Nixon and the Prisoners of War

Melvin Laird
Melvin Laird; drawing by David Levine

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…

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