Vietnam War POW/MIA Issue - Kerry Committee

Kerry Committee

Senator Bob Smith introduced a 1991 resolution to create a Senate Select POW/MIA Committee. Senator and fellow Vietnam War veteran John Kerry was the chair of the committee, and its third key member was Senator and former Vietnam War POW John McCain. Compared to earlier congressional investigations into the POW/MIA issue, this one had a mandate to be more skeptical and ask harder questions of government officials than before. The committee's work included more visits to Vietnam and getting the Department of Defense to declassify over a million pages of relevant documents. Kerry and McCain said that they had gotten the Vietnamese to give them full access to their records, and that they had spent thousands of hours trying to find real, not fabricated, evidence of surviving Americans.

Some of the most publicized testimony before the committee came in September 1992, when former Nixon Defense Secretaries Melvin Laird and James Schlesinger said that the U.S. government had believed in 1973 that some American servicemen had not been returned from Laos, despite Nixon's public statements to the contrary. Schlesinger said, "As of now, I can come to no other conclusion. that does not mean there are any alive today." Laird said in retrospect of Nixon's assurances that all POWs were coming home, "I think it was unfortunate to be that positive. You can't be that positive when we had the kind of intelligence we had." In reaction to the testimony, Kerry said, "I think it's quite extraordinary when two former secretaries of defense both give evidence documenting that they had information, or they believed personally, that people were alive and not accounted for in Operation Homecoming."

The committee issued its unanimous findings on January 13, 1993. In response to the central question of whether any American POWs were still in captivity, it 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.

With specific regard to the "some evidence", the committee said this: "But neither live-sighting reports nor other sources of intelligence have provided grounds for encouragement, particularly over the past decade. The live-sighting reports that have been resolved have not checked out; alleged pictures of POWs have proven false; purported leads have come up empty; and photographic intelligence has been inconclusive, at best." Two senators, Smith and Grassley, dissented at note 12, with the report saying "they believe that live-sighting reports and other sources of intelligence are evidence that POWs may have survived to the present."

With regard to the possibility that American POWs survived in Southeast Asia after Operation Homecoming, the committee said this: "We acknowledge that there is no proof that U.S. POWs survived, but neither is there proof that all of those who did not return had died. There is evidence, moreover, that indicates the possibility of survival, at least for a small number, after Operation Homecoming."

Committee vice-chairman Smith seemed to back away from the committee's findings within months of their being issued, appearing in April 1993 on Larry King Live with POW/MIA activist Bill Hendon, stressing his partial dissent from the majority report and touting new evidence of North Vietnam having held back prisoners in 1973, and then in the Senate in September 1993, saying he had "very compelling" new evidence of live prisoners. He also asked the Justice Department to investigate ten federal officials for perjury and other crimes in conjunction with a cover-up of POW/MIA investigations, In what he dubbed "Operation Clean Sweep", Smith said the targeted officials had a "mind-set to debunk". Kerry and McCain both denounced Smith's actions, with McCain saying "In my dealings with these people, it is clear that mistakes may have been made in a very complex set of issues. But at no time was there any indication that they were giving anything but their most dedicated efforts. I frankly don't feel it's appropriate to publicly make these charges without public substantiation." Defense Secretary Les Aspin said the charges were unwarranted.

In 1994, journalist Sydney Schanberg, who had won a Pulitzer Prize in the 1970s for his New York Times reporting in Cambodia, wrote a long article for Penthouse magazine in which he said the committee had been dominated by a faction led by Kerry that "wanted to appear to be probing the prisoner issue energetically, but in fact, they never rocked official Washington's boat, nor did they lay open the 20 years of secrecy and untruths." Schanberg stated that key committee staff had had too close a relationship with the Department of Defense, and that while other committee investigators were able to get evidence of men left behind into the full body of the report, the report's conclusions "were watered down and muddied to the point of meaninglessness." Kerry denied that the committee had engaged in any cover-up.

The Kerry committee did little to soften the attitudes of those directly involved in the issue. To skeptics, "live prisoners" remained a conspiracy theory unsupported by motivation or evidence, and the foundation for a cottage industry of charlatans who preyed upon the hopes of the families of the missing. As two skeptics wrote in 1995, "The conspiracy myth surrounding the Americans who remained missing after Operating Homecoming in 1973 had evolved to baroque intricacy. By 1992, there were thousands of zealots—who believed with cultlike fervor that hundreds of American POWs had been deliberately and callously abandoned in Indochina after the war, that there was a vast conspiracy within the armed forces and the executive branch—spanning five administrations—to cover up all evidence of this betrayal, and that the governments of Communist Vietnam and Laos continued to hold an unspecified number of living American POWs, despite their adamant denials of this charge." Believers continued to strongly reject such notions; as one wrote in 1994, "It is not conspiracy theory, not paranoid myth, not Rambo fantasy. It is only hard evidence of a national disgrace: American prisoners were left behind at the end of the Vietnam War. They were abandoned because six presidents and official Washington could not admit their guilty secret. They were forgotten because the press and most Americans turned away from all things that reminded them of Vietnam."

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