Dưới đây là một số các bài nghiên cứu về sự kiện tù binh chiến tranh Mỹ bị bỏ rơi lại Việtnam và bị hành quyết sau hiệp đinh Paris 1973.
Những thông tin mới nhất liên quan đến chiến tranh Việt Nam. Những thông tin thuộc loại chấn động này đã bị dấu kín hàng bao năm sau cuộc chiến VN (1973) nhất là việc TRAO TRẢ TÙ BINH MỸ theo hiệp định đình chiến Paris 1973 mà trong đó, theo bản tường trình và ký kết chính thức từ cả hai phía Mỹ và Việt Cộng- rằng TẤT CẢ TÙ BINH ĐÃ ĐƯỢC TRAO TRẢ ĐẦY ĐỦ. Việt Nam không lưu giữ cầm tù bất cứ lính Mỹ nào sau 1973.
Nhưng sự thật đã khác hẳn! Cuộc điều tra của một số ký giả, nghiên cứu sử liệu Mỹ sau này, đặc biệt Sydney Schanberg đã chứng minh với đủ chứng cớ văn bản rằng phía Việt Nam (VC) và Mỹ đều biết họ đã nói dối dân chúng về cuộc ký kết hiệp định; và sự thật rằng còn hơn một ngàn lính Mỹ bị Việt cộng giữ lại làm con tin để sau đó đòi Mỹ trả tiền chuộc cho số tù binh này, giống như Việt cộng đã từng làm như thế với Pháp sau hiệp định Geneve 1954 sau trận Điện Biên Phủ, và hơn nữa với hy vọng dùng số tù binh này mặc cả với Mỹ về số tiền bồi thường chiến tranh…Nhưng chính phủ Mỹ đã “ngoan cố” không chịu chi trả tiền chuộc như Pháp đã làm sau 1954, vì chính phủ Mỹ sợ bẽ mặt với quần chúng nếu như số tù binh này về lại được Mỹ thì mọi việc gian dối sẽ đổ bể! Hậu quả là những tù bình này tồn tại lầm lũi sống nơi các trại tù Việtnam sau 1975, một số chết vì bệnh tật, tra tấn, đuối sức v,v Một bị chuyển đến Sô Viết để bị khai thác….
Cho đến khi có cuộc “bình thường hóa quan hệ bang giao” giữa Mỹ và Việt Nam thì con số tù binh sống sót còn lại của hơn một ngàn tù binh “vô danh, vô thừa nhận” này bị chính phủ Việt Nam đem ra hành quyết, giết sạch để bịt miệng và hủy chứng tích với sự mặc nhiên đồng tình và làm ngơ của nhà nước Mỹ! Mỉa mai thay, kẻ đứng đầu kế hoặc che dấu tội ác kinh tởm này của hai nhà nước chính phủ Việt Mỹ, lại là tên “anh hùng quân đội cụu tù bình- thượng nghị sĩ John McCain!
Tất cả tội ác kinh tởm này chỉ để “giữ thể diện cho NHÀ NƯỚC CHÍNH PHỦ HAI BÊN VIỆT MỸ trong mục tiêu xóa sổ tất cả những “khúc mắc”, “chướng ngại”. và “dấu tích gian dối” cho tiến trình bình thường hóa quan hệ Việt Mỹ trong kế hoặch tái lập con đường quay lại Á Châu của Mỹ (Asia Pivot).
” Trong một buổi tường trình riêng, những nhân viên cao cấp của CIA đã nói với tôi (Sydney Schanberg) rằng hàng năm trời trôi qua và số tiền bồi thường chiến tranh (tiền chuộc lính Mỹ) đã chẳng bao giờ gửi đến. Việc càng ngày càng trở nên khó khăn cho cả hai bên chính phủ muốn thú nhận rằng họ đã biết ngay từ đầu vê số tù binh (mỹ) không được ghi nhận. Những tù bình này không những đã trở thành vô dụng trong trao đổi mặc cả mà còn tạo ra mối rửi ro nguy hại cho niềm mong ước của Hà Nội (nhà nước ViệtNam) được tái nhận vào cộng đồng quốc tế. Những quan chức CIA này nói những thông tin tình báo của họ đã cho thấy rõ ràng rằng những tù binh còn sót lại này- những người chưa chết vì bệnh tật hoặc lao lực hay tra tấn- cuối cùng đã bị hành quyết! (In a private briefing in 1992, high-level CIA officials told me that as the years passed and the ransom never came, it became more and more difficult for either government to admit that it knew from the start about the unacknowledged prisoners. Those prisoners had not only become useless as bargaining chips but also posed a risk to Hanoi’s desire to be accepted into the international community. The CIA officials said their intelligence indicated strongly that the remaining men—those who had not died from illness or hard labor or torture—were eventually executed)
John McCain and the POW Cover-Up- The “war hero” candidate buried information about POWs left behind in Vietnam.
Sydney Schanberg • The American Conservative • May 25, 2010
Eighteen months ago, TAC publisher Ron Unz discovered an astonishing account of the role the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, had played in suppressing information about what happened to American soldiers missing in action in Vietnam. Below, we present in full Sydney Schanberg’s explosive story.Sydney Schanberg
John McCain, who has risen to political prominence on his image as a Vietnam POW war hero, has, inexplicably, worked very hard to hide from the public stunning information about American prisoners in Vietnam who, unlike him, didn’t return home. Throughout his Senate career, McCain has quietly sponsored and pushed into federal law a set of prohibitions that keep the most revealing information about these men buried as classified documents. Thus the war hero who people would logically imagine as a determined crusader for the interests of POWs and their families became instead the strange champion of hiding the evidence and closing the books.
Almost as striking is the manner in which the mainstream press has shied from reporting the POW story and McCain’s role in it, even as the Republican Party has made McCain’s military service the focus of his presidential campaign. Reporters who had covered the Vietnam War turned their heads and walked in other directions. McCain doesn’t talk about the missing men, and the press never asks him about them.
The sum of the secrets McCain has sought to hide is not small. There exists a telling mass of official documents, radio intercepts, witness depositions, satellite photos of rescue symbols that pilots were trained to use, electronic messages from the ground containing the individual code numbers given to airmen, a rescue mission by a special forces unit that was aborted twice by Washington—and even sworn testimony by two Defense secretaries that “men were left behind.” This imposing body of evidence suggests that a large number—the documents indicate probably hundreds—of the U.S. prisoners held by Vietnam were not returned when the peace treaty was signed in January 1973 and Hanoi released 591 men, among them Navy combat pilot John S. McCain.
Mass of Evidence
The Pentagon had been withholding significant information from POW families for years. What’s more, the Pentagon’s POW/MIA operation had been publicly shamed by internal whistleblowers and POW families for holding back documents as part of a policy of “debunking” POW intelligence even when the information was obviously credible.
The pressure from the families and Vietnam veterans finally forced the creation, in late 1991, of a Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. The chairman was John Kerry. McCain, as a former POW, was its most pivotal member. In the end, the committee became part of the debunking machine.
One of the sharpest critics of the Pentagon’s performance was an insider, Air Force Lt. Gen. Eugene Tighe, who headed the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) during the 1970s. He openly challenged the Pentagon’s position that no live prisoners existed, saying that the evidence proved otherwise. McCain was a bitter opponent of Tighe, who was eventually pushed into retirement.
Included in the evidence that McCain and his government allies suppressed or sought to discredit is a transcript of a senior North Vietnamese general’s briefing of the Hanoi politburo, discovered in Soviet archives by an American scholar in 1993. The briefing took place only four months before the 1973 peace accords. The general, Tran Van Quang, told the politburo members that Hanoi was holding 1,205 American prisoners but would keep many of them at war’s end as leverage to ensure getting war reparations from Washington.
Throughout the Paris negotiations, the North Vietnamese tied the prisoner issue tightly to the issue of reparations. They were adamant in refusing to deal with them separately. Finally, in a Feb. 2, 1973 formal letter to Hanoi’s premier, Pham Van Dong, Nixon pledged $3.25 billion in “postwar reconstruction” aid “without any political conditions.” But he also attached to the letter a codicil that said the aid would be implemented by each party “in accordance with its own constitutional provisions.” That meant Congress would have to approve the appropriation, and Nixon and Kissinger knew well that Congress was in no mood to do so. The North Vietnamese, whether or not they immediately understood the double-talk in the letter, remained skeptical about the reparations promise being honored—and it never was. Hanoi thus appears to have held back prisoners—just as it had done when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and withdrew their forces from Vietnam. In that case, France paid ransoms for prisoners and brought them home.
In a private briefing in 1992, high-level CIA officials told me that as the years passed and the ransom never came, it became more and more difficult for either government to admit that it knew from the start about the unacknowledged prisoners. Those prisoners had not only become useless as bargaining chips but also posed a risk to Hanoi’s desire to be accepted into the international community. The CIA officials said their intelligence indicated strongly that the remaining men—those who had not died from illness or hard labor or torture—were eventually executed.
My own research, detailed below, has convinced me that it is not likely that more than a few—if any—are alive in captivity today. (That CIA briefing at the Agency’s Langley, Virginia, headquarters was conducted “off the record,” but because the evidence from my own reporting since then has brought me to the same conclusion, I felt there was no longer any point in not writing about the meeting.)
For many reasons, including the absence of a political constituency for the missing men other than their families and some veterans’ groups, very few Americans are aware of the POW story and of McCain’s role in keeping it out of public view and denying the existence of abandoned POWs. That is because McCain has hardly been alone in his campaign to hide the scandal.
The Arizona senator, now the Republican candidate for president, has actually been following the lead of every White House since Richard Nixon’s, and thus of every CIA director, Pentagon chief, and national security adviser, not to mention Dick Cheney, who was George H.W. Bush’s Defense secretary. Their biggest accomplice has been an indolent press, particularly in Washington.
An early and critical McCain secrecy move involved 1990 legislation that started in the House of Representatives. A brief and simple document, it was called “the Truth Bill” and would have compelled complete transparency about prisoners and missing men. Its core sentence reads: “[The] head of each department or agency which holds or receives any records and information, including live-sighting reports, which have been correlated or possibly correlated to United States personnel listed as prisoner of war or missing in action from World War II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam conflict, shall make available to the public all such records held or received by that department or agency.”
Bitterly opposed by the Pentagon (and thus McCain), the bill went nowhere. Reintroduced the following year, it again disappeared. But a few months later, a new measure, known as “the McCain Bill,” suddenly appeared. By creating a bureaucratic maze from which only a fraction of the documents could emerge—only records that revealed no POW secrets—it turned the Truth Bill on its head. The McCain bill became law in 1991 and remains so today. So crushing to transparency are its provisions that it actually spells out for the Pentagon and other agencies several rationales, scenarios, and justifications for not releasing any information at all—even about prisoners discovered alive in captivity. Later that year, the Senate Select Committee was created, where Kerry and McCain ultimately worked together to bury evidence.
McCain was also instrumental in amending the Missing Service Personnel Act, which had been strengthened in 1995 by POW advocates to include criminal penalties, saying, “Any government official who knowingly and willfully withholds from the file of a missing person any information relating to the disappearance or whereabouts and status of a missing person shall be fined as provided in Title 18 or imprisoned not more than one year or both.” A year later, in a closed House-Senate conference on an unrelated military bill, McCain, at the behest of the Pentagon, attached a crippling amendment to the act, stripping out its only enforcement teeth, the criminal penalties, and reducing the obligations of commanders in the field to speedily search for missing men and to report the incidents to the Pentagon.
About the relaxation of POW/MIA obligations on commanders in the field, a public McCain memo said, “This transfers the bureaucracy involved out of the [battle] field to Washington.” He wrote that the original legislation, if left intact, “would accomplish nothing but create new jobs for lawyers and turn military commanders into clerks.”
McCain argued that keeping the criminal penalties would have made it impossible for the Pentagon to find staffers willing to work on POW/MIA matters. That’s an odd argument to make. Were staffers only “willing to work” if they were allowed to conceal POW records? By eviscerating the law, McCain gave his stamp of approval to the government policy of debunking the existence of live POWs.
McCain has insisted again and again that all the evidence—documents, witnesses, satellite photos, two Pentagon chiefs’ sworn testimony, aborted rescue missions, ransom offers apparently scorned—has been woven together by unscrupulous deceivers to create an insidious and unpatriotic myth. He calls it the “bizarre rantings of the MIA hobbyists.” He has regularly vilified those who keep trying to pry out classified documents as “hoaxers,” “charlatans,” “conspiracy theorists,” and “dime-store Rambos.”
Some of McCain’s fellow captives at Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi didn’t share his views about prisoners left behind. Before he died of leukemia in 1999, retired Col. Ted Guy, a highly admired POW and one of the most dogged resisters in the camps, wrote an angry open letter to the senator in an MIA newsletter—a response to McCain’s stream of insults hurled at MIA activists. Guy wrote, “John, does this [the insults] include Senator Bob Smith [a New Hampshire Republican and activist on POW issues] and other concerned elected officials? Does this include the families of the missing where there is overwhelming evidence that their loved ones were ‘last known alive’? Does this include some of your fellow POWs?”
It’s not clear whether the taped confession McCain gave to his captors to avoid further torture has played a role in his postwar behavior in the Senate. That confession was played endlessly over the prison loudspeaker system at Hoa Lo—to try to break down other prisoners—and was broadcast over Hanoi’s state radio. Reportedly, he confessed to being a war criminal who had bombed civilian targets. The Pentagon has a copy of the confession but will not release it. Also, no outsider I know of has ever seen a non-redacted copy of the debriefing of McCain when he returned from captivity, which is classified but could be made public by McCain.
All humans have breaking points. Many men undergoing torture give confessions, often telling huge lies so their fakery will be understood by their comrades and their country. Few will fault them. But it was McCain who apparently felt he had disgraced himself and his military family. His father, John S. McCain II, was a highly regarded rear admiral then serving as commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific. His grandfather was also a rear admiral.
In his bestselling 1999 autobiography, Faith of My Fathers, McCain says he felt bad throughout his captivity because he knew he was being treated more leniently than his fellow POWs, owing to his high-ranking father and thus his propaganda value. Other prisoners at Hoa Lo say his captors considered him a prize catch and called him the “Crown Prince,” something McCain acknowledges in the book.
Also in this memoir, McCain expresses guilt at having broken under torture and given the confession. “I felt faithless and couldn’t control my despair,” he writes, revealing that he made two “feeble” attempts at suicide. (In later years, he said he tried to hang himself with his shirt and guards intervened.) Tellingly, he says he lived in “dread” that his father would find out about the confession. “I still wince,” he writes, “when I recall wondering if my father had heard of my disgrace.”
He says that when he returned home, he told his father about the confession, but “never discussed it at length”—and the admiral, who died in 1981, didn’t indicate he had heard anything about it before. But he had. In the 1999 memoir, the senator writes, “I only recently learned that the tape … had been broadcast outside the prison and had come to the attention of my father.”
Is McCain haunted by these memories? Does he suppress POW information because its surfacing would rekindle his feelings of shame? On this subject, all I have are questions.
Many stories have been written about McCain’s explosive temper, so volcanic that colleagues are loath to speak openly about it. One veteran congressman who has observed him over the years asked for confidentiality and made this brief comment: “This is a man not at peace with himself.”
He was certainly far from calm on the Senate POW committee. He browbeat expert witnesses who came with information about unreturned POWs. Family members who have personally faced McCain and pressed him to end the secrecy also have been treated to his legendary temper. He has screamed at them, insulted them, brought women to tears. Mostly his responses to them have been versions of: How dare you question my patriotism? In 1996, he roughly pushed aside a group of POW family members who had waited outside a hearing room to appeal to him, including a mother in a wheelchair.
But even without answers to what may be hidden in the recesses of McCain’s mind, one thing about the POW story is clear: if American prisoners were dishonored by being written off and left to die, that’s something the American public ought to know about.
10 Key Pieces of Evidence That Men Were Left Behind
1. In Paris, where the Vietnam peace treaty was negotiated, the United States asked Hanoi for the list of American prisoners to be returned, fearing that Hanoi would hold some prisoners back. The North Vietnamese refused, saying they would produce the list only after the treaty was signed. Nixon agreed with Kissinger that they had no leverage left, and Kissinger signed the accord on Jan. 27, 1973 without the prisoner list. When Hanoi produced its list of 591 prisoners the next day, U.S. intelligence agencies expressed shock at the low number. Their number was hundreds higher. The New York Times published a long, page-one story on Feb. 2, 1973 about the discrepancy, especially raising questions about the number of prisoners held in Laos, only nine of whom were being returned. The headline read, in part, “Laos POW List Shows 9 from U.S.—Document Disappointing to Washington as 311 Were Believed Missing.” And the story, by John Finney, said that other Washington officials “believe the number of prisoners [in Laos] is probably substantially higher.” The paper never followed up with any serious investigative reporting—nor did any other mainstream news organization.
2. Two Defense secretaries who served during the Vietnam War testified to the Senate POW committee in September 1992 that prisoners were not returned. James Schlesinger and Melvin Laird, both speaking at a public session and under oath, said they based their conclusions on strong intelligence data—letters, eyewitness reports, even direct radio contacts. Under questioning, Schlesinger chose his words carefully, understanding clearly the volatility of the issue: “I think that as of now that I can come to no other conclusion … some were left behind.” This ran counter to what President Nixon told the public in a nationally televised speech on March 29, 1973, when the repatriation of the 591 was in motion: “Tonight,” Nixon said, “the day we have all worked and prayed for has finally come. For the first time in 12 years, no American military forces are in Vietnam. All our American POWs are on their way home.” Documents unearthed since then show that aides had already briefed Nixon about the contrary evidence.
Schlesinger was asked by the Senate committee for his explanation of why President Nixon would have made such a statement when he knew Hanoi was still holding prisoners. He replied, “One must assume that we had concluded that the bargaining position of the United States … was quite weak. We were anxious to get our troops out and we were not going to roil the waters…” This testimony struck me as a bombshell. The New York Times appropriately reported it on page one but again there was no sustained follow-up by the Times or any other major paper or national news outlet.
3. Over the years, the DIA received more than 1,600 first-hand sightings of live American prisoners and nearly 14,000 second-hand reports. Many witnesses interrogated by CIA or Pentagon intelligence agents were deemed “credible” in the agents’ reports. Some of the witnesses were given lie-detector tests and passed. Sources provided me with copies of these witness reports, which are impressive in their detail. A lot of the sightings described a secondary tier of prison camps many miles from Hanoi. Yet the DIA, after reviewing all these reports, concluded that they “do not constitute evidence” that men were alive.
4. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, listening stations picked up messages in which Laotian military personnel spoke about moving American prisoners from one labor camp to another. These listening posts were manned by Thai communications officers trained by the National Security Agency (NSA), which monitors signals worldwide. The NSA teams had moved out after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and passed the job to the Thai allies. But when the Thais turned these messages over to Washington, the intelligence community ruled that since the intercepts were made by a “third party”—namely Thailand—they could not be regarded as authentic. That’s some Catch-22: the U.S. trained a third party to take over its role in monitoring signals about POWs, but because that third party did the monitoring, the messages weren’t valid.
Here, from CIA files, is an example that clearly exposes the farce. On Dec. 27, 1980, a Thai military signal team picked up a message saying that prisoners were being moved out of Attopeu (in southern Laos) by aircraft “at 1230 hours.” Three days later a message was sent from the CIA station in Bangkok to the CIA director’s office in Langley. It read, in part: “The prisoners … are now in the valley in permanent location (a prison camp at Nhommarath in Central Laos). They were transferred from Attopeu to work in various places … POWs were formerly kept in caves and are very thin, dark and starving.” Apparently the prisoners were real. But the transmission was declared “invalid” by Washington because the information came from a “third party” and thus could not be deemed credible.
5. A series of what appeared to be distress signals from Vietnam and Laos were captured by the government’s satellite system in the late 1980s and early ’90s. (Before that period, no search for such signals had been put in place.) Not a single one of these markings was ever deemed credible. To the layman’s eye, the satellite photos, some of which I’ve seen, show markings on the ground that are identical to the signals that American pilots had been specifically trained to use in their survival courses—such as certain letters, like X or K, drawn in a special way. Other markings were the secret four-digit authenticator numbers given to individual pilots. But time and again, the Pentagon, backed by the CIA, insisted that humans had not made these markings. What were they, then? “Shadows and vegetation,” the government said, insisting that the markings were merely normal topographical contours like saw-grass or rice-paddy divider walls. It was the automatic response—shadows and vegetation. On one occasion, a Pentagon photo expert refused to go along. It was a missing man’s name gouged into a field, he said, not trampled grass or paddy berms. His bosses responded by bringing in an outside contractor who found instead, yes, shadows and vegetation. This refrain led Bob Taylor, a highly regarded investigator on the Senate committee staff who had examined the photographic evidence, to comment to me: “If grass can spell out people’s names and secret digit codes, then I have a newfound respect for grass.”
6. On Nov. 11, 1992, Dolores Alfond, the sister of missing airman Capt. Victor Apodaca and chair of the National Alliance of Families, an organization of relatives of POW/MIAs, testified at one of the Senate committee’s public hearings. She asked for information about data the government had gathered from electronic devices used in a classified program known as PAVE SPIKE.
The devices were motion sensors, dropped by air, designed to pick up enemy troop movements. Shaped on one end like a spike with an electronic pod and antenna on top, they were designed to stick in the ground as they fell. Air Force planes would drop them along the Ho Chi Minh trail and other supply routes. The devices, though primarily sensors, also had rescue capabilities. Someone on the ground—a downed airman or a prisoner on a labor gang —could manually enter data into the sensor. All data were regularly collected electronically by U.S. planes flying overhead. Alfond stated, without any challenge or contradiction by the committee, that in 1974, a year after the supposedly complete return of prisoners, the gathered data showed that a person or people had manually entered into the sensors—as U.S. pilots had been trained to do—no less than 20 authenticator numbers that corresponded exactly to the classified authenticator numbers of 20 U.S. POWs who were lost in Laos. Alfond added, according to the transcript, “This PAVE SPIKE intelligence is seamless, but the committee has not discussed it or released what it knows about PAVE SPIKE.”
McCain attended that committee hearing specifically to confront Alfond because of her criticism of the panel’s work. He bellowed and berated her for quite a while. His face turning anger-pink, he accused her of “denigrating” his “patriotism.” The bullying had its effect—she began to cry.
After a pause Alfond recovered and tried to respond to his scorching tirade, but McCain simply turned away and stormed out of the room. The PAVE SPIKE file has never been declassified. We still don’t know anything about those 20 POWs.
7. As previously mentioned, in April 1993 in a Moscow archive, a researcher from Harvard, Stephen Morris, unearthed and made public the transcript of a briefing that General Tran Van Quang gave to the Hanoi politburo four months before the signing of the Paris peace accords in 1973.
In the transcript, General Quang told the Hanoi politburo that 1,205 U.S. prisoners were being held. Quang said that many of the prisoners would be held back from Washington after the accords as bargaining chips for war reparations. General Quang’s report added: “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 USA knows this well, but it does not know the exact number … 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.” The report then went on to explain in clear and specific language that a large number would be kept back to ensure reparations.
The reaction to the document was immediate. After two decades of denying it had kept any prisoners, Hanoi responded to the revelation by calling the transcript a fabrication.
Similarly, Washington—which had over the same two decades refused to recant Nixon’s declaration that all the prisoners had been returned—also shifted into denial mode. The Pentagon issued a statement saying the document “is replete with errors, omissions and propaganda that seriously damage its credibility,” and that the numbers were “inconsistent with our own accounting.”
Neither American nor Vietnamese officials offered any rationale for who would plant a forged document in the Soviet archives and why they would do so. Certainly neither Washington nor Moscow—closely allied with Hanoi—would have any motive, since the contents were embarrassing to all parties, and since both the United States and Vietnam had consistently denied the existence of unreturned prisoners. The Russian archivists simply said the document was “authentic.”
8. In his 2002 book, Inside Delta Force, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Eric Haney described how in 1981 his special forces unit, after rigorous training for a POW rescue mission, had the mission suddenly aborted, revived a year later, and again abruptly aborted. Haney writes that this abandonment of captured soldiers ate at him for years and left him disillusioned about his government’s vows to leave no men behind. “Years later, I spoke at length with a former highly placed member of the North Vietnamese diplomatic corps, and this person asked me point-blank: ‘Why did the Americans never attempt to recover their remaining POWs after the conclusion of the war?’” Haney writes. He continued, saying that he came to believe senior government officials had called off those missions in 1981 and 1982. (His account is on pages 314 to 321 of my paperback copy of the book.)
9. There is also evidence that in the first months of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1981, the White House received a ransom proposal for a number of POWs being held by Hanoi in Indochina. The offer, which was passed to Washington from an official of a third country, was apparently discussed at a meeting in the Roosevelt Room attended by Reagan, Vice President Bush, CIA director William Casey, and National Security Adviser Richard Allen. Allen confirmed the offer in sworn testimony to the Senate POW committee on June 23, 1992.
Allen was allowed to testify behind closed doors and no information was released. But a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter, Robert Caldwell, obtained the portion relating to the ransom offer and reported on it. The ransom request was for $4 billion, Allen testified. He said he told Reagan that “it would be worth the president’s going along and let’s have the negotiation.” When his testimony appeared in the Union-Tribune, Allen quickly wrote a letter to the panel, this time not under oath, recanting the ransom story and claiming his memory had played tricks on him. His new version was that some POW activists had asked him about such an offer in a meeting that took place in 1986, when he was no longer in government. “It appears,” he said in the letter, “that there never was a 1981 meeting about the return of POW/MIAs for $4 billion.”
But the episode didn’t end there. A Treasury agent on Secret Service duty in the White House, John Syphrit, came forward to say he had overheard part of the ransom conversation in the Roosevelt Room in 1981, when the offer was discussed by Reagan, Bush, Casey, Allen, and other cabinet officials.
Syphrit, a veteran of the Vietnam War, told the committee he was willing to testify, but they would have to subpoena him. Treasury opposed his appearance, arguing that voluntary testimony would violate the trust between the Secret Service and those it protects. It was clear that coming in on his own could cost Syphrit his career. The committee voted 7 to 4 not to subpoena him.
In the committee’s final report, dated Jan. 13, 1993 (on page 284), the panel not only chastised Syphrit for his failure to testify without a subpoena (“The committee regrets that the Secret Service agent was unwilling …”), but noted that since Allen had recanted his testimony about the Roosevelt Room briefing, Syphrit’s testimony would have been “at best, uncorroborated by the testimony of any other witness.” The committee omitted any mention that it had made a decision not to ask the other two surviving witnesses, Bush and Reagan, to give testimony under oath. (Casey had died.)
10. In 1990, Col. Millard Peck, a decorated infantry veteran of Vietnam then working at the DIA as chief of the Asia Division for Current Intelligence, asked for the job of chief of the DIA’s Special Office for Prisoners of War and Missing in Action. His reason for seeking the transfer, which was not a promotion, was that he had heard from officials throughout the Pentagon that the POW/MIA office had been turned into a waste-disposal unit for getting rid of unwanted evidence about live prisoners—a “black hole,” these officials called it.
Peck explained all this in his telling resignation letter of Feb. 12, 1991, eight months after he had taken the job. He said he viewed it as “sort of a holy crusade” to restore the integrity of the office but was defeated by the Pentagon machine. The four-page, single-spaced letter was scathing, describing the putative search for missing men as “a cover-up.”
Peck charged that, at its top echelons, the Pentagon had embraced a “mind-set to debunk” all evidence of prisoners left behind. “That national leaders continue to address the prisoner of war and missing in action issue as the ‘highest national priority,’ is a travesty,” he wrote. “The entire charade does not appear to be an honest effort, and may never have been. … Practically all analysis is directed to finding fault with the source. Rarely has there been any effective, active follow through on any of the sightings, nor is there a responsive ‘action arm’ to routinely and aggressively pursue leads.”
“I became painfully aware,” his letter continued, “that I was not really in charge of my own office, but was merely a figurehead or whipping boy for a larger and totally Machiavellian group of players outside of DIA … I feel strongly that this issue is being manipulated and controlled at a higher level, not with the goal of resolving it, but more to obfuscate the question of live prisoners and give the illusion of progress through hyperactivity.” He named no names but said these players are “unscrupulous people in the Government or associated with the Government” who “have maintained their distance and remained hidden in the shadows, while using the [POW] Office as a ‘toxic waste dump’ to bury the whole ‘mess’ out of sight.” Peck added that “military officers … who in some manner have ‘rocked the boat’ [have] quickly come to grief.”
Peck concluded, “From what I have witnessed, it appears that any soldier left in Vietnam, even inadvertently, was, in fact, abandoned years ago, and that the farce that is being played is no more than political legerdemain done with ‘smoke and mirrors’ to stall the issue until it dies a natural death.”
The disillusioned colonel not only resigned but asked to be retired immediately from active military service. The press never followed up.
My Pursuit of the Story
I covered the war in Cambodia and Vietnam, but came to the POW information only slowly afterward, when military officers I knew from that conflict began coming to me with maps and POW sightings and depositions by Vietnamese witnesses.
I was then city editor of the New York Times, no longer involved in foreign or national stories, so I took the data to the appropriate desks and suggested it was material worth pursuing. There were no takers. Some years later, in 1991, when I was an op-ed columnist at Newsday, the aforementioned special Senate committee was formed to probe the POW issue. I saw this as an opening and immersed myself in the reporting.
At Newsday, I wrote 36 columns over a two-year period, as well as a four-part series on a trip I took to North Vietnam to report on what happened to one missing pilot who was shot down over the Ho Chi Minh trail and captured when he parachuted down. After Newsday, I wrote thousands more words on the subject for other outlets. Some of the pieces were about McCain’s key role.
Though I wrote on many subjects for Life, Vanity Fair, and Washington Monthly, my POW articles appeared in Penthouse, the Village Voice, and APBnews.com. Mainstream publications just weren’t interested. Their disinterest was part of what motivated me, and I became one of a very short list of journalists who considered the story important.
Serving in the Army in Germany during the Cold War and witnessing combat firsthand as a reporter in India and Indochina led me to have great respect for those who fight for their country. To my mind, we dishonored U.S. troops when our government failed to bring them home from Vietnam after the 591 others were released—and then claimed they didn’t exist. And politicians dishonor themselves when they pay lip service to the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers only to leave untold numbers behind, rationalizing to themselves that it’s merely one of the unfortunate costs of war.
John McCain—now campaigning for the White House as a war hero, maverick, and straight shooter—owes the voters some explanations. The press were long ago wooed and won by McCain’s seeming openness, Lone Ranger pose, and self-deprecating humor, which may partly explain their ignoring his record on POWs. In the numerous, lengthy McCain profiles that have appeared of late in papers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, I may have missed a clause or a sentence along the way, but I have not found a single mention of his role in burying information about POWs. Television and radio news programs have been similarly silent.
Reporters simply never ask him about it. They didn’t when he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in 2000. They haven’t now, despite the fact that we’re in the midst of another war—a war he supports and one that has echoes of Vietnam. The only explanation McCain has ever offered for his leadership on legislation that seals POW files is that he believes the release of such information would only stir up fresh grief for the families of those who were never accounted for in Vietnam. Of the scores of POW families I’ve met over the years, only a few have said they want the books closed without knowing what happened to their men. All the rest say that not knowing is exactly what grieves them.
Isn’t it possible that what really worries those intent on keeping the POW documents buried is the public disgust that the contents of those files would generate?
How the Senate Committee Perpetuated the Debunking
In its early months, the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs gave the appearance of being committed to finding out the truth about the MIAs. As time went on, however, it became clear that they were cooperating in every way with the Pentagon and CIA, who often seemed to be calling the shots, even setting the agendas for certain key hearings. Both agencies held back the most important POW files. Dick Cheney was the Pentagon chief then; Robert Gates, now the Pentagon chief, was the CIA director.
Further, the committee failed to question any living president. Reagan declined to answer questions; the committee didn’t contest his refusal. Nixon was given a pass. George H.W. Bush, the sitting president, whose prints were all over this issue from his days as CIA chief in the 1970s, was never even approached. Troubled by these signs, several committee staffers began asking why the agencies they should be probing had been turned into committee partners and decision makers. Memos to that effect were circulated. The staff made the following finding, using intelligence reports marked “credible” that covered POW sightings through 1989: “There can be no doubt that POWs were alive … as late as 1989.” That finding was never released. Eventually, much of the staff was in rebellion.
This internecine struggle continued right up to the committee’s last official act—the issuance of its final report. The Executive Summary, which comprised the first 43 pages, was essentially a whitewash, saying that only “a small number” of POWs could have been left behind in 1973 and that there was little likelihood that any prisoners could still be alive. The Washington press corps, judging from its coverage, seems to have read only this air-brushed summary, which had been closely controlled.
But the rest of the 1,221-page Report on POW/MIAs was quite different. Sprinkled throughout are pieces of hard evidence that directly contradict the summary’s conclusions. This documentation established that a significant number of prisoners were left behind—and that top government officials knew this from the start. These candid findings were inserted by committee staffers who had unearthed the evidence and were determined not to allow the truth to be sugar-coated.
If the Washington press corps did actually read the body of the report and then failed to report its contents, that would be a scandal of its own. The press would then have knowingly ignored the steady stream of findings in the body of the report that refuted the summary and indicated that the number of abandoned men was not small but considerable. The report gave no figures but estimates from various branches of the intelligence community ranged up to 600. The lowest estimate was 150.
Highlights of the report that undermine the benign conclusions of the Executive Summary:
• Pages 207-209: These three pages contain revelations of what appear to be either massive intelligence failures or bad intentions—or both. The report says that until the committee brought up the subject in 1992, no branch of the intelligence community that dealt with analysis of satellite and lower-altitude photos had ever been informed of the specific distress signals U.S. personnel were trained to use in the Vietnam War, nor had they ever been tasked to look for any such signals at all from possible prisoners on the ground.
The committee decided, however, not to seek a review of old photography, saying it “would cause the expenditure of large amounts of manpower and money with no expectation of success.” It might also have turned up lots of distress-signal numbers that nobody in the government was looking for from 1973 to 1991, when the committee opened shop. That would have made it impossible for the committee to write the Executive Summary it seemed determined to write.
The failure gets worse. The committee also discovered that the DIA, which kept the lists of authenticator numbers for pilots and other personnel, could not “locate” the lists of these codes for Army, Navy, or Marine pilots. They had lost or destroyed the records. The Air Force list was the only one intact, as it had been preserved by a different intelligence branch.
The report concluded, “In theory, therefore, if a POW still living in captivity [today], were to attempt to communicate by ground signal, smuggling out a note or by whatever means possible, and he used his personal authenticator number to confirm his identity, the U.S. government would be unable to provide such confirmation, if his number happened to be among those numbers DIA cannot locate.”
It’s worth remembering that throughout the period when this intelligence disaster occurred—from the moment the treaty was signed in 1973 until 1991—the White House told the public that it had given the search for POWs and POW information the “highest national priority.”
• Page 13: Even in the Executive Summary, the report acknowledges the existence of clear intelligence, made known to government officials early on, that important numbers of captured U.S. POWs were not on Hanoi’s repatriation list. After Hanoi released its list (showing only ten names from Laos—nine military men and one civilian), President Nixon sent a message on Feb. 2, 1973 to Hanoi’s Prime Minister Pham Van Dong saying, “U.S. records show there are 317 American military men unaccounted for in Laos and it is inconceivable that only ten of these men would be held prisoner in Laos.”
Nixon was right. It was inconceivable. Then why did the president, less than two months later, on March 29, 1973, announce on national television that “all of our American POWs are on their way home”?
On April 13, 1973, just after all 591 men on Hanoi’s official list had returned to American soil, the Pentagon got into step with the president and announced that there was no evidence of any further live prisoners in Indochina (this is on page 248).
• Page 91: A lengthy footnote provides more confirmation of the White House’s knowledge of abandoned POWs. The footnote reads, “In a telephone conversation with Select Committee Vice-Chairman Bob Smith on December 29, 1992, Dr. Kissinger said that he had informed President Nixon during the 60-day period after the peace agreement was signed that U.S. intelligence officials believed that the list of prisoners captured in Laos was incomplete. According to Dr. Kissinger, the President responded by directing that the exchange of prisoners on the lists go forward, but added that a failure to account for the additional prisoners after Operation Homecoming would lead to a resumption of bombing. Dr. Kissinger said that the President was later unwilling to carry through on this threat.”
When Kissinger learned of the footnote while the final editing of the committee report was in progress,he and his lawyers lobbied fiercely through two Republican allies on the panel—one of them was John McCain—to get the footnote expunged. The effort failed. The footnote stayed intact.
• Pages 85-86: The committee report quotes Kissinger from his memoirs, writing solely in reference to prisoners in Laos: “We knew of at least 80 instances in which an American serviceman had been captured alive and subsequently disappeared. The evidence consisted either of voice communications from the ground in advance of capture or photographs and names published by the Communists. Yet none of these men was on the list of POWs handed over after the Agreement.”
Then why did he swear under oath to the committee in 1992 that he never had any information that specific, named soldiers were captured alive and hadn’t been returned by Vietnam?
• Page 89: In the middle of the prisoner repatriation and U.S. troop-withdrawal process agreed to in the treaty, when it became clear that Hanoi was not releasing everyone it held, a furious chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Thomas Moorer, issued an order halting the troop withdrawal until Hanoi complied with the agreement. He cited in particular the known prisoners in Laos. The order was retracted by President Nixon the next day. In 1992, Moorer, by then retired, testified under oath to the committee that his order had received the approval of the president, the national security adviser, and the secretary of Defense. Nixon, however, in a letter to the committee, wrote, “I do not recall directing Admiral Moorer to send this cable.”
The report did not include the following information: behind closed doors, a senior intelligence officer had testified to the POW committee that when Moorer’s order was rescinded, the angry admiral sent a “back-channel” message to other key military commanders telling them that Washington was abandoning known live prisoners. “Nixon and Kissinger are at it again,” he wrote. “SecDef and SecState have been cut out of the loop.” In 1973, the witness was working in the office that processed this message. His name and his testimony are still classified. A source present for the testimony provided me with this information and also reported that in that same time period, Moorer had stormed into Defense Secretary Schlesinger’s office and, pounding on his desk, yelled: “The bastards have still got our men.” Schlesinger, in his own testimony to the committee a few months later, was asked about—and corroborated—this account.
• Pages 95-96: In early April 1973, Deputy Defense Secretary William Clements “summoned” Dr. Roger Shields, then head of the Pentagon’s POW/MIA Task Force, to his office to work out “a new public formulation” of the POW issue; now that the White House had declared all prisoners to have been returned, a new spin was needed. Shields, under oath, described the meeting to the committee. He said Clements told him, “All the American POWs are dead.” Shields said he replied: “You can’t say that.” Clements shot back: “You didn’t hear me. They are all dead.” Shields testified that at that moment he thought he was going to be fired, but he escaped from his boss’s office still holding his job.
• Pages 97-98: A couple of days later, on April 11, 1973, a day before Shields was to hold a Pentagon press conference on POWs, he and Gen. Brent Scowcroft, then the deputy national security adviser, went to the Oval Office to discuss the “new public formulation” and its presentation with President Nixon.
The next day, reporters right off asked Shields about missing POWs. Shields fudged his answers. He said, “We have no indications at this time that there are any Americans alive in Indochina.” But he went on to say that there had not been “a complete accounting” of those lost in Laos and that the Pentagon would press on to account for the missing—a seeming acknowledgement that some Americans were still alive and unaccounted for.
The press, however, seized on Shields’s denials. One headline read, “POW Unit Boss: No Living GIs Left in Indochina.”
• Page 97: The POW committee, knowing that Nixon taped all his meetings in the Oval Office, sought the tape of that April 11, 1973 Nixon-Shields-Scowcroft meeting to find out what Nixon had been told and what he had said about the evidence of POWs still in Indochina. The committee also knew there had been other White House meetings that centered on intelligence about live POWs. A footnote on page 97 states that Nixon’s lawyers said they would provide access to the April 11 tape “only if the Committee agreed not to seek any other White House recordings from this time period.” The footnote says that the committee rejected these terms and got nothing. The committee never made public this request for Nixon tapes until the brief footnote in its 1993 report.
None of this compelling evidence in the committee’s full report dislodged McCain from his contention that the whole POW issue was a concoction by deluded purveyors of a “conspiracy theory.” But an honest review of the full report, combined with the other documentary evidence, tells the story of a frustrated and angry president, and his national security adviser, furious at being thwarted at the peace table by a small, much less powerful country that refused to bow to Washington’s terms. That president seems to have swallowed hard and accepted a treaty that left probably hundreds of American prisoners in Hanoi’s hands, to be used as bargaining chips for reparations.
Maybe Nixon and Kissinger told themselves that they could get the prisoners home after some time had passed. But perhaps it proved too hard to undo a lie as big as this one. Washington said no prisoners were left behind, and Hanoi swore it had returned all of them. How could either side later admit it had lied? Time went by and as neither side budged, telling the truth became even more difficult and remote. The public would realize that Washington knew of the abandoned men all along. The truth, after men had been languishing in foul prison cells, could get people impeached or thrown in jail.
Which brings us to today, when the Republican candidate for president is the contemporary politician most responsible for keeping the truth about this matter hidden. Yet he says he’s the right man to be the commander in chief, and his credibility in making this claim is largely based on his image as a POW hero.
On page 468 of the 1,221-page report, McCain parsed his POW position oddly, “We found no compelling evidence to prove that Americans are alive in captivity today. There is some evidence—though no proof—to suggest only the possibility that a few Americans may have been kept behind after the end of America’s military involvement in Vietnam.”
“Evidence though no proof.” Clearly, no one could meet McCain’s standard of proof as long as he is leading a government crusade to keep the truth buried.
To this reporter, this sounds like a significant story and a long overdue opportunity for the press to finally dig into the archives to set the historical record straight—and even pose some direct questions to the candidate.
Sydney Schanberg has been a journalist for nearly 50 years. The 1984 movie “The Killing Fields,” which won several Academy Awards, was based on his book The Death and Life of Dith Pran. In 1975, Schanberg was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting “at great risk.” He is also the recipient of two George Polk awards, two Overseas Press Club awards, and the Sigma Delta Chi prize for distinguished journalism. His latest book is Beyond the Killing Fields (www.beyondthekillingfields.com). This piece is reprinted with permission from The Nation Institute.(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
Silent TreatmentMy Four-Decade Fight to Report the Truth
Sydney Schanberg • May 25, 2010 •
Sydney Schanberg won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the war in Indochina. Yet his explosive 2008 essay ‘McCain and the POW Cover-Up‘ was stonewalled by the mainstream media. Here we present Schanberg’s account of his struggle to bring the story of Vietnam’s forgotten veterans to the public’s — and press’s — attention.
From the beginning, nearly 40 years ago, the evidence was in plain sight. For reasons unexplained, however, the mainstream press did not acknowledge it and has continued to ignore it to this day.
I’m referring to the evidence that North Vietnam—after the peace treaty had been signed on Jan. 27, 1973 in Paris—held back hundreds of American prisoners, keeping them as bargaining chips to ensure getting Washington’s promised $3.25 billion in war reparations. The funds were never delivered, and the prisoners were never released. Both sides insisted to their people and the world that all POWs had been returned, challenging the voluminous body of facts to the contrary.
But behind the scenes, where the press did not go then or now, President Nixon accused Hanoi of not returning a multitude of prisoners. In a private message on Feb. 2, 1973, Nixon said U.S. records showed 317 prisoners in Laos alone. “It is inconceivable,” he wrote, “that only 10 of these men” were being returned.
Hanoi stonewalled and never added any men to its prisoner list. Yet just two months later, Nixon did an about-face and claimed proudly on national television, “all of our American POWs are on their way home.” He had to know he was telling a terrible lie.
There were occasional times when the press detoured from its pattern of disinterest. Early in 1973, for instance, the New York Times published a front-page story that described how taken aback the intelligence community was by the tiny number of prisoners being released from Laos. But neither the Times nor any other major news organization followed up with a serious investigation.
I take no pleasure in criticizing my profession. But in a sense, the press too abandoned the POWs. By its silence, the news community enabled Washington to cover up the scandal – though scandal is too mild a word for it. I believe it is a national shame.
I need to pause here to praise the one shining example in the national press. That would be Newsday, the only major newspaper that took on the POW story without blinking. During my decade there as a columnist, I started doing serious research and writing about the POW cover-up. In one 15-month period, I wrote 36 columns and a four-part, page-one series, most of them investigative pieces describing the underbelly of the cover-up. The series involved a search in Vietnam for evidence about the case of one downed pilot who never returned.Newsday is one of the handful of newspapers where investigative journalism in the modern era was born. To their great credit, Newsday and Tony Marro, its editor at the time, never hesitated to dig into the story.
People sometimes ask why I keep coming back to the POW story. I don’t have a one-sentence answer. My mentors at the New York Times taught me the importance of staying with a story. If you keep peeling back the layers, you may get to its core, which is the goal. It has worked for me. Skimming the surface of stories doesn’t get reporter or reader very far.
Some apologists in the press point out that most Americans, not just the press, ran away from the Vietnam War after it ended. Our nation had lost a foreign war for the first time in its history. Americans were divided, ashamed, angry. There were no ticker-tape parades for the returning soldiers. Many at the Pentagon and in other government circles were blaming the press for writing critically about the war. But whatever heat the press gets from critics, running away from an important story is not the answer.
Apologists also cite differing social classes. They point out that for roughly the last four decades, since the expiration of the draft, reporters have generally come from college-educated, privileged backgrounds, and the volunteer Army became an entity largely composed of young men seeking to climb out of low-income roots to a better life. So, this theory goes, reporters don’t feel much connection with the military.
That’s a foolish excuse for ignoring the world of soldiers. (Full disclosure: After college, I served two years in the Army during the Cold War, posted in Germany.) Every reporter, man or woman, should be mature enough to comprehend the responsibilities of the military and relate to its difficulties. It can’t be too hard to imagine the lives of the prisoners who were never returned to their families. The government had told these soldiers that if they were wounded or captured, it would do everything in its power to save and heal them.
Well, sometimes that isn’t the whole truth. Maybe their platoon buddies would do everything possible, but governments have multiple agendas. Nixon was desperate to get out of the Vietnam War, the albatross that had ended the political career of his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson. Also, the Watergate scandal was creeping up on him. Maybe Nixon thought he might be able somehow to bring those men home later by other means. Maybe. But it didn’t happen. Both governments had sworn there were no POWs left behind, and with each passing year those enormous lies became more embedded in stone. They have now held sway across eight presidencies.
A hypothetical question: what would happen if a president decided to break ranks with the POW secrecy and ordered the immediate declassification of those hidden documents that would break the story wide open? The press has never fought to unseal them, and Sen. John McCain has spent a good chunk of his legislative career doing the Pentagon’s bidding and pushing through the bills that keep those documents buried. (In all those profiles of McCain written by the national press as he campaigned twice for the presidency, I could not find a paragraph that mentioned these legislative activities.)
But back to the question of what would happen if a president suddenly brought those hidden documents into the light. My guess would be that hell could break loose. Some people might go to jail for violating the public trust and their oaths of office. There’s no statute of limitations on crimes like murder, and most of those abandoned prisoners are probably no longer alive. Those who began and continued the cover-up were surely accomplices in their deaths. At the very least, laws affecting the military would be rewritten. And the reputations of the people who played the largest roles would crumble all over the country—people such as Henry Kissinger, John McCain, John Kerry, and Dick Cheney, plus many others, including Pentagon chiefs, national security advisers, secretaries of state, intelligence chiefs, and so on. Since this is probably all a daydream, may I say that perhaps it could be a cleansing of the temple—for a while at least, human nature being what it is.
In recent years, I have offered my POW stories to a long list of editors of leading newspapers, magazines, and significant websites that do original reporting. And when they decline my offerings, I have urged them to do their own POW investigation with their own staff under their own supervision.
The list of these news organizations includes the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, New York magazine, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Vanity Fair, Salon, Slate, Talking Points Memo, ProPublica, Politico, and others. To my knowledge, none have attempted or produced a piece.
Their explanations for avoiding the story have never rung true. I have chosen not to use the names of the editors or the texts of their rejection messages, which could embarrass some of them. This is not a personal difference, but a professional one. I have decided instead to summarize their comments.
Some said they didn’t have enough staff to do the story. Others said the story was “old”—even though we have never found out what happened to the missing prisoners. I sensed often that these news people were afraid—that the story was too hot for them to handle because it could cause too many repercussions. Aren’t journalists supposed to look into difficult stories and the wrongdoings of important people? Aren’t they also supposed to expect blowback?
I asked these editors about the mountain of hard evidence attesting to the existence of abandoned men. In particular, I asked about the witness evidence, the 1,600 firsthand live sightings of American prisoners after the war. Did these journalists believe that every last one of the 1,600 witnesses was lying or mistaken? Many of these Vietnamese witnesses were interrogated by U.S. intelligence officers. Many were given lie-detector tests. They passed. The interrogators’ reports graded the bulk of the witnesses “credible.” A few of the journalists I have nudged to go after the story acknowledged that their paper or magazine or TV network had “blind spots.” But again and again, the vast majority have hemmed and hawed and said they had “doubts” about the POW information. Isn’t doing the reporting the best way to confirm or dispel doubts?
I would run through the long gamut of known intelligence—official radio intercepts of prisoners being moved to and from labor camps in Laos, satellite photos, conversations overheard by Secret Service agents inside the White House, ransom offers from Hanoi through third parties, sworn public testimony by three U.S. defense secretaries who served during the Vietnam era that “men were left behind.” The press wasn’t and isn’t interested.
And the evidence is still in plain sight.
American Pravda: Was Rambo Right?Hundreds of POWs may have been left to die in Vietnam, abandoned by their government—and our media
In the closing days of the 2008 presidential campaign, I clicked an ambiguous link on an obscure website and stumbled into a parallel universe.
During the previous two years of that long election cycle, the media narrative surrounding Sen. John McCain had been one of unblemished heroism and selfless devotion to his fellow servicemen. Thousands of stories on television and in print had told of his brutal torture at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors, his steely refusal to crack, and his later political career aimed at serving the needs of fellow Vietnam veterans. This storyline had first reached the national stage during his 2000 campaign, then returned with even greater force as he successfully sought the 2008 Republican nomination. Seemingly accepted by all, this history became a centerpiece of his campaign. McCain’s supporters touted his heroism as proof that he possessed the character to be entrusted with America’s highest office, while his detractors merely sought to change the subject.
Once I clicked that link, I encountered a very different John McCain.
I read copious, detailed evidence that hundreds of American POWs had been condemned to death at enemy hands by top American leaders, apparently because their safe return home would have constituted a major political embarrassment. I found documentation that the cover-up of this betrayal had gone on for decades, eventually drawing in a certain Arizona senator. According to this remarkable reconstruction of events, the average teenage moviegoer of the 1980s watching mindless action films such as “Rambo,” “Missing in Action,” and “Uncommon Valor” was seeing reality portrayed on screen, while the policy expert reading sober articles in the pages of The New Republic and The Atlantic was absorbing lies and propaganda. Since I had been believing those very articles, this was a stunning revelation.
But was this alternate description of reality correct? Could this one article be true and all the countless contrary pieces I had read in America’s most prestigious publications be false, merely the presentation of official propaganda endlessly repeated? I cannot say. I am not an expert on the history of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
Yet consider the source. The author of that remarkable 8,000-word exposé—“McCain and the POW Cover-Up,” published on The Nation Institute’s website—was Sydney Schanberg, one of America’s foremost Vietnam War journalists. His reporting won him a Pulitzer Prize, and his subsequent book on Cambodia was made into “The Killing Fields,” an Oscar-winning movie. Schanberg later served as one of the highest-ranking editors at the New York Times, with a third of the reporters at our national newspaper of record working under him. A case can be made that no living American journalist can write with greater credibility on Vietnam War matters. And he had labored for years researching and exhaustively documenting the story of American POWs abandoned in Indochina—a story that if true might easily represent the single greatest act of national dishonor ever committed by our political leaders.
He presented a mass of evidence with names, dates, and documentary detail. Many of the individuals mentioned are still alive and could be interviewed or called to testify. Sealed government records could be ordered unsealed. If America wishes to determine the truth, it can do so.
Yet what I found most remarkable about Schanberg’s essay were not its explosive historical claims but the absolute silence with which they were received in the mainstream media. In 2008, John McCain’s heroic war record and personal patriotism were central to his quest for supreme power—a goal he came very close to achieving. But when one of America’s most eminent journalists published an exhaustive report that the candidate had instead served as one of the leading figures in a monumental act of national treachery, our media took no notice. McCain’s public critics and the operatives of his Democratic opponent might eagerly seize upon every rumor that the senator had had a private lunch with a disreputable corporate lobbyist, but they ignored documented claims that he had covered up the killing of hundreds of American POWs. These allegations were serious enough and sufficiently documented to warrant national attention—yet they received none.
All of this might seem unimaginable except that it falls into a strong pattern of the press avoiding stories of overwhelming importance. Consider how many of the national disasters of the past few years have been caused by the unwillingness of our major media to question official truths or the widespread beliefs of our elites. The Iraq “cakewalk” to eliminate Saddam’s WMDs, the nationwide housing bubble, and the Madoff swindle might have been prevented or would never have reached such massive proportions if reporters and editors had been willing to investigate and present claims contrary to the soothing blandishments of the powerful. Instead, it has become the norm for press outlets simply to repeat, with a few word substitutions, stories indistinguishable from those previously published by dozens of other press outlets, without ever examining any contrary evidence that might raise doubts about this perceived reality. Truth has come to mean the lies that everyone believes.
A couple of years ago, in one of my last exchanges with my late friend Lt. Gen. Bill Odom, who ran the National Security Agency for President Ronald Reagan, we agreed a case could be made that today’s major American media had become just as dishonest and unreliable as the old Soviet propaganda outlets of the late 1970s. At the time, we were discussing the coverage of our road to the Iraq War, but subsequent events have demonstrated that this national illness is far more advanced than either of us had suspected. Whether or not Schanberg is proven correct, the shameful cowardice of our mainstream media is already proven by the wall of silence surrounding his work.
In an attempt to breach that wall, we present Schanberg’s account of how his remarkable story was buried, as well as his explosive original article. TAC has also convened a symposium of critics drawn from military, political, and journalism backgrounds to explain how this report could have failed to reach a mass audience. A small political magazine does not have the resources to investigate the detailed evidence of Schanberg’s case, but we can hold a mirror up to America’s major media and force them to see what stories they now regard as completely non-newsworthy.
And if Schanberg’s claims are indeed correct, they reveal the lethal consequences of America’s overweening national pride. After all, his history is a simple one. Following the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the Vietnamese refused to return their French POWs unless Paris agreed to pay financial compensation for the war. The French leaders paid the money and got their men back. Similarly, the Vietnamese refused to return their American POWs unless the U.S. government agreed to pay reparations. Nixon signed a document promising to do exactly that, but the Vietnamese, being cautious, kept many of the POWs back until the money was delivered. Then Congress refused to authorize the funds because “America doesn’t lose wars.” Nixon and later U.S. leaders never acknowledged the fate of these captives lest the American people become outraged. And as the years and decades went by, and various schemes to ransom or rescue the POWs were considered and rejected, their continued existence became a major liability to numerous powerful political figures, whose reputations would have been destroyed if any of the prisoners ever returned and told his story to the American people. So none of them ever came home.
John McCain: When “Tokyo Rose” Ran for President What Was John McCain’s True Wartime Record in Vietnam?
Ron Unz • March 9, 2015
Although the memory has faded in recent years, during much of the second half of the twentieth century the name “Tokyo Rose” ranked very high in our popular consciousness, probably second only to “Benedict Arnold” as a byword for American treachery during wartime. The story of Iva Ikuko Toguri, the young Japanese-American woman who spent her wartime years broadcasting popular music laced with enemy propaganda to our suffering troops in the Pacific Theater was well known to everyone, and her trial for treason after the war, which stripped her of her citizenship and sentenced her to a long prison term, made the national headlines.
The actual historical facts seem to have been somewhat different than the popular myth. Instead of a single “Tokyo Rose” there were actually several such female broadcasters, with Ms. Toguri not even being the earliest, and their identities merged in the minds of the embattled American GIs. But she was the only one ever brought to trial and punished, although her own radio commentary turned out to have been almost totally innocuous. The plight of a young American-born woman alone on a family visit who became trapped behind enemy lines by the sudden outbreak of war was obviously a difficult one, and desperately taking a job as an English-language music announcer hardly fits the usual notion of treason. Indeed, after her release from federal prison, she avoided deportation and spent the rest of her life quietly running a grocery shop in Chicago. Postwar Japan soon became our closest ally in Asia and once wartime passions had sufficiently cooled she was eventually pardoned by President Gerald Ford and had her U.S. citizenship restored.
Despite these extremely mitigating circumstances in Ms. Toguri’s particular case, we should not be too surprised at America’s harsh treatment of the poor woman upon her return home from Japan. All normal countries ruthlessly punish treason and traitors, and these terms are often expansively defined in the aftermath of a bitter war. Perhaps in a topsy-turvy Monty Python world, wartime traitors would be given medals, feted at the White House, and become national heroes, but any real-life country that allowed such insanity would surely be set on the road to oblivion. If Tokyo Rose’s wartime record had launched her on a successful American political career and nearly gave her the presidency, we would know for a fact that some cruel enemy had spiked our national water supply with LSD.
The political rise of Sen. John McCain leads me to suspect that in the 1970s some cruel enemy had spiked our national water supply with LSD.
My earliest recollections of John McCain are vague. I think he first came to my attention during the mid-1980s, perhaps after 1982 when he won an open Congressional seat in Arizona or more likely once he was elected in 1986 to the U.S. Senate seat of retiring conservative icon Barry Goldwater. All media accounts about him seemed strongly favorable, describing his steadfastness as a POW during more than five grim years of torture by his Vietnamese jailers, with the extent of his wartime physical suffering indicated by the famous photo showing him still on crutches as he was greeted by President Nixon many months after his return from enemy captivity. I never had the slightest doubts about this story or his war-hero status.
Former POW John McCain on Crutches, Greeting President Richard Nixon
McCain’s public image took a beating at the end of the 1980s when he became one of the senators caught up in the Keating Five financial scandal, but he managed to survive that controversy unlike most of the others. Soon thereafter he became prominent as a leading national advocate of campaign finance reform, a strong pro-immigrant voice, and also a champion of normalizing our relations with Vietnam, positions that appealed to me as much as they did to the national media. By 2000 my opinion had become sufficiently favorable that I donated to his underdog challenge to Gov. George W. Bush in the Republican primaries of that year, and was thrilled when he did surprisingly well in some of the early contests and suddenly had a serious shot at the nomination. However, he then suffered an unexpected defeat in South Carolina, as the large block of local military voters swung decisively against him. According to widespread media reports, the main cause was an utterly scurrilous whispering campaign by Karl Rove and his henchmen, which even included appalling accusations that the great war-hero candidate had been a “traitor” in Vietnam. My only conclusion was that the filthy lies sometimes found in American politics were even worse than I’d ever imagined.
Although in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I turned sharply against McCain due to his support for an extremely bellicose foreign policy, I never had any reason to question his background or his integrity, and my strong opposition to his 2008 presidential run was entirely on policy grounds: I feared his notoriously hot temper might easily get us into additional disastrous wars.
Everything suddenly changed in June 2008 when I read a long article by an unfamiliar writer on the leftist Counterpunch website. Shocking claims were made that McCain may never have been tortured and that he instead spent his wartime captivity collaborating with his captors and broadcasting Communist propaganda, a possibility that seemed almost incomprehensible to me given all the thousands of contrary articles that I had absorbed over the decades from the mainstream media. How could this one article on a small website be the truth about McCain’s war record and everything else be total falsehood? The evidence was hardly overwhelming, with the piece being thinly sourced and written in a meandering fashion by an obscure author, but the claims were so astonishing that I made some effort to investigate the matter, though without any real success.
However, those new doubts about McCain were still in my mind a few months later when I stumbled upon Sidney Schanberg’s massively documented expose about McCain’s role in the POW/MIA cover up, a vastly greater scandal. This time I was presented with a mountain of hard evidence gathered by one of America’s greatest wartime journalists, a Pulitzer Prize winning former top editor at The New York Times. In the years since then, other leading journalists have praised Schanberg’s remarkable research, now giving his conclusions the combined backing of four New York Times Pulitzer Prizes, while two former Republican Congressmen who had served on the Intelligence Committee have also strongly corroborated his account.
In 1993 the front page of the New York Times broke the story that a Politburo transcript found in the Kremlin archives fully confirmed the existence of the additional POWs, and when interviewed on the PBS Newshour former National Security Advisors Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted that the document was very likely correct and that hundreds of America’s Vietnam POWs had indeed been left behind. In my opinion, the reality of Schanberg’s POW story is now about as solidly established as anything can be that has not yet received an official blessing from the American mainstream media. And the total dishonesty of that media regarding both the POW story and McCain’s leading role in the later cover up soon made me very suspicious of all those other claims regarding John McCain’s supposedly heroic war record. Our American Pravda is simply not to be trusted on any “touchy” topics.
I have no personal knowledge of the Vietnam War myself nor do I possess expertise in that area of history. But after encountering Schanberg’s expose in 2008, I soon got in touch with someone having exactly those strengths, a Vietnam veteran who later became a professor at one of our military service academies. At first, he was quite cagey regarding the questions I raised, but once he had read through Schanberg’s lengthy article, he felt he could respond more freely and he largely confirmed the claims, partly based on certain information he personally possessed. He said he found it astonishing that in these days of the Internet the POW scandal had not attracted vastly more attention, and couldn’t understand why the media was so uniformly unwilling to touch the topic.
He also had some very interesting things to say about John McCain’s wartime record. According to him, it was hardly a secret in veterans’ circles that McCain had spent much of the war producing Communist propaganda broadcasts since these had regularly been played in the prisoner camps as a means of breaking the spirits of those American POWs who resisted collaboration. Indeed, he and some of his friends had speculated about who currently possessed copies of McCain’s damning audio and video tapes and wondered whether they might come out during the course of the presidential campaign. Over the years, other Vietnam veterans have publicly leveled similar charges, and Schanberg had speculated that McCain’s leading role in the POW cover up might have been connected with the pressure he faced due to his notorious wartime broadcasts.
In late September 2008 another fascinating story appeared in my morning New York Times. An intrepid reporter decided to visit Vietnam and see what McCain’s former jailers thought of the possibility that their onetime captive might soon reach the White House, that the man they had spent years brutally torturing could become the next president of the United States. To the journalist’s apparent amazement, the former jailers seemed enthusiastic about the prospects of a McCain victory, saying that they hoped he would win since they had become such good friends during the war and had worked so closely together; if they lived in America, they would certainly all vote for him. When asked about McCain’s claims of “cruel and sadistic” torture, the head of the guard unit dismissed those stories as being just the sort of total nonsense that politicians, whether in America or in Vietnam, must often spout in order to win popularity. A BBC correspondent reported the same statements.
Let us consider the implications of this story. Throughout his entire life John McCain has been notable for having a very violent temper and also for holding deep grudges. How plausible does it seem that the men who allegedly spent years torturing him would be so eager to see him reach a position of supreme world power?
But what about the famous photo, showing McCain still on crutches even months after his release from captivity? In early September 2008, someone discovered archival footage from a Swedish news crew which had filmed the return of the POWs, and uploaded it to YouTube. We see a healthy-looking John McCain walking off the plane from Vietnam, having a noticeable limp but certainly without any need of crutches. After returning home he had eventually entered Bethesda Naval Hospital for corrective surgery on some of his wartime injuries, and that recent American surgery was what explained his crutches in the photo with Nixon.
It is certainly acknowledged that considerable numbers of American POWs were indeed tortured in Vietnam, but it is far from clear that McCain was ever one of them. As the original Counterpunch article pointed out, throughout almost the entire war McCain was held at a special section for the best-behaving prisoners, which was where he allegedly produced his Communist propaganda broadcasts and perhaps became such good friends with his guards as they later claimed. Top-ranking former POWs held at the same prison, such as Colonels Ted Guy and Gordon “Swede” Larson, have gone on the record saying they are very skeptical regarding McCain’s claims of torture.
I have taken the trouble to read through John McCain’s earliest claims of his harsh imprisonment, a highly detailed 12,000 word first person account published under his name in U.S. News & World Report in May 1973, just a few weeks after his release from imprisonment. The editorial introduction notes the “almost total recall” seemingly demonstrated by the young pilot just out of captivity, and portions of the story strike me as doubtful, perhaps drawn from the long history of popular imprisonment fiction stretching back to Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo. Would a young navy pilot so easily develop and remember a “tap code” to extensively communicate with others across thick prison walls? And McCain describes himself as having a “philosophical bent,” spending his years of solitary confinement reviewing in his head all the many history books he had read, trying to make sense of human history, a degree of intellectualizing never apparent in his life either before or after.
One factual detail, routinely emphasized by his supporters, is his repeated claim that except for signing a single written statement very early in his captivity and also answering some questions by a visiting French newsman, he had staunchly refused any hint of collaboration with his captors, despite torture, solitary confinement, endless threats and beatings, and offers of rewards. Perhaps. But that original Counterpunch article provided the link to the purported text of one of McCain’s pro-Hanoi propaganda broadcasts as summarized in a 1969 UPI wire service story, and I have confirmed its authenticity by locating the resulting article that ran in Stars & Stripes at the same time. So if crucial portions of McCain’s account of his imprisonment are seemingly revealed to be self-serving fiction, how much of the rest can we believe? If his pro-Communist propaganda broadcasts were so notable that they even reached the news pages of one of America’s leading military publications, it seems quite plausible that they were as numerous, substantial, and frequent as his critics allege
When I later discussed these troubling matters with an eminent political scientist who has something of a military background, he emphasized that McCain’s history can only be understood in the context of his father, a top-ranking admiral who then served as commander of all American forces in the Pacific Theater, including our troops in Vietnam. Indeed, the alleged headline of the UPI wire story had been “PW [Prisoner of War] Songbird Is Pilot Son of Admiral,” highlighting that connection. Obviously, for reasons both of family loyalty and personal standing it would have been imperative for John McCain’s father and namesake to hush up the terrible scandal of having had his son serve as a leading collaborator and Communist propagandist during the war and his exalted rank gave him the power to do so. Furthermore, just a few years earlier the elder McCain had himself performed an extremely valuable service for America’s political elites, organizing the official board of inquiry that whitewashed the potentially devastating “Liberty Incident,” with its hundreds of dead and wounded American servicemen, so he certainly had some powerful political chits he could call in.
Placed in this context, John McCain’s tales of torture make perfect sense. If he had indeed spent almost the entire war eagerly broadcasting Communist propaganda in exchange for favored treatment, there would have been stories about this circulating in private, and fears that these tales might eventually reach the newspaper headlines, perhaps backed by the hard evidence of audio and video tapes. An effective strategy for preempting this danger would be to concoct lurid tales of personal suffering and then promote them in the media, quickly establishing McCain as the highest profile victim of torture among America’s returned POWs, an effort rendered credible by the fact that many American POWs had indeed suffered torture.
Once the public had fully accepted McCain as our foremost Vietnam war-hero and torture-victim, any later release of his propaganda tapes would be dismissed as merely proving that even the bravest of men had their breaking point. Given that McCain’s father was one of America’s highest-ranking military officers and both the Nixon Administration and the media had soon elevated McCain to a national symbol of American heroism, there would have been enormous pressure on the other returning POWs, many of them dazed and injured after long captivity, not to undercut such an important patriotic narrative. Similarly, when McCain ran for Congress and the Senate a decade or so later, stories of his torture became a central theme of his campaigns and once again constituted a powerful defense against any possible rumors of his alleged “disloyalty.”
And so the legend grew over the decades until it completely swallowed the man, and he became America’s greatest patriot and war hero, with almost no one even being aware of the Communist propaganda broadcasts that had motivated the story in the first place. I have sometimes noticed this same historical pattern in which fictional accounts originally invented to excuse or mitigate some enormous crime may eventually expand over time until they totally dominate the narrative while the original crime itself is nearly forgotten. The central theme of McCain’s presidential campaign was his unmatched patriotism and when he went down to defeat at the hands of Barack Obama, the widespread verdict was that even the greatest of war-heroes may still lose an election.
I must reemphasize that I am not an expert on the Vietnam War and my cursory investigation is nothing like the sort of exhaustive research that would be necessary to establish a firm conclusion on this troubling case. I have merely tried to provide a plausible account of McCain’s war record and highlight some of the important pieces of evidence that a more thorough researcher should consider. Unlike the documentation of the POW cover up accumulated by Schanberg and others, which I regard as overwhelmingly conclusive, I think the best that may be said about my reconstruction of McCain’s wartime history is that it seems more likely correct than not. However, I should mention that when I discussed some of these items with Schanberg in 2010 and suggested that John McCain had been the Tokyo Rose of the Vietnam War, he considered it a very apt description.
John McCain is hardly the only prominent political figure whose problematic Vietnam War activities have at times come under harsh scrutiny but afterwards been airbrushed away and forgotten by our subservient corporate media. Just as McCain was widely regarded as the most prominent Republican war-hero of that conflict, his Democratic counterpart was probably Vietnam Medal of Honor winner Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska governor and senator who had run for president in 1992 and then considered doing so again in the late 1990s.
His seemingly unblemished record of wartime heroism suddenly collapsed in 2001 with the publication of a devastating 8,000 word expose in The New York Times Magazine together with a Sixty Minutes II television segment. Detailed eyewitness testimony and documentary evidence persuasively established that Kerrey had ordered his men to massacre over a dozen innocent Vietnamese civilians—women, children, and infants—for being witnesses to his botched SEAL raid on a tiny Vietnamese hamlet, an action that somewhat recalled the infamous My Lai massacre of the previous year though certainly on a much smaller scale. Kerrey’s initial response to these horrific accusations—that his memory of the incident was “foggy”—struck me as near-certain proof of his guilt, and others drew similar conclusions.
As a supposed war-hero and a moderate Democrat, Kerrey had always been very popular in political circles, but even the once friendly New Republic was shocked by the alacrity with which pundits and the media sought to absolve him of his apparent crimes. The revelations also seem to have had no impact on his tenure as president of the prestigious New School in New York, an academic institution with an impeccable liberal reputation, which he held for another decade before leaving to make an unsuccessful attempt to recapture his old Senate seat in Nebraska. Bob Dreyfuss, a principled left-liberal journalist, might still characterize him as a “mass murderer” in a 2012 blog post at The Nation, but for years almost no one in the mainstream media had ever alluded to the incident in any of the articles mentioning Kerrey’s activities, just as the media has also totally ignored all of Schanberg’s remarkable revelations. I suspect that Kerrey’s war crimes have almost totally vanished from public consciousness.
We must always draw an important distinction between the actions of individual journalists and the behavior of the American media taken as a whole. I believe that the overwhelming majority of reporters and editors are honest and sincere, and although their coverage may sometimes be slanted or mistaken, they do seek to inform rather than to mislead. Consider how many of the explosive facts discussed above or in Schanberg’s massive expose were drawn directly from the New York Times and other leading media outlets. But after those crucial stories run, the facts they have established often seem to vanish from subsequent coverage, causing them to be forgotten by most casual readers. Thus, the detailed account of Kerrey’s apparent massacre of civilians received the greatest possible initial coverage—a huge cover story in The New York Times Magazine and a top-rated CBS News television segment—but within a year or so the history had seemingly been flushed down the memory hole by almost all political reporters. The facts are still available for interested readers to uncover, but they must do the work themselves rather than simply relying on the summary narratives produced by mainstream publications.
The realization that many of our political leaders may be harboring such terrible personal secrets, secrets that our media outlets regularly conceal, raises an important policy implication independent of the particular secrets themselves. In recent years I have increasingly begun to suspect that some or even many of our national leaders may occasionally make their seemingly inexplicable policy decisions under the looming threat of personal blackmail, and that this may have also been true in the past.
Consider the intriguing case of J. Edgar Hoover, who spent nearly half a century running our domestic intelligence service, the FBI. Over those many decades he accumulated detailed files on vast numbers of prominent people and most historians agree that he regularly used such highly sensitive material to gain the upper hand in disputes with his nominal political masters and also to bend other public figures to his will. Meanwhile, he himself was hardly immune from similar pressures. These days it is widely believed that Hoover lived his long life as a deeply closeted homosexual and there are also serious claims that he had some hidden black ancestry, a possibility that seems quite plausible to me given his features. Such deep personal secrets may be connected with Hoover’s long denials that organized crime actually existed in America and his great reluctance to allocate significant FBI resources to combat it.
Today when we consider the major countries of the world we see that in many cases the official leaders are also the leaders in actuality: Vladimir Putin calls the shots in Russia, Xi Jinping and his top Politburo colleagues do the same in China, and so forth. However, in America and in some other Western countries, this seems to be less and less the case, with top national figures merely being attractive front-men selected for their popular appeal and their political malleability, a development that may eventually have dire consequences for the nations they lead. As an extreme example, a drunken Boris Yeltsin freely allowed the looting of Russia’s entire national wealth by the handful of oligarchs who pulled his strings, and the result was the total impoverishment of the Russian people and a demographic collapse almost unprecedented in modern peacetime history.
An obvious problem with installing puppet rulers is the risk that they will attempt to cut their strings, much like Putin soon outmaneuvered and exiled his oligarch patron Boris Berezovsky. One means of minimizing such risk is to select puppets who are so deeply compromised that they can never break free, knowing that the political self-destruct charges buried deep within their pasts could easily be triggered if they sought independence. I have sometimes joked with my friends that perhaps the best career move for an ambitious young politician would be to secretly commit some monstrous crime and then make sure that the hard evidence of his guilt ended up in the hands of certain powerful people, thereby assuring his rapid political rise.
Such notions may seem utterly absurd, but let us step back and consider recent American history. Just a few years ago an individual came very close to reaching the White House almost entirely on the strength of his war record, a war record that considerable evidence suggests was actually the sort that would normally get a military man hanged for treason at the close of hostilities. I have studied many historical eras and many countries and no parallel examples come to mind.
Perhaps the cause of this bizarre situation merely lies in the remarkable incompetence and cowardice of our major media organs, their herd mentality and their insouciant unwillingness to notice evidence that is staring them in the face. But we should also at least consider the possibility of a darker explanation. If Tokyo Rose had nearly been elected president in the 1980s, we would assume that the American political system had taken a very peculiar turn.
American Pravda: The Legacy of Sydney Schanberg
Ron Unz • July 13, 2016 •
Sydney H. Schanberg, center, in Cambodia, August 1973
The death on Saturday of Sydney Schanberg at age 82 should sadden us not only for the loss of one of our most renowned journalists but also for what his story reveals about the nature of our national media.
Syd had made his career at the New York Times for 26 years, winning a Pulitzer Prize, two George Polk Memorial awards, and numerous other honors. His passing received the notice it deserved, with the world’s most prestigious broadsheet devoting nearly a full page of its Sunday edition to his obituary, a singular honor that in this degraded era is more typically reserved for leading pop stars or sports figures. Several photos were included of his Cambodia reporting, which had become the basis for the Oscar-winning film The Killing Fields, one of Hollywood’s most memorable accounts of our disastrous Indo-Chinese War.
But for all the 1,300 words and numerous images charting his long and illustrious journalistic history, not even a single mention was made of the biggest story of his career, which has seemingly vanished down the memory hole without trace. And therein lies a tale.
Could a news story ever be “too big” for the media to cover? Every journalist is always seeking a major expose, a piece that not merely reaches the transitory front pages but also might win a journalistic prize or even change the history books. Stories such as these appear rarely but can make a reporter’s career, and it is difficult to imagine a writer turning one down, or an editor rejecting it.
But what if the story is so big that it actually reveals dangerous truths about the real nature of the American media, portrays too many powerful people in a very negative light, and perhaps leads to a widespread loss of faith in our major news media? If readers were to see a story like that, they might naturally begin to wonder “why hadn’t we ever been told?” or even “what else might be out there?”
Towards the end of the 2008 presidential campaign, while John McCain battled Barack Obama for the White House, I clicked an intriguing link on a small website and discovered Syd’s remarkable expose, one which had been passed over or rejected by every major media outlet in the country, his enormous personal reputation notwithstanding.
The basic outline of events he described was a simple one. During the Paris Peace Talks that ended the Vietnam War, the U.S. government had committed to pay its Hanoi adversaries $3.25 billion in war reparations, and in exchange would receive back the American POWs held by the Vietnamese. The agreement was signed and the war officially ended, but the Vietnamese, suspecting a possible financial double-cross, kept back many hundreds of the imprisoned Americans until they received the promised payment.
For domestic political reasons, the Nixon Administration had characterized the billions of dollars pledged as “humanitarian assistance” and Congress balked at appropriating such a large sum for a hated Communist regime. Desperate for “peace with honor” and already suffering under the growing Watergate Scandal, Nixon and his aides could not admit that many hundreds of the POWs remained in enemy hands, and so declared them all returned, probably hoping to quietly arrange a trade of money for prisoners once the dust had settled. Similarly, Hanoi’s leaders falsely claimed that all the captives had been released, while they waited for their money to be paid. As a result, the two governments had jointly created a Big Lie, one which has largely maintained itself right down to the present day.
In the troubled aftermath of America’s military defeat and the Nixon resignation, our entire country sought to forget Vietnam, and neither elected officials nor journalists were eager to revisit the issue, let alone investigate one of the war’s dirtiest secrets. The Vietnamese continued to hold their American prisoners for most of the next twenty years, periodically making attempts to negotiate their release in exchange for the money they were still owed, but never found a American leader daring enough to take such a bold step. The Big Lie had grown just too enormous to be overturned.
Over the years, rumors surrounding the remaining POWs became widespread in veterans’ circles, and eventually these stories inspired a series of blockbuster Hollywood movies such as Rambo, Missing in Action, and Uncommon Valor, whose plots were all naturally dismissed or ridiculed as “rightwing conspiracy theories” by our elite media pundits. But the stories were all true, and even as American filmgoers watched Sylvester Stallone heroically free desperate American servicemen from Vietnamese prisons, the real-life American POWs were still being held under much those same horrible conditions, with no American leader willing to take the enormous political risk of attempting either to rescue or ransom them. Over the years, many of the POWs had died from ill-treatment, and the return of the miserable survivors after their secret captivity would unleash a firestorm of popular anger, surely destroying the many powerful individuals who had long known of their abandonment.
Eventually, America’s bipartisan political leadership sought to reestablish diplomatic relations with Hanoi and finally put the Vietnam War behind the country, but this important policy goal was obstructed by the residual political pressure from the resolute POW families. So a Senate Select Committee on the POWs was established in order to declare them non-existent once and for all. Sen. John McCain, a very high profile former POW himself, led the cover-up, perhaps because the very dubious nature of his own true war record left him eager to trade secrecy for secrecy. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, our media declared that the abandoned POWs had never existed and closed the books on the long, lingering controversy.
As it happens, not long after the committee issued its final report and shut down, a stunning document was unearthed in the newly-opened Kremlin archives. In the transcript of a Hanoi Politburo meeting, the Communist leadership discussed the true number of POWs they then held and made their decision to keep half of them back to ensure that America paid the billions of dollars it had promised. Former National Security Advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger both stated on national television that the document appeared genuine and it seemed undeniable that American POWs had indeed been left behind. Although the national media devoted a couple of days of major coverage to this uncomfortable revelation, it then reported denials from both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments, and quickly dropped the story, returning to the official narrative: There were no abandoned POWs and never had been.
As I reviewed Syd’s massively-documented 8,000 word exposition, and confirmed for myself that the bylined Sydney Schanberg was indeed the Sydney Schanberg, I experienced a growing sense of unreality. I was reading what might rank as “the story of the century,” a scandal vastly greater and more gripping than the sordid political abuses of Watergate or Iran-Contra, a tale of national treachery suppressed for forty years by our government and our media, but now broken by one of America’s most distinguished journalists. The gravest possible charges were being levied against Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, coming right at the height of his presidential campaign. And not one word of this was being mentioned in any of our mainstream media outlets, while almost all of the thousands of political websites, large and small alike, remained just as silent. From that day forward, I have never looked upon our national media with the same eye.
Everyone to whom I showed the article was just as shocked as myself, except for one or two individuals with a strong Vietnam War background, who privately confirmed that it was all probably true.
The election came and went with McCain’s defeat, and the incoming Obama Administration began coping with the intensifying financial crisis, but I still couldn’t put Syd’s remarkable article out of my mind, nor the deafening silence it had received. Perhaps, I thought to myself, the piece had been ignored because it appeared on a small website with few readers, and the unprepossessing circumstances of its release had raised serious doubts about its credibility.
At that time I served as publisher of The American Conservative, a small but generally well-regarded opinion magazine, and I eventually decided to commit my publication to providing the story the wider attention it so obviously deserved. By October I had gotten in touch with Syd, and spent several hours with him on the phone, explaining my interest, gaining his trust, and also assuring myself that he was still just as solid and sober a journalist as he had always been. I began preparations to republish his long expose as the cover story of one of my issues, making it the centerpiece of a symposium on government cover-ups and media lapses, with a special focus on the POW issue.
As part of that plan, I recruited a number of strong participants for the symposium, including Andrew Bacevich, the well-known military writer, the late Alex Cockburn, and even a former Republican House Member, who had independent evidence confirming the POW facts. Syd wrote a 2,000 word introductory piece entitled “Silent Treatment,” recounting his unsuccessful efforts to persuade any mainstream media outlet to investigate the scandal, and I added an introduction, providing my own perspective on the story and its implications.
My magazine had tens of thousands of regular readers, and with the story’s prestigious placement and Syd’s stature bolstered by the symposium contributors, I felt confident we would attract a great deal of mainstream attention. I was on friendly terms with quite a number of established reporters and opinion columnists, and sent them advance copies of the material, speaking with some of them by phone, and discovering that all were as shocked by Syd’s revelations as I had been. Yet the result once again was utter and complete silence from mainstream media outlets, and no response to any of my follow-up notes. I was later told that one of America’s best-known investigative reporters read the story and found it stunning, yet he never said a word about it in public.
Although totally boycotted by the establishment media, the article and the related pieces were heavily discussed and reviewed on several popular alternative media websites, left, right, and libertarian, so the facts must have come to the attention of many of the regular journalists who frequent those sources of information, and the cover story of our very next issue provoked considerable mainstream coverage. But Syd’s “scandal of the century” had seemingly vanished into the ether.
Not long afterward, Syd published a collection of his articles in book form, with his McCain/POW expose being one of the last and longest pieces. David Rohde, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning war reporter then at The New York Times, described the outstanding journalism contained within, writing that “Sydney Schanberg is one of the greatest war correspondents of the twentieth century,” and the praise from Pulitzer Prize winner Russell Baker was equally fulsome. Joseph Galloway, a journalist who had authored major books on the Vietnam War, explicitly contrasted Syd’s integrity with the shameful reticence of nearly all other journalists who failed to acknowledge the reality of America’s hundreds of abandoned Vietnam POWs. So the historical truth seems to be known and generally accepted within informed circles, but no mainstream publication has been willing to allow it to reach the eyes or ears of the general population.
I do believe that the evidence is simply overwhelming to anyone with an open mind, and the universal silence of our media is the only slight contrary indicator. A few months ago I served on a government secrecy panel with Daniel Ellsberg, whose role in leaking the Pentagon Papers had established him one of America’s leading voices on cover-ups of embarrassing military secrets. A major portion of my talk focused on Syd’s POW findings, and the way in which the government and media had successfully colluded to keep the story hidden for over four decades. Ellsberg found the claims totally astonishing, and saying he’d never previously heard a word about them, eagerly took home copies of the article and some related material. At the dinner reception the next evening, he told me he’d carefully read them, and was fully convinced that everything was probably true.
At one point I also received a note from an elderly, rather prominent mainstream conservative academic. He told me that at the end of the Vietnam War he had been a young intelligence officer in Washington, and even after all these decades the abandonment of American POWs still made him sick to his stomach. He said he hoped that someday there might be a U.S. President willing to tell the American people the truth of what had actually happened. I asked him for permission to publish his remarks, even anonymously, but got no reply.
Syd had always believed that the American media was simply scared of his story, with its troubling implications, and I tend to agree with him. Just as the government has maintained its cover-up for all these years because admitting the truth would destroy too many reputations, crucial elements of the media may feel the same way. There is the famous precedent of Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, whose reports from the Soviet Union regularly ridiculed claims of any significant Ukrainian famine during the 1930s and thereby helped ensure that nearly all of America’s elite media discounted and ignored the reports that millions were dying. The Times took nearly sixty years before finally admitting its error.
And the cautious and hierarchical structure of mainstream journalism probably produces a cascading effect. The editor of any media outlet who might consider covering the POW scandal would naturally conclude that “it can’t possibly be true or it would have already reached the headlines of one of America’s leading publications.” Meanwhile, the editors of any one of those latter outlets would note Syd’s 26 years as a star journalist at the New York Times, and wonder why our national newspaper of record would be ignoring the story if it had any substantial basis in reality. And perhaps the editors making such decisions at the august Times itself would be ashamed to admit that they had completely ignored the facts for so long. A story which is “hot” will surely boost a journalist’s career, but one which is “too hot” might risk destroying it.
Sometimes lower-ranking individuals are reluctant to stick their necks out on something so explosive, or even to trouble their superiors on the matter. Syd once told me that some years ago, he had dinner at his home with a retired Executive Editor of the Times, who was astonished to learn of the explosive POW findings, and dismayed that his own newspaper had never covered any of it at the time. “Why didn’t you come to me yourself?,” he asked. Syd responded that he considered it inappropriate to make a personal appeal for coverage on a story of such great significance, and that the material should stand or fall on its own journalistic merits. They parted with some angry words.
The historical events under discussion took place over forty years ago, and I am sure that many would suggest that they have little relevance today. I was just a child when the Vietnam War ended, and barely have a memory of it. The American troops deliberately left behind to die by our own government numbered less than one percent of their comrades who fell in battle, and merely the tiniest sliver of the millions of overall fatalities in that misbegotten war.
But from the very first time I have never believed that Syd’s remarkable findings would significantly alter our view of the Vietnam War or even of our political leadership. The meaningful issue is not whether the Vietnamese Communists held our prisoners for ransom or whether American leaders sought to escape embarrassment by hiding that reality, but rather whether our supposedly free and vibrant mainstream press can be trusted on anything important, with a cover-up of such length and magnitude suggesting a negative conclusion. I think it would be an important and absolutely fascinating exercise for some enterprising media journalist to go around to a considerable number of the appropriate editors and reporters, bring them face to face with Syd’s remarkable findings, and ask them what did they know, when did they know it, and why did none of them ever decide to report it?
The media is an enormously powerful and shaping force in our society, and receives far less scrutiny than it should. Taken together, it constitutes the sensory organs of the body politic, and if these grow unreliable, the results for our society can be disastrous, just as an animal in the wild with failing eyesight must surely face its doom.
Twelve months ago I would have been quite pessimistic that Syd’s revelations might reach the media headlines in the foreseeable future, but today a confluence of independent factors may have made that a real possibility.
Most pundits have been flummoxed by the recent rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, whose repeated victories over their establishmentarian opponents seemed to violate every rule of modern political campaigns. But I think the obvious explanation is the visceral, burning hatred of so many Americans, both left and right, toward what they perceive to be the total dishonesty and corruption of their reigning political and media elites.
Last year I published an article gathering together the limited available evidence concerning John McCain’s true wartime record, and demonstrating that it seemed at utter variance with that presented by the media. In many respects, my piece was a coda to Syd’s own POW expose, and I was gratified at the very kind words he extended to my work. John McCain is currently up for reelection in Arizona this year and deeply unpopular, with the latest poll putting him at below 40% in his own Republican primary.
Much of my analysis had focused on the strong indications that McCain spent nearly his entire imprisonment as a leading Communist collaborator, whose widespread propaganda broadcasts rendered him the “Tokyo Rose” of that era; later he concocted false claims of torture in order to protect himself against plausible accusations of treason. Although the evidence I found of McCain’s broadcasts seemed persuasive, it was from secondary sources and inexact. But now the actual McCain tapes have been located and may soon be released. I’ve listened to one of them myself and it exactly matches the descriptions contained in my article, while an actual audio file naturally carries much greater evidentiary weight. And the very tight connection between McCain’s deep wartime secrets and those surrounding the abandoned POWs ensure that if the first gains the awareness of the general public, the second will almost inevitably follow. McCain’s sordid wartime record would represent the triggering fuse that might ignite a massive national political explosion.
Will the Arizona voters learn the true facts about John McCain? Perhaps, perhaps not. Trump is very much a loose cannon, whose 10 million agitated Twitter followers constitute an enormous alternative media distribution channel, and one which served him very well during the primaries. Just a few days ago, Trump held a remarkably hostile meeting with all the Republican senators, at which he threatened to personally ensure the defeat this year of Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. Apparently, he confused Flake, who is not up for reelection in 2016, with McCain, who is, and the latter has also been a major target of his political wrath.
Syd despised Donald Trump and everything he stood for, so it would be ironic indeed if Trump became the inadvertent vehicle of “the great cleansing of the Augean Stables” that Syd had sought for so many years.
I doubt if one Americans in twenty is aware that over forty years ago, his government deliberately abandoned hundreds of POWs in Vietnam, and then spent four decades desperately covering up that enormous crime, with the media being a willing co-conspirator. But even if our citizens remain ignorant of that particular dark deed, over the years they have strongly come to suspect their elites are guilty of a vast number of equally heinous offenses, some of which are plausible and others ridiculous; and who can reasonably blame them? If our entire media would willfully ignore “the story of the century” as massively documented by one of its most distinguished members, who can say what other matters might remain hidden from public view?
For years I’ve been telling my friends that unless and until our major media publications are finally willing to report Sydney Schanberg’s stunning POW expose, I simply won’t trust a word they write about anything else. And perhaps that is the most important legacy of one of America’s greatest journalists.
American Pravda: The Legacy of Sydney SchanbergRon Unz • July 13, 2016 The death on Saturday of Sydney Schanberg at age 82 should sadden us not only for the loss of one of our most renowned journalists but also for what his story reveals about the nature of our national media. Syd had made his career at the New York Times for 26 years, winning a Pulitzer… Read More
- Was Rambo Right? — Ron Unz
- Silent Treatment — Sydney Schanberg
- John McCain and the POW Cover-Up — Sydney Schanberg
- John McCain: When “Tokyo Rose” Ran for President — Ron Unz
- Our American Pravda — Ron Unz
- The Legacy of Sydney Schanberg
John McCain: When “Tokyo Rose” Ran for President What Was John McCain’s True Wartime Record in Vietnam? Ron Unz • March 9, 2015 Although the memory has faded in recent years, during much of the second half of the twentieth century the name “Tokyo Rose” ranked very high in our popular consciousness, probably second only to “Benedict Arnold” as a byword for American treachery during wartime. The story of Iva Ikuko Toguri, the young Japanese-American woman who spent… Read More