The most perplexing aspect of Ross Perot's campaign involved testimony he declined to make in public in June to Senator John Kerry's Select Committee on American POW/MIA Affairs about his views on the subject and his mysterious missions to negotiate with the Vietnamese.
Now that his presidential quest has been abandoned, Mr. Perot -- a long time champion of the POWs and lately a vociferous critic of the government's efforts on behalf of men still believed to be missing in action -- has agreed to come testify August 11, on the eve of the Republican convention. His timing could not be more provocative. The hearings may shed light on what exactly Mr. Perot discovered during his own officially sanctioned review of classified files on the POW/MIA question -- an episode that appears to have led to his now famous break with George Bush, then vice president.
Since the POW/MIA issue is uniquely inflammable, some advance disclaimers are in order. I myself have always regarded reports of POW sightings as on par with the many apparitions of Elvis, save that in the latter case, no powerful, organized interests have encouraged and circulated the claims for clearly political ends. With some qualifications that will momentarily become apparent, this remains my view: No substantial numbers of U.S. troops were left behind in Vietnam in 1973.
But to come to grips with the Bush-Perot clash one has to make a deliberate effort to see the world as others see it -- others who start from different premises and view the evidence differently.
Many sighting reports were (and are) in complete good faith. Though a fair number of charlatans -- and penniless refugees dependent on official U.S. goodwill -- have clearly moved into what quickly became an attractively remunerative field, there is no point is impugning the motives of most people who believe they saw, or heard, American POWs in Southeast Asia.
The point is less mystifying that it may seem at first hearing. Any number of Americans are likely to turn up in Indochina for perfectly comprehensible reasons. During the war, the desertion rate was phenomenal.
More important, however, the United States waged a long, secret war in Laos that it generally refused to acknowledge. Though American prisoners in Laos were supposed to be turned over in the wake of the 1973 accords, both the U.S. and the Vietnamese pretended that the Pathet Lao were not party to the accord -- as indeed, formally they were not. Though U.S. pilots who came down in Laos were rescued at higher rates than those shot down over North Vietnam, the question of prisoners taken in that pre-1973 secret war on the ground is murky.
Judging from a much quoted, but very cryptic remark by General Vernon Walters, some American covert forces may also have been captured in Cambodia. And a wide variety of missions, including some formally sponsored by the U.S. government and others funded by various private American groups, have operated on the ground since.
Adding to the turmoil, Chinese intelligence is widely believed to have promoted reports of prisoner sightings to prevent rapprochement between the United States and Vietnam, with which China has been intermittently at war.
The recent hearings before the Kerry committee clouded this already turbid picture still more. Some stunning testimony was placed in the record to indicate that back in 1973 American officials suspected that some prisoners might be missing, but did not want to talk about it.
(It should be borne in mind that a host of perfectly sensible reasons exist for the existence of discrepancies between reported captures and, actual apprehensions and that the number of people unaccounted for in Vietnam was unusually low compared to other conflicts. The U.S. government has also repeatedly run together the inevitably large number of MIAs whose demises are virtually certain, but which fail the stringent requirements for being officially reported as killed in combat, with POWs, thus grossly inflating the number of potential POWs.)
A particularly striking portion of the testimony in June of this year has implications for Mr. Perot's early views about the controversy, and accordingly, is worth quoting. The interlocutors are the committee chair, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Roger Shields, formerly a Pentagon official in charge of the Nixon administration's efforts to account for MIAs.
The Chairman: You recall going to see [then Deputy] Secretary of Defense William Clements in his office in early April  . . . correct?
Dr. Shields: That's correct.
The Chairman: And you heard him tell you, quote, all the American POWs are dead. And you said to him, "You cannot say that."
Dr. Shields: That's correct.
The Chairman: And he repeated to you, "You did not hear me. They are all dead."
Dr. Shields: That's essentially correct.