The Vietnam War Still Hasn't Come to an End POW*MIA YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN

October 04, 1992|By ARNOLD R. ISAACS

America "can't seem to forget" the war in Vietnam, th novelist and journalist Jack Fuller wrote ten years ago, but it "doesn't know what exactly to remember," either.

"From time to time, politicians have proclaimed that we have finally put the war behind us," Mr. Fuller, who served in Vietnam, added. "But we have always proven them wrong."

Well into a new decade, and approaching a quarter-century since the height of American involvement in Vietnam and the wrenching national debate on the war, Mr. Fuller's observation still rings true.

Politicians keep attempting to lay the ghost ("The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever," President Bush proclaimed following the Persian Gulf war) only to see it reappear, like some weird and unwanted relative popping out of the country's attic to intrude on our political, cultural and emotional life.

In this year's presidential campaign, the sporadic debate over Bill Clinton's and Dan Quayle's Vietnam-era draft histories has reawakened memories not so much of the war itself, but of the sharp rifts it helped create between generations and between Americans of different social classes.

It has been largely obscured in the racket of partisan rhetoric, but surely the cogent truth is that however they managed it, both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Quayle escaped going to Vietnam, along with the vast majority of their contemporaries who had comparable educational and social standing, while the fighting was largely left to young men without college degrees who were drafted out of farms or working-class or poor neighborhoods.

(One suspects that those who were caught on the wrong side of that divide know perfectly well that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Quayle were together on the opposite side -- Mr. Quayle's claim to have "worn the uniform" notwithstanding -- which may explain why the issue has so far seemed to have so little effect on voters' decisions.)

With the Clinton draft story still filling the front pages, a different sort of Vietnam echo sounded last month from Washington, where a number of former Nixon administration officials agreed (and Henry A. Kissinger vehemently denied) that the United States might indeed have abandoned American prisoners when the final U.S. military withdrawal occurred in 1973.

The facts remained hazy -- more so because the disputed cases hark back to the secrecy-shrouded war in Laos, where both the United States and the Vietnamese Communists carried on combat for many years while officially denying their involvement.

The U.S. bombing campaign in Laos (which went on uninterruptedly from 1964 to 1973, surely the longest major air offensive ever carried out) and the presence of sizable North Vietnamese forces were both open secrets, widely reported in the press. But while the broad outlines of the war could not be successfully concealed, details were hard to come by -- and still are.

False cover stories were regularly employed, even in internal government documents, to avoid acknowledging the scope and exact nature of U.S. military actions in Laos.

For that reason, a good deal of the information in official records, including information about American casualties, is ambiguous or suspect, making even more difficult the task of establishing just what did happen to the several hundred airmen lost 20 or more years ago over the steep mountains and thickly jungled valleys of a remote and undeveloped land.

At issue, of course, is not just the question of what may have happened to the missing men but what the American government knew at the time, and whether there were strong enough doubts to call for a different U.S. response at the time of the POW release in early 1973.

Appearing before the Senate Select Committee on POWs/MIAs -- latest in a long line of congressional panels to investigate the issue of missing Americans in Southeast Asia -- two former Nixon administration defense secretaries, Melvin Laird and James R. Schlesinger, acknowledged the government did have grounds to suspect some prisoners may have been left in Laos. (If so, it remains unclear why they or other senior officials, including top military commanders, kept silent at the time.)

The next day Mr. Kissinger, President Nixon's chief adviser and negotiator on Vietnam, furiously disputed his former colleagues, denying that any prisoners were abandoned "by the deliberate act or negligent omission of any American official."

Mr. Kissinger, his bass voice throbbing with indignation, was the picture of an outraged man of honor -- a part he has played many times before -- but his posturing was not entirely convincing to a Washington that has come to be somewhat skeptical about Mr. Kissinger's honesty or candor.

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