Sydney Schanberg has an illustrious journalistic career going back to the Vietnam War. But in peddling the story of an alleged high-level cover-up of U.S. prisoners of war said to have been left behind after the war, he has inexplicably swallowed one of history’s spectacular frauds. Schanberg’s article incorporates deceptions that have built this political myth, which has been successfully exploited by ambitious and unprincipled figures for decades.

Schanberg failed to do what any responsible journalist investigating the issue would have done, which is to do enough research to verify the outrageous claims made by those who have advocated this conspiratorial view. He substituted personal conviction for careful spade work.

The centerpiece of Schanberg’s story is the famous document from the Soviet archives, in which a senior North Vietnamese general named Tran Van Quang allegedly said in 1972 that there were 1,205 American prisoners of war, not the 591 handed over after the war. Schanberg informs readers—not once but three times—that Quang told the politburo that Hanoi “would keep many of them at war’s end as leverage to ensure getting war reparations from Washington.”

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.

But it doesn’t even matter if the document is authentic or not because, contrary to Schanberg’s claims, it says nothing at all about holding POWs after the war. Instead, it simply states, accurately, the public stance of North Vietnam on the issue of returning prisoners as of September 1972, which was to refuse to agree to the release of U.S. prisoners in return for an (incomplete) U.S. military withdrawal, as was being proposed by the Nixon administration. Rather, the North insisted that the prisoners be released only after a complete settlement was reached, including both military and political elements. As “Gen. Quang” is quoted in the document as saying:

We still have among us Comrades who think: why do we keep these POWs and not take advantage of the Nixon proposals? Do we really want to resolve this matter after all? It needs to be noted that such a point of view is profoundly mistaken. This is not political horse-trading but rather an important and serious argument for successful resolution of the Vietnam problem. …We firmly hold to our position—when the American government resolves the political and military issues on all three fronts of Indochina, we will set free all American POWs.

I must assume that Schanberg never read the document that is central to his case. Otherwise, I am at a loss to understand how he could have concluded that it provides evidence of an intent to use POWs to obtain aid after the war was over.

Schanberg also claims that during the peace negotiations with Henry Kissinger, the North Vietnamese negotiators “tied the prisoner issue tightly to the issue of reparations.” But that, too, is phony history. There was no North Vietnamese linkage at any time during the talks. 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. As a consultant to the House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia, I accompanied the first official postwar U.S. delegation to Hanoi in January 1976. Had it intended to use POWs as leverage on postwar reconstruction aid, this was the time for Hanoi to signal to the delegation that it had found evidence of more POWs and was ready to release them once the aid issue was resolved.

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.”

The only thing Schanberg can cite in support of his conviction that Hanoi was hoping to get money for live POWs is Reagan administration national security adviser Richard Allen’s claim that an unidentified third country had passed on an offer of 50 POWs in return for $4 billion in 1981. No other official—intelligence, State, or Defense—has ever suggested that there was any such offer, and Allen later said it didn’t happen. We are asked to believe the absurd notion that, after nine years of silence about its secret stash of POWs, Hanoi decided that the Reagan administration was the perfect partner to do a deal on live POWs for cash.

Schanberg also butchers the history of Vietnamese prisoner release after the war with the French. He writes, “Hanoi … appears to have held back prisoners—just as it had done when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and withdrew their forces from Vietnam. In that case, France paid ransoms for prisoners and brought them home.” Schanberg apparently got that idea from MIA activist literature and never bothered to check the historical record. It is very clear: what the French paid for was the maintenance of French military cemeteries in Vietnam. When President Richard Nixon falsely claimed in July 1972 that French POWs had been held by the Vietnamese long after the Indochina War, the French government promptly issued a statement saying, “We consider the last French prisoners to have been returned by the North Vietnamese less than three months after the conclusion of the Geneva agreements in 1954.”

Schanberg didn’t even bother to look into the actual figures on the investigation of reports of live sightings of U.S. POWs after the war, on which he puts so much credence. When the first detailed examination of the reports was made public in 1983, it showed that of 526 claims by refugees to have seen U.S. prisoners in Indochina, more than half had turned out to have been sightings of Americans who had already been released, and 54 were known or suspected fabrications. Of the remaining 190, there were only 21 reports from people who claimed they saw individuals who they knew were Americans clearly being held prisoner, and for whom there was not already an accounting. Those 21 individuals had been given polygraph tests, and 19 of those tests indicated deception, while two were inconclusive. 
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Gareth Porter is an investigative journalist and historian specializing in national security policy and author of Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam. He was a consultant to the House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia in 1975-76.

See also

Ron Unz: How I met the real John McCain

Sydney Schanberg: My four-decade fight to report the truth

Peter Richardson: Why small media breaks the big stories

Andrew J. Bacevich: Will Iraq be forgotten as well?

John LeBoutillier: How the D.C. media covers for the establishment

Alexander Cockburn: Sometimes conspiracy theories are true.

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