Last week America suffered the loss of Sydney Schanberg, widely regarded as one of the greatest journalists of his generation. Yet as I’d previously noted, when I read his long and glowing obituary in the New York Times, I was shocked to see that it included not a single word concerning the greatest story of his career, which had been the primary focus of the last quarter century of his research and writing.
The cynical abandonment of hundreds of American POWs at the end of the Vietnam War must surely rank as one of the most monumental scandals of modern times, and the determined effort of the mainstream media to maintain this enormous governmental cover-up for over four decades raises serious doubts about whether we can believe what our newspapers report about anything else.
A couple of mainstream academics, one liberal and one conservative, whose names would be recognized as those of prominent public intellectuals, dropped me notes strongly applauding my effort to reopen the POW controversy and help get the truth out at last.
But the vast majority of my readers, perhaps being of a younger generation, were quite surprised to read my presentation, presumably having always vaguely assumed that talk of the “abandoned POWs” was just some Hollywood-inspired myth of the 1980s, generated by the success of the Rambo movies of the Reagan Era and continued by the populist paranoia of Ross Perot, before gradually fading away with the passage of time. I can’t really blame them because until just a few years ago that was exactly my own impression.
As someone who was just a child during the Vietnam War and had no familial connection to the conflict, I’d paid little attention to the history. During the late 1970s and afterward, the newspapers had gradually informed me of the POW activists, with their wild talk of Americans still held for years after the war in secret prisons of Communist Vietnam and the dark accusations they made of government conspiracies working to suppress that truth.
Naturally, I’d discounted such claims as the most obvious lunacy, on a par with UFO abductions, and never doubted that the advocates were exactly the sort of rightwing crackpots the media had always suggested. Every now and then lengthy cover stories had appeared in The New Republic or The Atlantic Monthly, among my favorite publications, strongly reinforcing that established verdict, and I always read those, nodded my head, and thought no more of the topic. For thirty-five years I never once considered the possibility that the POWs might have actually existed.
But perhaps it is exactly that past ignorance and disinterest in the Vietnam War and the ensuing POW controversy that affords me some reasonable objectivity on the issue, allowing me to analyze the facts much as I would a historical puzzle from Ancient Greece. And once I finally encountered both sides of the story in late 2008, the evidence in favor of the reality of the POWs seemed absolutely overwhelming.
When I discovered Schanberg’s stunning 8,000 word expose online, an article rejected by nearly every significant publication in America, my first step was to locate copies of the conflicting articles that had once seemed so persuasive to me, and reread them much more carefully. Once I did that I realized that the factual argumentation they had provided had been extremely thin. Their contents heavily focused on the cultural and ideological aspects of the POW movement, with the possible reality of any POWs casually dismissed upon rather scanty evidence. What I had been reading was cultural criticism rather than investigative journalism.
To a considerable extent, the rightwing POW activists played into the hands of their critics by presenting the facts of the case upside down, framing their arguments in a way sure to attract the scorn of most reporters. Activist rhetoric was heavy with denunciations of the “treacherous” Communists in Hanoi, who cruelly kept our American POWs still imprisoned despite the peace agreement that ended the war. To any objective journalist, this surely sounded paranoid and ridiculous. Why would the Communists want to keep the American POWs? Out of pure evilness or something?
But the reality was exactly the opposite. It was the American government that had been treacherous, by refusing to pay the Vietnamese the $3.25 billion in reparations that they had demanded at the Paris Peace Talks as a price for ending the war and returning the POWs. If you buy a car and you refuse to pay, is it “treacherous” if the car dealer never delivers your vehicle?
The problem had been that for domestic political reasons the Nixon Administration chose to pretend that the promised payment of the money was unconnected with the prisoner return, instead labelling it “humanitarian assistance.” Unsurprisingly, Congress balked at providing billions in foreign aid to a hated Communist adversary, and Nixon, weakened by the growing Watergate Scandal, couldn’t admit that unless the money were delivered, Hanoi would refuse to return the remaining POWs.
This very simple and plausible reconstruction seems to have been completely ignored by the prestigious magazines that covered the controversy. For example, the July 1985 TNR cover story by James Rosenthal, a television journalist, ran nearly 3,000 words, but never raised this possibility, instead being overwhelmingly devoted to ridiculing the POW activists and their celebrity enablers, while questioning their motives. The supposed non-existence of the POWs was established by quoting a few government reports and official declarations. Rosenthal particularly emphasized that the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) discounted any evidence of surviving POWs, apparently being unaware that, as Schanberg notes, his immediate DIA predecessor had long held exactly the opposite position, believing that the data indicated the existence of live POWs; after a bitter bureaucratic struggles, he had been forced into retirement over that very issue. Missing that sort of important detail represents the difference between publishing a solidly researched article and just a bit of casual beltway opinion journalism.
Even more drastic was my reappraisal of the December 1991 Atlantic Monthly cover story by H. Bruce Franklin. Entitled “The POW/MIA Myth” and running a remarkable 15,000 words, this lengthy debunking had appeared in one of America’s most prestigious outlets for longform journalism at the very start of the Senate POW Hearings and must have heavily influenced the perceptions and tone of the daily print journalists who covered the hearings, while reporting the public statements of the various witnesses and the positions taken by Senators John McCain, John Kerry, and the other Committee members.
The very first sentence of Franklin’s article noted that 69% of the American public then believed that live POWs were still being held in Southeast Asia, but he not unreasonably attributed much of this belief to the various popular Hollywood movies of the 1980s. Franklin is a cultural historian rather than an investigative journalist and he seems to draw on few sources of information beyond the regular newspapers, yet casually ridicules a 60 Minutes producer whose five year investigation had concluded that the POWs definitely existed. Given his own expertise and background, it is hardly surprising that Franklin devotes as much as 90% of the piece to the “cultural” aspects of the POW phenomenon—the rightwing activists who believed it, the hucksters who profited from it, the unrealistic plots of the Hollywood action movies that glorified it.
In a particularly ironic turn, he mocked anyone who might believe in an “enormous conspiracy” by the various arms of the U.S government to suppress the truth about the POWs. Ironic, because Franklin himself was an unrepentant radical Maoist who been one of the very few tenured professors fired during the campus turmoil of the 1960s when he incited riots at Stanford and organized attacks on university buildings. Apparently, he firmly believed that government officials all lied about Vietnam during the war itself, but became scrupulously honest once it had ended.
Franklin’s naivete is almost charming. In 1985 President Reagan’s National Security Advisor was secretly caught on tape admitting that POWs were probably still alive, a statement exactly contrary to his official public position. But Franklin attributes this stunning gaffe to the distorting psychological influence of the Rambo movies then playing in the theaters.
He also persuasively argues that Reagan himself firmly believed in the reality of the POWs and during his term of office made various secret attempts to rescue them, but uses these facts merely to portray the Gipper as ignorant and delusional, never apparently considering the possibility that the president of the United States might have access to better intelligence sources than those of a Maoist professor of cultural studies.
Meanwhile, Schanberg noted sworn testimony by Reagan’s National Security Advisor, revealing that early in the administration an offer had been received via a third country suggesting Hanoi would return the surviving POWs in exchange for a payment of $4 billion (the difference from the original $3.25 billion presumably representing nearly a decade of accrued interest). Perhaps this development, rather than Hollywood action movies, helped explain the president’s beliefs.
Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Franklin’s piece is that although he devotes 21 pages of magazine text to exhaustively exploring almost every cultural aspect of the so-called “POW Myth,” including detailed plot summaries of several Hollywood action movies, he never once even mentions the $3.25 billion in reparations that America had promised Vietnam and then never paid, which likely constitutes the key to the entire political mystery. I find that omission highly suspicious and wonder whether he (or his editor) feared that providing such a telling clue might lead his readers to reconsider the entire logical framework being presented to them.
As mentioned, Franklin was an especially fervent opponent of the Vietnam War and he surely must have retained a burning political hatred for Henry Kissinger and the other Nixon Administration alumni whom he blamed for the disaster. But these individuals were obviously also the central figures behind the POW cover-up, and by applying a thick whitewash of cultural critique to the massive scandal, he helped ensure that none of them were ever called to account for their misdeeds by the American people. The term “useful idiot” surely comes to mind.
Over the years it has become quite apparent that major media outlets are sometimes enlisted as weapons in a subterranean propaganda war, and one must wonder whether publication of the massive Franklin cover story, timed to precisely coincide with the launch of the Senate POW Hearings, might have been an instance of this. Certainly there were powerful political figures very eager to bury the scandal once and for all, and what better way to do so than by providing a prestigious national platform for a cultural critic whose greatest personal specialty was the literary interpretation of science fiction, having him produce an article focusing so heavily upon the cultural and ideological shortcomings of the POW advocates while rather casually dismissing the possible factual basis of their case. Surely there must have been numerous investigative journalists available who might have used the same venue to provide the magazine’s elite national readership with a much more realistic and balanced assessment of the facts. But perhaps that’s exactly the point.
For Further Reading: