The origins of the POW/MIA issue date back to during the war itself. Suffering from a lack of accurate intelligence sources inside North Vietnam, the U.S. never had solid knowledge for how many American prisoners of war were held. Indeed, the U.S. often relied upon possibly inaccurate North Vietnamese newspapers and radio broadcasts to find out who had been captured, as well as memorized lists of names brought out by the few American POWs given early release. As the Department of Defense built up lists of those in the categories of killed in action, killed in action/body not recovered, prisoner of war, and missing in action, its tentative numbers fluctuated, but most of the time, the number of expected returnees upon war's end was around 600. However, the Nixon administration had made return of the POWs one of its central arguments to the American public for prolonging the war and bringing North Vietnam to terms. In doing so, the administration exaggerated the number of POWs at issue, at one point stating that there were "fifteen hundred American servicemen" held throughout Southeast Asia. These higher numbers would be the focus of much of the controversy in the issue to come.
Following the Paris Peace Accords of January 1973, U.S. prisoners of war were returned during Operation Homecoming during February through April 1973. During this, 591 POWs were released to U.S. authorities; this included a few captured in Laos and released in North Vietnam. U.S. President Richard Nixon announced that all U.S. servicemen taken prisoner had been accounted for. At that time, the U.S. listed about 1,350 Americans as prisoners of war or missing in action and sought the return of roughly 1,200 Americans reported killed in action and body not recovered. The low numbers of returnees from Laos caused some immediate concern, as previous Pentagon estimates were as high as 41 for prisoners held there, although only a few had been known to be captured for certain.
Investigation of the fate of all the missing service personnel would end up residing with the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command also played a major role in subsequent investigations. In 1973, the Defense Department established the Central Identification Laboratory–Thailand to coordinate POW/MIA recovery efforts in Southeast Asia.
The U.S. conducted some limited operations in South Vietnam in 1974 to find the remains of those missing, and pursuant to the Paris Accords, the North Vietnamese returned some remains too. These efforts halted following the collapse of the Accords and the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, and over the next ten years, little progress was made in recovering remains.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, the friends and relatives of unaccounted-for American personnel became politically active, requesting the United States government reveal what steps were taken to follow up on intelligence regarding last-known-alive MIAs and POWs. When initial inquiries revealed important information had not been pursued, many families and their supporters asked for the public release of POW/MIA records and called for an investigation.
In 1979, the re-emergence of U.S. Private First Class Bobby Garwood constituted the only POW to surface following the end of the war and release of prisoners. Garwood is considered by the Department of Defense to have acted as a collaborator with the enemy after he was taken prisoner, while it is claimed by proponents of the "live prisoners" belief, and by Garwood himself, that he was an American POW abandoned by the military.
Read more about this topic: Vietnam War POW/MIA Issue
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