The early 70s brought us Nixon's deceit and the Pentagon papers. The failure of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger negotiations and the secrecy surrounding the return of POW/MIAs was not public knowledge. All that is now known about the the Kissinger negotiations came about after the declassification of information in the 1980s. In 1976, the United States celebrated its bicentennial and elected the easy going, honest Jimmy Carter who most believed would never lead the United States to war. No one wanted to look back at government machinations. Not yet. Vietnam was a painful memory to let fade. Certainly with all that was lost and the controversial nature of the war, no one wanted to confront the possibility that we had left men behind.
I. GOVERNMENT SECRECY /
DISTURBED POWs COMING HOME
Vietnam was the only major international conflict that the United States has ever lost - a watershed event in American life. Because the United States lost the Vietnam War, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did not have the upper hand in bargaining power at the Paris Peace Accords. Government duplicity surrounding POWs and the historical practices of a post-war Vietnam fueled the speculation that Vietnam still held American prisoners even after the official end of the war.
Vietnam's practice of retaining prisoners as negotiating tools was well documented. In the year 1964, North Vietnam released Yves Le Bray, a French prisoner
of war, from a labor camp near the Chinese border TEN years after his French
compatriots were released. France's intelligence agencies had lost any trace
of him (Gruner 7). He was left behind, a forgotten MIA. His hometown had
even added his name to a memorial when he didn't return in 1954. 13 French
prisoners captured at Dienbienphu were not released by Hanoi until 16
If Vietnam had kept French POWs for ten years, then maybe the same had occurred with American POWs. Mike Benge, a POW who returned in 1973, was told by Vietnamese guards, "We're still holding French POWs and we're going to do the same thing to you if you don't cooperate" (Sauter and Saunders 35).
The government's practices made family members of POWs skeptical about the truth behind official accountings. The POW issue remained relatively quiet until 1968 when Sybil Stockdale decided to reveal publicly the United States secretive policy regarding American POWs. She had ascertained that her husband was undergoing torture but the Johnson
administration wouldn't not release this information and requested that she do the same. The knowledge that the lame-duck President couldn't keep Americans from being oppressed in North Vietnam would have embarrassed President Johnson's administration (Gruner 16). The Hanoi government used America's failure to declare war on Vietnam as an excuse to treat American prisoners as criminals rather than POWs protected by the Geneva Convention. Under government duress, Mrs. Stockdale kept quiet about the torture of POWs in Vietnam for four years. Her frustration with the government finally became too overwhelming and Mrs. Stockdale founded the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, whose goal was to push the U.S. government to get their husband, brothers and sons home.
On Nov. 11, 1970, another grass roots movement named VIVA (Victory in Vietnam Association) inaugurated the POW bracelets, each having a POW or MIA name on it. The owner pledged to wear the bracelet until the prisoner came home dead or alive. This symbolic gesture greatly influenced national awareness and put pressure on the government to act.
In the same year, the government authorized the Son Tay raid, the first military attempt to try and rescue POWs. Even though the operation was a failure, it resulted in improved conditions for POWs and purportedly showed a Nixon administration endeavor to get Americans home. If nothing else, Nixon wanted to be able to say that he had tried to get the boys home. This failed raid later inspired a myriad of films portraying fake government rescue attempts created only to make the politicians look sympathetic and proactive with the POW cause.
The United States and Vietnamese negotiations followed a complex trajectory during 1969-1973.
When talks convened in Paris in early 1969, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) said complete withdrawal of troops from Vietnam was required for the release of US prisoners. Hanoi was willing from the start to utilize the POW issue as a means of achieving military and political advantage.
Le Duc Tho, the Vietnamese equivalent of our Secretary of State, and Kissinger had years of secret negotiations while every day more men and women and children died in Vietnam.
What motive did the Vietnamese have for not returning all the United States prisoners?
Vietnam seemed to want a quid pro quo, money for prisoners. With the Watergate scandal brewing domestically, Hanoi knew that US leverage was eroding. The public wanted Vietnam to end, and any lingering admission of POWs in the hand of Vietnam would be an admission of more failure on the part of the United States government. Nixon gave Prime Minister Pham Van Dong a letter in 1973, which established financial post-war reconstruction...in the range of $3.25 billion of grant aid over five years (Stern 11).
The final Paris Peace Accords outlined a specific plan for searching for those still MIA.
Article 8(b) of the Accords states:
The parties shall help each other to get information about those military personnel and foreign civilians of the parties missing in action, to determine the location and take care of the graves of the dead so as to facilitate the exhumation and repatriation of the remains, and to take any such other measure as may be required to get information about those still considered missing in action.
But when the numbers of prisoners released seemed woefully small, the Nixon administration did not provide the financial reparations pledged by the United States.
President Nixon wrote:
The list of American prisoners held in Laos which presented in Paris on February 1st is unsatisfactory. United States records show that there are 317 American military men unaccounted for in Laos and it is inconceivable that only ten of the men would be held in prison in Laos. There can be no doubt therefore that the implementation of any American undertaking is related to the satisfactory resolution of this problem. It should be also pointed out that failure to provide a complete list of prisoners in Laos or a satisfactory explanation of the low numbers thus far presented would seriously impair the mission of Dr. Kissinger to Hanoi (Stern 11-12).
Experts in the United States were dismayed when only 9 prisoners were returned from Laos, because their intelligence showed more than 300 men missing in that Hanoi-friendly country (Schanberg 2).
Hanoi maintained that it had no jurisdiction over the POWs captured in Laos and could not guarantee that the Pathet Lao would comply.
Washington suspended the Joint Commission and criticized Hanoi's failure to provide information on American MIAs.
In 1975 and following, the Vietnamese were "fundamentally uncooperative and inflexible" (Stern 1). Perhaps a postwar hubris made the Vietnamese determined to stand up to the American machine, to flex its muscles and display its independence. In a letter to Senator Edward Kennedy in January of 1975, Nguyen Duy Trinh, Hanoi's foreign minister, stated that Vietnam would not release any information on missing Americans "until Washington stopped providing military assistance to South Vietnam and forced President Thieu from office" (Stern 17).
Those who believed that prisoners were left behind pointed to the complex and failed negotiations as evidence. Others pointed to what Jeremiah Denton was told by a North Vietnamese while he was in the Hanoi Hilton that badly disfigured
prisoners, maimed during capture or before, would be disposed of because their injuries would promote negative international opinion about their captors (Denton 23).
Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Sozhenitsyn concurred with Denton and stated in a speech in 1975 that:
Frank Anton, POW from 1/68-3/73
"The vast majority of POWs were guilty of violating the Code of Conduct. The ones who refused to give the North Vietnamese anything but name, rank, and serial number didn't come home."
if the government of North Vietnam has difficulty explaining to you what happened to your brothers, your American POWs who have not yet returned, I can explain this quite clearly on the basis of my own experience in the Gulag Archipelago that those who withstood the most bravely...never again come out into the world (qtd. in Sauter and Saunders 29).
America was embroiled in scandal and did not have the knowledge or heart to keep fighting for any remaining POWs. As information of POWs possibly left behind had not reached the public consciousness, POW film plots did not include any rescue attempts. Instead, the 1970s portrayed deranged former prisoners ready to snap once back in the US.