U.S. to press Vietnam to explain POW document

April 13, 1993|By R. W. Apple Jr. | R. W. Apple Jr.,New York Times News Service

WASHIGNTON — WASHINGTON -- The White House promised yesterday that a presidential envoy would press Vietnam next week for an explanation of a previously secret document suggesting that Hanoi held 1,205 U.S. prisoners of war in 1972, three times more than it admitted then or later.

The document, found in January by an American researcher in the archives of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow, could prove politically explosive if it is authentic, because it suggests that more than 600 American prisoners were killed, died of natural causes or remain in Vietnamese hands.

Only 591 prisoners were released by Hanoi under the peace agreement with the United States, the last on April 1, 1973, and Hanoi has denied holding any more.

Some details in the document, a Russian translation of a report by Gen. Tran Van Quang, the deputy chief of staff of the North Vietnamese army, appear to call its authenticity into question. It speaks, for example, of three prisoners of war who had undergone astronaut training; available records do not show the loss of such pilots.

But other details seem to match the historical record. For example, the document says that at the time, Hanoi had admitted to holding only 368 prisoners; that was the number proffered to U.S. negotiators in 1972.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, was one of the Soviet experts who told the document's discoverer, Stephen J. Morris of Harvard University, that he thought it was authentic.

Mr. Brzezinski said yesterday after studying the document that although he had no concrete evidence, he believed that "the great likelihood is that the Vietnamese took hundreds of American officers out and shot them in cold blood, in a massacre like the one in the Katyn woods."

In the Katyn massacre in 1940, more than 4,500 Polish officers were slain in a forest near Smolensk. Their bodies were discovered by the Nazi invaders in April 1943, and Mikhail S. Gorbachev admitted in 1990 that the Soviet secret police had been responsible.

The Clinton administration received a copy of the document from Moscow only on Thursday, officials said, and they have not fully analyzed it. Dee Dee Myers, the White House spokeswoman, said it would be discussed with Vietnamese leaders by John W. Vessey, a retired Army general who will visit Hanoi next week. Some officials suggested that Mr. Vessey's trip had been slightly delayed because of the need to explore the document's implications.

Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., who headed a Senate committee that issued an inconclusive report on prisoners of war in January, said: "If this thing is really accurate, and really shows that the Vietnamese held that many American prisoners, it is a very powerful document. It is the smoking gun."

In a telephone interview from his office in Boston, Mr. Kerry questioned whether all of the 1,205 prisoners mentioned in the document were really Americans, or whether some of them might have been Lao, Thai or Korean and lumped in with the Americans because they were allies of the Americans. He also expressed concern about the ranks attributed to the prisoners.

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