American POWs in Southeast Asia and the Violation of a National Ethic

By Wesley Fryer.

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5. Troubling Evidence that American POWs were abandoned

The decision to conclude that "There are no more American POWs alive in Southeast Asia" would not have violated the American ethic regarding POWs if the conclusion had been accurate, but unfortunately it was not. A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly inaccurately stated that "There has yet to be any credible evidence that any prisoners were withheld in Indochina [after February 1973]," and that "every responsible investigation conducted since the end of the war has reached the same conclusion: there is no credible evidence that live Americans are being held against their will in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, or China" (Franklin 47, 50). These claims are blatantly false, and are examples of how the American POW ethic continues to be violated today in 1991 regarding our Southeast Asian POWs.

Private individuals, military officers, and government officials have individually stated that the United States did indeed leave servicemen behind at the end of the Vietnam war. The most obvious demonstration that the 1975 Montgomery report's conclusion that "there is no evidence that . . . missing Americans are still alive" in Southeast Asia was inaccurate was the return of Marine Private Robert Garwood from Vietnam in 1979 (Groom 315). Although accused of being a collaborator, Garwood was never the less a "missing American" who had been left behind in Southeast Asia after the war.

As an American who had personally seen the Vietnamese prison system from 1973 to 1979, Garwood possessed extremely "credible" information about other live Americans remaining in Southeast Asia. On June 5, 1985, Garwood stated in sworn testimony before the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs that he "had seen 60 to 70 other Americans between 1973 and 1978" in Vietnam, but that this disclosure was largely ignored by U.S. government officials (Stevenson 421).

In addition to Garwood's claim of Americans continuing to live in Southeast Asia, the 1986 Tighe Report to Congress on POWs was a "responsible investigation conducted since the end of the war" which concluded that American servicemen continue to be held in captivity in Southeast Asia (McDaniel). This conclusion was allegedly made in the classified version of the Tighe report, which is still "Top Secret" today in December 1991. In the public version of the report, however, this conclusion was "watered down." In sworn testimony before the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, Lt. Gen. Eugene Tighe, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency for whom the Tighe report was named, stated that the threshold of evidence concerning live American POWs in Southeast Asia "has been met on a great many occasions," and that he personally believed Americans continued to be held against their will by the Communist governments of Southeast Asia (Tighe Report 33). Although government officials today have attempted to portray the makers of the Tighe report as a "small, biased group with a narrow view of the issue," the conclusions of the Tighe report appear to have been made by conscientious Americans who had access to all available intelligence on American POWs in Southeast Asia (Sheetz).

In addition to the testimony provided by Garwood and Tighe indicating that American servicemen were left behind in Southeast Asia after February 1973, another government official recently affirmed this claim in sworn testimony before the current Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. Garnett Bell, the head of the U.S. office in Hanoi for POW/MIA affairs, stated on November 7, 1991, before the committee that the United States left servicemen behind at the end of the war in Indochina (Denver Post). This recent statement by a top government official in charge of U.S. "POW/MIA affairs," taken with Garwood and Tighe's statements, seems to make the answer to the question at hand clear.

When only 591 POWs were returned to the United States in February 1973, remaining American POWs in Southeast Asia became expandable instruments of policy in violation of the historical "ethic" which the United States has developed regarding POWs. These servicemen were abandoned by their country not because of a legitimate utilitarian justification, but rather because of the political mistakes of an American president who was forced to resign from his office several months later.

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Section 6: A Black Page in American History

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