Following the Paris Peace Accords, Operation Homecoming returned 591 American prisoners of war (POWs) to the US. At the time, over 1,300 prisoners were listed as missing in action (MIA). An additional 1,200 were killed in action (KIA) and body not recovered. In the ensuing 20 years, activist groups pushed the American government to look into the matter, and several investigations were launched. While no governmental investigation has determined that American POWs were left behind, there remains considerable evidence that the POW MIA issue contains validity.
The Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam was signed on January 27, 1973. This document, finalized during the Paris Peace Accords, signaled the end of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), and the Provisional Revolutionary Government (representing various South Vietnamese insurgents) joined the US in signing this historic treaty. The agreement called for the release of US prisoners of war, along with assistance in recovering and transporting home the remains of deceased soldiers. Due in large part to a lack of reliable intelligence in North Vietnam, the US government never knew truly how many prisoners of war were held. In the years since the war ended, there has been substantial evidence to indicate that many prisoners were left behind. Not only does it appear likely that soldiers were deserted, but it is possible the government was aware of this and covered up its abandonment of servicemen, now known as the Prisoners of War Missing in Action. Their fate remains the most emotional, tragic, and divisive issue of the Vietnam War. Beginning in 1973, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office was charged with investigating the whereabouts of all missing military personnel. For approximately two years, the US conducted search missions in South Vietnam, while the North Vietnamese handed over remains of deceased American soldiers. Success was very limited in both cases, however. In 1975, South Vietnam fell and the Accords collapsed, and progress soon ground to a decade-long near-halt. (Stevenson, 274). Vietnam came at the height of civil unrest, with anti-war protests taking place all over the country. Many demonstrations turned violent, with a number of deaths adding to the disillusionment of the American public. While it is not uncommon for anti-war sentiment to grow, US military personnel were treated horribly during this time. The public opposition to the Bush-era War on Terror was strikingly similar to that of Vietnam, but treatment of soldiers could not be more different. If the American government did indeed write off the POWs, one popular school of thought suggests this occurred because of the public outrage on the war, the hatred of the troops, and the apathy towards their well-being. While the vocal part of the US dismissed the troops, activist groups played a big role in publicizing the issue and forcing the government to act. The National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia was created in 1967. By 1969, the group’s work resulted in better treatment of US POWs and its publicity began to turn public sentiment. (McConnell & Schweitzer, 372). Groups like The National Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s Missing Servicemen continued the work of keeping public focus on the possibility of POWs. The National Alliance took a more active and assertive role and forced governmental investigations. (McConnell & Schweitzer, 390). It cannot be argued that the US government was far from truthful on the matter, particularly under President Richard Nixon. It was Nixon, for example, who flatly denied that US troops would invade Cambodia. The US did, in fact, invade Cambodia that very day. A much-publicized memo to Vice President Henry Kissinger from Secretary of Defense Elliott Richardson, dated March 28, 1973, showed the Defense Intelligence Agency listing more than 350 Americans as missing or captured in Laos at the time the list was provided by the Laotians. A day later, however, Nixon declared in a television address to the nation that as a result of the Paris peace talks, "All of our American POWs are on their way home.” A Defense Department report for the week ending April 7, 1973, listed 80 US military personnel as "current captured," although Pentagon officials a few days later declared there was no indication that any Americans remained in the former Indo China after the “Homecoming” exodus. Throughout the mid- and late-1980s, the US and Vietnam developed a tenuous working agreement attempting to resolve the POW MIA issue. Vietnamese officials slowly returned some American remains collected and stored for over a decade. The US was allowed to excavate select airplane crash sites, although the Vietnamese and Lao governments were extremely restrictive in what areas could and could not be investigated. Because of political tumult, Cambodia’s government refused to grant the US access. (Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office). In 1990, Time Magazine presented a series of articles entitled, “Vietnam: 15 Years Later.” A former World War II Japanese lieutenant, for decades unaccounted for, was found on a Philippine island, proof that no government could definitively state that no soldier was left behind. Numerous American political sources spoke off the record, and all independently stated that there was widespread conviction that troops were left behind but by that point had surely been killed. (Time Magazine). Shortly after the Time series, The Washington Post ran a series of articles suggesting that the United States Department of Defense, headed by Secretary of Defense and future Vice President Dick Cheney, had covered up evidence of POWs still in Vietnam and failed to pursue intelligence about POWs because of potential political backlash. In 1991, the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs was charged with investigating the events, policies, and knowledge that guided US government POW MIA actions. (POW MIA Database). Former Presidential candidate Ross Perot was deeply involved in POW MIA activities from 1973-onward, and had always been outspoken about his belief that there existed overwhelming evidence of troop abandonment. During the 1991 Senate hearings, Perot reiterated these sentiments. Testimony made by Nixon cabinet members James Schlesinger and Melvin Laird corroborated Perot’s beliefs. (Eaton). Vietnam veteran and future Presidential candidate John Kerry chaired the committee, and stated, “While the Committee has some evidence suggesting the possibility a POW may have survived to the present, and while some information remains yet to be investigated, there is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.” (Executive Summary). During Kerry’s 2004 Presidential Campaign, a series of articles claimed Kerry had shredded documents and lied during testimony during these hearings. Also a Vietnam veteran and future Presidential candidate, John McCain was involved in the committee as a key member. McCain seemed a bit more receptive to the idea of POWs left behind, although on the record he backed Kerry’s stance. Out of McCain’s involvement, however, came Public Law 102-190, also known as the McCain Bill. The law requires the Secretary of Defense to make available to the public, in a library-like setting, all information relating to the treatment, location, and condition of US personnel who remain unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. The Library of Congress holds these physical documents. The Library’s internet site provides downloadable copies of all of the documents, of which today there are 158,989. (POW MIA Databases and Documents).
The POW MIA issue remains one of the most debated and controversial in US military history. Some find it impossible to believe the government would abandon troops and mislead the American public to such an alarming degree. Others see the damning evidence of a cover-up to be irrefutable. What is the true story? After almost four decades and several investigations, it is doubtful any new evidence will be uncovered, so the beliefs and opinions held by the government, military, and civilian worlds are unlikely to change. Strong opinions generally cannot be changed without strong new evidence to the contrary. With nothing new to consider, every stance is likely set in stone, and ultimately the debate ends in a stalemate.
Out of this divisive issue, however, come certain facts. The POW MIA issue has continually forced Americans to examine the treatment of military personnel. Even in a most controversial war time, troops coming home today are viewed reverently, to be admired and emulated. Soldiers wounded in action are brought home and given every opportunity to recover, to adapt, to excel. Those killed in action are rightly memorialized. Conservative and liberal minds alike look to the sacrifice of the armed forces with respect and admiration. The court of public opinion no longer judges them as an unjust militia, but as heroes. It cannot be denied that this pendulum began its swing in the aftermath of Vietnam, in response to the Prisoners of War Missing in Action, and that their sacrifice and enduring legacy is the ultimate proof that they will never be forgotten.
Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office. Vietnam War Accounting History. Retrieved October 2, 2011, from http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/vietnamwar/vietnam_history.htm. Duiker, W.J. (2010). Contemporary World History: Fifth Edition. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. Eaton, W. J. (1992). Nixon Defense Secretaries Say US Left POWs in Vietnam. Retrieved September 28, 2011, from http://tech.mit.edu/V112/N43/nixon.43w.html. Executive Summary. Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. United States Senate. Retrieved September 30, 2011, from http://www.fas.org/irp/congress/1993_rpt/pow-exec.html. Jensen-Stevenson, M., & Stevenson, W. (1991). Kiss the Boys Goodbye: How the United States Betrayed its Own POWs in Vietnam. New York City: Plume Publishing. McConnell, M., & Schweitzer, T.G. (1995). Inside Hanoi’s Secret Archives: Solving the MIA Mystery. New York City: Simon & Schuster Publishing. POW MIA Databases & Documents. (2011). Retrieved October 2, 2011, from http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/pow/. Time Magazine’s Vietnam Collection: Vietnam 15 Years Later. (1990). Retrieved October 1, 2011, from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,969996,00.html.