Untimely Observations

More on the POW Cover-Up

I read both Sydney Schanberg’s McCain piece in The American Conservative and Gareth Porter’s skeptical reply. I was pretty surprised by how weak the supposed refutation is. For example, in 1993 Harvard researcher Stephen Morris, while looking through a Moscow archive, dug up a transcript from a briefing General Tran Van Quang gave to the Vietnamese politburo four months before the final peace deal signed with the US. Quang reported that 1,205 Americans were being held at the time and even after the peace accords were agreed to, some would be kept in captivity in order to be used as bargaining chips in the quest for war reparations.  Only 591 were released.  Porter calls this the “centerpiece” of the anti-McCain case though it looks to me as one piece of evidence among nine others -- the majority of which he doesn’t address -- that are just as or more compelling.  The skeptic asserts

Many of the document’s figures, such as the numbers of officers of different U.S. ranks held, are so seriously inaccurate as to bring its authenticity into question. For example, it uses the term “prisoners of war” to refer to the U.S. servicemen held—a designation that the Vietnamese Communists never employed—and combines the powerful South Vietnamese corps commander Gen. Ngo Dzu and the powerless peace candidate Truong Dinh Dzu into a single composite political figure.

Now, this was a document that was translated twice, from Vietnamese to Russian (?) to English.  Actually, three times, because when the Vietnamese asked "what's your rank?" they translated the answers into their own language, too!  It’s not surprising that some of the numbers of different ranks held in captivity might be off.  Is it likely that in each of these three languages, the words for different army ranks translate perfectly and would have been captured flawlessly through each translation?

And when General Quang was referring to the Americans in captivity, he obviously would’ve uttered a word which meant something close to “POW” even if Porter argues that the Vietnamese never used the exact term.  Whatever they said, it probably became POW going to Russian or English.  The two Dzus might have become smushed into one person over the course of the conversation between Quang and the politicians or by one of the translators.

Finally, the author doesn’t address Schanberg’s point that nobody in 1995 had the incentive to forge such a document.

Porter accompanied the House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia to Hanoi in 1976 and says that Vietnamese didn’t mention any other POWs being held.  As a friend points out, a centralized government like Vietnam’s probably assumed that any American delegation would know about the men their government left behind.  Perhaps the hosts thought that being the first ones to directly bring the topic up would’ve involved a loss of face.

As a matter of fact, it does seem that the Vietnamese were trying to communicate something to the Americans, and the evidence is in Porter’s own article.

The North Vietnamese did try to leverage U.S. implementation of the entire agreement, including the postwar reconstruction assistance provision (Article 21). But that came in negotiations that began later in 1973, several months after the release of U.S. prisoners, and the linkage involved the North Vietnamese implementation of Article 8(b) on providing an accounting for the U.S. Missing in Action and return of remains. The Vietnamese insisted then and for many years after that on U.S. implementation of its postwar assistance obligation under the agreement as a condition for carrying out Article 8(b)...

Furthermore, after the war ended and the Nixon administration reneged on the aid pledge, Hanoi gave no hint that there could be more prisoners discovered...

Instead, as my own notes on the meeting show, Deputy Foreign Minister Phan Hien told the Committee, “We are prepared to carry out [Article 8(b)] fully if you carry out fully Article 21.”

How much more of a hint did the American delegation need?