U.S. POW/MIAs In Southeast Asia

The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.

George Washington, President/Commander-in-Chief

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

By Wesley Fryer.


One of the most famous quotations in the history of the United States was stated by President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address, when he encouraged all Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." In the years which followed Kennedy's inauguration, as the United States became more deeply involved in the war in Indochina, many Americans answered their nation's call to duty. Inevitably, many of the men who served the United States in Southeast Asia became prisoners of war (POWs). Although 591 American POWs were repatriated to the United States in February 1973, some POWs were left behind (Tighe Report 33). The failure of the U.S. government to secure the return of American servicemen remaining in captivity in Southeast Asia after February 1973 is a continuing violation of a national ethic that has developed historically, that holds "the war is not over until all the men are back." American servicemen certainly went to fight in Southeast Asia prepared to suffer hardship in battle, but they could not have been prepared to be abandoned by the country that sent them there. The betrayal of American POWs in Southeast Asia is one of the darkest pages of American history yet written, and suggests that the conscience of our nation has been violated in addition to the implicit promise made to U.S. servicemen by the government to bring them all home at the end of the war.

Development of America's "National POW ethic"

This "national ethic" regarding POWs developed throughout the history of the United States, in various wars as well as international agreements. During the Revolutionary War and later in the Civil War, Americans were stubborn in their belief that a person who becomes a POW is still entitled to humane treatment. The treatment of American POWs from the San Patricio companies during the Mexican War demonstrated this ethic vividly. Although many of the San Patricio soldiers accused of desertion and "serving in the Mexican ranks" were given the death penalty by a military court, some of these Irish Americans were saved from the gallows by General Scott. Scott reduced the sentences of several soldiers and pardoned others based on "humanitarian grounds as well as on the Articles of War" (Miller 93, 101). Although an "example" had to be made of some soldiers to deter future desertions, Scott was extremely reluctant to send all of the San Patricio deserters to the gallows. In this extreme case, where American soldiers actually took up arms against their own country, many POWs were afforded suprisingly lenient treatment. The American ethic regarding POWs, as shown in the case of the San Patricio deserters, has historically recognized the right of POWs to humane treatment.

Standards for the "humane treatment" of POWs were established in 1907 at an International Conference at The Hague, Netherlands. While these guidelines were sincerely intended to prevent brutal treatment of prisoners, they were not entirely realistic. The guidelines provided that a "prisoner's personal belongings, except arms and ammunition, would remain their private property." In addition, if enlisted personnel were put to work by their captors, the guidelines stipulated that "work could not be excessive and should be paid for at the same rate as that of soldiers of the nation holding the prisoners" (Kerr 25). Despite the fact that these international standards were idealistic and not adhered to by many nations in the wars which followed, the participation of the United States at the conference in The Hague demonstrated America's official recognition of the right of POWs to "humane treatment."

For many Americans, one of the most disturbing aspects of the war in the Pacific against the Japanese in World War II was the treatment which U.S. POWs were subjected to throughout the conflict. Although the Japanese had signed the agreement which was the result of the International Conference on the treatment of POWs in 1907 as well as a later Geneva Convention agreement in 1929, the Japanese had difficulties with these standards. For soldiers fighting for Japan, "Surrender under Japanese military law was a punishable offense," since their military doctrine did not allow soldiers or sailors to even become POWs (Kerr 26). Despite these facts, Americans still officially regarded the rights of their POWs in the Pacific as inviolate, and expected the Japanese to share this opinion.

One of the most horrific examples of Japanese mistreatment of American POWs occurred in the Philippines after the Japanese took control of the islands from the United States in 1942. Japanese intelligence sources had expected 20,000 prisoners to be captured as a result of the Philippines campaign, but 80,000 POWs were taken along with approximately 26,000 Filipino civilians who had fled from the cities (Keith 59). The fact that the Japanese were unprepared for the large number of prisoners which were captured was not, however, an excuse for the brutal treatment which they gave to American and Filipino POWs alike.

The infamous "Bataan Death march" to Camp O'Donnell in April 1942 was a repulsive example of human brutality that depicted the extremely harsh treatment POWs received at the hands of the Japanese. Thousands of men, women and children were forced to march on a seemingly endless trail, suffering from heat exhaustion and a lack of food or water. "Any man who could not stand on his feet was promptly bayonetted," and anyone who stopped to help a fellow POW was shot (Keith 61). Survivors of the march lived to tell numerous stories of Japanese brutality.

"To amuse himself, a guard pushed two prisoners, kneeling with hands raised in supplication, over the side of a cliff. Their screams ended only when they hit the jagged rocks below" (Keith 64).

The Japanese soldiers who committed these acts against military personnel and Filipino civilians alike did not regard their captives as "prisoners of war," but rather as criminals. The Japanese had no intention of following the Hague or the Geneva Conventions governing treatment of POWs, since they merely carried out the "Emperor's will and believed no guilt would be attached to attacks on American prisoners" (Keith 61).

The brutal treatment American servicemen endured during World War II in the Pacific angered the U.S. population that learned about it after the war, and further affirmed the American commitment to "humane" treatment of POWs. The same underlying principles which led Americans to this belief regarding POWs formed the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations. The Declaration recognizes the "inherent dignity of each member of the human family" as the foundation of human rights, making the individual rather than the state the "foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world" (UNESCO 14). Article three of the Declaration states "Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person," and the use of torture is specifically prohibited in the document. In sum, although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was not directed specifically at POWs, through this document the United States affirmed with the other nations of the world a commitment to the humane treatment of individuals and repudiated the sort of brutality which was inflicted upon civilians as well as military personnel during World War II.

This commitment to the humane treatment of POWs might be regarded by historians as another unrealistic attempt to direct the actions of nations like the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, but the American ethic toward its POWs does not fit into this same category. While the Kellogg-Briand Pact failed to "renounce war as an instrument of foreign policy" in practice, the American commitment to POWs has been translated from a simple ideal into reality, and was dramatized repeatedly by the American military during the war in Indochina.

The American POW ethic in Southeast Asia

The American "ethic" regarding the treatment of POWs was reflected in the North Vietnamese propaganda efforts during the war aimed at convincing the world that prisoners received "humane and lenient treatment" in North Vietnamese prisons (Risner 85). The American POW ethic extended beyond "humane treatment," however. The ethic was seen in the numerous search and rescue attempts which took place throughout the course of the war. Time after time, the American military demonstrated its willingness to risk the loss of additional men and aircraft for the chance to rescue one or two fellow pilots. When a plane would go down, a C-130 would usually be designated to provide command and control for the rescue effort, F-4s to provide protection from enemy MIG aircraft, A-1E Skyraiders to direct suppressive fire on enemy forces close to the downed pilots, and a "Jolly Green" helicopter to pick up the men (Broughton 161). This commitment to rescue fellow airmen and prevent them from becoming prisoners had a strong, positive effect on the morale of the men who fought the war for the United States in Southeast Asia. They knew their country was committed to bringing them home if they were shot down, and that the U.S. government, in essence, had made an implicit promise to bring them home if they fell into the hands of the enemy. The American ethic regarding POWs, therefore, included not only a recognition of POWs' right to humane treatment, but also included an obligation on the part of the U.S. government to secure the return of American POWs captured in wartime.

The strongest display of this American ethic regarding POWs during the Indochina conflict took place on November 21, 1970. The Son Tay raid attempted to rescue American POWs being held at a camp twenty miles from Hanoi, and although not successful in rescuing prisoners, the raid still sent a clear message to the North Vietnamese. The Son Tay raid told the Southeast Asian enemies of the United States that not only were American POWs not forgotten, but also that these men were extremely valuable to the U.S. government (Hubbell 536). After the raid on Son Tay, the American POW ethic was clear. American POWs were not the easily expandable instruments of policy, but rather, were regarded as valuable human beings who not only had the right to live but also the right to return home. The United States wanted to secure the return of its POWs for this idealistic reason, because of the effect this commitment had on the armed forces as a whole, and because pragmatically these men could return to "fight another day." Like the plot in Robert Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers, the American POW ethic evolved historically to state that "the war is not over till all the men are back."

A Breach of Trust: POWs are left behind

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).

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.

A Black Page in American History

The abandonment of American POWs in Southeast Asia and the failure of the United States government to secure the return of even one of these individuals in the eighteen years since the official prisoner exchange in February 1973 is a continuing violation of the fundamental principles of our nation. The people and servicemen of the United States believe "the war is not over until all the men are back," because simply put: Americans do not abandon Americans. Yet the American government did do just this, and violated the implicit promise it had made to many of its servicemen to bring them home when they became prisoners of war.

America must begin to come to grips with the black page of its history that contains the story of Southeast Asian POWs abandoned after February 1973. If, as retired Navy Captain Eugene "Red" McDaniel and retired Air Force General Robinson Risner claim, hundreds of American servicemen continue to survive as prisoners at the hands of the Southeast Asian communists, time is certainly running out for them. If even a single American remains alive today in Southeast Asia, he should be given the chance to live the rest of his life in freedom. The American ethic regarding POWs was violated during our involvement in Southeast Asia, but it should not be discarded. As Red McDaniel has stated, "To be born free is a gift, to live free a responsibility, to die free an obligation." America owes this much to those who asked "what they could do for their country." These abandoned Americans should now ask what their country can do for them-- and it should bring them home.

Works Cited

Baker, James A., III. "America in Asia." Foreign Affairs. Winter 1991/92. pp. 1-18.

Broughton, Jack. Thud Ridge. New York: J.B. Lippincott Company. 1969.

Daly, John. Interview on 29 November 1991. Professor of Soviet History, PhD. from London University, Kansas State University.

Denver Post. "Some POWs killed at end of war, official says." 8 November 1991.

Dolan, Edward F. MIA: Missing in Action. New York: Franklin Watts. 1989.

Franklin, H. Bruce. "The POW/MIA Myth." The Atlantic Monthly. December 1991. pp. 45-81.

Groom, Winston and Duncan Spencer. Conversations With The Enemy: The Story of PFC Robert Garwood. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. 1983.

Hubbell, John G. P.O.W.: A Definitive History of the American Prisoner of War Experience in Vietnam, 1964-1973. New York: Reader's Digest Press. 1976.

Kerr, E. Bartlett. Surrender and Survival: The Experience of American POWs in the Pacific 1941-1945. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1985.

McDaniel, Eugene. Speech for the Washington Naval League, regarding statements made to him by Ross Perot. 16 November 1991.

Miller, Robert Ryal. Shamrock and Sword: The Saint Patrick's Battalion in the U.S.-Mexican War. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. 1989.

Olson, James S. and Randy Roberts. Where the Dominoe Fell: America and Vietnam 1945 to 1990. New York: St. Martin's Press. 1991.

Risner, Robinson. The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese. New York: Random House. 1973.

Sheetz, Robert. Director of the Pentagon's office of POW/MIA, in a presentation to the US Air Force Academy Cadet Wing on the current status of the POW/MIA issue. 21 November 1991.

Stevenson, Monika Jensen. Kiss the Boys Goodbye. New York: Penguin Books. 1990.

Tang, Truong Nhu. A Vietcong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and its Aftermath. New York: Vintage Books. 1985.

The Tighe Report of American POWs and MIAs. House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs. 15 October 1986.

UNESCO Youth Institute. For Peace and the Dignity of Man. Dobbs Ferry, New York: Oceana Publications, Inc. 1964.

U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Republican Staff. "An Examination of U.S. Policy Toward POW/MIAs." 23 May 1991.

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