The "5,000 POWs"
Summary. One article of faith in the MIA
mythology is that "the U.S. government expected 5,000 prisoners
to be returned by the North Vietnamese at the end of the war." This
statement appears in many MIA websites, home pages, newsletters, speeches, and other
material. The source of the figure 5,000 is cited as the New York Times,
At the time of Operation Homecoming -- the U.S. POW return in the spring
of 1973 -- just over 2,500 Americans were even missing, half of those were known dead
(Killed in Action - Body Not Recovered), and the other half were generally believed to be
dead. So, a little over 2,500 men not returned, how is it that the U.S. government
expected twice that many to walk out of the jungles of Vietnam and the prisons of
Hanoi? Well, the fact is, no one expected that. The figure of 5,000 is a
concoction of the MIA myth makers. Read on.
Where did the number 5,000 originate?
From time to time, I have heard or read claims that the U.S. government
"expected" 5,000 POWs to be returned from Vietnam at the end of the war. I found
this number to be rather wacky, because only a little over 2,500 men were even
missing. The two most active newsgroups dealing with the Vietnam War -- the
moderated soc.history.war.vietnam and the
free-wheeling alt.war.vietnam -- sometimes carry
threads, started by various purveyors of MIA mythology, claiming that the U. S. Government
expected 5,000 POWs to return.
I could never determine where this absurd number came from. Now, I have found the
In May 1991, Senator Jesse Helms, acting in his position as senior minority member of
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a report titled An Examination of U.
S. Policy Toward POW/MIAs. This hundred-or-so-page document was produced by a
cabal of staffers in Helms' office and on the Committee staff who were closely tied to
former Congressman Hendon. The principal author was one Tracy Usry. This report claimed
that the U.S. POWs who returned in Operation Homecoming were only "12%
of the figure of 5,000 held by the North Vietnamese reported by 'The New York
The NYT claims that the North Vietnamese held 5,000 U. S. POWs??? I doubt it.
Not so fast
That is not at all what the NYT said.
The Helms report cited a March 1973 NYT story that was cited in an Associated Press
Here is what the AP dispatch said:
"While the North Vietnamese did not list a number of prisoners they
wanted freed, 'The New York Times' reported from Saigon today that
American sources set the demand at 5,000."
Thus, what the NYT and the AP were reporting was: THE NUMBER
OF PRISONERS THAT THE NORTH VIETNAMESE EXPECTED SOUTH VIETNAM AND THE U.S. TO RETURN TO
THE NORTH. They expected us to return to them 5,000 of their
Mendacity reigns supreme on the staff
The 5,000 number had nothing to do with U.S. POWs. In fact, when
the error was pointed out, Helms' staff removed the New York Times citation from
subsequent printings of the report BUT RETAINED THE 5,000 NUMBER in the text of the
report. Instead of citing the NYT, the report now claims that the 5,000
number comes from "sources interviewed by the Committee
staff." ( An Examination of U. S. Policy Toward POW/MIAs, November
1991 edition, pp. 5 - 8.) And people wonder why I claim that there is mythmaking at work
In November 1991, Usry was exposed as having falsified and misrepresented most of the
information in An Examination of U. S. Policy Toward POW/MIAs. (Hearings Before
the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, Part I of II, Nov. 5, 6, 7, and 15,
1991, pages 443 - 447.)
In January 1992, Helms' new chief of staff, a retired admiral (Nance) who knew a clown
when he saw one, fired the whole gang. This came after several Republican members of the
Committee, who had not been consulted before the report was issued, urged Helms to clean
house. The admiral came under attack from Hendon and he is still considered a villain by
many true believers.
Will the myth makers change their tune?
Okay, so the U.S. never expected 5,000 -- nor did we expect 2,500 -- POWs
to be returned from Vietnam. The number comes from phony information but it is still
quoted on the "MIA activist" grapevine as the "Senate report." Don't
hold your breath for the various MIA web sites, newsletters, and radio programs to rush to
correct their claims.
If you would like to read some serious material about the mythology
that surrounds the issue of Americans missing in Southeast Asia, check out my Home Page Bookstore for selected books on the Vietnam War POW-MIA issue.