Senator Goes Missing

Where are the soldiers? The issue the press never asks McCain about.

If you recall none of these events, you are forgiven. The press made little of them. The Schlesinger-Laird testimony, for instance, was a one-day story and, in The New York Times, it wasn't even the lead of the article. The Washington press corps never pursued the story further.

In 1993, a document surfaced from Soviet archives. Its heading said it was a report delivered late in the war by a senior North Vietnamese general, Tran Van Quang, to members of Hanoi's Communist Party Central Committee. In it, Quang said the army was holding 1,205 American prisoners—614 more than the 591 who were returned. He said only some of them would be handed over initially after a peace treaty. The rest, he said, would be secretly held for leverage until Hanoi received reconstruction reparations for the heavily bombed country. The Pentagon immediately called it a forgery, a plant, but offered slim evidence. The Russian archivists said flatly that it was an authentic document.

As far as we know, Hanoi never received any reparations money. The U.S. said its firm policy was never to ransom prisoners; this claim may or may not be true. No serious effort has been made by Washington or the press to investigate the mystery of the Quang document.

A ransom demand was made to the U.S. in the early days of the Reagan administration, according to sworn testimony to the P.O.W. committee from Reagan's national security adviser, Richard Allen. He later recanted, saying his memory had played tricks on him. Both the committee and the press docilely accepted his recantation and let the story die there.

Despite all the denials and suppression of key files by McCain and others, ample evidence exists in the National Archives that men were held back by Hanoi. The press can easily use the National Archives if it chooses.

Readers interested in more information can turn to a P.O.W. story I did for the Voice last year about John Kerry's role. That piece ("When John Kerry's Courage Went M.I.A.," February 24, 2004) has links to several other pieces I've done over the years. And if you do a Google search for "Sydney Schanberg, John McCain, P.O.W.'s," you'll find a longer, more detailed story I wrote in 2000 about the specific legislation McCain has brokered to keep documents hidden and about his rationale for these laws. He says, unconvincingly, that it's better for the military and the nation if these documents are closely held. He also says that while there was "evidence" of a number of prisoners not returned, there is still no "proof."

A television movie about McCain's five and a half years as a P.O.W. debuted over the Memorial Day weekend on A&E. It's called Faith of My Fathers, based on his 1999 memoir of the same name. It could become part of his campaign ammunition should he seek the presidency again in 2008.

For a man who is so candid about so many other issues, one would hope he will help us better understand his senatorial record on P.O.W.'s. And perhaps the Washington press corps will ask him about it.

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