The Phantom Menace

Are American POWs still being held in Southeast Asia?

So much for a smoking gun.

To understand the "mystery" at the heart of the MIA question, one need look no further than a series of meetings that began 31 years ago in Paris, when a harried group of U.S. and Vietnamese officials met for United Nations-sponsored peace talks. The meetings dragged on for five years as delegates argued, among other things, over the shape of the table they would use.

The talks were stalled mainly because then-President Richard Nixon hoped to use the delay to rebuild popular support for America's least popular war—in part by making the return of U.S. POWs the major issue of the peace negotiations. One of Nixon's demands was that Vietnam would return all American prisoners as a precondition to any agreement that the U.S. would withraw from the war.

In 1973, Nixon broke the stalemate. Without informing his South Vietnamese ally, he finally agreed to withdraw all American troops from the conflict and order a permanent bombing halt of North Vietnam in exchange for the safe return of all U.S. prisoners of war.

By the end of the year, North Vietnam had kept its end of the bargain: it had released hundreds of American POWs in Operation Homecoming, a repatriation effort that was subject to intense U.S. and international scrutiny and that featured gaunt but exhilarated American soldiers being greeted with open arms by their miniskirted wives—one of the few endearing images of the entire war.

Along with committing to withdraw his troops, Nixon had also promised that the U.S. "will contribute to healing the wounds of war and to postwar reconstruction throughout the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and throughout Indochina." In a secret letter to Hanoi, Nixon went a step further, estimating that "the United States contribution to postwar reconstruction will fall in the range of $3.25 billion of grant aid over five years." Nixon also promised to pay "$1 billion to $1.5 billion depending on food and other commodity needs of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam." The cash was to arrive in Hanoi free of political strings.

As Franklin argues convincingly in his book, Nixon never had any intention of keeping those promises. He sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to a 1973 meeting with the Vietnamese armed not just with the secret letter promising to help Vietnam rebuild, but also with a list of 80 "discrepancy" cases—MIAs who were not included in Operation Homecoming but who were still officially listed in U.S. war records as having been captured.

Nixon's message: Vietnam needed to help find or otherwise account for the 80 missing American servicemen if it wanted any money. The only problem was that North Vietnam had actually released more American prisoners during Operation Homecoming than U.S. intelligence sources even knew it possessed. That left the Pentagon with only 56 so-called "discrepancy" cases. Yet Kissinger's list included a total of 80 names.

In 1976, Roger Shields, the Pentagon chief for MIA programs during the Paris peace talks, admitted under oath before a Senate select committee hearing that U.S. officials had included on that list several servicemen who had been killed in action and whose identities North Vietnam therefore could never have known.

To this day, the U.S. has yet to pay a penny in war reparations to Vietnam, with the official justification that Vietnam has failed to provide adequate accounting for Nixon's missing U.S. service personnel—thus making the country ineligible for American aid on humanitarian grounds. "These were cases that the U.S. government knew the Vietnamese had no information for," Franklin asserted. "This was a list of cases that could never be resolved. It was designed to do exactly that."

After Nixon's shenanigans, the notion that American prisoners were held in tiger cages after the war received its greatest boost from the administration of President Ronald Reagan—whose policy stated "it would be irresponsible to rule out the possibility that live Americans are being held"—and a simultaneous series of Hollywood action films. Throughout the 1980s, American audiences were treated to a barrage of images of heroic U.S. POWs enslaved at the hands of leering Vietnamese thugs in such patriotic, spine-tingling bloodbaths as Uncommon Valor, Rambo and Missing in Action. The conclusion of each movie involved the hero—either Gene Hackman, Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris—returning from Vietnam with a chopper full of grizzled POWs.

By contrast, actual efforts to locate alleged POW camps in Southeast Asia have failed to turn up a single American prisoner. By far the most colorful of these missions took place in the 1980s, when a former U.S. Green Beret lieutenant colonel named James "Bo" Gritz led a series of U.S.-sponsored raids into Laos, beginning in 1982. A true believer in the POW cause, Gritz wrote in his 1991 book Called to Serve that he received U.S. National Security Council (NSC) backing for an ill-fated POW hunt that took place in 1987 in Burma's heroin-rich Golden Triangle.

According to Gritz, the POW mission originated in the Reagan administration. In a 1996 interview with the Weekly, Gritz said he received a tip from an NSC official that a Burmese warlord named Khun Sa had information on the whereabouts of at least one POW camp that held live Americans. Gritz spent weeks roaming the Burmese jungle before deciding that his team was being used by the U.S. government as a propaganda tool to harass Khun Sa, who, Gritz quickly discovered, had no knowledge of any American POWs.

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