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Return With Honor | Article

Paris Peace Talks and the Release of POWs

Paris Peace Talks:
In 1967, with American troop strength in Vietnam reaching 500,000, protest against U.S. participation in the Vietnam War had grown stronger as growing numbers of Americans questioned whether the U.S. war effort could succeed or was morally justifiable. They took their protests to the streets in peace marches, demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience. Despite the country's polarization, the balance of American public opinion was beginning to sway toward "de-escalation" of the war.

National Archives

This was the backdrop as the United States and Hanoi agreed to enter into preliminary peace talks in Paris in 1968. However, almost as soon as the talks were started, they stalled. When President Lyndon Johnson turned over the presidency to Richard Nixon eight months into the talks, the only thing the two sides had agreed on was the shape of the conference table.

Despite candidate Nixon's promise of "peace with honor," the deadlock would continue for three-and-one-half years of public and secret meetings in Paris. Two key issues had locked both parties. Washington wanted all northern troops out of South Vietnam; Hanoi refused any provisional South Vietnamese government that involved its leader, Nguyen Van Thieu. In June 1969 the first troop withdrawals were made by the U.S., as part of its "Vietnamization" plan, whereby the South Vietnamese would gradually assume complete military responsibilities in the war while continuing to be supplied by U.S. arms.

In February 1970, national security advisor Henry Kissinger began secret one-on-one meetings with North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho outside Paris while the formal peace process continued in the city. Still, little progress would be made until the summer of 1972. By then, Nixon was pursuing détente with both China and the Soviet Union and was eager to put Vietnam behind him before the next election. Both sides wanted peace. Hanoi feared political isolation if the U.S. had a rapprochement with China and the Soviet Union. They also knew that peace would end the fearsome U.S. bombing and might finally mean the complete withdrawal of the military giant. Nixon wanted to move to other foreign policy initiatives.

Kissinger assured the North that their troops would be able to remain in the South after the cease-fire. Kissinger also backed down on the U.S. support of the Thieu regime by agreeing to an electoral commission made up of neutralists, Viet Cong and members of the Saigon government that would oversee the political settlement in the South. In return, the North withdrew its condition of Thieu's removal, and agreed the future flow of Vietnamese troops to the South would stop.

By October 1972, a tentative cease-fire agreement was reached. The accord called for the simultaneous withdrawal of U.S. troops and freedom for American POWs, to be followed by a political settlement of South Vietnam's future. Washington would extend postwar economic assistance to help Vietnam rebuild its destroyed infrastructure. On October 22, Nixon suspended all bombing north of the twentieth parallel and four days later Kissinger proclaimed that "peace was at hand."

The celebration was premature. Thieu, who had not been consulted during the secret negotiations, demanded changes that infuriated Hanoi, and talks broke off on December 13. Nixon, caught between a stubborn ally and a tough enemy, took action. He promised Thieu $1 billion in military equipment that would give South Vietnam the fourth largest air force in the world and assured Thieu that the United States would re-enter the war if North Vietnam did not abide by the peace. They were promises that Thieu had no reason to doubt; Nixon had just won a landslide election and the Watergate affair was nearly invisible on the political landscape.

As for the stick, Nixon resolved to punish the North. During 12 days of the most concentrated bombing in world history, called the Christmas bombing, American planes flew nearly 2,000 sorties and dropped 35,000 tons of bombs against transportation terminals, rail yards, warehouses, barracks, oil tanks, factories, airfields and power plants in the North. In two short weeks, 25 percent of North Vietnam's oil reserves and 80 percent of its electrical capacity were destroyed. The U.S. lost 26 aircraft and 93 air force men.

When peace talks resumed in Paris on January 8, 1973, an accord was reached swiftly. The peace agreement was formally signed on January 27, 1973. It closely resembled what had been agreed to back in October of the previous year. Kissinger later justified the accord by saying, "We believed that those who opposed the war in Vietnam would be satisfied with our withdrawal, and those who favored an honorable ending would be satisfied if the United States would not destroy an ally."

America's longest war was over.

The release of POWs:
In the days following the signing of the peace accord on January 27, 1973, the American prisoners of war got word that the war was over. Camp officers read the news from prepared texts stating that the men would be released 120 at a time at two-week intervals. The sick and wounded were scheduled to depart first; the others would follow in the order in which they were captured.

As the men were dismissed following the announcement at Hoa Lo., Lt. Colonel Robinson Risner about-faced and called to the 400 men, "Fourth Allied POW Wing, atten-hut!" Lt. Gerald Coffee remembered the men's reaction. "The thud of eight hundred rubber-tire sandals coming together smartly was awesome." Squadron commanders returned the salute and then dismissed their units with a unified "Squadron, dis . . . missed!"

Some were reluctant to believe the news. Coffee's squadron commander Lt. Everett Alvarez, in captivity for 8 1/2 years, said to Coffee: "You know, I've been up and down so many times over the years that I'm not sure what to think. It looks good, everything seems right, but I'll believe it when I see it. I'm not ready to party it up . . . yet."

Those who believed the announcement was true had a wide variety of reactions. Coffee said that "some men were exchanging a wink and a smile or a light punch on the shoulders, but most, with minds racing unto themselves, already projected themselves twelve thousand miles away and considered the joyful and spooky prospect of reunions with loved ones." POW Sam Johnson remembers his group at Hoa Lo "ran to each other, hugging and crying and whooping with joy." At the another Hanoi prison camp, Plantation, Al Stafford felt "a kind of emptiness which changed, slowly, to profound, bottomless fatigue." He explained afterwards that he had never felt so tired and so vacant in his life, which expressed itself in a deep desire to go back to his cell and sleep.

With the peace, the persistently austere POW conditions were finally relaxed. The men were given letters from families that had been withheld for months and years, along with supplies and other presents from home, including MAD magazine. The prisoners started receiving fresh supplies of bread and vegetables, canned meat and fish, undoubtedly attempts by the North Vietnamese to get the men looking better.

In the hours and days before their release, POWs imagined their future lives. Alvarez daydreamed of "returning to a normal life" in which "we would make our own decisions and set our own agendas." The expectation of normal, daily activities -- getting in a car and cruising down a highway or rolling in a haystack -- filled him with "tingling anticipation. I would get up whenever I pleased, make my own selection of clothing, eat whatever I wanted, and go wherever I fancied."

The last evening in Hoa Lo, Vietnamese guards gave the American prisoners their going-away clothes. Coffee recalled that his fellow soldiers eyed the clothes "like a bunch of little kids in a toy store." They played with the zippers on their jackets and laced and unlaced shoelaces that "we hadn't seen . . . for years." The men were given small black tote bags to carry what they had -- cigarettes, toiletries and gifts they'd received. Some snuck in a souvenir of captivity. For Alvarez, this was a tin drinking cup he said he had used "for so long that it had taken on the sentimental value of a baby's cup."

As promised, the men were released in shifts, with those believed to be the last group leaving Vietnam on March 29, 1973. However, on that same day, the Viet Cong announced that Army Capt. Robert White, unaccounted for since his disappearance in November 1969, was still in captivity. Years later White would say "they just plain forgot about me" until his captors reminded superiors about him. He was released a few days later, and was the last known surviving U.S. POW from the Vietnam War.


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