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The Myth of the Lost POWs

Real-life Rambos have no one to rescue.

Ten years after America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, President Reagan has made the recovery of 2,477 American soldiers “the highest national priority.” In June 1983 a division of the Defense Intelligence Agency was assigned a large full-time staff to collect and evaluate information about POWs and MIAs. Last summer Reagan signed a proclamation designating the third Friday in July as the annual National POW/MIA Recognition Day. A Congressional Task Force on POW/MIAs in Southeast Asia was created in 1977, and in the last several years Congress has introduced more than 100 bills and resolutions aimed at resolving the problem. A number of celebrities, including William Shatner, Gloria Vanderbilt and Willie Mays, have been promoting public awareness of the issue in books, movies, and fund-raising drives. John LeBoutillier, a former representative from New York, is working with Charlton Heston in a national phone solicitation campaign to drum up money to help the “American POWs kept in bamboo cages, in the jungle, or in caves in the mountains.” As a government official recently told The New York Times, “Somehow the mystery of their disappearance and their deaths have taken on a peculiar life of their own.”

The popular usage of the term “MIA” is misleading, since it suggests that we have no idea what happened to the soldiers in Vietnam. We do. At the end of the war, the Pentagon listed fewer than 800 soldiers as either prisoners or missing in action. After the war, the Pentagon added to the list servicemen considered killed in action but whose bodies were never recovered. Many of these were Air Force pilots: 81 percent of those now classified as MIAs were pilots, many of whom failed to eject from their planes before crashing in the Vietnamese jungle. (Since 1975 the Vietnamese have returned the remains of about 100 MIAs.)

In fact, of the 2,477 men categorized as MIA, nearly half (1,186) are known to have been killed in action, but their bodies were not recovered. Of those, 436 were Air Force pilots shot down over the sea, whom the Pentagon lists as “non-recoverable.” In 647 other cases a presumptive finding of death was made at the time of disappearance. Thus 1,833 of the 2,477 MIAs are known or presumed to be dead. That leaves 644 men who theoretically could still be alive and in Vietnam.

The POW/MIA lobby exploits this uncertainty for all it’s worth. In a 1984 New York Times Op-Ed piece called “Rotting in Laos,” LeBoutillier stated that he has “private sources” who confirm that Americans are still held in Indochina. The organizations of POW/MIA families keep LeBoutillier at arm’s length. They make the more modest argument that until there is definitive evidence that the MIAs aren’t alive, the U.S. government should act as if they are.

Emotional appeals aside, there is little credible evidence that any of them are still living. Of the 3,508 reports from Indochinese refugees about alleged sightings of missing Americans since 1975, the Defense Intelligence Agency discounts all but five. Only 751 of these alleged sightings were firsthand accounts from Indochinese refugees who claim to have seen—not just heard about—captive Americans. In congressional testimony last August, the director of the DIA, Lieutenant General James Williams, stressed the ambiguity of even these reports. “A lot of these people who talk about live sighting say they have seen an individual who was a Caucasian who they think was an American … [and] who looked like he was under guard. According to the DIA, 77 percent of these firsthand reports have been resolved, either by correlating the sighting to men who have since been accounted for, or by determining that the sightings were fabricated.

The DIA has used polygraph exams in investigating the most credible reported sightings. Of approximately 40 witnesses tested since 1979, if says that 24 showed signs of deception, two were inconclusive, and 13 showed no deception. Of those 13, four were of people who have been accounted for, three were sightings of non-prisoners, and one was a fabrication. The remaining five reports represent the best—but by no means conclusive—evidence that Americans are still held in Vietnam.

Other pieces of “evidence” that there are still POWs in Vietnam seem dubious. For example, former U.S. major general John K. Singlaub claims that 13 French POWs captured by the Vietnamese during the siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 were not released until 16 years later. A French Embassy spokesman says that all French POWs were released in 1954 and that Singlaub’s contention is nonsense.

Some have cited the ramblings of Private Robert Garwood as additional evidence that there are still POWs in Vietnam. Garwood was a Marine captured in the 1960s who won the trust of the North Vietnamese and was allowed a measure of freedom. When he returned to the United States in 1979, he was found not guilty of desertion but was court-martialed for collaboration. He told The Wall Street Journal last December that he had seen about 70 American POWs while living in Vietnam. Yet when Garwood first returned he only told the DIA of “rumors” of American POWs. His biography, Conversations with the Enemy: The Story of PFC Robert Garwood, published in 1983, never mentions POWs. And his own psychiatrist questions the legitimacy of his disclosures, saying that Garwood suffers from many psychological traumas. Even the POW/MIA organizations doubt Garwood’s credibility.

The POW/MIA issue is unique to the Vietnam War. After World War II, 78,751 American soldiers were missing or unaccounted for. Their number exceeds by 20,000 the total number of American servicemen killed in Vietnam. The Korean War resulted in 8,177 MIAs. Yet neither prompted widespread protests and demands for government inquiries. In part, of course, the reaction to the Vietnam MIAs is because we lost the war. The U.S. has no access to places where missing soldiers were last seen alive, and MIA families felt that the country, in its desire to quickly forget the war, was also forgetting their sons, husbands, and brothers. What’s more, the MIAs have become a matter of American honor, and their return a symbolic restoration of that honor. The POW movies, especially Sylvester Stallone’s current box-office smash, Rambo: First Blood Part II, appeal to these sentiments.

But there is another explanation. Far from forgetting these sons and brothers, the government has put them to undisguised political use. Successive administrations have alternated between actively suppressing the families’ requests for information and assisting them in publicizing their cause. The results have been disappointing diplomatically, and cruelly misleading for the families.

In 1966 President Johnson was conducting secret negotiations on the POWs with North Vietnamese officials in Paris. The administration believed it would be detrimental to the talks, as well as to the prisoners, to publicize the problem. Administration officials told the families of POWs and MIAs to keep quiet. Valerie Kushner, an MIA wife, told Life magazine in 1970, “I wanted to yell from the first day, but I was told by the Army that they would not only not help me, but squelch me.”

Three years later President Nixon, aware of the families’ growing frustration, decided to champion their cause through a major policy change. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird announced on May 18, 1969, that the administration would “go public” with the POW issue in an effort to use public opinion to pressure the Vietcong into obeying the Geneva principles concerning POW rights. The campaign was waged through press conferences, speaking engagements by former POWs, and demonstrations by POW and MIA families.

In December 1969 Nixon met with 26 POW wives to suggest the formation of a national organization of MIA and POW families. From this core, other MIA families were enlisted to march in Washington on May 1, 1970, in support of the war. On May 28, 1970, hundreds were flown to the capital in military transport aircraft for the first official meeting of the National League of Families of Americans Missing in Southeast Asia. Spiro Agnew presented the League with a check for $10,000 in proceeds from the sale of Agnew watches and T-shirts. A week later a special White House telephone WATS line, linking the League to the White House, was installed in the League’s office. Robert P. Odell, the financial director for the Republican National Committee, planned for the League to use the committee’s mailing lists to raise money for League travel, advertising, and publicity expenses. Joan M. Vinson, then the national coordinator of the RNC, had written the League’s board members that “most importantly, no one will know that we are using the lists owned by the Republican National Committee.” But the arrangement began to come undone when Representative Les Aspin had the details printed in The Congressional Record. Within the year, the families started questioning the Nixon administration’s motives.

By mid-1971, two years after President Nixon had begun his plan to end U.S. involvement in the war through “Vietnamization,” MIA families began to worry. They feared that the reductions of U.S. troops would mean a reduced commitment to the POWs and MIAs. This fear was heightened when the families realized that the Nixon administration’s plans did not include any provisions for obtaining the release of POWs or accounting for MIAs. In anger, 400 families split from the League to form the antiwar Families for Immediate Release.

Following the Paris Peace Accords of January 1973, which officially ended U.S. involvement in the war, 591 POWs were released from Vietnam. The Hanoi government said that these were the only prisoners they held. But this only exacerbated the alarm of the families whose boys did not return. The government, abiding by the Missing Persons Act of 1942, would begin conducting automatic status reviews on missing servicemen after a year. If there was no evidence to the contrary, the soldier would be declared KIA (killed in action) and the case closed.

Five people from the National League of Families brought suit in a U.S. District Court to stop the Pentagon from changing their relatives’ status from MIA to KIA, demanding that the military prove the subjects dead. In August 1973 the court ruled that reviews could be conducted only on the written request of a dependent next of kin. Ironically, the litigation heightened the anxiety of those families who wanted to end the drawn-out trauma. One MIA wife wrote in a letter to the military Status Review Board: “I wish a status review would be held on my husband, however, I will not request one at this time. . . . I would be asking that he be declared dead—something I feel would have psychological implications for my children and my husband’s parents. Furthermore, I resent being put in that position by the Military Services—it is their job to determine, on their knowledge, the status of my husband.”

For some of the families, no doubt, initially there was a clear financial incentive not to request a review. Benefits to an MIA family at the time were far greater than those awarded to a KIA family. In August 1976 the House Select Committee on MIAs compared the hypothetical case of an Air Force captain, with a wife and three children, declared KIA in 1966, with the same individual listed as MIA until a presumptive finding of death was made in 1975. The total benefits paid over the same period to the MIA wife exceeded those paid to the KIA wife by almost $100,000.

But the financial incentive no longer exists. In 1978 the Pentagon declared all MIAs “presumed dead,” except for Air Force Colonel Charles E. Shelton, who remains listed as POW for symbolic purposes. A status reclassification change from MIA to Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered routinely results in a sizable lump-sum payment—in the range of $60,000 to $100,000 in addition to substantial child support payments and educational benefits for dependent children.

The plight of the MIA families was complicated by the demands of Hanoi officials. Article 21 of the Paris Peace Accords stipulated that the U.S. “contribute to healing the wounds of war and to post-war construction” in Vietnam. In 1973 President Nixon sent a secret letter to President Pham Van Dong promising Vietnam $3.25 billion in U.S. economic aid over a five-year period “without political conditions.” But Congress refused to grant the aid request. Vietnamese negotiators, feeling betrayed, announced that they wouldn’t discuss the MIA issue until the aid came through. At the same time they denied that they held any POWs or knew anything about the fate of other MIAs. The United States insisted that the Vietnamese account for the American MIAs as a prerequisite for resuming diplomatic relations. The deadlock continues to this day.

In the mid-1970s. Congress took up the issue. The House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia concluded investigation of the POW/MIA issue for 15 months. It heard testimony from 50 high-ranking officials (including President Ford, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld), held more than 20 executive sessions to discuss classified information, reviewed the files of over 200 soldiers classified as MIA, and petitioned the Pentagon for details on more than 100 of its relevant files. The Select Committee concluded in December 1976 that “no Americans are still being held alive as prisoners in Indochina, or elsewhere, as a result of the war in Indochina.”

President Carter, accepting the committee’s findings, believed that the next step was to secure the return of any MIA corpses from Vietnamese authorities. He appointed a commission on MIAs headed by the former president of the United Auto Workers union Leonard Woodcock. The Woodcock Commission visited Hanoi in March 1977 under severe handicaps: the group wasn’t permitted outside Hanoi, and was forbidden from talking to civilians about the issue. Nevertheless, it agreed with the House Select Committee that there were no American POWs being held in Indochina, and said that the Vietnamese government was doing all if could to account for the MIAs. When in September 1978 Hanoi mysteriously announced its willingness to separate the issues of aid and normalization, it appeared that a substantial accounting of the MIAs was imminent. But President Carter then granted “official” recognition to China—Vietnam’s traditional enemy—and Vietnam invaded Cambodia. These developments cooled the slight warming in relations between Washington and Hanoi.

Ironically, Carter’s intention to deal directly with Hanoi in an attempt to confront those capable of returning the dead MIAs only managed to alienate those he wished to help most: the families. The National League of Families unanimously rejected the Woodcock Commission’s findings and denounced Carter for “disposing of the POWs and MIAs” for the sake of resuming relations with Vietnam.

Then came the placebo politics of President Reagan. Without any new evidence that there might actually be Americans still alive in Vietnam, Reagan revived the POW/MIA issue. In 1982, for the first time in nearly a decade, over 450 MIA family members throughout America were flown to their 1982 annual convention in military transport at public expense. There have since been four other airlifts to Washington, and over 600 MIA family members are expected for this year’s convention on July 19. For the last four years on National POW/MIA Recognition Day, the League’s black-and-white POW/MIA flag—bearing the words “You Are Not Forgotten”—has flown beneath the American flag at the White House, the Capitol, and the Pentagon. Reagan has brought the families to the White House for well-publicized luncheons and called their cause a “highest national priority.” “The way our system works,” a White House aide told The New York Times, “if the President is personally interested in something, then the Government is interested in it. And Mr. and Mrs. Reagan are personally very interested in MIAs.”

The gestures provide no real hope of ending the families’ pain. Reagan has led some of them to believe that they do not have to accept the loss of their loved ones.

During Veterans Day ceremonies last November, he stated that “some [American soldiers] may still be saved.” If, as the president believes, the Vietnamese have been hiding any POWS all these years, he has hardly given them an incentive to return them. To recant its previous denials now would be extremely embarrassing for Hanoi; it might be far less costly simply to kill the POWs. And for many families the calls for greater government action have reawakened horrible images of ongoing torture and abuse in some distant jungle.

Over the past decade intelligence information has shown overwhelmingly that the existence of living American MIAs and POWs in Indochina is highly improbable. Why is the issue kept alive? “This issue has been used many ways throughout ifs history,” says Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families. “It’s been used both to justify foreign policy positions and it’s been used as a scapegoat for failed policies as well.” These families have had their hopes raised by politicians, publishers, filmmakers, and lawyers in pursuit of self-promotion and profits. Of course, every effort should be made to account for and recover the remains of Americans killed in Vietnam. But that is far different from sustaining the cruel delusion that there may be Americans alive in Vietnam.

This article originally ran in the July 1, 1985 issue of the magazine.