The Quest for MIAs

September 25, 1992

There is a frightful disconnection between the possibility that prisoners of war remain alive in Indochina and the hearings before the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs on whether the Nixon administration knowingly abandoned any +V missing in action in 1973.

The best possible search for living MIAs will shed no light on history. The strongest evidence of what members of the Nixon administration knew, believed, suspected or feared in March 1973 will not guide any searcher today.

While Vietnam has welcomed American official and unofficial searchers, the effective way to search would be in the context of normalized relations with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia -- with full cooperation from their governments negotiated into the agreements. The more American officials are in place to pursue every lead, the more likely the recurring stories of phantom sightings can be confirmed or refuted.

For its part, Vietnam's communist regime is broke and desperate for improved relations and appears to be cooperating. It has nothing to gain from withholding prisoners or information. It did seek "aid" that was ransom in the mid-'70s, but then backed down. Normalization was then negotiated, but called off by the ++ Carter administration, which decided to normalize with China instead, believing it could not do both. That reason, whether valid or not then, is not relevant today.

Many of the recurring tales of living Americans relate to Laos or Cambodia. The Nixon administration had difficulties dealing with them because it did not admit to the warfare it waged there. Vernon A. Walters, as former deputy director of central intelligence, testified to his belief that the Pathet Lao and Khmer Rouge murdered their prisoners.

The drama before the committee is the stuff for historians to sort out from documents not yet made public, but all the more intense because former officials still in public or business life are fighting their memories, each other and the committee in defense of their reputations.

Winston Lord, a former National Security Council aide, testified that the Nixon administration continued the U.S. withdrawal because American public opinion insisted, while knowing of "disturbing discrepancies" in the prisoner lists as servicemen were being released. Former Defense Secretaries James R. Schlesinger and Melvin Laird suggested the White House had evidence some Americans were left behind in Laos. Former National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger branded as "a flat-out lie" the allegation that the administration knew that.

It is fascinating stuff, but does not help the anguished relatives of American men missing in action. What they want is their kin back alive, and if that is impossible, the remains or accurate information. The Senate select committee is not helping them. ,, Only full diplomatic relations could.


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