth A. Stewart, and is alive and well. 

 

Which is more than can be said for the men the North Vietnamese Communists may never have returned to their loved ones and to the country for which they fought.