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Nixon and the Prisoners of War

President Nixon’s decision to send an expedition of commando forces to North Vietnam on a futile mission to rescue American prisoners of war was the climax of an eighteen-month campaign to arouse American public opinion about one of the less significant issues of the war and to divert our attention from the fighting and bombing and killing that are still continuing throughout Southeast Asia.

Since March, 1969, officials in the Nixon Administration have been attacking the North Vietnamese for their treatment of captured Americans in an attempt to revive sagging emotional support for the war. Until November 21, 1970, the attacks were only verbal, portraying the North Vietnamese as evil persons who work unrelentingly to harass American prisoners. The American pilots, on the other hand, were portrayed as virtuous men who found themselves in North Vietnamese prisons through an unfortunate and totally fortuitous series of events. The “prisoner-of-war problem” has been treated throughout as an issue unrelated to the war itself.

It is not, of course, unusual for a nation at war to depict its enemy as inhumane or even subhuman, and Americans seem particularly inclined to believe grisly tales of torture and sadism on the part of people who have the audacity to stand up to our military power. Lyndon Johnson and the other spokesman for his policies regularly referred to the North Vietnamese as “aggressors” and to the Viet Cong as “terrorists” and “assassins.” To their credit, however, they never engaged in an unrelenting hate campaign which cynically distorted the information known about prisoners in North Vietnam in order to promote support for a war that the United States should never have become involved in and should certainly be extricated from by now.

Nixon’s attempt to focus attention on the prisoner-of-war issue bears a strong resemblance to his campaign for law and order during the past two elections. The purpose of both attempts is to evoke a simplistic emotional response to what is inevitably a complex problem and to turn our attention away from the deep problems which the President will not or cannot solve.

Still, it must be said that the North Vietnamese have failed to comply with certain requirements of the 1949 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War. Until December, 1969, the North Vietnamese did not permit regular correspondence between the prisoners and their relatives; they have still not published a complete list of the prisoners; they keep some of the prisoners in solitary confinement and do not provide the men with adequate recreation facilities; and they do not allow inspection of the camps by any official neutral body.

It is also true, however, that for several months before the commando raid on the Sontay prisoner-of-war camp the North Vietnamese were cooperating in the frequent exchange of letters and packages between the pilots and their relatives. They were gradually releasing the names of more and more men who are held in North Vietnam, and were responding to specific inquiries about whether missing men are held in the prison camps. Moreover, two released prisoners have charged that the North Vietnamese engage in physical brutality toward the prisoners, but two other freed pilots—who have recently described their captivity after long periods of keeping silent in accordance with the wishes of the Department of Defense—have said that they were protected from physical intimidation once they were in the hands of North Vietnamese guards and when they were at the formal prison camps.

Just before the commando raid, the North Vietnamese—as part of their recent policy of fuller disclosure on prisoner-of-war matters—announced that six men had died during or after their capture in North Vietnam. A subsequent letter, sent a day before the raid but not received in the United States until after the raid, reported that eleven other men had died during or after capture. Other material I have seen indicates that at least seven of these men were captured alive and had died during captivity. This is not a particularly high figure, in view of the fact that many of the men were seriously injured as they bailed out over North Vietnam and that 339 are now listed as alive and most of them are corresponding regularly with their relatives in this country. The figure, in fact, reveals a much lower death rate among prisoners than occurred during World War II, when 27 percent of the soldiers in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps died during captivity.

The Department of Defense has classified as “confidential” the number of prisoners who have died in the Saigon-run POW camps. But in an article that appeared in the December 6 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Richard Dudman reported that the figure is in fact over 800, including more than 300 North Vietnamese and more than 500 Viet Cong soldiers. There have been regular reports of such deaths, some as the result of “accidental” shootings by prison guards. Americans who have returned from Vietnam also constantly report episodes of brutality toward Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers both during and after capture, in which torture of captives before they are delivered to the formal prisoner-of-war camps is commonplace. There is no evidence that the Viet Cong have ever attacked a Saigon-run POW camp after such reports.

President Nixon and his aides decided to speak out on prisoners of war shortly after they took office, when popular enthusiasm for continuing the war in Vietnam was at a low point. Secretary of Defense Laird began the assault by charging that there was “clear evidence” that North Vietnam was not treating American prisoners humanely. He charged that the North Vietnamese refused to identify all the captured pilots, refused to permit prisoners to correspond freely, did not provide adequate medical care, and did not permit any neutral organization to inspect the camps. This declaration was followed in quick succession by statements of Secretary of State Rogers before Congress, Henry Cabot Lodge at the Paris Peace Talks, and American delegate Rita Hauser at the United Nations, all calling North Vietnam’s attitude toward American pilots “inhumane” and “inexcusable.”

At the same time, American military and civilian officials began traveling around the country to meet with wives and relatives of the prisoners. With encouragement from Washington, these women flew to various North Vietnamese embassies throughout the world to beg North Vietnamese diplomats to release the prisoners, or at least their names.

In August, 1969, three more prisoners were freed by North Vietnam (bringing to nine the number that have been released). When they met with the press just after leaving North Vietnam, they said their food, housing, and medical treatment had been “adequate,”1 and they “assured relatives of the Americans left behind in the North Vietnamese camps they had no cause to worry.”2

A month later, however, when the government presented two of them at an elaborate press conference, they had changed their story, and made serious accusations involving torture and physical abuse. Navy Lieutenant Robert F. Frishman and Apprentice Seaman Douglas B. Hegdahl charged that the North Vietnamese had tortured certain prisoners (not including themselves) by pulling out fingernails or tying their hands to the ceilings, and that Lieutenant Frishman was forced (for violating prison rules) to sit tied to a stool in an unbearably hot hut. Frishman also said that the North Vietnamese had neglected persons who needed medical attention and had kept many prisoners in solitary confinement.

Following up these accusations, both houses of Congress in late 1969 and early 1970 unanimously passed a resolution accusing North Vietnam of several violations of the Geneva Convention (the lack of mail, neutral inspection, and medical attention) and calling for increased efforts “to obtain humane treatment and release of American prisoners of war.” Several months later, both houses passed a resolution declaring that May 1, 1970, “be commemorated as a day for an appeal for international justice for all the American prisoners of war and servicemen missing in action in Southeast Asia.”

The Frishman-Hegdahl accusations also helped to persuade H. Ross Perot, a forty-year-old Texan who has made over a billion dollars selling computer data-processing systems, to try to dramatize the plight of the Americans in Hanoi. Perot calls himself a political independent who has supported both Democrats and Republicans, but his support of President Nixon’s actions in Southeast Asia has been intense and unswerving. During the fall of 1969, when demonstrations were being staged across the country to protest the continuation of the war, Perot financed a major advertising campaign calling for support of Nixon’s policies and immediately thereafter found himself being invited to White House receptions. He then announced his offer to ransom all Americans captured in Southeast Asia for $100 million and began organizing a series of guerrilla-theater extravaganzas to arouse public concern.

On December 24, 1969, Perot chartered a jetliner, filled it with fifty-eight wives of missing soldiers and pilots, and ninety-four of their children, and flew them all to Paris to meet with North Vietnamese diplomats. At the same time, Perot sent another jet filled with seventy-five tons of foodstuffs and medical supplies around the world for the stated purpose of persuading the North Vietnamese to receive the plane in Hanoi and distribute the supplies to the prisoners as Christmas presents. The North Vietnamese had already announced their intention to deliver Christmas packages mailed to the prisoners, and had arranged for the families to send them through Moscow. Perot chose to ignore this channel and instead spent $600,000 on his plane flight to obtain drama and news coverage. About this time, President Nixon appointed Perot to the advisory board of the United States Naval Academy.

Perot’s activities continued undiminished throughout 1970. In April, he spent $250,000 to fly a group of wives and reporters to the prison camps in South Vietnam run by the Saigon government and financed by the United States. The following month, Perot used his money to generate support for President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and then in June he financed the installation in the United States Capitol of a life-sized exhibit of what purports to be a realistic depiction of a North Vietnamese prison camp. This tableau is now being erected in state capitols throughout the country.

During the summer of 1970, Perot tried to mobilize the city of Fort Worth, Texas, around the prisoner-of-war issue. He opened storefront offices, placed billboards around the city, and organized volunteers to urge every resident to write to the President of North Vietnam.

Throughout this period, government officials were continuing to meet regularly to consider ways of stirring up concern for the prisoners and to recruit allies in the private sector. In both the State Department and the Defense Department, numerous officials spent all their time on the prisoners-of-war question, traveling, speaking, responding to inquiries, and thinking of ways to promote what has now become a carefully orchestrated campaign to whip up sentiment over the prisoners in North Vietnam. Here are a few of the hundreds of events which have figured in this campaign:

  1. 1

    New York Times, August 8, 1969, page 12.

  2. 2

    AP report, San Francisco Chronicle, August 6, 1969, page 12.

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