Report shows Hanoi duplicity on POWs '72 paper cites 1,205 prisoners, not 368 claimed

April 12, 1993|By Celestine Bohlen | Celestine Bohlen,New York Times News Service

MOSCOW -- A document described as a top-secret report written by a senior North Vietnamese general and delivered to the Communist Party Politburo in Hanoi in September 1972 says that North Vietnam was holding 1,205 U.S. prisoners of war at a time when North Vietnamese officials were saying that the number was only 368.

A copy of the report was recently discovered in the archives of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow.

The report, which has been authenticated by leading experts and has been circulated among U.S. government officials, is being called by some of those experts a "smoking gun" that proves Hanoi has been withholding information about the fate of U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam.

Discovered in January by a Harvard University researcher, the document gives a detailed account of 1,205 prisoners held in 11 North Vietnamese prisons in the fall of 1972, at a time when peace talks were under way in Paris.

The author of the report, Gen. Tran Van Quang, then deputy chief of staff of the North Vietnamese army, said in the document:

"1,205 American prisoners of war located in the prisons of North Vietnam -- this is a big number. Officially, until now, we published a list of only 368 prisoners of war, the rest we have not revealed.

"The government of the U.S.A. knows this well, but it does not know the exact number of prisoners of war, and can only make guesses based on its losses. That is why we are keeping the number of prisoners of war secret, in accordance with the Politburo's instructions."

Several months later, under the peace agreement between North Vietnam and the United States, 591 prisoners of war were released from North Vietnamese prisons. When the last of those prisoners were freed on April 1, 1973, Hanoi said that no more U.S. prisoners were left in Vietnam -- an assertion that it has maintained ever since.

But the Sept. 12, 1972, report suggests that North Vietnam was either withholding prisoners after the peace agreement was reached or, if the prisoners were no longer alive, knew about their fate.

"On the basis of this, we can conclude that more than 700 Americans had been held back by the Vietnamese at the time of Operation Homecoming," said Stephen J. Morris, 44, a researcher for the Harvard Center for International Affairs and the Russian Research Center at Harvard, who first found the document in January.

"This is the biggest hostage-taking in the history of American foreign policy and we still don't know where the hostages are, what happened to them, if they are still alive," said Mr. Morris, who is working on his second book about the Vietnam War.

Members of a joint U.S.-Russian commission investigating the fate of other U.S. prisoners of war, captured by either the Soviet Union or its allies, say the document is authentic.

The Russian newspaper Izvestia reported Saturday that the document on the U.S. prisoners in Vietnam, along with other newly declassified material, was discussed at a recent closed meeting of the commission.

The document could complicate Hanoi's efforts to establish diplomatic relations with the United States and have Washington end its 18-year trade embargo.

The White House announced Saturday that John W. Vessey Jr. a retired general, would visit Vietnam on April 18 and 19 to assess Hanoi's cooperation in accounting for missing servicemen.

The document found in the Communist Party archives consists of a Russian translation of both General Quang's full report and a summary prepared by the Soviet Army Intelligence Agency. It is marked "Top Secret" in Russian, and on the first page of the summary it shows handwritten instructions for a "brief note . . . on the prisoners of war" to be dispatched to the Soviet Politburo.

Experts on the issue, which has haunted relatives of missing servicemen and a succession of Washington administrations, say that one element strongly suggesting that the document is authentic is the reference to the figure of 368, which was indeed the number of prisoners of war given to U.S. representatives at the Paris peace talks.

Furthermore, one congressional expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the number of 1,205 more or less corresponds to the number of prisoners the United States was expecting to see returned.

The United States still lists more than 2,200 servicemen from the Vietnam War as unaccounted for, although more than half were known to have died and their bodies not recovered. The government says the fate of the others is not known.

A Senate committee that investigated the issue reported in January that "there is no proof that United States POWs survived, but neither is there proof that all of those who did not return had died."

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