Report of the
Senate Select Committee
THE PARIS PEACE ACCORDS
Key Questions and Key Issues
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.
Obstacles to Resolution
The great accomplishment of the peace agreement was that it
resulted in the release of 591 Americans, 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, implementation of the agreement failed, for a number
of reasons, to resolve the POW/MIA issue.
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 the south
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 what had become the longest war in American
history. President Nixon, who had inherited the war from his
predecessors, 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 solely
on the return of prisoners; the antiwar movement had become more
active and visible; 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 applied
only to Vietnam. Although the DRV assured Dr. Kissinger that it
would ensure the release of U.S. prisoners in Laos, 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 were returned at Operation Homecoming.
Neither the peace agreement, nor the assurances provided by the
North Vietnam to Dr. Kissinger, established procedures to account
for missing Americans in Cambodia or Laos.
The overall purpose of the Committee's investigation of the Paris
Peace Accords was to uncover information bearing on the likelihood
that U.S. POWs were kept behind in Southeast Asia after Operation
Homecoming. A secondary purpose was to determine whether there were
factors involved in the negotiation of the agreement, in the
agreement itself, or in the subsequent public characterizations of
the agreement by U.S. officials that affected our ability to obtain
the fullest possible accounting of our POW/MIAs or that otherwise
contributed to the ongoing controversy over the POW/MIA issue.
In order to make judgments about these larger issues, the Committee
considered a number of more specific issues and questions.
First, the Committee reviewed the negotiating history to determine
the priority attached by the U.S. side to the POW/MIA issue, the
obstacles to a favorable agreement raised by the other side, and
the compromises made before a final agreement could be reached.
Second, the Committee reviewed the POW/MIA provisions of the
agreement itself to determine both their scope and enforceability.
Of particular interest in this regard was the "side understanding"
between the United States and the DRV which obligated the North
Vietnamese to arrange for the release of U.S. POWs in Laos.
Third, the Committee examined the relationship between negotiations
over the POW/MIA issue and discussions concerning possible U.S.
reconstruction aid to North Vietnam.
Fourth, the Committee compared official American expectations with
results in terms of the number and identities of prisoners
released. Related to this was an examination of the basis for U.S.
expectations. Clearly, if the U.S. had good reason to expect
Americans to come home who did not come home, the possibility that
some prisoners were intentionally withheld by the DRV or by
communist forces in Laos would increase.
Finally, the Committee examined allegations concerning the apparent
disparity in substance and tone between internal U.S.
communications during the 60 days after the peace agreement was
signed and official public statements made subsequent to the
completion of Operation Homecoming.
The Committee began its investigation of the Paris Peace Accords
and related matters determined to go beyond the public record to
the private record of negotiations, internal U.S. agency
communications and the sworn testimony of those who participated in
shaping and implementing the agreement.
The Committee requested, and obtained, access to nearly all
Executive branch materials dealing with the POW/MIA related aspects
of the peace negotiations, including Presidential papers, the
papers of then-National Security Adviser, Dr. Henry Kissinger, and
the minutes of meetings conducted by the Washington Special Action
Group (WSAG). A large quantity of these materials were then
declassified and made available to the public at the Committee's
Committee staff investigators took a "bottom-up" approach to
interviewing participants in the Paris Peace negotiations beginning
with staff members and those with peripheral roles and continuing
through the deposition of Dr. Kissinger and other senior Nixon
Among those interviewed and deposed with respect to this issue were
the following (affiliations indicated below refer to the 1970-1973
National Security Council Staff:
Dr. Henry Kissinger
Gen. Alexander Haig
Mr. Winston Lord
Mr. John Negroponte
Mr. Peter Rodman
Mr. John Holdridge
Gen. Brent Scowcroft
Mr. Richard Kennedy
Department of Defense:
Mr. Melvin Laird
Mr. Elliot Richardson
Mr. James Schlesinger
Mr. William Clements
Admiral Daniel Murphy
Dr. Roger Shields
Mr. Lawrence Eagleburger
Maj. Gen. Richard Secord
Lt.Gen. Vernon Walters
B.Gen. George Guay
Admiral Thomas Moorer
Mr. Jerry Friedheim
M.Gen. John R. Deane, Jr.
Department of State:
Mr. William Rogers
Ambassador William Sullivan
Mr. George Aldrich
Mr. Heyward Isham
Ambassador McMurtrie Godley
Mr. Frank Sieverts
Central Intelligence Agency:
Mr. James Schlesinger
Mr. George Carver
Lt.Gen. Vernon Walters
US Delegation to Four-Party Joint Military Commission:
Gen. John Wickham
Col. Paul Miles
Col. Lawrence Robson
Col. Bernard Russell
Lt.Gen. Larry Budge
These interviews and depositions were supplemented by public
hearings on September 21, 22 and 24, 1992.
Outline of the Negotiations
The United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV)
conducted peace negotiations through two channels. The public
channel began in May, 1968 with bilateral discussions between the
United States and the DRV in Paris, France. In January, 1969, the
Paris Conference on Vietnam convened with representatives from
those two countries and from the Government of South Vietnam (GVN)
and the Viet Cong (Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG)). The
second channel consisted of secret talks, which began in August,
1969, between Dr. Henry Kissinger, Assistant to President Nixon for
National Security Affairs, and Xuan Thuy, the chief of the North
Vietnamese Delegations to the Paris Peace Conference. In February,
1970, Le Duc Tho, a senior member of the North Vietnamese
Politburo, replaced Thuy as North Vietnam's top participant in the
The Paris Conference on Vietnam held meetings on almost a weekly
basis between January, 1969 and the end of the war. Throughout most
of this period, the Conference served not as a forum for
negotiations, but for propaganda campaigns on all sides. Minister
Xuan Thuy, head of the North Vietnamese delegation, regularly
lambasted the United States for its bombing campaigns, its
"aggression" against Cambodia and Laos, its "neo-colonialist"
policy towards Vietnam and its support for the "dictatorial,
bellicist and corrupt Thieu" regime.
On January 21, 1971, at the 100th session of the conference, DRV
Minister Xuan Thuy argued that:
. . . . the Nixon Administration has ceaselessly clamored
about the so-called question of "prisoners of war" to
stir up public opinion, particularly in the United
States. Once again, we think it necessary to state that,
although the American pilots were captured in the act of
committing crimes when bombing the Democratic Republic of
Vietnam, our government has treated them with leniency
and humanity. If the Nixon Administration is really
concerned about Americans captured in the war, it should
announce the total withdrawal from South Vietnam of U.S.
troops and those of the other foreign countries in the
U.S. camp by June 30, 1971. . . . so that discussion may
immediately begin on the question of releasing captured
militarymen. . . .
The American delegation, headed by Ambassador David K.E. Bruce,
concentrated much of its rhetorical fire on the failure of the DRV
to live up to its obligations under the 1949 Geneva Convention
regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. The POW issue was
raised by the U.S. at more than half the sessions and often was the
sole subject of American statements. Ambassador Bruce criticized,
in particular, North Vietnam's refusal to identify all prisoners
held, including those in South Vietnam and Laos; its refusal to
allow regular correspondence to families; its failure to permit
inspections by the Red Cross and its unwillingness to release the
sick and badly injured. The U.S. delegation also challenged the
DRV, without success, to accept an October 7, 1970 Nixon
Administration proposal for the immediate and unconditional release
of all prisoners of war.
Until October, 1972, the U.S. negotiating team for the secret talks
consisted exclusively of National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger
and several of his staff. Dr. Kissinger's primary assistants during
various periods of the negotiations were NSC staff members Winston
Lord, John Negroponte, Dick Smyser and Peter Rodman. General
Alexander Haig, Dr. Kissinger's deputy, also attended several of
the negotiating sessions and played a major role in convincing the
South Vietnamese Government to accept the agreement. General Vernon
Walters, the Army Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Paris and later
Deputy Director of the CIA, arranged and acted as translator at the
early meetings. The Defense Department had no representative on the
team, while the State Department was not included until late
October, 1972, when William Sullivan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of
State for Pacific and East Asian Affairs, and George Aldrich, a
Deputy Legal Adviser, were recruited.
By the time the secret talks began, the Nixon Administration had
withdrawn 60,000 American troops from Vietnam and adopted the
policy of "Vietnamization" of the war. The goal of this policy was
to shore up the GVN through a massive infusion of military and
economic assistance to enable it to survive despite the gradual
withdrawal of American troops. The policy also called for greater
use of American air power in order to induce the DRV to negotiate
and to interdict supply lines running through Cambodia and Laos to
the south. This policy, aimed explicitly at achieving "peace with
honor," provided the context for U.S. negotiating objectives.
The U.S. entered the negotiations with three goals foremost in
mind. The first was to obtain the fullest possible accounting of
American POW/MIAs. The second was to ensure that the Government of
South Vietnam's President Nguyen Van Thieu could stand alone after
U.S. withdrawal. And the third was to establish a framework for the
future political self-determination of the South Vietnamese people.
In order to achieve these ends, U.S. negotiators sought: 1) the
unconditional release of prisoners and a means to account for the
missing throughout Indochina; 2) an internationally supervised
ceasefire throughout Indochina; 3) the right to continue supplying
military aid, including training and advisers, to South Vietnam; 4)
the withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces from the south; and 5) a
plan for free and fair elections in South Vietnam.
The overriding goal of the DRV, on the other hand, was to establish
the conditions that would make a Communist military takeover in the
south more likely. Thus, North Vietnamese negotiators insisted on
the total withdrawal of U.S. troops (including advisers), the end
of U.S. aid to South Vietnam, the release of Viet Cong prisoners by
the GVN, and the replacement of President Thieu with a coalition
government. North Vietnam also demanded reparations from the U.S.
as compensation for war-related damage.
Neither the weekly public talks in Paris, nor the sporadically-held
secret talks, resulted in progress until mid-1971. Until then, the
U.S. insisted on an agreement that dealt only with the military
issues of returning prisoners, a ceasefire and the withdrawal of
forces. DRV officials, meanwhile, demanded both the removal of
President Thieu and the unconditional withdrawal of American
forces, while refusing to acknowledge the presence of their own
troops in South Vietnam.
On May 31, 1971, with U.S. troop levels down from a peak of 540,000
to 270,000, Dr. Kissinger offered to negotiate a deadline for
withdrawal of U.S. forces in exchange for a ceasefire and the
release of American POWs. This triggered an exchange of
comprehensive proposals that would ultimately lead to an agreement.
Throughout 1971, however, Le Duc Tho held firm to his insistence
that President Thieu be removed and no breakthrough occurred.
On January 25, 1972, President Nixon revealed publicly that secret
talks with North Vietnam had been taking place. There followed a
period of increased tensions marked by a major DRV offensive and a
U.S. response which included the bombing of North Vietnam and the
mining of Haiphong Harbor. Despite the fighting, or perhaps because
of it, the momentum on both sides for an agreement built rapidly.
As a result, discussions between Dr. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were
held on July 19, August 1, August 15, September 15 and daily
between October 8 and October 11. By the end of those sessions, the
outline of an agreement had taken shape. The key concession from
the American side was the willingness to accept a ceasefire that
did not require DRV withdrawal from the south. The key DRV
concession was a willingness not to demand the prior removal from
office of President Thieu.
Prospects for an agreement by the end of October were dashed,
however, when President Thieu objected bitterly to the proposed
draft. Negotiations resumed between November 20 and December 14,
1972 but did not narrow remaining differences. This was followed by
President Nixon's decision to order ten days of intensive bombing
of the north. Negotiations started again in early January and
concluded when Dr. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho initialed the
"Agreement on Ending the war and Restoring Peace in Vietnam."
The Agreement was signed formally in Paris on January 27, 1973.
The Issue of the Prisoners
A major U.S. goal entering the negotiations was to guarantee the
release of all Americans held captive throughout Indochina. This
was repeatedly stated as an absolute condition for reaching
agreement. When the agreement was announced, U.S. negotiators said,
without reservation, that this vital American objective had been
achieved. On January 23, 1973, the day the agreement was initialed,
President Nixon announced that:
Within 60 days from this Saturday (the day the agreement
was to be signed), all Americans held prisoner of war
throughout Indochina will be released. There will be the
fullest possible accounting for all of those who are
missing in action. . . .
The following day, Dr.Kissinger told reporters that:
"We have been told that no American prisoners are held
in Cambodia. American prisoners held in Laos and North
Vietnam will be returned to us in Hanoi."
Three years later, in 1976, the Montgomery Committee concluded
the provisions of the Paris Peace Agreement relative to
POW's and MIA's and the Protocol on Prisoners and
Detainees appear, at first glance and after more
thoughtful consideration, not only adequate, but
excellent. . . . These provisions constitute an
achievement of which the American negotiators and the
American people could be proud. Their true success,
however, depended on their implementation, and their
implementation depended on the cooperation of all
Although the POW/MIA provisions may well have been the best
achievable given the circumstances, it is clear from an examination
of the negotiating record that there were significant differences
between the original U.S. position and the final agreement on
several key points. This is not surprising, given the nature of the
negotiation process. The Montgomery Committee was surely correct,
moreover, in stating that the success of the agreement depended on
its implementation which, in turn, hinged on the cooperation of all
parties. A review of the issues involved in the negotiation
provides a useful introduction to the problems of implementation
that would follow.
Timing of POW Release
A key issue early in the negotiations involved the timing of the
release of U.S. POWs. On October 7, 1970, President Nixon proposed
that prisoners be returned as part of an overall agreement
requiring a regionwide ceasefire and a timetable for the withdrawal
of all foreign troops, including the withdrawal of North Vietnamese
troops from Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam. The U.S. maintained
this position until May 31, 1971 when Dr. Kissinger told the DRV
that the U.S. would agree to a deadline for the withdrawal of all
U.S. forces in exchange for a ceasefire and the release of U.S.
POWs. Both proposals envisioned the return of U.S. POWs prior to
the withdrawal of American troops. North Vietnam, on the other
hand, was insisting that POWs be returned after U.S. troops had
In July, 1971, the DRV proposed that the prisoner release occur
concurrently with the U.S. troop withdrawal. This concept was
accepted by the U.S. side and was incorporated in subsequent
proposals. Gradually, the period for the combined troop
withdrawal/prisoner release was negotiated down from the six months
proposed by the U.S. in October, 1971 to the 60 days of the final
Exchange of Lists
The timing of the exchange of POW lists was an important issue
because the United States had ample reason to question whether the
North Vietnamese would provide a complete and accurate list.
One reason for concern about the likelihood of DRV trustworthiness
on the issue of returning POWs stems from the experience of France
after its defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Although the 1954 Geneva
Accords called for the release of all prisoners of war and civilian
detainees, more than 20,000 French Union Forces have never been
accounted for. Because of disputes between the Viet Minh guerrilla
forces and the French about the evacuation of prisoners captured at
Dien Bien Phu, a large number of the French POWs were forced to
march 600 kilometers to their point of release. General Vernon
Walters told the Committee that a senior intelligence officer in
the French Army with whom he had spoken characterized this as "a
death march" during which many POWs died. General Walters said that
the French officer had told him that "something like half the
prisoners that were known to have been captured alive never came
back to France after they reached a deal with the Vietnamese." The
vast majority of the known French Union prisoners who were not
returned, more than 9000, were Vietnamese Army personnel who had
been allied with the French.
A second reason for serious American concern about whether the DRV
would meet obligations entered into with respect to the POW issue
arose after the release of a supposedly comprehensive list of U.S.
POWs in December 1970. The list, which was given to U.S. Senator
Edward Kennedy, included 368 names, with 339 listed as live
prisoners and 29 as having died in captivity. The U.S. quickly and
repeatedly characterized the list as incomplete because it excluded
prisoners captured outside of North Vietnam and because it did not
include some Americans thought to have been captured alive by the
On April 6, 1971, G. Warren Nutter, Assistant Secretary of Defense
for International Security Affairs, told the House Foreign Affairs
We cannot accept the list as definitive. . . we. . . know
that the other side holds or has held many men not
included on the list.
He also said in response to a question about what the United States
would seek in negotiations in return for troop withdrawal:
. . . let me suggest to you some of the problems we have.
We don't even know the names of all our prisoners yet. We
would have to negotiate on that question. We would have
to get a list that would be definitive.
On January 20, 1972, Heyward Isham, acting head of the U.S.
delegation to the Paris meetings criticized the DRV for
characterizing the list as "'complete and final' despite clear
evidence that you have further information which you could
provide." Ambassador Isham then listed the cases of 14 downed
airmen "who were known to have been alive on the ground in North
Vietnam, or who were at one time actually identified by you as
having been captured. None of these men appear on your so-called
Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird was also active during this
period in denouncing the inadequacies of the December, 1970 list
and in highlighting the cases of Americans believed to be POWs who
were not included in that list. Secretary Laird specifically urged
Dr. Kissinger to question the DRV concerning the shortcomings of
the December, 1970 list and to insist on an exchange of lists prior
to the signing of a peace agreement. Secretary Laird expressed
confidence in his testimony before the Select Committee that his
advice on these matters had been heeded:
I'm sure they were asking for specific names and numbers.
They had the various lists that the North Vietnamese had
been putting out, which were incomplete. (135)
In reality, the timing of the exchange of lists was one of the
first POW-related issues settled during the negotiations. During
the Kissinger-Le Duc Tho meeting on August 16, 1971, the DRV
proposed that "the two sides will produce the complete lists of
military personnel and civilians captured during the war on the day
an agreement is signed." This formulation was accepted by the
U.S. side and thereafter appeared--in substantially identical form-
-in proposals by both sides and in the final agreement. Despite the
concerns expressed at the time by Secretary Laird and others about
whether the DRV could be trusted on this issue, the U.S. side made
no effort to re-open the matter in later negotiations or proposals.
During his testimony before the Select Committee, Dr. Kissinger
expressed the view that the U.S. lacked the leverage at the time of
the negotiations that would have been necessary to gain DRV
agreement to an earlier exchange of lists. He also cited the
repeated and unsuccessful efforts by the U.S. during the public
peace negotiations to obtain a complete list of U.S. prisoners.
Linkage to Release of Civilian Prisoners
One of the most difficult issues facing the negotiators concerned
the possible release of civilians detained by the Thieu Government
in South Vietnam. To the DRV and Viet Cong, these were the
equivalent of prisoners of war. The Government of South Vietnam,
however, considered many of these prisoners to be either common
criminals or political criminals who had violated the law through
subversive activity. In neither case, argued the South Vietnamese,
should these prisoners be treated the same as POWs.
Dr. Kissinger and other U.S. negotiators were determined to avoid
linking the release of U.S. POWs to the complex questions involved
in negotiating the release of the civilians in the south. They
feared, quite logically, that such linkage would leave U.S.
prisoners hostage to what would certainly be a highly contentious
negotiating process between competing factions in South Vietnam.
This issue of linkage was a frequent topic of discussion during the
secret talks until October, 1972, when the U.S. persuaded the North
Vietnamese to leave the issue for the GVN and PRG to decide. In
mid-December, however, the DRV reversed field by demanding that the
release of the civilians in the south occur at the same time as the
release of the U.S. POWs. This demand was a contributing factor to
the President's decision to break off negotiations and begin the
Christmas bombing. The DRV reverted to its October position when
negotiations resumed in January, however, and the agreement to
leave the issue to be worked out between the GVN and the PRG was
incorporated in the accords as article 8(c).
Application to Prisoners Captured Outside Vietnam
The most difficult task for U.S. negotiators was to attempt to gain
an accounting for U.S. prisoners who were captured or held in Laos
or Cambodia. Although North Vietnamese troops were active in both
countries, the DRV would not admit this in negotiations. Time and
again, North Vietnamese negotiators insisted that it was beyond
their sovereign power to ensure the return of prisoners from Laos
U.S. negotiators stressed their concern not only that the accord
apply specifically to U.S. prisoners throughout Indochina, but that
a mechanism to account for the missing throughout the region also
be established. As Dr. Kissinger noted in a cable to President
Nixon on August 19, 1972, following a meeting a day earlier with Le
Duc Tho, the U.S. position was that the agreement "had to include
all men, and account for all missing, throughout Indochina."
Almost to the end, the draft negotiating proposals of the two sides
reflected the different positions. For example, on September 15,
1972, the DRV proposed:
The total release of people of the parties, military men
and civilians, captured during the Vietnam war (including
American pilots captured in North Vietnam). . . The
parties will exchange the lists of people of the parties
captured during the Vietnam war. . .
The U.S. counterproposal, on the other hand, called for:
The release of all military men and innocent civilians
captured during the Vietnam war throughout Indochina
including American servicemen captured in North Vietnam.
. . The parties will exchange complete lists of the
military men and innocent civilians captured during the
Vietnam war throughout Indochina on the day of the
signing of the overall agreement. As part of the overall
agreement, there will be provision for verification of
those still considered missing in action throughout
Indochina after POW lists have been exchanged.
At the session on September 26, 1972 Dr. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho
had the following exchange:
Dr. Kissinger:. . . There is one point about which I can
leave no doubt in your mind. The President will under no
circumstances sign an agreement that leaves any American
prisoners anywhere in Indochina. There would be no
support in America whatsoever for any arrangement that
drew a distinction between American prisoners that are
held in Vietnam and American prisoners that are held in
Laos and Cambodia. Now the modalities by which this may
be achieved or the language that is used to express it is
of course subject to negotiation. . .
Le Duc Tho: So you mean by that there is a difference
between reality and language?
Kissinger: If we have assurances that all American
prisoners held in Indochina will be returned as a result
of the agreement, then we can negotiate about the
language that expresses that reality. It is conceivable
to me, for example--and I am speaking here without
precise authority, but if we want to make rapid progress
I have to say things sometimes and then check it in
Washington--that your allies could turn over their
prisoners to you and then you return all prisoners to us.
Le Duc Tho: As I told you last time that the American
prisoners in Cambodia, there are none. In Laos, there are
very few. But if you satisfactorily solve the political
question and the question of reparations then we can find
an understanding. But it is a question under the
competence of Laos and Cambodia, and we have to exchange
views with them. And moreover, this cannot be written
down in a signed document.
The following day, Dr. Kissinger cabled General Haig that the DRV's
refusal to include formal provisions concerning Laos and Cambodia
in a draft agreement remained "a major issue" of disagreement
between the two sides.
When it became clear in early October, however, that the DRV would
not insist on President Thieu's resignation before agreeing to
peace, momentum for an agreement increased. Accordingly, the U.S.
side adopted the more flexible approach hinted at by Dr. Kissinger
during the September 26 meeting by ceasing to insist on a formal
Laos/Cambodia POW/MIA provision and pressing instead for a less
formal understanding between the two sides on the issue.
On October 20, 1972, President Nixon sent a secret cable to DRV
Prime Minister Pham Van Dong urging him to agree to make the
following "unilateral declaration":
With respect to U.S. military men and civilians held in
Indochinese countries outside of Vietnam, the DRV
undertakes to make arrangements for their indentification
and return to the United States authority in accordance
with the same schedule established for the release of
U.S. military men and civilians detained in Vietnam. The
DRV will also assure that the provision in the overall
agreement for the verification of those U.S. military men
and civilians considered missing in action will be
applied also in Laos and Cambodia.
Prime Minister Pham Van Dong did not agree to make such a far-
reaching declaration. Instead, he replied the next day as follows:
In order to show its good will, the Government of the
Democratic Republic of Viet Nam wishes to make clear its
viewpoint regarding the unilateral statements mentioned
by the United States in its message of October 20, 1972
a) Concerning the understandings on the part of the
Democratic Republic of Viet Nam as mentioned during the
private meetings in September and October of the current
year, the DRV side will carry out, without any change,
what it has declared to the U.S. side. But it should be
made clear that the questions of Laos and Cambodia must
be settled in accordance with the sovereignty of these
two countries. . . However, the Democratic Republic of
Vietnam will do its utmost to come to an agreement with
its allies, with a view of finding a satisfactory
solution to the questions with which the United States is
concerned. The DRV side is of the view that certainly the
ending of the war in Vietnam will positively contribute
to rapidly restoring peace in Laos and Cambodia. . . The
Lao Patriotic Front has informed the DRV side that it is
ready to agree with the other side on a ceasefire in Laos
within one month of October 31, 1972 or within a shorter
period of time, and that the Americans captured in Laos
will be promptly released, before December 30, 1972.
It is clear from this record that Pham Van Dong continued to
insist, as the North Vietnamese had throughout the secret talks,
that Laos/Cambodia issues were beyond DRV control, that the release
of U.S. prisoners in Laos would be contingent upon a ceasefire in
that country and that the timing would not necessarily be the same
as that in Vietnam. The DRV leader also failed to address
explicitly the issue of accounting for MIAs--as opposed to the
release of prisoners--in either Laos or Cambodia.
Despite the differences, President Nixon cabled back on October 22
The President notes with appreciation the message from
the Prime Minister of the DRV which satisfies all his
points with respect to Laos and Cambodia as well as U.S.
In his memoirs, President Nixon summarized the exchange as follows:
The North Vietnamese were now clearly determined to get
an agreement. . . Only the matter of the unilateral
declarations, which included the arrangements for a
ceasefire and the return of American POWs in Laos and
Cambodia, still had to be clarified. . . On October 21,
the North Vietnamese replied by accepting our position on
Although the President had expressed satisfaction with the October
21, 1972 correspondence from Pham Van Dong, the U.S. did not leave
the issue there when negotiations resumed in January, 1973, after
the Christmas bombing. Instead, Dr. Kissinger pressed Le Duc Tho
for a direct assurance that U.S. prisoners in Laos would be
returned within the same 60 day time period as other prisoners
covered by the Accords. On January 9, he succeeded. On that date,
Le Duc Tho assured Dr. Kissinger for the first time that U.S.
prisoners captured in Laos would be returned within the same time
frame as those captured in Vietnam. Le Duc Tho repeated his
statement that there were no live U.S. POWs in Cambodia.
To sum up, the U.S. had finally succeeded, two weeks prior to the
initialing of the agreement, in obtaining a verbal commitment from
North Vietnam that U.S. prisoners detained in Laos would be
returned within 60 days. In a cable on January 11, Dr. Kissinger
characterized the understanding as providing "ironclad guarantees
on our prisoners in Laos and Cambodia."
A potential problem in enforcing these guarantees was raised just
nine days later, on January 20, in a cable to Dr. Kissinger from
U.S. Ambassador to Laos, McMurtrie Godley. The cable indicates that
the timing of the release of U.S. POWs in Laos would depend, at
least from the perspective of the Pathet Lao (LPF), on the
negotiation and implementation of a ceasefire with the Royal Lao
Government (RLG)--not on any timetable established under the Paris
Peace Accords. The cable reads:
During General Haig's visit to Vientiane on Thursday,
January 18, I forgot to raise with him the link which
both the RLG and LPF have established in their draft
agreements between the release of prisoners and the
withdrawal of foreign forces from Laos. Both draft
agreements are identical and state: "The interested
parties will proceed with the turnover of all military
and civilians captured or imprisoned during the war,
regardless of nationality, according to modalities
adopted by common agreement. This exchange will begin and
end at the same time as the withdrawal from Laos of all
foreign troops and foreign military personnel."
At the time the Paris accords were signed, the U.S. and DRV
understood that the ceasefire in Laos would take place within 15
days following the signing of the Paris agreement. In fact, the
ceasefire agreement was signed on February 21, 1973, but the
protocols implementing the POW reporting provisions were not signed
until September 14 and implementation of prisoner exchanges by the
two Lao parties did not begin until the following April.
Despite the uncertainties about the timing of the Laos ceasefire,
Nixon Administration officials were publicly upbeat about the
enforceability of the agreement. At a White House meeting on
January 26, Dr. Kissinger told representatives of the National
League of Families that he did not "foresee any special problems.
. . we have absolute assurance that all American prisoners of war
held anywhere in Indochina will be released. The North Vietnamese
know that one condition on which we have not compromised is the
issue of our men. We will brutally enforce the return of these
men." When asked about the anticipated prisoner lists, Dr.
Kissinger replied that "We will not accept them as complete or as
definite. However, we also do not believe they will hide any
In his testimony before the Select Committee in 1992, NSC staffer
Winston Lord discussed the difficulties of gaining truly reliable
guarantees from North Vietnam with respect to missing U.S.
servicemen in Laos and Cambodia:
the general problem we had with Laos and Cambodia in
negotiating this agreement. Hanoi wanted to maintain the
fiction that it had no control over its friends in those
other two countries, that they were sovereign
governments. In retrospect, with respect to Cambodia,
that turned out to be largely true. In fact, Vietnam
invaded Cambodia a few years later, so they clearly
didn't have control over the Khmer Rouge and some of the
But they certainly had large control in Laos, so our
dilemma was to try to make this agreement as airtight as
we could throughout Indochina, including on the POW/MIA
question. And we came up with, frankly, compromises that
were not fully satisfactory, of unilateral statements and
so on. . .
We didn't get everything we wanted, including the Laos
and Cambodia dimensions were clearly not as good as we
would have liked. . . the final agreement was certainly
The Issue of U.S. Aid
The concept of U.S. contributions to postwar reconstruction in
Southeast Asia was first raised by President Lyndon Johnson in a
speech at Johns Hopkins University on April 7, 1965. Regular,
albeit general, references to such aid were made later by officials
both of the Johnson and Nixon Administrations.
The DRV made it clear during the secret talks that U.S. economic
assistance was essential to any agreement reached between the two
sides. During testimony before the Montgomery Committee in 1976,
Under Secretary of State Philip Habib, who had attended some of the
secret negotiating sessions during the war as a member of Dr.
Kissinger's staff, noted:
. . .in one of the first lists of negotiating points put
forward by the North Vietnamese, the Communist side
bracketed the release of prisoners with what they
described as "U.S. responsibility for war damage in
Vietnam" in a single numbered point. . . I know of no
instance in which an adversary so openly treated this
humanitarian problem in this way. We recognized from an
early date what we were up against.
Also, the following exchange took place during the Select
Committee's deposition of Ambassador Vernon Walters:
Q: Was there ever any effort by the North Vietnamese that
you were aware of to link the subject of our payments to
them with the release of our prisoners?
A: Reparations were sine qua non for peace, return the
prisoners for everything.
Q: From the North Vietnamese perspective, you mean?
The clearest indication that the North Vietnamese continued to link
POW/MIA provisions with a commitment for U.S. aid during the latter
stages of negotiations occurred on September 26, 1972. During a
negotiating session on that date, Dr. Kissinger asked for
assurances that all American prisoners, including those in Laos and
Cambodia, would be returned as a result of the agreement. Le Duc
Tho responded by saying:
. . . if you satisfactorily solve the political question
and the question of reparations, then we can find an
As Dr. Kissinger and Ambassador Winston Lord both testified to the
Committee, the U.S. understood that the DRV would not have signed
an agreement in January, 1973 in the absence of an American
commitment to contribute to postwar reconstruction throughout
Indochina. Nevertheless, there was a good deal of haggling over the
possible amounts. The DRV continually upped its demands based on
the ongoing damage being inflicted by U.S. bombing. In addition,
the North Vietnamese referred to the possible aid as "reparations,"
while the U.S. side insisted that it be referred to as
"reconstruction aid." Finally, Dr, Kissinger argued for a provision
that was as vague as possible, while the DRV wanted a specific and
Article 21 of the PPA provides that:
The United States anticipates that this Agreement will
usher in an era of reconciliation with the Democratic
Republic of Vietnam as with all the peoples of Indochina.
In pursuance of its traditional role, the United States
will contribute to healing the wounds of war and to
postwar reconstruction of the Democratic Republic of
Vietnam and throughout Indochina.
The inclusion of Article 21 caused considerable controversy in the
United States. As described in pages 114-117 of the Montgomery
Committee report, Dr. Kissinger and other Administration officials
denied at the time and for years afterwards that any negotiations
or agreements concerning specific amounts of aid had been
These denials occurred notwithstanding a secret letter from
President Nixon to DRV Premier Pham Van Dong that was hand-
delivered on February 1, 1973, four days after the agreement was
signed. The letter, which reflected an understanding reached
between Dr. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho during the January
negotiations, included the following U.S. commitments:
1. The Government of the United States of America will
contribute to postwar reconstruction in North Vietnam
without any political conditions. 2. Preliminary U.S.
studies indicate that the appropriate programs for the
U.S. contribution to postwar reconstruction will fall in
the range of $3.25 billion of grant aid over 5 years.
Other forms of aid will be agreed upon between the two
parties. . . 3. The U.S. will propose to the DRV the
formation of a Joint Economic Commission. . . (4.) to
develop programs for the U.S. contribution to
reconstruction of North Vietnam. . .
In regard to other forms of aid, U.S. studies indicate
that the appropriate programs could fall in the range of
1 to 1.5 billion dollars. . ."
A separate codicil to the letter contained the heading
"Understanding Regarding Economic Reconstruction Program." It
referred to the recommendations of the Joint Economic Commission
"mentioned in the President's note" being implemented by each
member "in accordance with its own constitutional provisions."
The record of negotiations supports Dr. Kissinger's contention that
he repeatedly informed the DRV that any reconstruction assistance
would have to be approved by the U.S. Congress and could not be
guaranteed by the Executive Branch acting alone.
Another important issue relating to President Nixon's promise of
aid is whether it was meant to be linked with any of the POW/MIA
provisions of the agreement and associated understandings. During
the course of the secret talks, Dr. Kissinger stated consistently
the U.S. position that reconstruction aid was a humanitarian matter
that stood alone. In the September 26, 1972 exchange cited above,
however, Le Duc Tho explicitly linked the resolution of the issue
concerning U.S. POWs in Laos to "the political question and the
question of reparations."
It seems, given this record, that the U.S. and DRV took mirror
image views of the relationship between the promise of American aid
and the release of POWs in Laos. It was the U.S. position that the
prisoners must be released whether or not aid was forthcoming. The
DRV's preferred position was that aid be forthcoming whether or not
prisoners were released. Although U.S. negotiators successfully
avoided any linkage of the issues in the agreement, they obviously
could not prevent DRV officials from subsequently raising the issue
of aid in response to U.S. demands that they comply more fully with
the POW/MIA provisions of the accords.
The Paris Peace Accords consisted of the Agreement to End the War
and Restoring Peace in Vietnam and four protocols including one on
prisoners and detainees. On the military side, the Agreement
provided for an immediate ceasefire, the simultaneous withdrawal of
all U.S. forces and return of military and civilian POWs within 60
days of the signing, and a prohibition on the introduction of
troops, military advisers or personnel into South Vietnam during
the 60 day period. It also allowed the GVN and PRG to replace worn
out military equipment and materiel after the ceasefire and
established military commissions to oversee implementation of the
With respect to political issues, the Agreement provided for the
exercise of the right of self-determination by the South Vietnamese
people, the formation by the PRG and the GVN of a National Council
to organize free and democratic elections, the reunification of
Vietnam by peaceful means, and a U.S. commitment to contribute to
the postwar reconstruction of Indochina, including Vietnam.
Provisions for the release of prisoners and accounting for MIAs
were contained in Chapter III, Articles 8(a) and 8(b):
(a) The return of captured military personnel and foreign
civilians of the parties shall be carried out
simultaneously with and completed not later than the same
day as the troop withdrawal mentioned in Article 5. The
parties shall exchange complete lists of the above-
mentioned captured military personnel and foreign
civilians on the day of the signing of this Agreement.
(b) The parties shall help each other to get information
about those military personnel and foreign civilians of
the parties missing in action, to determine the location
and take care of the graves of the dead so as to
facilitate the exhumation and repatriation of the
remains, and to take any such other measures as may be
required to get information about those still considered
missing in action.
The responsibility for implementing article 8 during the 60 day
simultaneous prisoner release/troop withdrawal period was delegated
to a Four Party Joint Military Commission (FPJMC) and its
subcommssion on captured persons. Thereafter, a Four Party Joint
Military Team (FPJMT) would assume responsibility for accounting
In addition to Article 8, the Agreement included a Protocol on
Prisoners and Detainees. The Protocol specified the terms of
prisoner release including--among other things--the immediate,
complete exchange of lists of captured persons; the return of
prisoners at a rate no slower than the rate of withdrawal of the
remaining U.S. forces; a requirement that captured persons be
treated humanely; permission for Red Cross visits to all places of
detention within 15 days; and a requirement that the return of
prisoners not be delayed or prevented for any reason, including a
possible conviction for war crimes.
With respect to Laos, State Department Deputy Legal Adviser George
Aldrich authored a memorandum following the signing of the
agreement that noted:
The DRV has assured us that, although not covered by the
agreement, 'all U.S. military and civilian prisoners
detained in Laos shall be released no later than 60 days
following the signature of the agreement.' The DRV has
also assured us that it would be responsible for making
the necessary arrangements with the Pathet Lao.
Article 8(b) of the agreement concerning the account for
missing in action and the location of graves does not
apply to Laos. Similarly, the functions of the Four Party
Joint Military Commission with regard to dead and missing
persons under article 10(a) of the protocol on the return
of prisoners, do not extend to Laos. Therefore, it will
be necessary to conclude further arrangements for tracing
the missing and finding graves in Laos.
Article 20 of the Agreement was intended to pave the way for a
regionwide ceasefire and withdrawal of foreign forces:
(a) The parties participating in the Paris Conference on
Vietnam shall strictly respect the 1954 Geneva Agreements
on Cambodia and the 1962 Geneva Agreements on Laos, which
recognized the Cambodian and the Lao peoples' fundamental
national rights, i.e., the independence, sovereignty,
unity, and territorial integrity of these countries. the
parties shall respect the neutrality of Cambodia and
The parties participating in the Paris Conference on
Vietnam undertake to refrain from using the territory of
Cambodia and the territory of Laos to encroach on the
sovereignty and security of one another and of other
(b) Foreign countries shall put an end to all military
activities in Cambodia and Laos, totally withdraw from
and refrain from reintroducing into these two countries
troops, military advisers and military personnel,
armaments, munitions and war materiel. . .
Also of interest is Article 21, cited above, which contains a
general U.S. commitment to "contribute to healing the wounds of war
and to postwar reconstruction of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam
and throughout Indochina."
Finally, Article 22 of the Agreement stated:
. . . the strict implementation of this agreement will
create conditions for establishing a new, equal, and
mutually beneficial relationship between the United
States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on the
basis of respect for each other's independence and
sovereignty, and non-interference in each other's