By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Destroyed in a day
The committee staffers, digging deeper, discovered that the files had not been destroyed one by one, but all at the same time. And his purge occurred not during the war but in 1975, two years after the American military role had ended with the Paris peace accords. "It was bullshit. They destroyed them all on one day," said one source.
The staffers also determined that the Pentagon's story that the only files destroyed were those of men who had been declared Killed in action/Body not recovered did not stand up under examination. A number of men who had been written off in that category were, to the Pentagon's surprise, among those prisoners returned in 1973. Their files had not only not been destroyed before 1973, but they are still kept by the Pentagon. Also, the files of men who were known definitively to have died in captivity were never destroyed. Their files, too, still exist.
Thus, astonishingly, the only files the Pentagon destroyed were those of men who were still missing in action and unaccounted for after 1973 and thus could have been some of the men held back by Hanoi, men who could possibly be prisoners to this day.
Hiding its dishonor?
Unless the Pentagon was trying to hide its dishonor over leaving men behind, why would it destroy the files of men still unaccounted for and preserve files of men who have returned? Remember, the sole reason such records were maintained in the first place was to help verify the existence of prisoners and get them back.
"The destruction of those files was devastating," said a source, "because it wiped out any ability to confirm the authenticity of any coded letters or messages that might have come out since 1973 or might come out in the future." In short, if a POW tried to signal his existence now, using such coded messages, it would be useless.
Nixon and Kissinger
What could explain this shameful pattern of behavior, spanning six presidencies breaking faith with those who went to battle believing their country would do everything for them if they were taken prisoner?
For the answers one has to go back 21 years, to the days when President Richard Nixon, desperate to get out of Vietnam and besieged by the expanding Watergate scandal, instructed Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser and chief negotiator with North Vietnam at the Paris peace talks, to do whatever was necessary to end the longest war in our history.
Thus, on January 27, 1973, the United States and North Vietnam signed the peace agreement. And, on that day, the North Vietnamese gave the United States their list of American prisoners. It showed only 591 men a figure far below what U.S. Intelligence had expected. But what could be done? The agreement had been signed, and neither the American public nor Congress, weary to the bone with this war, would countenance a resumption of the conflict. Two months after the signing, Hanoi released the last of the 591 men and Nixon went on national television and said, "All of our American POWs are on their way home."
It is now unshakably clear, from a mass of evidence, that Nixon knew this was not true. Several of his key appointees notably, Defense Secretaries Melvin Laird, Elliot Richardson, and James Schlesinger testified under oath at Senate hearings that they were convinced by the intelligence data before them that a number of men were not returned. That intelligence, and a flood of data since unearthed, shows that the number was in the hundreds.
Schlesinger, when he testified, was asked why Nixon would have accepted this. He replied, "One must assume that we had concluded that the bargaining position of the United States ... was quite weak. We were anxious to get our troops out and we were not going to roll the waters..."
Then he was asked a very simple question: "In your view, did we leave men behind?"
'Some were left behind'
"I think that, as of now", replied the former defense secretary and C.I.A. chief. "That I can come to no other conclusion, senator ... Some were left behind." The intelligence data also makes clear that Hanoi's motive for holding back prisoners was ransom. The North Vietnamese kept them as pawns to extract from Washington the reparations money they believed they had been promised by Nixon and Kissinger. Indeed, a letter from Nixon to Hanoi's Prime Minister, Pham Van Dong, pledged $3.25 billion over five years in "reconstruction" aid plus another "one to 1.5 billion dollars ... on food and other commodity needs." Though that letter was written on February 1, 1973, just days after the peace accords were concluded, it was kept secret for more than four years.
Both Nixon and Kissinger have since said that the aid was never given because Hanoi consistently violated the peace agreement. Kissinger also said, in his testimony before the Senate POW committee in 1992, that "it had been our constant position that we would never give aid to ransom our prisoners." Credible reports have surfaced over the years of Vietnamese overtures to Washington through third countries, offering to return live prisoners for that same $4 billion. The overtures, according to the reports, were either rejected or fell apart in negotiations. Official Washington refuses to provide details.