Facing up to the dirty secret of Vietnam

June 22, 1995|By Sydney H. Schanberg

YES, IT'S time to restore diplomatic relations with Vietnam.

And it's also time to tell Americans the whole truth about the prisoners of war who didn't come home.

For more than 20 years, Hanoi and Washington have sought to suppress the shameful secret that not all the American POWs were returned after the peace accords were signed in early 1973. The two governments, of course, had dissimilar motives for hiding the truth, but they shared one common desire -- to save face.

A large and still-growing body of evidence shows that the Vietnamese held back prisoners in order to bargain for war reparations. As the years passed, and Hanoi's secret overtures to get the United States to pay the ransom either fell apart through bungling or were met with rejection in Washington, it became harder and harder for both sides to tell the truth.

The Vietnamese sorely wanted acceptance into the international community and the economic aid that would follow. A confession that they had held prisoners in violation of a peace treaty -- and probably executed many of them -- could, they feared, undermine Hanoi's rehabilitation and was thus shunned as a truth-telling gesture that could not be risked.

The American government faced a similar risk. How do you admit that you knew from the start that significant numbers of U.S. POWs had not been repatriated by Hanoi in 1973? And that since then you had committed yourself to obscuring, distorting, ignoring and sometimes even falsifying the evidence? The public outrage could be enormous, enough perhaps to bring down a president and all his men. As a result, six successive American presidents, from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, have chosen to deal with the issue in secret, ultimately with no result. They too could not confess to what they knew, for fear of the dishonor it could bring to them and to the nation's reputation.

So here we are, more than two decades later, with a certain and overdue need to end the Vietnam War by exchanging ambassadors, and yet still not enough backbone and character in Washington to utter a formal apology to the American people.

Cold realism dictates that we cannot expect an equivalent gesture from Hanoi, at least not at this time. But this country is a democracy. We need a public admission of the historical truth about the POWs to reduce the size of the shadow that the Vietnam War continues to cast over us.

Maybe it won't happen. Some national shames fester in closets even longer than this one. The Tuskegee scandal, for instance, was hidden for 40 years. About 400 poor black sharecroppers in Alabama with syphilis were made part of a government experiment in 1932 to study "untreated syphilis in the Negro male." Blood samples were taken regularly from the men, but none was offered any treatment. That experiment didn't come to light until 1972, when stories broke in newspapers.

It took nearly 50 years before similar exposure laid bare the government radiation tests conducted in the 1940s on people who had not given their informed consent.

The lesson is, I guess, that sometimes dirty secrets don't emerge until nearly all the participants are dead and the nation can deal with the disgrace pretty much as an abstraction. That doesn't bode well for the secrets of Vietnam. Except for Nixon, all the participating presidents are alive.

It isn't that the evidence of the POWs hasn't bubbled to the surface from time to time. But each time, the information has been quickly surrounded by the government's debunkers, who then declare it inconclusive or call it a hoax or say that the distress-signal ground markings that appeared clearly on satellite imagery were "photographic anomalies."

The press, too, joined in this chorus of the deliberately blind. At times, it seemed that everyone in the opinion industry was also too ashamed to speak the truth. For example, in 1992, three former defense secretaries from the Vietnam period -- Melvin Laird, Elliot Richardson and James Schlesinger -- all testified before a Senate committee, under oath, that American prisoners had indeed been left behind in 1973. The Washington press corps gave it one-day treatment and never brought it up again.

When the debunkers get really desperate -- that is, when revelatory documents are thrust in their faces, such as evidence that men were believed alive by intelligence officials as recently as the late 1980s -- they immediately recast the issue by demanding to know if there is proof that any captives are still alive today. No one can answer yes with certainty, but in any event it's a phony challenge.

From the beginning, there has been only one question: What happened to the men who were not returned? President Clinton can bring this secret out of hiding even as he moves to normalize relations with Vietnam.

Sydney Schanberg is a Newsday columnist.

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