As Ron Unz has noted occasionally in his columns, mainstream publications as one refused to publish Sidney Schanberg’s exposé on John McCain: his unsavory acts as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam and his efforts to bury the evidence of P.O.W.s left behind after the war. A “parallel universe,” Unz called the article. It cut straight across the mainstream’s fawning narrative of presidential-candidate McCain the noble war hero. But the story of McCain and the evidence that many American prisoners were never returned from Vietnam, which Schanberg summarizes at the end of his article, is far more than a matter of media disregard. Doing research for a novella based on the abandoned-prisoners issue, I found that it concisely describes the incipient rot in American political culture.
The controversy about the left-behind P.O.W.s is decades old now, so here is a brief summary of it. The 1973 treaty that ended the Vietnam War declared in its Article 21 that America would pay war reparations to the Vietnamese. The amount, however, was left unstated. A letter from President Richard Nixon to North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong specified that $3.25 billion would be paid by America up front, with an additional $1 billion to $1.5 billion to be paid later, depending on different conditions. (If the U.S. had ended up paying, say, $3.75 billion, that would be $21.88 billion today, roughly double the budget of the U.S. Commerce Department.) The Vietnamese accepted this letter as a binding commitment; the Yankees had a different idea. As Richard Holbrooke told a Senate committee about his 1977 meeting with the Vietnamese, “It was then that I realized that it was more than a negotiating ploy, that they really believed it…The Vietnamese believed the Kissinger-Nixon letter to have standing…Our position was simple:…That letter has no standing….it is an outrageous document…which should never have been sent.” Nixon’s letter was, in true Kissingeresque fashion, kept secret, and when it came to light after Watergate, Congress immediately passed a law saying that America would not pay Vietnam a nickel.
As with the French after the Indochina War, the Vietnamese held back P.O.W.s as hostages until their opponents paid up. The French did and got their men back. The Americans, surely telling themselves that they were made of tougher fiber, refused to pay ransom.
Schanberg’s article was dark stuff: McCain, son of an admiral, had received preferential treatment as a P.O.W., and even made a propaganda recording that was played over and over to prisoners. His guilt over this surely drove him, as senator, to head off the rumors about left-behind prisoners, broadly estimated at 300 to 1,200 men. (The North Vietnamese never published a list of prisoners.) His 1991 “McCain Bill” walled off all intelligence about remaining live P.O.W.s. And along with John Kerry, he stonewalled, ridiculed, and shouted down every line of investigation on the abandoned servicemen. Yet Schanberg’s article, produced as McCain was running for president, went straight on the spike: the Times, the Journal, the Post, all the major news magazines and even Mother Jones turned it down.
The mainstream media’s shunning of the P.O.W. issue probably explains why very few books have tried to penetrate the wall of ashamed silence around it. On Amazon.com, the non-fiction books I found could be counted on the fingers of one hand. And as to fiction, the leading light is the second chapter of the Rambo series: First Blood Part II. The 1985 film capitalized on years of sightings of bushy-bearded prisoners dressed in ragged fatigues – sightings largely by Vietnamese and Laotians then arriving in waves in America – and is worth examining for how, in true Hollywood fashion, it tries to tie off public interest in the subject.
The film is an empty, black-hat-white-hat shoot-’em-up bore that features Sylvester Stallone’s chiseled body and nobody-loves-me scowl. Its only admirable aspect is that much of the action was shot in a roaring downpour: herculean concentration must have been required to turn in a decent acting job. The plot has John Rambo sent back to post-war Vietnam, where he once fought the war as a soldier, and told to seek out and photograph – just photograph – a military camp where American P.O.W.s are allegedly being held. If he finds any, a team will be sent in to liberate them. But Rambo hasn’t built all those muscles just to click a shutter, and when he finds American prisoners, he grabs one in order to bring him back to the American base in Thailand. This angers Rambo’s commanders, who instead of picking him up, abandon him to the Vietnamese.
Yes, it turns out that Rambo’s real nemesis is not the communists – the same soldiers who stymied the American military, now reliably stupid – or the evil Russians that torture him, but Marshall Murdock, the intel agent in charge of the mission. He expects Rambo to find the Vietnamese base empty of prisoners so that he can assure “Congress” that no prisoners remain anywhere in the country; such is Hollywood logic. When Rambo complicates things, Murdock clashes with Colonel Trautman, Rambo’s mentor/commander:
Murdock: Who the hell do you think you’re talking to, Trautman?
Trautman: A stinkin’ bureaucrat who’s tryin to cover his ass!
Murdock: Oh Trautman, I still don’t think you understand what this is all about.
Trautman: The same as it always is! Money! In ’72 we were supposed to pay the Cong four-and-a-half billion in war reparations. We reneged, they kept the POWs… and you’re doing the same thing all over again.
Murdock: And what the hell would you do, Trautman? Pay blackmail money to ransom our own men and finance the war effort against our allies?…Do you honestly think somebody’s gonna get up on the floor of the United States Senate and ask for billions of dollars for a couple of forgotten ghosts?
To Murdock’s embarrassment, ultimately Rambo does return to Thailand with some half-dozen P.O.W.s, and the movie ends. Spectators are to finish their popcorn, shake their heads over the perfidy of that “stinkin’ bureaucrat,” and head for the exit. According to imdb.com, the film grossed 301 million dollars.
The curtain fell, however, just when things got interesting. Does this mean “the United States Senate” wouldn’t spend good money to get its men back? By every account, Washington’s largesse is unlimited where our fighting men are concerned. And what about Rambo’s half-dozen rescuees? Surely someone might notice their returns to Peoria and Podunk, and wonder if there might be more prisoners. Let’s take these two questions in order.
Getting our men back? What men?
The U.S Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, created in 1991, was Congress’ second attempt to deal with the clamor from families of P.O.W.s and M.I.A.s. The committee consisted of two members (Senators Bob Smith and Chuck Grassley) determined to find live prisoners and bring them back from Vietnam, and ten who wanted the issue buried forever. John McCain and its chairman John Kerry led the latter group.
Elizabeth A. Stewart and the late Congressman Bill Hendon, in their book An Enormous Crime, provide a bitter blow-by-blow description of how the committee methodically dispensed with all evidence that American prisoners were still alive in Vietnam, some of which was mentioned by Schanberg in his article. Here’s a greatest-hits list of the committee’s hypocrisy:
- Hundreds of meticulously-vetted sightings and satellite imagery of P.O.W.s and prison camps were compiled by Hendon and two other staff investigators. Along with the other committee members, Kerry listened to their presentation and said that anyone who drew conclusions from it “ought to have his head examined.” He then ordered all copies of the report collected and burned, and sent his top aide to be sure that investigators deleted all their research from their computers.
- In Hanoi, Kerry dramatically announced a “surprise inspection” of Bang Liet Prison, then sat down for lunch; you can’t inspect a prison on an empty stomach. When he and the rest of the committee arrived, they found no Americans. It later emerged that Kerry had actually arranged the inspection with the Vietnamese the day before.
- Messages carved on the land in giant letters – “USA,” identification codes and distress signals – were dismissed by DIA analysts as “shadows and vegetation” or “furrows.” When one analyst stated that they were authentic, he was replaced with a more pliable one.
- A Secret Service agent overheard President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush, CIA director William Casey, and National Security Adviser Richard Allen discussing a 1981 offer from the Vietnamese: a cool $4 billion dollars for the remaining prisoners. (Reagan was sympathetic.) Years later, the Secret Service man contacted the committee investigators and offered to testify if subpoenaed. Kerry and McCain lobbied hard against this, though when they saw that they had plenty of votes to defeat it, Kerry voted in favor. Senator Bob Smith thundered, “This is just one more instance in which this committee…has caved in to the desires of the executive branch it was established to investigate.”
- All types of evidence – satellite photos, witnesses, architectural plans – pointed to a P.O.W. prison under the plaza in front of the newly-built Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. What better place to house the trophies of victory? Kerry and Bob Smith were allowed access to the underground facility, or at least to its antechamber, full of pipes and generators; the Vietnamese, according to Smith, would not let them through any of the doors there. Kerry later declared that they had gone through “tunnels and catacombs” to no avail. Smith said they had done no such thing.
So the committee’s final report stated that no prisoners remained alive, with the exception of a few deserters and perhaps a handful of prisoners held here and there in jungle stockades that Hanoi was unaware of. The Clinton Administration’s emphasis shifted definitively from live prisoners to the search for soldier remains. Neither Kerry nor McCain paid a political price for their conniving. Having proven their realpolitik bona fides, both men went on to become presidential candidates. Burying the P.O.W.s was a true team effort on the part of the political class, the media, the intelligence agencies, and the Pentagon.
And what happens if someone does escape from Vietnam?
As to the film’s other can of worms, the returning prisoners, history offers only one clue as to what might happen to them. In 1979, Marine Private Robert Garwood slipped a note to a European in an international hotel in Hanoi and became the only P.O.W. to ever escape post-war Vietnam. He had been a prisoner for fourteen years. Early on in his captivity, a veteran prisoner had taken him under his wing and taught him to speak Vietnamese; taught him how to take care of himself in the jungle prisons; and taught him the basic rule of prison life: either you made yourself useful to the Vietnamese, or they let you die. Conditions were horrific: the veteran prisoner ended up beaten to death by the guards for an infraction of the rules.
In his years in Vietnam, Garwood had seen other prisoners post-war – some two hundred, he estimates – and that made his return dangerous to the American ruling elite. So he was arrested the moment he boarded a flight for the U.S. and charged with desertion and collaboration with the enemy. He was court-marshaled and ultimately drummed out of the service with a dishonorable discharge, losing fourteen years of back pay. The point was to discredit him so that anything he had to say about remaining P.O.W.s would be dismissed. And it worked. His information about prisoner sightings served mostly as background corroboration. Even today, any Internet comment about Garwood inevitably attracts someone who trashes his reputation, as it will here.
Conclusion: The real root of the cover-up
It was obvious why Sidney Schanberg’s article was ignored: the whole Deep State had put its shoulder to “disappearing” the left-behind P.O.W.s, and in the most notoriously Soviet style. But why? Why so much resistance to paying Vietnam the pledged money? One reason was clearly the principle of not paying “ransom,” about which there was a lot of righteous talk around Washington: “We do not believe that American foreign policy should be shaped by the holding of hostages,” Kissinger solemnly told a group of governors. Another reason, as the “stinkin’ bureaucrat” said, was that the money would “finance the war effort against our allies,” though it’s unlikely that the Vietnamese, their country a shambles, would have shared the joy among brother communists. But this realpolitik sounded very cool, very adult, and it’s surely what everyone grumbled in the Pentagon cafeteria.
But as I surveyed the dirty dealing of the intel establishment, politicians, media barons and mid-level department heads, all fighting like hell to disbelieve the obvious and keep evidence under wraps, it was clear that something else lay behind their collective animus: shame, which after the war wafted like a rotten eggs throughout the Washington elite. A poor semi-medieval nation had driven the United States to the bargaining table and made it grovel. The defeat humbled their understanding of progress, their model of society, their idea of power, their very status as elites.
For even the citizenry turned its back on them. Everyday Americans hadn’t cared about losing; they’d just wanted the war ended, with its ghastly body counts, napalmed children, raging protests, worry about their sons’ draft numbers, and unctuous Pentagon spokesmen defending the importance of defeating communism. American elites, who in their youth had defeated Hitler’s Wehrmacht, now bore humiliation both on the world stage and in the aisle of the supermarket.
And they wanted it behind them; they wanted Vietnam forgotten. They were sickened by the prospect of a steady trickle of returning P.O.W.s “miraculously” turned up by the Vietnamese, first a few hundred, then twelve here, twenty there – news stories of torture and mental traumas, families of the missing clamoring ever more shrilly: “Captain Joe said he saw my son Fred in a jungle camp in May or June 1969! You gotta find him!” To go through that, and pay billions for it? No, that was too much. As Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage told Bill Hendon, “Look, Congressman, it’s over. These men serve at the pleasure of their commander-in-chief, and when he decides it’s time for them to come home, they’ll come home.”
So the Establishment abandoned its soldiers, set its face against the truth, and busied itself getting back at the Soviets in Afghanistan and “winning” the Cold War. Elites “moved on,” a term that once described hardy pioneers pushing west, and now serves as an excuse for the memory hole. They had no time for the hundreds of servicemen from Iowa, Texas and Maine, stifling under their straggly hair and beards, withering away year by hopeless year as macabre mementos of communist triumph. With Vietnam and its aftermath, the bond between rulers and ruled was broken. The abandoned P.O.W.s are a symbol of how empires are won and nations are lost.