Vietnam War POW/MIA Issue - The "live Prisoners" Debate

The "live Prisoners" Debate

Several committee investigations within the U.S. Congress took place over the years. Some members of Congress were quite active on the issue.

For Vietnam veteran Bob Smith, Representative and later Senator from New Hampshire, the fate of possible missing or captured Americans in Vietnam had been Smith's major issue since his arrival in Congress in 1985. His interest was partly motivated by his own experience growing up without knowing how his own father died in World War II.

North Carolina Congressman Bill Hendon, who served two terms in the early-mid-1980s, was also quite active on the issue. He and Smith met with President Ronald Reagan in January 1986 to discuss their belief that Vietnam was still holding American prisoners, and that U.S. intelligence agencies knew this but that the bureaucracy within the agencies was covering it up from even the Secretary of Defense. Reagan termed Hendon "way out yonder" on the issue, and after Vice President George H. W. Bush reported that even Smith would not agree with Hendon on some of these claims, Reagan concluded that "Bill is off his rocker".

New York Congressman John LeBoutillier, who served one term in the early 1980s, became interested in politics due to POW matters. After leaving Congress, he continued to be active in POW/MIA affairs. He founded the Sky Hook II Project, dedicated to recovering living American POWs in Southeast Asia. He has made frequent trips to Laos and Vietnam and also met with Laotian and Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Vientiane, and western cities.

Another political figure active in the POW/MIA issue was Tom Walsh, who became mayor of Casper, Wyoming, and a three-term member of the Wyoming House of Representatives. Walsh made fourteen trips, at his own expense, to search for information on POWs and MIAs.

The POW/MIA issue heated up in the early 1990s. Serious charges were leveled at the Bush administration (1989 to 1993) regarding the POW/MIA issue. The United States Department of Defense, headed by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, was accused of covering up information and failing to properly pursue intelligence about American POW/MIAs.

Ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, became interested in the matter. In October 1990 his chief staff aide, James P. Lucier, prepared a report stating that it was probable there were live POWs still being held and that the Bush administration was complicit in hiding the facts. The report also alleged that the Soviet Union had held American prisoners after the end of World War II and more may have been transferred there during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Helms stated that the "deeper story" was a possible "deliberate effort by certain people in the government to disregard all information or reports about living MIA-POWs." This allegation was followed in May 1991 by Helms' release of a minority report of the Foreign Relations Committee, entitled An Examination of US Policy Toward POW/MIAs, which made similar claims and concluded that "any evidence that suggested an MIA might be alive was uniformly and arbitrarily rejected...." The issuance of the report angered other Republicans on the committee, and after charges were made that the report contained errors, innuendo, and unsubstantiated rumors, Helms distanced himself from the POW/MIA issue. (This and other personnel matters led to Helms firing Lucier in January 1992.)

A July 1991 Newsweek cover photograph purported to show three American POWs still being held against their will, which increased general public interest in the issue. However, the photograph would turn out to be a hoax. Polls showed that a majority of Americans believed live POWs were indeed still being held captive; a July 1991 Wall Street Journal poll showed 70 percent of Americans believing this, and that three-fourths of them believed the U.S. government was not doing what needed to be done to gain their release.

Interest in the matter intensified in June 1992 when President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin told NBC News in an interview that some Americans captured during the Vietnam War may have been transferred from Hanoi to the Soviet Union: "Our archives have shown that it is true, some of them were transferred to the territory of the former U.S.S.R. and were kept in labor camps. We don't have complete data and can only surmise that some of them may still be alive."

Ross Perot stated that he believed that hundreds of American servicemen were left behind in Southeast Asia at the end of the U.S. involvement in the war, and that government officials were covering up POW/MIA investigations in order to not reveal a drug smuggling operation used to finance a secret war in Laos.

Retired United States Army General, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and current head of the American POW/MIA delegation in Hanoi, John Vessey, defended administrations' and the military's role in trying to get the Vietnamese to improve their efforts in ascertaining the fate of missing U.S. personnel. Vessey had succeeded in 1988 in convincing the Vietnamese to permit U.S. search teams to operate throughout the country. Vessey categorically rejected the notion of a government conspiracy, saying that he had never seen evidence of one at any time in his military career, and adding that, "American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are not conspirators." U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said that Vietnamese cooperation was improved but still needed much more improvement.

For critics and skeptics, the allegations fail to convincingly answer the question as to what reason the Vietnamese (and other neighboring countries) would have to hang on to living prisoners. They could have been returned post-war, or being inconvenient witnesses to abuse more easily simply murdered. Proponents of the theory often claimed that the prisoners were initially held back as part of a scheme to gain war reparations from the U.S., and then were continued to be held so that the Vietnamese would not have to admit to what they had done.

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