By Wesley Fryer.
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Despite the development and demonstration of this American POW ethic throughout the war in Indochina, the ethic was violated by the political events of 1973 that transpired under the leadership of President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Nixon did not win the Presidential election in 1968 with the promise of winning the war in Vietnam, but rather with the promise of "disengaging" American combat forces from their Southeast Asian quagmire and winning "peace with honor" for the United States (Franklin 62). As the Nixon administration sought to disengage from America's land war in Asia, "prisoners of war became diplomatic hostages, pawns in the war" (Olson 156).
The cease-fire agreement between the United States and the North Vietnamese was signed in January 1973, and in February 591 American POWs were repatriated to the United States in "Operation Homecoming." On February 1, 1973, however, President Richard Nixon sent a secret letter to Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong promising four and one half billion dollars in postwar reconstruction aid. It is believed that the Vietnamese only released 591 POWs, and kept several hundred other POWs, because "collateral" was needed to insure that the United States would fulfill its promise for postwar reconstruction aid (U.S. Senate Committee Report 5-10). This conclusion is supported by the available evidence regarding Vietnamese intentions and perceptions of the United States. Apparently, the Vietnamese felt they could not trust any of the Western Powers, in part because the national elections slated to be held in 1956 had been cancelled by U.S. intervention. On his deathbed, Ho Chi Minh allegedly told Le Duc Tho and Pham Van Dong "Don't sign the next agreement until we're certain of the political outcome," a recommendation which would explain the Vietnamese reluctance to participate in a complete prisoner exchange in February 1973 (Olson 244-245). Vietnamese fears of the United States failing to fulfill its $4.5 billion promise were well founded, as the United States Congress refused to approve this aid after the cease-fire in 1973. When the Watergate scandal caused Nixon to resign from the presidency several months after the initial prisoner exchange took place, the Vietnamese were left with a broken promise and hundreds of American POWs whose chances for repatriation appeared bleak.
The cease-fire agreement which the United States signed with Vietnam was a political victory for Nixon, but did not represent a complete victory for the North Vietnamese. Between the signing of the cease-fire agreement in January 1973 and the fall of Saigon in 1975, North Vietnamese fears that American military force could again be directed against Hanoi were well founded. Nixon had promised the South Vietnamese government, in a secret letter written on January 5, 1973, that "we [the United States] will respond with full force should the settlement be violated by the North Vietnamese" (Olson 254). The sustained will of the American government to use force against North Vietnam prevented total success for Ho Chi Minh's followers: the unification of North and South Vietnam (Tang 191).
Because of the threat posed by American military forces, the Vietnamese could not be certain that the emergence of additional American POWs after the official prisoner exchange in February 1973 "would not trigger a return of American B-52s over Hanoi" (Daly). This perception of the North Vietnamese was strengthened by an order issued by the U.S. Department of State to the Department of Defense on April 12, 1973, which stated "There are no more prisoners in Southeast Asia. They are all dead" (Stevenson 19).
This government position, a "presumptive finding" that "The sad conclusion is that there is no evidence that . . . missing Americans are still alive," was reaffirmed in 1975 in the Mongomery report of Congress (Dolan 43). Although half the membership of the Congressional committee which produced the Mongomery report publicly protested this conclusion and held that there were good reasons for not "closing the books" on the POW issue, President Jimmy Carter chose to ignore their protests and accept the conclusion that all American POWs in Southeast Asia were dead (Dolan 48-49).
These official declarations of the U.S. government, which followed the empty promise for reconstruction aid given by Nixon, were some of the most important factors leading to the current relationship between the United States and Vietnam regarding American POWs. Presently, as in 1975, the governments of Vietnam and the United States both regard "live American POWs" to be a political liability. Officially the United States declares it "operates on the assumption that some American Prisoners of War remain alive," but the past declarations of the U.S. government make our position clear to the Vietnamese. The U.S. has declared that American POWs in Southeast Asia are dead, and in doing so appears to have truly "kissed the boys goodbye." The return of living American POWs from Southeast Asia today would not only be an embarrassment to the U.S. government who declared them dead many years ago, but would also be a major obstacle to normalized relations with the Vietnamese government which are presently being pursued with renewed vigor (Baker 14).
Section 5: Troubling Evidence that American POWs were abandoned
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