The M.I.A. Issue
During the course of the Vietnamese conflict, hundreds of Americans were incarcerated in Vietnamese prisons in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and China. Many lived in barbaric conditions. Of these, 591 were released during Operation Homecoming, the prisoner repatriation program that was instituted at the war's end, in the spring of 1973. More than 2,000 Americans remained unaccounted for at that time.
Over thirty years later, many groups and individuals remain convinced that despite the efforts of the U.S. and Vietnam, a complete accounting of missing Americans has yet to be delivered. As the United States forges an expanded postwar relationship with Vietnam, the prisoner of war/missing in action (P.O.W./M.I.A.) issue remains a morass of incomplete data, shadowy reports of Americans still alive in Indochina, insistence by the U.S. and Vietnamese governments that no American M.I.A.s remain alive, and allegations by M.I.A. advocates of cover-ups and foot-dragging on the part of those same governments.
From 1964 to 1973, the North Vietnamese had captured Americans, mostly pilots and crews of downed aircraft, and delivered them to prisons. Among the most notorious of these facilities was Hoa Lo, known by Americans as the Hanoi Hilton. Conditions at "the Hilton," along with the other large urban prisons and jungle camps throughout Vietnam, were horrifying.
Although the Geneva Convention of 1949 called for the decent and humane treatment of prisoners of war, these terms did not apply in Vietnam. The Vietnamese were accused of brutally torturing their captives -- beating them with fists, clubs, and rifle butts, flaying them with rubber whips, and stretching their joints with rope in an effort to uncover information about American military operations. The Americans were forced to record taped "confessions" to war crimes against the Vietnamese people and to write letters urging Americans at home to end the war. Poor food and medical care was standard. Prisoners were often isolated to prevent communication among each other, in addition to being denied communication with family members. American prisoners sometimes died in captivity, from wounds sustained in combat, or at the hands of their captors.
Despite these oppressive conditions, American P.O.W.s worked to confound their jailers, resisting torture, delivering spurious or nonsensical "confessions" and developing clandestine communication networks in prison. P.O.W.s compiled mental lists of imprisoned personnel, along with information about their physical conditions, in hope of delivering this information to the outside world at the first opportunity.
Because the Vietnamese held many of their prisoners at facilities in well-defended urban areas, a military solution to the P.O.W. problem eluded U.S. forces. On November 21, 1970, a unit of U.S. Army Special Forces troops raided the Vietnamese prison camp at Son Tay, twenty miles from Hanoi. The raiders killed more than thirty Vietnamese troops, but no prisoners were freed -- the Americans had been moved some time earlier.
The P.O.W. Cause
At home, Americans lobbied for the decent treatment and rapid return of U.S. prisoners of war. Among the most active P.O.W./M.I.A. advocates was Sybil Stockdale, wife of Navy officer James Stockdale, who had been shot down in September 1965, and was being held at Hoa Lo. Mrs. Stockdale organized the National League of Families of P.O.W.s and M.I.A.s. She and millions of other Americans used their pens, voices, and money in support of the P.O.W. cause.
In Paris on January 27, 1973, American and Vietnamese representatives signed agreements for the cessation of hostilities and the repatriation of war prisoners. Operation Homecoming began the next month and ended in April. During that period, 591 American P.O.W.s returned home. Representatives of the U.S. military debriefed returnees for information regarding the more than 2,000 Americans still listed as missing. According to the government, none of the P.O.W.s were able to provide definite information about any remaining captives. Both the Nixon administration and the Vietnamese government concluded that all living P.O.W./M.I.A.s had been returned.
Hopes for Survivors
Some veterans and families of missing soldiers insisted otherwise. Thus began a long period of conflict between the U.S. government and its citizens over the M.I.A. issue. While a series of presidential administrations maintained that no living American soldiers remained in Indochina, contradictory reports from the intelligence community and from private citizens kept the hopes of M.I.A. families alive.
Death Records Unearthed
In 1989, former United Nations worker Ted Schweitzer, who had risked his life to aid boat people fleeing Vietnam after the war, gained access to the Central Military Museum in Hanoi. During subsequent trips to Vietnam, Schweitzer photographed or scanned thousands of photographs and documents compiled by the Vietnamese during the war. Schweitzer's search revealed that the Vietnamese had information confirming the deaths of eleven American servicemen -- information that Vietnam had previously denied holding.
List of 1,205 P.O.W.s
In April 1993, Harvard scholar Stephen Morris discovered a document in a Soviet archive indicating that Vietnam may have misled Americans about the numbers of P.O.W.s it held at the war's end. The document, a translation of writings allegedly prepared by North Vietnamese general Tran Van Quang, stated that North Vietnam held 1,205 American P.O.W.s as of September 1972, just a few months before the release of the 591 P.O.W.s in Operation Homecoming. U.S. government officials suggested that the discrepancy in numbers might have been an exaggeration on the part of Tran Van Quang, or that a confusion of statistics between American soldiers and South Vietnamese commandos caused by an error in translation. Several independent analysts, however, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, said that the document appeared authentic.
Veterans and families of M.I.A.s cite additional evidence that they believe shows American soldiers may still be alive in Vietnam. Thousands of live sightings of American soldiers in Vietnam have been reported since the war ended. Satellite photos have revealed images that P.O.W./M.I.A. advocates insist are coded distress signals burned or trampled into fields by American prisoners. In 1980, a reliable CIA contact reported seeing about 30 Americans working on a prison road crew in Laos. The U.S. Joint Special Operations Command prepared a rescue force, but press leaks and a badly bungled CIA reconnaissance mission stopped the rescue before it started.
Since the war's end, official U.S. government investigations have consistently concluded that no military personnel remain alive in Vietnam. In 1988, after hearing testimony from more than 20 witnesses, including former P.O.W.s, intelligence officials, and members of the families of M.I.A.s, a panel from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans' Affairs found "no evidence to support the belief that some Americans were still held captive in Indochina," adding that there was "only a small hope that a small number of Americans might be alive." In January 1993, a Senate committee released similar findings, but added that Americans could have been left alive after the war and since died.
Statistics and Discrepancies
In addition, official statistics, and the way in which they are kept, have caused controversy. Of the more than 2,000 American soldiers still missing in Vietnam, most are listed as dead -- despite a lack of supporting physical evidence. The U.S. government prefers to concentrate search efforts on what it calls "discrepancy" cases -- those soldiers believed to be alive when they lost contact with American forces. Such discrepancy cases now number well below 100.
Advocates for More Evidence
While some families of American M.I.A.s agree with the government's accounting of the war's lost soldiers, many P.O.W. advocates insist that until an M.I.A. is determined to be dead by tangible physical evidence, he should not be considered so. Some members of Congress share this opinion. In 1996, at the urging of California Republican Bob Dornan, Congress attached a provision to the U.S. defense budget requiring that the Pentagon review the status of a missing soldier every three years if the soldier was last known to be alive. M.I.A. families who wish to do so can be present at the review. The law also prohibits the government from declaring an M.I.A. dead without proof.
Searches for Remains
Years of hostile American/Vietnamese diplomatic relations also hindered the resolution of the P.O.W./M.I.A. issue. Slowly, however, relations have improved, spurring more operations to locate missing Americans. In a speech before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee explaining President Clinton's 1994 lifting of the U.S. trade embargo on Vietnam, Winston Lord, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, cited hundreds of searches for the remains of American soldiers conducted by Vietnam. Yet few recoveries have resulted; the remains of only 67 Americans were returned home in 1993.
Complete Accounting Unlikely
While some P.O.W./M.I.A. advocates insist on nothing short of a complete accounting of all American M.I.A.s, even the optimists consider this unlikely. The heavy foliage in Vietnam's jungles quickly covered many aircraft crash sites, and Vietnam's hot, rainy weather caused rapid decay of clothing and human remains. Many soldiers were buried hastily in unmarked graves.
Missing Vietnamese Soldiers
Scores of Vietnamese families also endure the pain of not having a full accounting of the fate of their missing loved ones who fought in the war. The bodies of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers have yet to be recovered and given proper burial.
More Recent Efforts
The Clinton administration made a public commitment to a full accounting of American M.I.A.s. Yet over the objections of Republican congressmen and some M.I.A. advocates, who accused Vietnam of foot-dragging, Clinton resumed official diplomatic relations with Hanoi. By naming Douglas "Pete" Peterson, a former Vietnam P.O.W., as the first postwar U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Clinton claimed he had sent a strong message -- that a complete accounting of M.I.A.s was the United States' first and foremost concern. Meanwhile, P.O.W./M.I.A. advocates showed no sign of letting the issue rest. According to one of their slogans, "Only the United States Government has Forgotten."