MIA issue keeps a war from ending Some families see new hope

January 12, 1993|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Staff Writer

Standing in the way of normalized U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations is Donald E. Shay. And Robert "Lefty" Brett. And George E. Tyler. And 2,261 other Americans still classified as unaccounted for 20 years after the end of the Vietnam War.

Until Vietnam satisfactorily fills in the blanks about what happened to those men, many of their families will oppose a final rapprochement between the two nations.

"It's the last remaining issue between Vietnam and the United States in terms of establishing diplomatic relations," says Frederick Z. Brown, director of Southeast Asian studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Two decades after the end of the fighting, the missing-in-action remain a formidable political and emotional barricade that prevents the Vietnam War from receding into history. Even now, as American businesses and policy analysts insist Vietnam's isolation is counter to U.S. interests, veterans groups and vocal MIA families continue to hold the line on recognition.

Nevertheless, that line is wavering. After Vietnam released 4,800 wartime photos of American soldiers as well as other archival materials last year, support grew in Congress for closer ties. President Bush took a step in that direction last month by allowing American companies to open offices in Vietnam.

And this week, a special Senate committee is expected to evaluate Vietnam's cooperation on the MIA issue and possibly make a recommendation on normalization of relations. The committee, which has been investigating the MIA/POW issue for a year, reportedly will conclude that Americans were likely left behind at the end of the war, but there is only a slim chance any are alive there now.

The flurry of activity has left some Maryland families of MIAs in a state between optimism and extreme wariness of an old enemy. (The Department of Defense lists 35 Marylanders among the MIA.)

"Vietnam has a long history of promising and not delivering and ** playing with the media and with people's emotions," says Christopher Vogt of Columbia, whose father, Cmdr. Leonard F. Vogt, was lost with his plane over the Gulf of Tonkin in 1965. "That's still going on. Opening up archives and museums is a big step but only a first step."

To the families of the MIAs, Vietnam's recent yearning for recognition is the only leverage to force answers they've been seeking for at least two decades. While many families accept the notion of incremental rewards for Vietnam's cooperation, most of those who remain politically active are opposed to full normalization of relations.

"It's a bribe thing all the way, and it's the only way you can get them to act," says Sara Frances Shay of Linthicum, whose son, Capt. Donald E. Shay, a flight navigator, did not return from a photo reconnaissance mission in 1970. "A lot of people say, 'Lift the embargo and you'll get everything you want.' You can't convince me of that."

But increasingly, voices are being raised suggesting that the MIA issue stands in the way of America's real interests. "It is patently absurd," Mr. Brown, of Johns Hopkins, wrote last year, "to deny U.S. businesses access to fresh trade and investment prospects in Vietnam on political grounds that are outmoded and in effect hostile to our national interest."

In fact, the American demands on Vietnam, some now say, are unprecedented and impossible to achieve under modern warfare. No such demands were ever made, for example, on America's World War II enemies even though 79,000 American soldiers are still classified as missing from that war.

In a new book, H. Bruce Franklin,a professor of American studies at Rutgers University, argues that there never has been credible evidence that Americans remained alive in southeast Asia very long after the war. In particular, he attacks the Department of Defense's emphasis on 10 cases -- those in which Americans were known to be captured but never accounted for after the war. In all those cases, Dr. Franklin presents evidence that the men died in captivity or during escape.

Dr. Franklin also believes that Vietnam cannot be expected to account for every missing person. "Vietnam has done more to help the U.S. to find the missing than any country in history," Dr. Franklin says. "The fact of the matter is that they don't have the answers."

That is an assertion that many MIA families categorically reject. In fact, many take the recent release of documents by Vietnam as proof that evidence was previously withheld. If Vietnam genuinely had wanted to resolve the issue, many ask, why didn't they disclose the information earlier?

"Vietnam has not cooperated to the extent it should and if the United States gives in, it never will get the answers," says Mrs. Shay, who has been active in the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia since her son's disappearance.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.