Pentagon takes cautious stand on POW document

April 14, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Pentagon officials cautioned yesterday against putting too much stock in a newly unearthed document that suggests that Vietnam lied about the number of U.S. prisoners of war it held in 1972.

But advocates for the families of missing servicemen rushed to embrace the document's findings.

The authenticity of the seven-page document has become the focus of the continuing debate over the number of POWs at the end of the Vietnam War.

Pentagon officials, noting that the document is an English translation of a Russian version of what a Soviet-era note described as a Vietnamese report, said the public should not accept it until a Vietnamese version is found.

"There are a lot of questions we have about it," said Bob Hall, a Defense Department spokesman. "But until we get a chance to discuss those with the Vietnamese and raise them and try to get answers to them, it would be inappropriate for me to discuss them in public."

The report, supposedly written by Gen. Tran Van Quang, described as deputy chief of staff of the North Vietnamese army, said Hanoi held 1,205 U.S. prisoners in September 1972. In early 1973, under the terms of a peace agreement, Hanoi released 591 U.S. prisoners and has maintained ever since that no more were held.

But Vietnamese officials and representatives of groups who advocate reconciliation between Washington and Hanoi note a number of discrepancies, including an assertion that some prisoners were segregated by rank. Freed prisoners reported that officers and enlisted men were never separated.

"Our own POWs said that the Vietnamese did not classify and segregate officers from enlisted men," said John Terzano, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which seeks rapprochement between the United States and Vietnam.

But Stephen J. Morris, the Harvard researcher who found the document, said that if officers were segregated, men in other jails would not have known about them. Mr. Morris acknowledged that this contention would hold only if no segregated officers were ever released.

Differences have also arisen over the status of General Quang. Vietnamese officials said yesterday that the general was not a senior officer at the time of the report and would not have been in a position to write it.

But according to Douglas Pike, director of the Indochina Archive at the University of California at Berkeley, General Quang was deputy minister of national defense and deputy chief of staff of the army in 1974. It is not clear if he was deputy chief of staff in 1972, the date of the document. According to biographical material Mr. Pike has collected, General Quang had been a member of North Vietnam's central military party committee since 1961.

Sen. Robert C. Smith, R-N.H., the ranking member of a Senate committee on prisoners' issues, said: "It's an authentic document. There's no question about that."

Senator Smith's views reflected the sentiments expressed at a news conference on Capitol Hill by some veterans' organizations and advocates for the families of missing servicemen, who accepted the document as evidence of Vietnamese perfidy.

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