Remembering Our POWs Who Never Returned

Thirty-six Veterans Days have passed since the official release of our Vietnam prisoners of war, yet to this day we are left with clashing verdicts on the crucial issue of whether numerous prisoners were knowingly left behind.

An official communication from the US State Department to the Department of Defense on April 12, 1973 announced, "There are no more prisoners in Southeast Asia."  

But if all living American prisoners of war were returned that year, why did an Air Force general maintain that intelligence experts felt "shock and sadness" that so many known prisoners were clearly left behind? Why did a congressman and former high-level aide to President Ronald Reagan reportedly claim that Reagan privately admitted that hundreds of abandoned American prisoners were still languishing in Vietnam at the end of his eight-year tenure?

This vital issue received a new wave of attention during the early 1990s with the publication of books including The Men We Left Behind, Kiss the Boys Goodbye, and The Bamboo Cage, along with congressional hearings held at that time. POW activists, many of them the loved ones of missing men, investigative journalists, and a small core of principled conservatives for whom this subject was their passion -- Ross Perot, former POW Eugene McDaniel, Reps. Billy Hendon (R-SC) and John LeBoutillier (R-NY), Sen. Bob Smith (R-NH), and others -- kept the flame of truth alive on an extraordinarily difficult, painful, and murky issue.

It was realized from the outset that many American prisoners were left stranded in Southeast Asia. In The Men We Left Behind, investigators Mark Sauter and Jim Sanders tell us that in early 1973, "Hanoi released lists of American POWs held in North and South Vietnam. The lists were minus the names of many men known or suspected to be in enemy hands. Air Force General Eugene Tighe, later director of the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency], remembers that intelligence experts felt 'shock and sadness' at the incomplete prisoner lists. Not only were the lists from Vietnam incomplete, the lists did not include any POWs from Laos."

Simply stated, the North Vietnamese were holding most of the remaining men for ransom. But the reality of this hostage crisis was shrouded in euphemistic language: According to the agreement worked out at the Paris peace talks, Hanoi would get "reparations" or "reconstructive aid" for damage done to their country by the American military machine. In return, the United States would receive what was diplomatically termed "cooperation" or "progress" on the prisoner issue, i.e., return of the hostages.

France had found itself in the same situation after its defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and bought back its men gradually over the years. The payments were purportedly for humanitarian aid. "They kept on paying and men kept on coming out," reports Nigel Cawthorne in The Bamboo Cage. "Over the next 16 years more than 1,000 Frenchmen and French Legionnaires came back from the dead." Returns continued up until the mid-1970s. (But the French had listed 9,537 men as prisoners. What became of the rest?)

In a letter to the North Vietnamese government, President Richard Nixon promised $3.25 billion in "aid." But he faced the unhappy task of presenting this bitter pill to Congress at an especially inopportune time, just as newspaper reports of torture of the returned prisoners was generating a national sense of outrage that diminished the prospect of a multi-billion-dollar aid package to communist war criminals. And the president himself was losing clout. "Certainly the US Treasury held enough cash to purchase the POWs..." Sauter and Sanders note. "But it was political capital that the Nixon Administration lacked. Heading into the Watergate crisis, Nixon and his advisers believed it too sensitive politically to tell the truth about the Paris negotiations and the secret wars in Laos and Cambodia. Nixon and Kissinger even concealed from Congress the fact that they had promised specific amounts of aid to Hanoi ... In the end, rather than pay for unpatriated US POWs, the Nixon Administration chose to deny their existence."

Thus began the government's alleged cover-up of its abandonment of our men, a policy that, once instituted in the bureaucracy, continued through all succeeding administrations. The enemy ceased to be Hanoi and instead became POW experts wishing to share intelligence, prisoners' families digging for the truth, and refugees and defectors bringing back evidence of live Americans left behind. As stated in a summary of a report by Gen. Eugene Tighe, "The POW office only pursues leads that will help discredit the source." And the general expressed his bafflement that the same classified intelligence that was kept from the prisoners' families was given to the North Vietnamese communists by U.S. delegates. Similarly, Army Colonel Millard Peck, chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency's special office for POW/MIA affairs, reached the disturbing conclusion that his agency had a "mindset to debunk" reports of live American troops left behind.

What became of the prisoners? According to reports of alleged sightings, many were said to be held indefinitely as slave labor in prison compounds and kept as potentially valuable hostages whom Hanoi hoped to be able to put back on the bargaining table at some point in succeeding American administrations. It is likely that at this late date, most have probably died because of the effect of deplorable living conditions and homesickness on their bodies and minds.

Researchers have presented evidence purporting to show that some American POWs were shipped to the Soviet Union, China, and other communist nations, even after the war ended, to be exploited for their technological knowledge. Valuable men such as these were never returned. No less an authority than Russian President Boris Yeltsin has supplied corroboration, telling NBC in 1992, "Our archives have shown that it is true. Some of them were transferred to the territory of the former USSR and were kept in labor camps. We don't have complete data and can only surmise that some of them may still be alive."         

Instead of seizing on this remarkably candid bombshell as a rare window to the truth -- and perhaps even to the recovery of prisoners -- the U.S. government immediately downplayed Yeltsin's comments. Such revelations would have shone an unwelcome light on high-level failures, and also would have clashed with one of the key aims of U.S. foreign policy during the 1990s: the normalization of relations with Vietnam as part of a rush to establish trade. The U.S. government approached this goal over the dead bodies -- and perhaps in some cases, live bodies -- of the POWs, a development that appears to have had little to do with forgiveness and much to do with the almighty dollar.

Yeltsin's claim that prisoners were indeed left behind was allegedly corroborated by President Ronald Reagan. According to a 2002 Newsmax report, a congressman who served as a top aide to Reagan said the president "admitted to him that hundreds of American POWs were left behind in Vietnam and were still alive as late as 1988."

Even when confirmation of the abandonment of prisoners comes from the two most powerful men in the world, the presidents of the U.S. and Russia, it leaves almost no impression, owing to our tendency to avert our eyes from evidence that is heartbreaking and profoundly ugly. In all likelihood, the time has passed to rescue any of our forsaken troops. Our only remaining comfort is in knowing they are never lost to our omnipresent and loving Creator. Meanwhile, our obligation to their memory -- to tell the truth, honor their sacrifices, and resolve never to repeat the same tragic mistakes -- continues. In an admonition that sounds as timely as ever, President George Washington warned, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceived the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation."
Thirty-six Veterans Days have passed since the official release of our Vietnam prisoners of war, yet to this day we are left with clashing verdicts on the crucial issue of whether numerous prisoners were knowingly left behind.

An official communication from the US State Department to the Department of Defense on April 12, 1973 announced, "There are no more prisoners in Southeast Asia."  

But if all living American prisoners of war were returned that year, why did an Air Force general maintain that intelligence experts felt "shock and sadness" that so many known prisoners were clearly left behind? Why did a congressman and former high-level aide to President Ronald Reagan reportedly claim that Reagan privately admitted that hundreds of abandoned American prisoners were still languishing in Vietnam at the end of his eight-year tenure?

This vital issue received a new wave of attention during the early 1990s with the publication of books including The Men We Left Behind, Kiss the Boys Goodbye, and The Bamboo Cage, along with congressional hearings held at that time. POW activists, many of them the loved ones of missing men, investigative journalists, and a small core of principled conservatives for whom this subject was their passion -- Ross Perot, former POW Eugene McDaniel, Reps. Billy Hendon (R-SC) and John LeBoutillier (R-NY), Sen. Bob Smith (R-NH), and others -- kept the flame of truth alive on an extraordinarily difficult, painful, and murky issue.

It was realized from the outset that many American prisoners were left stranded in Southeast Asia. In The Men We Left Behind, investigators Mark Sauter and Jim Sanders tell us that in early 1973, "Hanoi released lists of American POWs held in North and South Vietnam. The lists were minus the names of many men known or suspected to be in enemy hands. Air Force General Eugene Tighe, later director of the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency], remembers that intelligence experts felt 'shock and sadness' at the incomplete prisoner lists. Not only were the lists from Vietnam incomplete, the lists did not include any POWs from Laos."

Simply stated, the North Vietnamese were holding most of the remaining men for ransom. But the reality of this hostage crisis was shrouded in euphemistic language: According to the agreement worked out at the Paris peace talks, Hanoi would get "reparations" or "reconstructive aid" for damage done to their country by the American military machine. In return, the United States would receive what was diplomatically termed "cooperation" or "progress" on the prisoner issue, i.e., return of the hostages.

France had found itself in the same situation after its defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and bought back its men gradually over the years. The payments were purportedly for humanitarian aid. "They kept on paying and men kept on coming out," reports Nigel Cawthorne in The Bamboo Cage. "Over the next 16 years more than 1,000 Frenchmen and French Legionnaires came back from the dead." Returns continued up until the mid-1970s. (But the French had listed 9,537 men as prisoners. What became of the rest?)

In a letter to the North Vietnamese government, President Richard Nixon promised $3.25 billion in "aid." But he faced the unhappy task of presenting this bitter pill to Congress at an especially inopportune time, just as newspaper reports of torture of the returned prisoners was generating a national sense of outrage that diminished the prospect of a multi-billion-dollar aid package to communist war criminals. And the president himself was losing clout. "Certainly the US Treasury held enough cash to purchase the POWs..." Sauter and Sanders note. "But it was political capital that the Nixon Administration lacked. Heading into the Watergate crisis, Nixon and his advisers believed it too sensitive politically to tell the truth about the Paris negotiations and the secret wars in Laos and Cambodia. Nixon and Kissinger even concealed from Congress the fact that they had promised specific amounts of aid to Hanoi ... In the end, rather than pay for unpatriated US POWs, the Nixon Administration chose to deny their existence."

Thus began the government's alleged cover-up of its abandonment of our men, a policy that, once instituted in the bureaucracy, continued through all succeeding administrations. The enemy ceased to be Hanoi and instead became POW experts wishing to share intelligence, prisoners' families digging for the truth, and refugees and defectors bringing back evidence of live Americans left behind. As stated in a summary of a report by Gen. Eugene Tighe, "The POW office only pursues leads that will help discredit the source." And the general expressed his bafflement that the same classified intelligence that was kept from the prisoners' families was given to the North Vietnamese communists by U.S. delegates. Similarly, Army Colonel Millard Peck, chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency's special office for POW/MIA affairs, reached the disturbing conclusion that his agency had a "mindset to debunk" reports of live American troops left behind.

What became of the prisoners? According to reports of alleged sightings, many were said to be held indefinitely as slave labor in prison compounds and kept as potentially valuable hostages whom Hanoi hoped to be able to put back on the bargaining table at some point in succeeding American administrations. It is likely that at this late date, most have probably died because of the effect of deplorable living conditions and homesickness on their bodies and minds.

Researchers have presented evidence purporting to show that some American POWs were shipped to the Soviet Union, China, and other communist nations, even after the war ended, to be exploited for their technological knowledge. Valuable men such as these were never returned. No less an authority than Russian President Boris Yeltsin has supplied corroboration, telling NBC in 1992, "Our archives have shown that it is true. Some of them were transferred to the territory of the former USSR and were kept in labor camps. We don't have complete data and can only surmise that some of them may still be alive."         

Instead of seizing on this remarkably candid bombshell as a rare window to the truth -- and perhaps even to the recovery of prisoners -- the U.S. government immediately downplayed Yeltsin's comments. Such revelations would have shone an unwelcome light on high-level failures, and also would have clashed with one of the key aims of U.S. foreign policy during the 1990s: the normalization of relations with Vietnam as part of a rush to establish trade. The U.S. government approached this goal over the dead bodies -- and perhaps in some cases, live bodies -- of the POWs, a development that appears to have had little to do with forgiveness and much to do with the almighty dollar.

Yeltsin's claim that prisoners were indeed left behind was allegedly corroborated by President Ronald Reagan. According to a 2002 Newsmax report, a congressman who served as a top aide to Reagan said the president "admitted to him that hundreds of American POWs were left behind in Vietnam and were still alive as late as 1988."

Even when confirmation of the abandonment of prisoners comes from the two most powerful men in the world, the presidents of the U.S. and Russia, it leaves almost no impression, owing to our tendency to avert our eyes from evidence that is heartbreaking and profoundly ugly. In all likelihood, the time has passed to rescue any of our forsaken troops. Our only remaining comfort is in knowing they are never lost to our omnipresent and loving Creator. Meanwhile, our obligation to their memory -- to tell the truth, honor their sacrifices, and resolve never to repeat the same tragic mistakes -- continues. In an admonition that sounds as timely as ever, President George Washington warned, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceived the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation."