MIA Facts Site

Report of the
Senate Select Committee
on
POW-MIA Affairs:
Section 5

 

Investigation of Issues Related to Paris Peace Accords

Most of the questions and controversies that still surround the POW/MIA issue can be traced back to the Paris Peace Accords and their immediate aftermath. If that agreement had been implemented in good faith by North Vietnam and with necessary cooperation from Cambodia and Laos, the fullest possible accounting of missing Americans would have been achieved long ago.

During negotiations, the American team, headed by Dr. Henry Kissinger, had sought an agreement that would provide explicitly for the release of American prisoners and an accounting for missing American servicemen throughout Indochina. The U.S. negotiators said, when the agreement was signed, that they had "unconditional guarantees" that these goals would be achieved.

The great accomplishment of the peace agreement was that it resulted in the release of 591 American POWs, of whom 566 were military and 25 civilian. It also established a framework for cooperation in resolving POW/MIA related questions that remains of value today. Unfortunately, efforts to implement the agreement failed, for a number of reasons, to resolve the POW/MIA issue.

Obstacles Faced by U.S. Negotiators

During its investigation, the Committee identified several factors that handicapped U.S. officials during the negotiation of the peace agreement, and during the critical first months of implementation.

The first and most obvious obstacle to a fully effective agreement was the approach taken to the POW/MIA issue by North Vietnam (DRV) and its allies. During the war, the DRV violated its obligations under the Geneva Convention by refusing to provide complete lists of prisoners, and by prohibiting or severely restricting the right of prisoners to exchange mail or receive visits from international humanitarian agencies.

During negotiations, the DRV insisted that the release of prisoners could not be completed prior to the withdrawal of all U.S. forces, and consistently linked cooperation on the POW/MIA issue to other issues, including a demand for reconstruction aid from the United States. Once the agreement was signed, the DRV was slow to provide a list of prisoners captured in Laos. Following Operation Homecoming, the North Vietnamese refused to cooperate in providing an accounting for missing Americans, including some who were known to have been held captive at one time within the DRV prison system. Perhaps most important of all, the DRV's continued pursuit of a military conquest of South Vietnam dissipated prospects for cooperation on POW/MIA issues.

A second factor inhibiting the achievement of U.S. objectives was the limited leverage enjoyed by U.S. negotiators. It was U.S. policy, fully known to the North Vietnamese, that the U.S. sought to disengage from the war. President Nixon was elected on a platform calling for an end to U.S. involvement; support was building rapidly within the Congress for measures that would have mandated a withdrawal conditioned on the return of prisoners; and the American public had become increasingly divided and war-weary as the conflict continued. These same factors, along with the debilitating effects of the Watergate scandal on the Nixon Presidency, weakened the U.S. hand in responding to DRV violations after the peace agreement was signed.

A third factor limiting the success of the agreement was the absence of Lao and Cambodian representatives from the peace table. Although the U.S. negotiators pressed the DRV for commitments concerning the release of prisoners and an accounting for the missing throughout Indochina, the peace accords technically apply only to Vietnam. Although the DRV, in a side understanding, assured Dr. Kissinger that it would cooperate in obtaining the release of U.S. prisoners in Laos, the fact is that the prisoners captured in Laos who were actually released had long since been transferred to Hanoi. No Americans held captive in Laos for a significant period of time have ever been returned. Neither the peace agreement, nor the assurances provided by North Vietnam to Dr. Kissinger, established procedures to account for missing Americans in Cambodia or Laos.

American Protests

The Paris Peace Accords provided for the exchange of prisoner lists on the day the agreement was signed and for the return of all prisoners of war within 60 days. It also required the parties to assist each other in obtaining information about those missing in action and to determine the location of graves for the purpose of recovering and repatriating remains.

U.S. officials, especially in the Department of Defense, were disappointed that more live American prisoners were not included on the lists exchanged when the peace agreement was signed or--with respect to prisoners captured in Laos--four days after the agreement was signed. The record uncovered by the Committee's investigation indicates that high level Defense Department and Defense Intelligence Agency officials were especially concerned about the incompleteness of the list of prisoners captured in Laos.

This concern was based on intelligence that some Americans had been held captive by the Pathet Lao, on repeated Pathet Lao claims that prisoners were being held, and on the large number of American pilots who were listed as missing in action in Laos compared to the number being proposed for return. Top military and intelligence officials expressed the hope, at the time the peace agreement was signed, that as many as 41 servicemen lost in Laos would be returned. However, only ten men (7 U.S. military, 2 U.S. civilian and a Canadian) were on the list of prisoners captured in Laos that was turned over by the DRV.

During the first 60 days, while the American troop withdrawal was underway, the Nixon Administration contacted North Vietnamese officials repeatedly to express concern about the incomplete nature of the prisoner lists that had been received. In early February, President Nixon sent a message to the DRV Prime Minister saying, with respect to the list of only ten POWs from Laos, that:

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.

Soon thereafter, Dr. Kissinger presented DRV officials with 19 case folders of Americans who should have been accounted for, but who were not. The U.S. protests continued and in mid-March, the U.S. threatened briefly to halt the withdrawal of American troops if information about the nine American prisoners on the DRV/Laos list and about prisoners actually held by the Pathet Lao were not provided. By the end of the month, top Defense Department officials were recommending a series of diplomatic and military options aimed at achieving an accounting for U.S. prisoners thought to be held in Laos.

Ultimately, the Nixon Administration proceeded with the withdrawal of troops in return for the release of prisoners on the lists provided by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.

Post-Homecoming

The public statements made by President Nixon and by high Defense Department officials following the end of Operation Homecoming did not fully reflect the Administration's prior concern that live U.S. prisoners may have been kept behind. Administration officials did, however, continue to stress publicly the need for Vietnam to meet its obligations under the peace agreement, and U.S. diplomats pressed both the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao for information concerning missing Americans. Unfortunately, due to the intransigence of our adversaries, those efforts were largely unavailing.

During the Committee's hearings, it was contended by Dr. Kissinger and some Members of the Committee that Congressional attitudes would have precluded any Administration effort to respond forcefully to the DRV's failure to provide an accounting for missing American servicemen. These Members of the Committee contend that their view is supported by the Senate's rejection on May 31, 1973 of an amendment offered by U.S. Sen. Robert Dole that would have permitted the continued bombing of Laos and Cambodia if the President certified that North Vietnam "is not making an accounting, to the best of its ability, of all missing in action personnel in Southeast Asia."

Conclusions

The Committee believes that its investigation contributed significantly to the public record of the negotiating history of the POW/MIA provisions of the Paris Peace Accords, and of the complications that arose during efforts to implement those provisions both before and after the completion of Operation Homecoming. That record indicates that there existed a higher degree of concern within the Administration about the possibility that prisoners were being left behind in Laos than had been known previously, and that various options for responding to that concern were discussed at the highest levels of government.

The Committee notes that some Administration statements at the time the agreement was signed expressed greater certainty about the completeness of the POW return than they should have and that other statements may have understated the problems that would arise during implementation and that--taken together, these statements may have raised public and family expectations too high. The Committee further notes that statements made after the agreement was signed may have understated U.S. concerns about the possibility that live prisoners remained, thereby contributing in subsequent years to public suspicion and distrust. However, the Committee concludes that the phrasing of these statements was designed to avoid raising what were believed to be false hopes among POW/MIA families, rather than to mislead the American people.

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