Report of the
Senate Select Committee
Implementation of the Accords: The First Sixty Days
Given the uncertainties of war, the failure of North Vietnam
previously to provide what the U.S. considered a complete list of
captured Americans, and the prior unwillingness of communist forces
in Laos, Cambodia or South Vietnam to provide any list at all,
estimates of the likely number of Americans to be returned when the
Agreement was finalized varied widely.
On the day the agreement was signed, the DIA listed 667 American
military and civilian personnel as POW and 1,986 as Missing in
Action. There was not enough certain knowledge behind these
apparently precise numbers, however, to justify confident
predictions as to the number of Americans who would be coming home.
Between 1970 and January, 1973, when the PPA was signed, the Nixon
Administration had mounted a public campaign around the POW issue
to rally U.S. public support and to put pressure on the DRV. During
this period, both President Nixon and Secretary of Defense Laird
referred to "1600" American POWs and Congress approved a
Resolution, with Administration backing, calling for the release of
the "1500 American servicemen. . . imprisoned by Communist forces
in southeast Asia."
The Committee conducted a deposition of Col. Lawrence Robson, whose
responsibilities as a staff member to the Military Assistance
Command in Vietnam included the maintenance of files on servicemen
who had been lost. Col. Robson recalls a meeting of service
representatives at CINCPAC headquarters in Hawaii in August, 1972
in which the estimated number of returnees varied from 400 to 1600.
General Eugene Tighe told the Committee that Admiral Gayler,
CINCPAC, had received a tasking from the JCS in the summer of 1972
to work with the service intelligence agencies to compile as
complete a list of potential POWs as possible. The goal, said
General Tighe in testimony before the Select Committee, was to:
to compile a list, by military service, of the names. .
. of each missing individual of which sufficient
intelligence and other data was available to reasonably
expect that he had survived and would be returned on
successful conclusion of the Paris negotiations. . .
The standards we used for determining whether to show a
missing individual on the list or not as an anticipated
returnee may have been more liberal or less than those
used elsewhere. I have no way of knowing. They were
intended to be as accurately anticipatory as humanly
possible. . .
General Tighe remembers that the list compiled by CINCPAC contained
from 900-1000 names and was sent to the Secretary of Defense and
the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Unfortunately, the
Select Committee has not been able to locate any record of the
Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chairman of the JCS from 1970-1974, told the
Committee that the range of expected returnees, to the best of his
recollection, was between 400 and 600, with the possibility of
going as high as 1100, given the uncertainties. Admiral Moorer
attributed the differences in expectations at this point to
differences in criteria used to place names on the various lists.
Expectations with Respect to Americans lost in Laos
The confident assurances provided by the President and Dr.
Kissinger with respect to the return of prisoners throughout
Indochina were particularly encouraging to the families of American
airmen downed in Laos. In January, 1973, DIA listed 354 Americans
as MIA in Laos, but only 12 as POW. The most tangible evidence of
live U.S. POWs, such as letters to family members and the
acknowledgement of the enemy that particular individuals were being
held, was lacking in Laos. But the large number of airmen downed
but not confirmed dead, coupled with a variety of other
indications, gave grounds for hope that a significant number of
those captured in Laos might be coming home.
William Sullivan, U.S. Ambassador to Laos from 1964 until 1969,
recalls receiving information during that time indicating the
possible or probable capture of "around 10" U.S. airmen. He told
the Committee "I got the sense that it (total U.S. prisoners in
Laos) was not a large number. That is. . . less than twenty."
According to the Ambassador, the U.S. believed that the prisoners
were being held at two locations, Xianghoang and Sam Neua, both of
which he said were under the control of the North Vietnamese.
In May, 1970, Mr. Sullivan, now Deputy Assistant Secretary of State
for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told the House Foreign Affairs
Committee that "most Americans captured by Communist forces in Laos
remain in Laos."
Mr. Sullivan's successor as Ambassador to Laos, McMurtrie Godley,
was less certain in his testimony about the possible presence of
U.S. POWs in Laos. He told the Committee that:
The only reliable sources we had about MIAs or POWs were,
of course, Air Force reports as to losses over Laos and
Air America, which lost several men in Northern Laos. .
We had, in Vientiane, a special team interrogating many
Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese prisoners about American
prisoners or MIAs. The information we gathered was not,
however, hard proof, but you might say collateral
information. . .
Ambassador Godley and Mr. Ross Perot gave the Committee conflicting
accounts of Mr. Perot's visit to Vientiane in April, 1970. Mr.
Perot and two associates remember receiving a briefing from the CIA
indicating that U.S. prisoners were being held by the Pathet Lao.
Although Mr. Perot did not remember the exact number, his
associates recall the number as 26 or 27. Neither Ambassador Godley
nor the CIA station chief who allegedly provided the briefing
recall the meeting, nor do they confirm that the U.S. had solid
intelligence of that many prisoners being held in Laos. However, a
former U.S. Embassy officer in Vientiane, James Murphy, recalled
during his deposition to the Committee that he had, in fact,
escorted Mr. Perot to a meeting with the CIA station chief at the
The extent of roughly contemporaneous U.S. intelligence information
is reflected in an April 17, 1974 memorandum prepared by the DIA
for the various armed service intelligence agencies. According to
the memo, "it is clear that the Pathet Lao had captured some U.S.
personnel." Among these were Mr. Eugene DeBruin, a civilian, and
Lt. Col. David Hrdlicka, USAF. Photographs of both men in captivity
had appeared in Pathet Lao publications. Pathet Lao spokesman Soth
Petrasy had acknowledged in May, 1966 that the LPF were holding Mr.
DeBruin and that he was in good health.
Pathet Lao Statements. Although the statements were later to be
recanted, other LPF statements made prior to Operation Homecoming
heightened U.S. expectations concerning the release of prisoners,
as well. For example, in September, 1968, Soth Petrasy told a U.S.
official that "pilots are generally kept near the area in which
their plane is downed and therefore may be found throughout Laos
from the south to the north."
In April, 1971, Prince Souphanouvong, Chairman of the LPF Central
Committee, made the following statement concerning prisoners:
The LPF has made public a concrete policy toward enemy
soldiers or agents captured or giving themselves up,
including GIs. All the American pilots engaged in
bombings or toxic chemical sprays on Lao territory are
considered criminals and enemies of the Lao people. But
once captured, they have been treated in accordance with
the humane policy of the LPF. The question of enemy
captives; including U.S. pilots, will be settled
immediately after the U.S. stops its intervention and
aggression in Laos first, and foremost, end the bombing
of Laos territory.
According to a September 30, 1971 report in the Wall Street
The Pathet Lao, a Hanoi ally not represented at the Paris
Peace Talks, indicate only that they will "discuss
prisoners when the U.S. pulls out of Laos." (Mrs. Stephen
Hanson, whose husband a Marine captain, was seen alive on
the ground after his helicopter was shot down over Laos,
says a high-ranking U.S. diplomat confided to her that
there were "70 or 80" U.S. prisoners in Laos. State
Department officials, however, say intelligence sources
indicate the possibility of "around 30 men, and that's
low-level stuff--things like reports of Caucasians
spotted on the Ho Chi Minh Trail."
In February, 1972, Soth Petrasy told an interviewer that "some tens
of prisoners are presently being held" by the Pathet Lao.
In April, 1972, Soth told the press that U.S. airmen were being
detained in various caves in northern Laos.
These types of statements continued until as late as February 19,
1973, more than three weeks after the PPA was signed, when Soth
said that the Pathet Lao had a detailed accounting of prisoners and
where they were being held.
DIA Background Paper -- 1992. Toward the end of its investigation,
the Committee was provided with a Defense Intelligence Agency
Background Paper on Laos. According to that document:
Prisoners who were captured in Laos by the NVA (North
Vietnamese Army) were immediately transferred to North
Vietnam and detained there until the end of the war.
Second, intelligence indicates that after 1968/9, all
prisoners captured in Laos were turned over to the North
Vietnamese Army for transport to North Vietnam,
regardless of where they were captured or by whom.
January 27, 1973: the Lists are Exchanged
Under the peace agreement, release of POWs and withdrawal of U.S.
troops were to be completed within 60 days of the signing of the
PPA, or by March 26. The responsibility for implementing these
provisions was vested in a Four Party Joint Military Commission
(FPJMC) headed, for the U.S., by General Gilbert Woodward. Reports
from the U.S. delegation to the JMC were rendered directly to
General Weyand, Commander of the Military Assistance Command,
Vietnam (MACV), and copied to Dr. Kissinger, Admiral Moorer of the
Joint Chiefs (JCS), and others. A POW subcommission of the JMC was
formed on January 30, 1973, headed for the U.S. by Col. B.H.
The primary objective of the U.S. delegation to the FPJMC was to
obtain the return of American prisoners under both the terms of the
agreement and the side understanding between the U.S. and DRV that
U.S. POWs captured throughout Indochina would be returned. The
unit's historian described the reason this way:
First, they were to ensure the return of the American
prisoners of war. Given the reduced level of U.S. troop
involvement in Vietnam by January, 1973, the return of
prisoners was the major emotional motivating force for
the Americans. It was probably also the only issue over
which the United States could justify a renewal of
bombing raids or other measures involving military force,
should the North Vietnamese clearly demonstrate their
intent to violate the provisions and understandings
reached in Paris concerning the prisoner return. The
return of the American captives was also a goal on which
almost all Americans in Vietnam or at home, could
The lists of U.S. prisoners were placed in American hands shortly
after noon, eastern standard time, on January 27. The lists from
the DRV and the PRG included a total of 586 Americans to be
returned, and 64 as having died in captivity. This left 80
Americans listed as POW (reduced to 73 after the DRV/Laos list was
released on February 1), and 1,276 listed by DIA as MIA.
Reaction: Disappointment and Dismay
The Select Committee was told by numerous witnesses that there was
widespread disappointment, especially within the Department of
Defense, about the number of names on the list. General Eugene
Tighe, for example, remembers "shock and sadness at the paucity of
the lists of names we received versus what we expected."
Similarly, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird told the Committee
that "I was disappointed with the list because I hoped that there
would be more. . . "
U.S. officials were particularly distressed by the fact that the
lists did not include any Americans who were believed held prisoner
in Laos, although two Americans listed as MIA in Laos were on the
list provided by the Viet Cong. The U.S. was certain that the DRV
had information concerning at least some prisoners captured in
Laos, because the DIA believed that at least a small number of
Americans had been captured in Laos by the North Vietnamese and
transferred to prison in Hanoi.
Families of missing Americans that were not included on the lists
were also dismayed, especially concerning the lack of a list of
prisoners captured in Laos. Mrs. Phyllis Galanti, chairman of the
Board of the National League of POW/MIA Families, told the
Associated Press on January 28, 1973 that "Everything we have been
told led us to believe there would be a list."
At a meeting of the WSAG Group on Jan. 29, Dr. Kissinger asked for
the Defense Department's reaction to the lists:
Mr. Kissinger: Were there any surprises in the list of
POWs from North Vietnam?
JCS staff representative (name redacted): It was pretty
close to what we expected. We're hoping for forty more on
the list of those in Laos.
Defense Dept. representative (name redacted): Our list
had 591 and the one they gave us consisted of 555 (refers
to military POWs only), plus 55 who died in captivity.
Some of the 555 were not on our lists, although not many.
There remain 56 who were previously carried as POWs, but
are not on either of the lists they gave us. . .
The information they have given us about prisoners in
North Vietnam is quite accurate. We don't know what we
will get from Laos. We have only six known prisoners in
Laos, although we hope there may be forty or forty-one.
We have known very little about the caves where they keep
the prisoners in Laos. We just got the first photos of
those caves recently and our impression is that they are
pretty big. We think they are holding a lot more than six
State Dept. representative (name redacted): We expect
none from Cambodia?
JCS: They said there were none in Cambodia and we have no
record of any there.
U.S. protests about the failure of the DRV to produce a list of
POWs captured in Laos were raised immediately at meetings of the
JMC and in direct communications between the American and North
Vietnamese negotiating teams. On January 29, 1973 Deputy National
Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft cabled the U.S. delegation to the
peace talks in Paris that a letter from President Nixon to the DRV
on the subject of reconstruction aid had been prepared, but that it
should not be delivered until the DRV had produced a list of U.S.
prisoners captured in Laos. After the DRV failed to produce the
list at a meeting on January 30, a note was sent to Le Duc Tho the
following day warning that the issue could jeopardize Dr.
Kissinger's planned trip to Hanoi to discuss economic aid.
Finally, on February 1, the exchange of the letter from President
Nixon and the list of prisoners captured in Laos took place. Col.
George Guay, who made the exchange for the U.S. side, described it
in a cable to Brent Scowcroft of the National Security Council
I exchanged the President's memorandum for the list of
U.S. prisoners in Laos. . . at 1600 (Paris time) today.
. . When I arrived, he made a grab for the envelope
containing the message and without breaking his fingers,
I told him that my instructions were to exchange the
memorandum for his list. He then said I could read his
list while he read the memorandum and if we didn't like
what we read we could return each other's papers. At this
with a huge smile while he again reached for the
envelope. I smiled in return and while picking up the
envelope with both hands (tight grip) asked him if he had
the list. . . .He went to a cabinet and produced an
envelope from which we extracted what was obviously a
very short list of names. . . there is a total of 10
people on the list, eight military and two civilians. .
. When he finished reading the memorandum, I asked him if
that was the total list available. He replied that was
all "they" gave him and that they (the NV) were
attempting to establish procedures to verify the existing
situation with the Pathet Lao. . . I did not tell him
that I felt like returning the list and taking back the
memorandum until they displayed a more serious attitude.
In all honesty, though, he did seem to be somewhat
embarrassed when he said that was all "they" had given
Reactions to the DRV/Laos List
As of February 1, 1973, 352 Americans were listed as MIA in Laos.
Of these, two were on the list provided by the DRV. Of the 12
Americans listed as POW in Laos, three were on the list.
American officials were concerned by the small number of
individuals on the DRV/Laos list, compared to the total number of
U.S. servicemen unaccounted for in Laos. They were concerned, as
well, by DIA's belief that the list appeared to consist entirely of
prisoners captured by the North Vietnamese, not the LPF--even
though DRV officials claimed to have received the list from the
LPF. Individuals like Eugene DeBruin and David Hrdlicka, who were
known to have been taken captive by the Pathet Lao, were not
included. In addition, the Laos list, unlike the DRV and PRG lists
released on January 27, did not include the names of any Americans
who had died in captivity.
President Nixon's Cable to Pham Van Dong. The official U.S.
reaction to the Laos list was conveyed in a cable from President
Nixon to Prime Minister Pham Van Dong on February 2nd:
The list of American prisoners held in Laos which was
presented in Paris on February 1, 1973 is unsatisfactory.
U.S. records show that 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.
The United States side has on innumerable occasions made
clear its extreme concern with the prisoner issue. There
can be no doubt therefore that the implementation of any
American undertaking is related to the satisfactory
resolution of this problem. It should also be pointed out
that failure to provide a complete list of prisoners in
Laos or a satisfactory explanation of the low number thus
far presented would seriously impair the mission of Dr.
Kissinger to Hanoi.
There is no record in National Security Council or White House
files of a specific response from the DRV to this cable, nor is
there any indication of further U.S. threats to cancel Dr.
Kissinger's trip to Hanoi because the North Vietnamese had not
responded favorably. However, Col. Guay, who had personally
delivered the cable from President Nixon to the DRV representative,
characterized the DRV official's reaction in this way:
He said in effect that one should appreciate the
difficulties involved in finding pilots who were downed
in Laos. You must understand, he added, that we have the
best of intentions as we have already proven during the
negotiations, but there are real practical problems
associated with the recovery of these people. There were
instances where both sides searched in vain after an
aircraft had been observed going down. The brush is a
long way from civilization and Laos is scarcely
populated. I replied that even under the worst conditions
possible it was difficult to accept the fact that only
ten people had been identified. That even on a percentage
basis, he should understand it would be difficult for
anyone to believe the figure presented. . . .He replied.
. . we have not come this far. . . to hold on to a
handful of Americans, after all what would that prove. .
As preparations continued for Dr. Kissinger's trip to North
Vietnam, the Administration remained publicly dissatisfied with the
Laos list. In testimony before the House Foreign Relations
Committee on February 8, for example, Secretary of State Rogers
said that "we do not regard the Lao list as complete."
Dr. Kissinger's Visit to Hanoi
Prior to the signing of the peace agreement, Dr. Kissinger and Le
Duc Tho had discussed the possibility of a visit by Kissinger to
Hanoi for the purpose of dramatizing the peace agreement and
initiating a process of postwar planning that would include
substantial amounts of U.S. aid.
In preparation for Dr. Kissinger's trip to Hanoi, the DIA prepared
a list of 80 individuals, many of whom the agency listed as POW but
who were not on the January 27 DRV or Viet Cong lists. In some
cases, these were individuals who had been photographed or
interviewed while in North Vietnamese custody. Others involved
airmen whom the U.S. had reason to believe survived their incident
and may have been taken into captivity. According to Dr. Roger
Shields, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, there were also
some cases about whom the U.S. knew very little, but whose names
were added in the hope that the DRV would provide information and
also to test the good faith of the North Vietnamese. Folders on
approximately 20 of the strongest cases accompanied Dr. Kissinger
The DIA talking points prepared for Dr. Kissinger stressed the fact
that the prisoners on the DRV/Laos list had been captured not by
the Pathet Lao, but by the North Vietnamese. The DIA also stated
that approximately 215 men from the 350 U.S. personnel missing in
Laos "were lost under circumstances that the enemy probably has
information regarding their fate."
Accompanied by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William
Sullivan, Dr. Kissinger arrived in Hanoi on February 10 for three
days of meetings with DRV leaders, including Pham Van Dong and Le
Duc Tho. During a 3 and 1/2 hour meeting on the first day, Dr.
Kissinger raised the issue of the U.S. POWs and a number of file
folders were given to the North Vietnamese for the purpose of
investigation. As Ambassador Sullivan recalled for the Committee:
I do recall that one of the cases involved, I believe a
Navy Lieutenant Commander, Navy pilot, who had been shot
down and had been photographed and used in a North
Vietnamese propaganda photo.
And Dr. Kissinger pulled that out and we discussed this
and used it as a sort of serious discrepancy which
existed, and therefore merited more study. And we went
through, I would say, a half dozen of them, but I don't
think all of them. . .
Dr. Kissinger recalls in his memoirs:
We knew of at least 80 instances in which an American
serviceman had been captured alive and subsequently
disappeared. The evidence consisted either of voice
communications from the ground in advance of capture or
photographs and names published by the Communists. Yet
none of these men was on the list of POWs handed over
after the Agreement. Why? Were they dead? How did they
die? Were they missing? How was that possible after
capture? I called special attention to the 19 cases where
pictures of the captured had been published in the
Communist press. Pham Van Dong replied noncommittally
that the lists handed over to us were complete. . .
We have never received an explanation of what could
possibly have happened to prisoners whose pictures had
appeared in communist newspapers, much less the airmen we
knew from voice communications had safely reached the
Meanwhile, the two sides went ahead with discussions about
reconstruction aid and announced the creation of a Joint Economic
Commission which would receive and administer U.S. financial help.
Dr. Kissinger told the Select Committee that it was his hope that:
after all this anguish of war. . . there might be a
period in which they would turn to the reconstruction of
their country and improving relations with the outside
world, and if you look at the concluding statements that
Le Duc Tho and I made off the top of our heads after a 20
hour negotiating session (the previous October), you will
see that that was a dominant theme. . .
And in fact when I went to Hanoi in February, that was
one of my hopes. I remember one of the newsmen
accompanying me on the plane said, what you're really
hoping for is that Pham Van Dong, who was then Prime
Minister in Hanoi, would turn out to a Chou En-Lai, and
I said that's right, that's what I would like to see
Enforcing the Indochina Understanding
Although the release of American prisoners on the January 27 DRV
and PRG lists was proceeding satisfactorily, the U.S. expectation
that the DRV would guarantee the release of prisoners in Laos,
based on the assurances provided to Dr. Kissinger by Le Duc Tho,
was badly shaken. Despite U.S. protests, the DRV continued to
promise only the release of a small number of prisoners who had not
been held in Laos in the first place. No prisoners actually
captured by the Pathet Lao were scheduled for release. The U.S.
hoped, however, that the negotiation of a ceasefire between the
contending factions in Laos might result in the release of U.S.
prisoners even though the U.S. had reached no agreement on this
subject with the Pathet Lao.
U.S. hopes were strengthened on February 17, 1973, when Pathet Lao
spokesman Soth Petrasy told UPI that his group had "a detailed
accounting of prisoners and where they are being held." He also
said, however, that prisoners captured in Laos would be returned in
Laos--a sign that the LPF did not feel bound by DRV assurances
provided to the U.S. under the PPA.
The Laos Ceasefire Agreement
On February 21, the long anticipated ceasefire agreement between
Royal Lao and Pathet Lao forces was signed. The pact called for the
formation of a coalition government and the subsequent release
within 60 days of all POWs, regardless of nationality, held by any
side. (Although it was hoped at the time that the agreement would
be implemented almost immediately, the coalition government was not
formed until 14 months later.)
Also on February 21, Soth Petrasy insisted again that the issue of
prisoners in Laos had not been settled by the Paris Peace
Agreement. "Whatever U.S. and North Vietnam agreed to regarding
prisoners captured in Laos is not my concern. The question of
prisoners taken in Laos is to be resolved by the Lao themselves and
cannot be negotiated by outside parties over the heads of the
The day the Laos ceasefire agreement was signed, John Gunther Dean,
Charge' at the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane, was told by Soth Petrasy
that the Pathet Lao "does hold foreign prisoners, including
Dr. Kissinger, returning from China, then cabled to the U.S.
Embassy in Vientiane suggesting that "Dean follow up his recent
conversation with Soth by seeking detailed information concerning
those (U.S. prisoners) held and by proposing arrangements for their
On March 13, the subject of U.S. POWs in Laos was discussed at a
meeting of the WSAG in the White House:
State Dept. representative (name redacted): You won't
complete the withdrawal until the Lao prisoners are
Kissinger: Yes, that's right.
Defense Dept. representative (name redacted): How many are
there in Laos?
NSC staff (name redacted): They've told us they hold more
American prisoners than the eight on the list we received from
Kissinger: They have? They told us they hold more than eight?
NSC Staff: That's right.
State: We've had contact with the Pathet Lao several times.
Kissinger: And they have admitted they hold more?
Kissinger: I didn't know that. How many more?
State: They haven't said. They've been giving us the
runaround on the details. This is something you may want
to keep in mind. You may want to notify the DRV that the
Pathet Lao have told us this and ask them to be more
forthcoming on POWs in Laos.
Defense (to Kissinger): Will you handle this through your
The following day, the U.S. sent a message to the DRV asking for an
explanation of the statements made by Soth Petrasy, but no response
Also on March 14, 1973, President Nixon approved a recommendation
from Dr. Kissinger to plan for a 2-3 day series of intensive U.S.
air strikes against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos to be
conducted immediately after the third increment of POWs was
released on March 16. Dr Kissinger's rationale for the proposed
bombing is described in a memorandum to the President as a
"response to continued North Vietnamese infiltration and logistics
activity in the South." Dr. Kissinger further proposed that the
President's final decision be delayed until after the POW release
and in anticipation of further developments.
The Problem Gets Worse
At this point, communications with both the DRV and the Pathet Lao
on the issue of U.S. prisoners in Laos became even more difficult.
In Saigon on March 19, the American delegate to the Prisoner of War
Subcommission of the FPJMC asked the DRV to explain when and where
the Americans on the DRV/Laos list would be returned. The North
Vietnamese replied that they had no authority to discuss the
release of prisoners captured in Laos. During a coffee break, the
Hanoi delegate approached the American representative and told him
that the Pathet Lao were responsible for negotiating the release of
any U.S. prisoners detained by them.
The report of this meeting angered and alarmed Nixon Administration
officials. On March 20, Dr. Kissinger dispatched the following
cable to Pham Van Dong:
The U.S. side has become increasingly disturbed about the
question of American prisoners held or missing in Laos.
As the DRV side well knows, there is a firm and
unequivocal understanding that all American prisoners in
Laos will be released within 60 days of the signing of
the Vietnam Agreement. . . in the past week there has
been further evidence that the DRV and its allies are not
taking their obligations seriously. Further conversations
between U.S. and LPF representatives in Vientiane have
proven completely unsatisfactory. Furthermore, on March
19, the DRV representative to the POW subcommission
informed the American representative that the Pathet Lao
were responsible for the release of American prisoners
and gave no assurance that this would take place by the
agreed date of March 28, 1973. . . .
In addition, as the U.S. side has made clear on many
occasions, the list of only nine American prisoners
presented belatedly by the Pathet Lao is clearly
incomplete. There continues to be no satisfactory
explanation concerning the smallness of this list nor any
assurances that further efforts will be forthcoming.
In view of the very short time left before the deadline
for the release of American prisoners in Laos, the U.S.
side expects an immediate response to this message and
the firm assurance of the DRV side that it will live up
to its solemn responsibilities. Failure to do so would
have the most serious consequences. Certainly the U.S.
side cannot be expected to complete its withdrawals from
South Vietnam until this closely linked question is
U.S. Intelligence Assessment
The new DRV position on prisoners in Laos was clearly contrary to
the assurances provided to Dr. Kissinger by Le Duc Tho. As a
result, it invited a tough American response. On March 21, while
Administration officials were considering what to recommend, acting
DIA Director John R. Deane, Jr. sent a secret memorandum to Admiral
Moorer concerning the intelligence community's view of the POW
situation in Laos. General Deane wrote that the DRV's purported
"Laos list" of February 1, 1973 was limited exclusively to U.S.
POWs captured in Laos by the North Vietnamese and did "not
represent U.S. POWs captured by the Pathet Lao." General Deane said
it was the intelligence community's view that: "There is evidence
that the Pathet Lao have information on captured/missing U.S.
personnel and should be able to provide a list of alive PWs in
addition to information on the fate of many others"
General Deane's memo and other intelligence reports and analyses
persuaded Admiral Moorer that it was "highly likely" that the
Pathet Lao was holding live U.S. POWs in addition to the nine on
the DRV/Laos list. In discussions with other members of the NSC and
WSAG, the Admiral learned that there was general agreement on this
point among high-level national security officials.
Admiral Moorer's March 22 Cable
The next day, March 22, 1973, Admiral Moorer sent an urgent cable
to the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific ordering that the U.S. troop
withdrawal be halted unless and until the DRV provided a complete
list of American POWs, including those held by the Pathet Lao. The
1. . . . The United States position is as follows: "The
U.S. will complete the withdrawal of its military forces
from South Vietnam in accordance with the terms of the
agreement and coincident with the release of all, repeat
all, American prisoners held throughout Indochina."
2. Do not commence withdrawal of the fourth increment until
the following two conditions are met: (1) U.S. has been
provided with a complete list of all U.S. PW's including those
held by the Pathet Lao, as well as the time and place of
release. (2) The first group of PW's have been physically
transferred to U.S. custody.
Admiral Moorer and others testified that such a far-reaching order
never would have been issued by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff without the express approval of the President, the National
Security Adviser and the Secretary of Defense.
In a letter to the Committee, however, former President Nixon
I do not recall directing Admiral Moorer to send this
cable. It appears to be a statement of our policy at the
time, namely that we would not commence the final phase
of our withdrawal until we received a complete list of
the last group of POWs to be released, including those
from Laos. We had interrupted our troop withdrawal on
several previous occasions until we received lists of our
POWs to be released. In this case, we apparently
interrupted our withdrawal again because Hanoi suddenly
disclaimed responsibility for releasing U.S. prisoners in
Laos. As far as I can recall, I do not believe this cable
was based on any knowledge that there were POWs held in
Laos in addition to the nine we were aware of at that
Ambassador Godley's Cable
Also on March 22, 1973, the U.S. Ambassador to Laos, MacMurtrie
Godley, sent a cable to the Secretary of State advocating a two
step approach to obtaining the release of American prisoners
captured in Laos:
We believe the LPF holds, throughout Laos, more prisoners
than found on the DRV list. But we believe that, for the
time being, we should concentrate our efforts on getting
these nine listed men repatriated as soon as possible.
The release of the nine PW's already acknowledged seems
possible within the time frame of the Vietnam agreement.
However, we do not believe it is reasonable to expect the
LPF to be able to produce an accurate total PW list by
March 28. The LPF just has not focused on the PW
repatriation and accounting problem until very recently
and probably cannot collect, in the next few days, the
information we require. Therefore, we believe we should
continue to press for the release of the nine
acknowledged U.S. PW's within the time limit of the
Vietnam agreement, but deal with the questions of
accounting for our MIA's, and determining whether there
are additional PW's to be repatriated, within the
framework and time limits of the Laos ceasefire and
In testimony before the Select Committee, Ambassador Godley could
not remember whether his cable was in response to, or independent
of, Admiral Moorer's cable of nine hours earlier.
The March 23 Cable
On March 23, 1973, Admiral Moorer sent a second cable to the United
States Command in Southeast Asia. The cable, again transmitting an
order approved by the President, the National Security Adviser and
the Secretary of Defense, modified the order set forth in Admiral
Moorer's cable the day before. The March 23 cable directed that
the U.S. troop withdrawal would be completed within the 60-day
period as long as the nine American POWs on the DRV/Laos list were
released. The cable reads:
Seek private meeting with North Vietnamese
representative. Our basic concern is the release of the
prisoners and we do not object to the PLF playing the
central role as long as the men are returned to us. We
need precise information and understanding on the times
and place of release of the prisoners on the list
provided 1 February. The routes and place may be
designated by the PLF. However, the United States must
have the assurances, either privately from you or through
other channels, such as the United States officials in
Vientiane, that their release will take place by 28 March
before we can give assurances that our withdrawal will be
completed by 28 March. Of course, we intend to pursue
the question of other U.S. personnel captured or missing
in Laos following the release of the men on the 1
February list. For your information only, the purpose of
the above is to try to get things back on track and
The revised U.S. position did succeed in getting "things back on
track and moving again." On March 26, the North Vietnamese agreed
to the release of the ten POWs on the DRV/Laos list provided only
that the actual release be made by representatives of the Pathet
Lao. The U.S. accepted the condition, thereby clearing the way for
the completion of American troop withdrawals and the end of
After the March 19 POW Subcommission meeting in Saigon, the U.S.
faced the possibility that the prisoners on the DRV/Laos list would
not be returned. As mentioned above, the DRV had switched gears on
that date and told U.S. negotiators that they would have to deal
directly with the Pathet Lao for the return of Americans captured
As the Administration prepared its response to the DRV, the
intelligence community weighed in with information indicating that
the LPF was possibly holding U.S. prisoners in addition to those on
the DRV/Laos list. This provided impetus for an even tougher
response than might otherwise have been given. The decision was
made, and reflected in Admiral Moorer's March 22 cable, to demand
the return of all U.S. prisoners, including those held by the
Almost immediately following the sending of the March 22 cable,
however, the Administration apparently had second thoughts.
Ambassador Godley indicated that the Pathet Lao would probably not
be able to provide quickly a list of prisoners that it held. If
true, this meant that adherence to the demand that all prisoners be
released might jeopardize and would certainly delay the release of
other prisoners, including those on the DRV/Laos list. Thus, the
March 23 cable makes it clear that the U.S. would proceed with
troop withdrawals if the DRV would guarantee the release of those
on the February 1 list. Practically speaking, this had been the
policy prior to March 19, and it was the policy that was ultimately
Homecoming Complete, Laos Unresolved
On March 27, one day prior to the release of the prisoners on the
DRV/Laos list, U.S. Embassy officials John Gunther Dean and Richard
Rand met in Vientiane with LPF spokesman Soth Petrasy and expressed
the hope that additional prisoners would be released. The officials
reminded Soth of his earlier statements that the LPF was holding
prisoners and discussed, in particular, the cases of David Hrdlicka
and Eugene DeBruin. Soth replied by saying that he would refer the
matter to his superiors in Sam Neua.
That same day, Richard Kennedy and John Holdridge of the NSC staff
summarized the situation in a memorandum to Dr. Kissinger:
All U.S. POWs listed by the other side as having been
captured in Vietnam or Laos are now to be released by
March 29. There still remains, however, the problem of
the MIAs. So far, little progress has been made in the
Four Party Commission POW Subcommission on this issue.
The Pathet Lao have indicated that there might be more
POWs than the 9 on the list, and POWs have been
identified who were on no list and who haven't been
reported by the other side as dead.
Although the release of the prisoners on the Laos list, coupled
with the completion of Operation Homecoming on March 29, was
sufficient to gain the full withdrawal of American troops, it did
not resolve the problem of obtaining a satisfactory accounting of
Americans lost in Laos. According to a memo sent by Assistant
Secretary of Defense Eagleburger to Secretary of Defense Richardson
on March 28:
DIA concludes that the LPF may hold a number of
unidentified U.S. POWs although we cannot accurately
judge how many. The American Embassy, Vientiane, agrees
with this judgment. . .
the U.S. is prepared to accept release of the ten men on
the 1 February list along with the other U.S. personnel
being held in NVN as the final condition for complete
U.S. troop withdrawal. However, there has been no
accounting of U.S. personnel in Laos other than the 1
February list of ten who were probably all captured in
Laos by the NVA rather than the Pathet Lao. Hence,
assuming all the prisoners currently being held in NVN
are released by 28 March, we still have the Laos MIA
question remaining unresolved.
Secretary Richardson forwarded the memo from Eagleburger to Dr.
Kissinger that same day, including a series of options for
following up on the issue. Although Secretary Richardson deleted
options suggested by Eagleburger for direct military strikes
against Laos, he included proposals to:
. tell the LPF that the U.S. knows they hold American prisoners,
and demand their immediate release as well as an accounting
and information on all those who may have died;
. conduct intensive and obvious tactical air reconnaissance of
North and South Laos; and
. direct the movement of a new carrier task force into the
waters off Vietnam.
By March 29, 1973, the most critical period for implementing the
PPA had passed. The last of American troops had been withdrawn;
the last of the POWs on the lists provided by the DRV and the Viet
Cong had been released. But the President had reason to be
concerned that live U.S. POWs might well remain in captivity in
Indochina. Over a period of several weeks, beginning on
February 6, 1973 with a set of talking points provided to Dr.
Kissinger by the DIA, and ending on March 28, 1973 with a strongly
worded memorandum to Dr. Kissinger from Secretary of Defense Elliot
Richardson, the White House had received reports indicating the
possibility that the POW release from Indochina had not been
complete. As the intelligence community had made clear to the
White House, the area of gravest concern was Laos, where it was
feared that live U.S. POWs held by the Pathet Lao had been held
back despite the DRV's informal promise to arrange their release.
Nevertheless, the President referred only indirectly to these
concerns when he told the American people that night:
For the first time in 12 years, no American military
forces are in Vietnam. All of our American POWs are on
their way home.
A few moments later, the President added that:
There are still some problem areas. The provisions of the
agreement requiring an accounting for all missing in
action in Indochina, the provisions with regard to Laos
and Cambodia, the provisions concerning infiltration from
North Vietnam into South Vietnam have not been complied
with. . .
We shall insist that North Vietnam comply with the
agreement. And the leaders of North Vietnam should have
no doubt as to the consequences if they fail to comply
with the agreement.
The President did not mention that 73 of the Americans he now
referred to as "missing in action" were still officially listed by
the DIA as prisoners of war based on information that they were or
may have been captured alive. Nor did the President cite the
concerns of top Administration officials about the possibility that
live Americans remained in captivity in Laos.
It was suggested by some witnesses during the Select Committee's
hearings that when the President referred to the return of "all. .
. our American POWs," he may have meant to refer simply to the POWs
on the DRV and Viet Cong lists and not to downplay the possibility
that other U.S. POWs were still being held. That would not explain,
however, why the President essentially repeated his March 29
statement several times thereafter. On May 24, 1973, in a speech to
returned POWs, for example, he said that "1973. . . saw. . . the
return of all our prisoners of war." And in a speech on June
15, he said that "for the first time in 8 years, all of our
prisoners of war are home here in America."
Twenty years later, during the Select Committee hearings, two high-
level Nixon Administration officials (former Secretary of Defense
Melvin Laird and former CIA Director and Defense Secretary James
Schlesinger) questioned the wisdom and accuracy of the President's
March 29, 1973 statement. It is important to note, however, that
the Committee has found no documented evidence to indicate that any
senior official in the Nixon Administration--including Mr. Laird or
Mr. Schlesinger--publicly or privately questioned the President's
statement at the time it was made. In fact, Mr. Laird had left the
government in January, 1973 and Mr. Schlesinger told the Committee
that he had spent the vast majority of his time during the early
months of 1973 defending the CIA against allegations of involvement
in the Watergate scandal.
In response to a Committee question about his March 29 statement,
former President Nixon wrote:
I firmly believe that the Committe's handling of my
statement has been totally unprofessional, calculatedly
attempting to create the impression that Dr. Kissinger
and I and other members of the Administration knowingly
presented false information with respect to the return of
all our POWs. As Dr. Kissinger has testified, to leave
the impression that any President and his associates
would deliberately leave behind live POWs was a lie. For
members of the Committee to create such an impression,
even for partisan political reasons, is totally
unjustifiable. But to convey the impression to the
hundreds of families of MIAs that an American President
deliberately left behind their loved ones and that some
of them might still be alive can only be described as
The Committee owes to the MIA families and to history an
honest statement of the facts with regard to POWs and
MIAs. Throughout America's military history, casualties
are divided into three categories--those known to be
killed in action; those known to be and acknowledged by
the enemy to be prisoners of war; and all others who are
classified as missing in action. My statement on March 29
was true to my knowledge then and, in view of what I have
seen of the Committee's work to date, is true now.
Further, the fact that I was not satisfied with the
accounting we received for MIAs was true then and is true
The Administration and the American public had entered into
Operation Homecoming with expectations that were only partially
satisfied by the time that operation was complete. The families of
those still listed as POW or as missing had the greatest cause for
anguish because the answers they hoped would be forthcoming from
the peace agreement had not materialized.
The Clements/Shields Meeting
In early April, 1973, Deputy Secretary of Defense William Clements
summoned Dr. Roger Shields, head of the Defense Department's
POW/MIA Task Force, to his office to discuss DOD's need for a new
public formulation of its POW/MIA policy. According to Dr. Shields'
Dr. Shields: He (Mr. Clements) indicated to me that he
believed that there were no Americans alive in Indochina.
And I said: I don't believe that you could say that. . .
I told him that he could not say that. And he said: you
didn't hear what I said. And I said: you can't say that.
And I thought he was probably going to fire me. . .
Question: What did you interpret that to mean, "you
didn't hear me"?
Dr. Shields: That I was fighting the problem. You
remember that there were a lot of people at the time who
wanted to declare victory, okay. And I think that maybe
at that point in time he believed that we had what we had
and that was all we were going to get and that there was
no one there.
He didn't have the benefit of the long negotiations that
I had had, the contact with the communists that I had
had, nor did he have the benefit of all the intelligence
information with regard to all the specifics on a daily
basis that I had.
So I explained to him my own feeling, not sure whether I
was going to survive the incident or not, because he's a
very strong man, as you know, a very strong individual
with respect to his feelings. And he did not insist on
holding his point of view. I think that he came around to
my point of view.
During his public testimony, Dr. Shields essentially repeated his
version of the meeting with Mr. Clements:
Sen. Kerry:. . . You recall going to see (Deputy)
Secretary of Defense William Clements in his office in
early April, a week before your April news conference,
Dr. Shields: That's correct.
Sen. Kerry: And you heard him tell you, quote, all the
American POWs are dead. And you said to him, you cannot
Dr. Shields: That's correct.
Sen. Kerry: And he repeated to you, you did not hear me.
They are all dead.
Dr. Shields: That's essentially correct.
Mr. Clements provided the Select Committee with inconsistent
testimony on this subject. In his deposition, Mr. Clements denied
any recollection of a meeting with Dr. Shields and stated that he
and Dr. Shields never would have had such a meeting, because Dr.
Shields was too low in the Pentagon hierarchy. Further, Mr.
Clements testified, he would not have told anyone in April 1973
that "they're all dead," because it was not until several years
later that he reached that conclusion.
At the public hearing in September 1992, however, Mr. Clements
conceded that he did meet with Dr. Shields in early April 1973.
Mr. Clements testified that he told Dr. Shields that "in all
likelihood those people over there are probably all dead.
[T]here's no way that I could have said they are all dead, because
I didn't know that."
The Nixon/Shields Meeting
On April 11, 1973, one day prior to a scheduled DOD press
conference at which he was to discuss the results of Operation
Homecoming, Dr. Shields met with President Nixon and Gen. Brent
Scowcroft, the Deputy National Security Adviser.
A memo prepared for the meeting by Gen. Scowcroft indicated that
its purpose was to thank Dr. Shields for his work on the POW/MIA
issue and to discuss the results of Operation Homecoming. Among the
proposed items for discussion were the following questions:
5. Now that our prisoners are back, how are we
progressing in respect for our missing in action?
6. Are there any indications that some of our MIA's might
still be alive?
7. Do you believe the other side will cooperate in
helping us to account for the missing in action?
The Select Committee has sought to learn as much as possible about
this meeting. A Memorandum of conversation concerning the
meeting, provided to the Committee by the NSC, contains no
reference to any discussion of either Dr. Shields' upcoming press
briefing or the question whether any U.S. POW/MIAs might still be
alive. Both Dr. Shields and Gen. Scowcroft told the Committee that
they did not recall any effort by the President during the meeting
to instruct Dr. Shields on what he should say during his press
conference the following day. Both also state that they recall the
meeting as being primarily congratulatory in nature, for a job well
done in organizing and coordinating Operation Homecoming.
In a letter to the Committee, former President Nixon wrote:
My recollection is that I told Mr. Shields we had an
equal obligation to find the facts concerning the MIAs as
we did to secure the release of the POWs. I also conveyed
to him my belief, which I still firmly hold, that it
would have been unfair and a disservice to MIA families
to raise false hopes without justification.
Shields' Press Conference
On April 12, 1973, Dr. Shields met with the press to discuss the
Defense Department's reaction to Operation Homecoming. Although his
opening remarks did not deal with the subject, one of the first
questions directed at Dr. Shields concerned the possible survival
of American POWs in Laos and Cambodia. Dr. Shields responded by
We have no indications at this time that there are any
Americans alive in Indochina. As I said, we do not
consider the list of men that we received from Laos, the
recovery of 10 individuals, 9 of whom were American and
7 military, to be a complete accounting for all Americans
who are lost in Laos. Nor do we consider it to be a
complete statement of our information known to the LPF
(Pathet Lao) in Laos. With regard to Cambodia, we have
a number of men who are missing in action there, some
that we carried as captive. We intend to pursue that,
too. With regard to these men and these uncertainties
which we have, even though we have no indication that
there are any Americans still alive, we are going to
pursue our efforts through the process of accounting for
the missing. This is exactly what this procedure is for.
And we anticipate that if any Americans are yet alive for
one reason or another, that we would be able to ascertain
that through this process of accounting for the
Although Dr. Shields insists that he had no intention of "declaring
all U.S. POWs dead," newspaper headlines the following day stressed
the pessimistic nature of his response. "POW Unit Boss: No Living
GIs Left in Indochina," read one headline. Dr. Shields, himself,
told the Committee that:
I was distressed about the way it was reported, because
a lot of family members called me on that, my very good
friends. And I wanted to tell them and assure them that
I was not saying that people were dead. If it had been
reported that all Americans were dead, I did not say
Despite these concerns, the Department of Defense made no effort to
correct or clarify the record by emphasizing in public the evidence
that some Americans might still be alive. As Dr. Shields himself
wrote in an internal Defense Department memorandum dated May 24,
1973, the one oft-quoted line from his April 12, 1973 press
briefing--that DOD had "no indications...that there are any
Americans alive in Indochina"-- had become "the basis for all
subsequent answers from DOD to questions concerning the possibility
that Americans may still be held prisoner in Southeast Asia."
Again, several Nixon Administration officials who appeared before
the Select Committee expressed concern about the accuracy of Dr.
Shields' "no indications" statement. Admiral Moorer, for example,
described the statement as "premature." Lawrence
Eagleburger, author of a March 28, 1973 internal Pentagon
memorandum discussing the possibility that live Americans remained
in Laos, described as "troubling" the juxtaposition of Dr. Shields'
statement with the intelligence information on POWs in Laos.
Ambassador Winston Lord said he had "no explanation" for Dr.
Shields' statement and described it as "puzzling."
It should be stressed, however, that these reactions are made from
the perspective of 1992. Despite the contrast between Dr. Shields'
statement and information about prisoners possibly being left
behind, the Committee has seen no evidence of objections from
within the government to Dr. Shields' characterization of the issue
at the time it was made.
Memo from Dr. Shields to Ambassador Hill
Dr. Shields expressed concern that his April 12 statement might
have been overtaken by events in an internal memorandum written on
May 24, 1973 to Ambassador Robert Hill, the new Assistant Secretary
of Defense for International Security Affairs:
. . .only 10 persons, nine of whom were U.S., were
released by the other side as Laos prisoners. Over 300
personnel remain unaccounted for in Laos. . .we have over
1300 Americans who are unaccounted for, and this means
that we have no information to show conclusively that a
man is either alive or dead.
In a DoD sponsored press conference held April 12, 1973,
I made the statement that DoD had no specific knowledge
indicating that any U.S. personnel were still alive and
held prisoner in Southeast Asia. This statement has been
the basis for all subsequent answers from DoD to
questions concerning the possibility that Americans may
still be held prisoner in Southeast Asia. It was a
totally accurate and factual statement at the time it was
In light of more recent events, I believe that answer is
no longer fully satisfactory. Specifically, there is
reason to believe that the American pilot of an Air
America aircraft downed in Laos on May 7 may have been
captured along with six Meo passengers, by North
Vietnamese forces. The last communication received from
the pilot indicated he was landing on a hostile airstrip.
A short time after, (intelligence method redacted)
indicated that the U.S. pilot and the Meo passengers had
been captured. Embassy Vientiane now reports (method
redacted) the capture of the American and his passengers.
. . .
On 4-5 February 1973, a USAF EC-47 carrying a crew of 8
U.S. personnel was downed in Laos. The search and rescue
team succeeded in locating and inspecting the wreckage of
the aircraft. Because the area was a hostile one, the
inspection was not completed. Nevertheless, parts of
four bodies were recovered, only one of which was
identified. A short time after the shootdown of the EC-
47, (method redacted) indicated that four Americans had
been captured in an area some forty miles from the EC-47
crash site. . . .
Given these circumstances, I believe that the DoD
position regarding the possibility of men still being
held prisoner in SEA should be altered slightly. . . .
I am scheduled to testify on the MIA issue. . . With your
concurrence, I will maintain the position that we do not
know whether those now unaccounted for are alive or
The Select Committee's investigation has yielded no evidence that
Dr. Shields ever received a response to his May 24, 1973 memo to
the Assistant Secretary of Defense.