Left Behind:

Cinematic Revisions of the Vietnam POW




1987 -1994

   It might have been General Tighe's and Admiral Brooks' testimony in the late 80s. It may have been the admission by Jerry Mooney, who worked intelligence as part of the National Security Agency, that POWs had been Moscow Bound in the war. It could have been the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations' "Interim Report on the Southeast Asian POW/MIA Issue," released in 1990, that accused the Department of Defense of ignoring evidence of live POWs after the war's end. Or the well documented book by a "60 minutes" reporter called Kiss the Boys Goodbye that claimed a cover up on the POW issue. Maybe the POW movies had reached the public's consciousness. Whatever the reason, the public demanded a full fledged investigation.


   With the 1991 resignation of the highly decorated colonel Mike Peck, who headed the Defense Intelligence Agency's Special Office for POW/MIA Affairs, the need for an independent branch of the government to Senator Bob Smith and Senator John Kerryinvestigate was unequivocal. Colonel Peck's dismay at the DIA's lack of real intelligence work on the POW/MIA issue was enough to make him quite in disgust. He confirmed what General Tighe and Admiral Brooks had testified six years earlier. In a five page resignation letter, Colonel Peck stated that "a cover-up may be in progress" and that "the entire charade does not appear to be an honest effort, and may never have been" (Sauter & Saunders 303). The Pentagon's response, that he had only quit to avoid being fired, was suspect. In addition, former Soviet officials, who now had the freedom to speak because of the Soviet Union's collapse, confessed their country's dealings with American POWs. Oleg Kalugin, the former director of the Soviet National Security Committee, conceded that "KGB agents interrogated three American POWs in 1978 and that there were about ten Americans held in Vietnam after 1973" (Stern 71).
Senator Robert Smith, 1992
"What [evidence] would you accept? Does the President of the United States have to see some of these people?"

   The public listened. According to a 1991 Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, 69% of Americans believed that Vietnamese still held American soldiers prisoner (Muse 194). Senator Bob Smith pushed Senate resolution 82 and by early August 1991, the Senate Committee on POW/MIA Affairs was established with Senator Kerry as its chairman. During 1992, the Committee's hearings included testimony from the senior-most U.S. government officials, responsible for policy decisions during the 1960s and 1970s. More importantly the committee declassified millions of pages of documents.

   Out came admission after admission. Dr. Roger Shields, the deputy assistant secretary of defense in the early 1970s, testified before the Committee on POW/MIA Affairs in 1992. He acknowledged that the DRV list, passed to United States government representatives in Paris in January 1973 of Americans they were holding and those who had died in captivity, was incomplete. Shields stated that "the list was not accepted by us a complete accounting....The list did not include the names of those prisoners missing in Laos. It also omitted the names of men we knew to have been in captivity at one time. (Stern 11). Former CIA chief and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, would not state that any POWs were alive today but did avow that "in 1973, some were left behind" (Sauter & Saunders 359). Admiral Thomas Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1970 to 1974, told the Senate panel that the nation "didn't have the stomach" to resume fighting over the non-release of POWs after the negotiations were over. "We didn't have the will," explained the Admiral (Associated Press, 10/25/92). Admiral James Stockdale testified before the committee in December, and his comments illustrate the government duplicity surrounding the POWs in 1973. The following is an excerpt of his testimony from the 1991-1993 Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs report :

          Excerpt- Stockdale - 12/03/92

... and here you are, 27 years after that briefing for Carrier Air Group 16 wives, trying to untwist that braid of lies and deceptions that have indeed emotionally involved the American people and have brought shame and disgrace on our country.

And I will be quick to point out we are not alone in our history of lies and deception about prisoners of war and the missing in action. It seems to me that the one consistent thing the North Vietnamese have done for all 27 years is lie about our American prisoners and missing.

Even though some of us knew we were being fed a steady diet of lies by our Government, we also knew that to publicly denounce our Government while it was engaged in war would be to play into the hands of the enemy and dishonor the very men for whom we sought humane treatment. In order for you to put your findings into context, it's important that you understand the extent to wives and families were lied to and patronized by our own Government.

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PBS Newshour 4/13/93PBS News 4/13/93
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PBS Newshour 4/13/93PBS News 4/13/93
   In 1992, a visiting Harvard professor named Steven Morris found a Soviet document in a Russian archives while he researching other information in Russia. The document, a six page report from the Vietnamese Lieutenant General Tran Van Quang, contained significant information about American POWs. The General reported to the Soviet Politburo specific numbers of POWs captured from specific regions. The numbers, not surprisingly, were substantially higher than those the Vietnamese had given the United States. Dr. Morris and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski went on PBS to discuss this document. Brzezinski, formerly with the KGB, theorized that the Vietnamese had kept the prisoners for leverage in future negotiations. Surprised that the United States followed through with the pull out of American troops, the Vietnamese no longer needed the POWs. Having publicly committed to having no more American POWs, the communists realized that releasing them at a later date would cause immense damage to any international credibility they sought to establish. Brzezinski believed that they were executed soon after 1975. Both Kissinger and Brzezinski stated that the document was apparently authentic.

    Even with all the discoveries, President George Bush allowed the United States Congress to open offices in Vietnam in 1992 and was looking into the possibility of trading with the country again. In June of 1992, Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, confirmed the presence of American POWs in the Soviet Union. On his way to a summit with President Bush,Former President George H.W. Bush, his wife Barbara Bush and former President Yeltsin, 1992 President Yeltsin made a surprising admission. He confirmed that United States POWs had ended up in Russia and they might still be alive. This was an amazing admission from a top level Russian politician and coincided with the statement of Oleg Kalugin, the former director of the Soviet National Security Committee.

   But even with the Morris document, Yeltsin admission and countless reports of evidence and testimony, the Senate Select Committee's final analysis was thin. After 15 months of investigation, all the Senate Committee could come up with was that "there is evidence that indicates the possibility of survival, at least for a small number, after Operation Homecoming" (Sauter & Saunders 370). Critics complained about the time and cost that the Committee incurred without producing any real answers to live sighting reports by Vietnamese refugees and testimony about possible cover-ups. Some POW/MIA family members, who claimed that President Bush was part of the cover-up in his role at the CIA during Vietnam, openly booed him; he infamously told them to "shut up and sit down".

President Bush and two members of the National League of families

    It is interesting how film iconography reaches even to the highest levels of our government. During this fractious period, declassified papers divulged that the State Department used the movie title "Rambo" as a pejorative for POW activists (Sauter & Saunders 337). The "Rambos" had booed the President.