Kissinger calls a 'lie' allegation on POWs Ex-defense chiefs' testimony attacked

September 23, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Angry and indignant, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger yesterday labeled a "flat-out lie" suggestions that he or then-President Nixon deliberately abandoned American prisoners in a scramble to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam in 1973.

If any Americans were held by communist forces when the war ended, Mr. Kissinger said, the blame must be placed on the "cold-hearted rulers in Hanoi" who violated the peace agreement and failed to account fully for scores of U.S. servicemen who were missing in action or captured.

"No administration official knew that there were live Americans kept in Indochina," Mr. Kissinger testified under oath. "American prisoners may have been kept in Vietnam by a treacherous enemy in violation of agreements and human decency. But no one was left there by the deliberate act or negligent omission of any American official."

But he acknowledged that the U.S. government never received a satisfactory accounting from the North Vietnamese of all Americans listed as missing in action in the war.

His testimony came a day after two former secretaries of defense under Mr. Nixon, Melvin R. Laird and James R. Schlesinger, told Senate investigators that they believed that some Americans remained in captivity in Indochina -- with U.S. government knowledge -- when Mr. Nixon announced in late March 1973 that all U.S. POWs were coming home.

Mr. Kissinger brushed off their statements, saying neither Mr. Schlesinger nor Mr. Laird raised the issue with him at the time of the secret peace negotiations that led to the withdrawal of U.S. military forces.

To make the case further against any duplicity on the administration's part, Mr. Kissinger noted that Mr. Nixon had acknowledged in his 1973 speech that some problems remained in getting Hanoi to account for all Americans listed as missing.

Under steady questioning, Mr. Kissinger said: "My present gut feeling is that no prisoners were left behind in Vietnam, but that probably some prisoners were left behind in Laos; but I'm not dogmatic about this."

In a related development, the committee was expected to seek written statements or depositions from all four living former presidents -- Messrs. Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan -- to determine whether they can shed light on the continuing POW-MIA controversy.

The Department of Defense still lists 2,666 men as unaccounted for since the end of the war. But of that total, only 135 are considered high-priority cases involving servicemen who were believed to have been captured but were never released or declared dead.

Under the agreement negotiated by Mr. Kissinger, North Vietnam freed 591 American prisoners of war in early 1973.

Mr. Kissinger challenged the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs, claiming that he and other peace negotiators were "being pilloried by leaks from this inquiry without a shred of evidence" for allegedly neglecting American captives in their haste to end the war.

Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the committee and a Vietnam veteran who later became a leading anti-war activist, rejected Mr. Kissinger's criticism of the Senate inquiry.

Navy Lt. Ronald Dodge, he told Mr. Kissinger, was forced to eject from his jet over Laos and radioed another pilot from the ground that he was in danger of capture. A photograph of Lieutenant Dodge, in the hands of enemy troops, was published in a French magazine in September 1967, Mr. Kerry noted.

"To this day we don't know what happened to him, and that's why we're here," he told Mr. Kissinger.

The committee made public a document, recently declassified by the Pentagon, that indicated that Mr. Kissinger was weighing the 1972 U.S. election in discussing the outlook for negotiations with Nguyen Van Thieu, then president of South Vietnam.

"I thought at first it would be best to have a cease-fire as soon as possible because of our elections," Mr. Kissinger told Mr. Thieu. "But upon reflection I have decided that it is easier if we keep up the bombing through the elections. . . . Our strategy is that we are prepared to step up the military pressure on [North Vietnam] immediately, drastically and brutally one or two weeks after our election. . . .

"I don't think there will be a cease-fire," Mr. Kissinger added. "In fact, I prefer that they don't return the prisoners-of-war and that there is no cease-fire before the election."

Asked about the conversation, Mr. Kissinger said it should be understood in the context of keeping South Vietnam "in harness" with the objectives of the secret peace talks by reassuring Mr. Thieu that there would be no cease-fire with North Vietnam just to secure the return of U.S. prisoners.

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