| HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE U.S. POWS IN COMMUNIST CUSTODY:
"Soviet and Asian Communist regimes view POW/MIAs, living or dead, not as a problem of humanitarian concern but as leverage for political bargaining, as an involuntary source of technical assistance, and as forced labor. There is, therefore, no compelling reason in Communist logic to return POWs, or their remains, so long as political and economic goals have not been met."
The war that Americans call the Vietnam War is really, from the stand-point of history, the Second Indochina War. The French have the dubious distinction of having fought the First Indochina War--a most important fact to know in order to understand that the Communist Vietnamese act out of an acquired experience of warfare with Western countries. Moreover, the Vietnamese, as Communists, have had the additional benefit of the experience of other Communist regimes in dealing with the United States and European powers. Therefore, it is not surprising to learn that the problems which the United States has had in dealing with prisoners of war and the missing in action are not the result of chance, but of historic Communist policy.
Indeed, history reveals that policy. In the years after World Wars I and II, the Soviet regime, and later their North Korean cohorts, held American soldiers and citizens captive in the aftermath of these wars. A 1954 New York Times article gives some insight into Communist attitudes towards POWs. In January, 1954, three Americans, two held by the Soviets and one by the Chinese Communists, were repatriated. The New York Times reported:
All three confirm that the Soviet bloc and Chinese Communists are holding in their jails and slave camps many foreigners, including soldiers, civilians, women and children...according to State Department figures, the total number of Americans held by the Soviets and their European satellites exceeds 5,000...Many of these Americans, like many Europeans, were residents in the iron curtain countries caught by the Communist tide; others were deported from German war prisoner camps; some, like Cox were simply kidnapped.
The fact is that Soviet and Asian Communist regimes view POW/MIAs, living or dead, not as a problem of humanitarian concern but as leverage for political bargaining, as an involuntary source of technical assistance, and as forced labor. There is, therefore, no compelling reason in Communist logic to return POWs, or their remains, so long as political and economic goals have not been met. The logic of the Vietnamese position requires them to conceal, to dissimulate, to titillate, and to dole out actual information grudgingly, piece by piece, but always in return for very practical results.
This perverse thinking is shocking to Americans who are straight forward and honest in interpersonal dealings. Yet we should instead be surprised if this were not the case. Indeed, the policy began with Lenin. From the time of the Bolshevik treatment of POWs from the American (The Other Russians, The New York Times, January 5, 1954.) Expeditionary Force in World War I, to the Soviet treatment of POWs in World War II, to the North Korean actions in the Korean War, and finally in the First and Second Indochina Wars--POWs including MIAs, were used by Communist regimes as cynical bargaining tools in contravention of international law.
In 1973, the Vietnamese used POWs in an attempt to blackmail the United States into providing nearly $5 billion in so-called "reparations." Both the United States and Vietnam asserted in that year that "Operation Homecoming" was bringing home all known prisoners. The Vietnamese believed that they had a deal--a dirty deal, to be sure, in which prisoners would be exchanged for cold cash. It was a deal brokered by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger via a secret hand-carried letter. It would be perfectly consistent with the historical Communist policy to hold back prisoners against their will, and even the remains of the dead, to exchange for dollars at a later date. The evidence of this investigation, therefore, must be weighed against the probabilities of the historical background.
Most of this information is not well-known by the American public; however, all of it is based on open-source material, including official U.S. Government documents that have been declassified and collected from official agencies through Freedom of Information Act requests and through research from the National Archives, Washington, D.C.
U.S. problems in accounting for POW/MIAs did not suddenly emerge in the Second Indochina War; in fact, the basic Communist tactics were already evident at the birth of the Soviet Union in the Bolshevik Revolution.
Today, most Americans have forgotten that there were two main fronts during World War I--the Western Front, which was the center of Allied attention, and which today still receives the most focus; and the Eastern Front, which occurred when the Bolshevik Regime signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Germans and withdrew Russian forces from participation with the Allies. Thereupon, the Allies grew apprehensive about the German threat to the ports of Murmansk and Archangel, and sent the Allied Expeditionary Force to Siberia to protect the rear.
As a result of the fighting against Soviet Bolshevik forces around Arhcangel in 1918-1919, there were many casualties, and eyewitness accounts of hundreds of U.S> and British and French personnel who disappeared. Nevertheless, official cables from the U.S. military attaché at Archangel cited much lower numbers than the eyewitness reports of missing personnel. The U.S. government policy concerning these and others in the two categories of missing in action (MIA) and killed in action, body not recovered (KIA-BNR) from the American Expeditionary Force in Russia, as detailed in a November, 1930 memorandum from the U.S. Acting Assistance Chief of Staff, G-1, stated the following:
An administrative determination has been placed on each of their records that they were killed in action on the date they were reported as missing.
In other words, all of the men who were MIA were determined to be KIA-BNR on the date they were reported as missing.
Public outcry over this practice resulted in the formation of the 1929 VFW/U.S. Graves Registration Expedition, which was able to identify or account for 86 sets of remains. Many others were never identified. However, given the technical and scientific limitations of forensics in 1929, the amount of time elapsed and the number of nationalities involved, some of the remains may have been misidentified.
Memorandum "To: Acting Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, Subject: Alleged confinement of American Officers and Soldiers in Russian prisons, " November 12, 1930.
In 1921, the New York Times reported that:
...the American prisoners held by the Soviet Government of Russia have been told by the Bolsheviks that they are held because the United States government has not made vigorous demands for their release...
It is widely known that the Bolsheviks held many American POWs and other U.S. citizens against their will. In fact, the new Soviet Government attempted to barter U.S. POWs held in their prisons for U.S. diplomatic recognition and trade relations with their regime. The United States refused, even though the Soviets had at one time threatened"...that Americans held by the Soviet government would be put to death..."
President Harding's Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes, in response to the Soviet demand for recognition and trade relations in return for U.S. prisoners for U.S. prisoners, said that:
the United States will not consider any suggestions of any character from that government until the Americans now held as prisoners are permitted to leave the country.
But several months later the United States concluded the Riga Agreement with the Soviet government to provide humanitarian aid to starving Russian children. The Riga Agreement had specific requirements that the Soviet authorities must release all Americans detained in Russia to facilitate their departure. The U.S.Government was expecting 20 prisoners to be released; but U.S. authorities were surprised when 100 Americans were released.
In fact, not all American prisoners held by the Soviets were released. The Soviets held some back, presumably for leverage in any future negotiations with the United States. However, in 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized the Soviet government, these prisoners were not released, and other than the apparent recovery of 19 sets of remains, no satisfactory accounting of the MIA/POWs that were held by the Soviets was made by the United States.
Since an administrative determination had been placed on each of their records that they were killed in action on the date they were reported as missing, as far as the United States government and laws of the United States were concerned, these men were legally dead. Other than to a small number of U.S.government officials with access to the intelligence about these men in Soviet concentration camps and prisons, these men were legally, and otherwise generally considered to be no longer alive.
One such intelligence document dated November 20, 1930 cites an affidavit taken by the U.S. Justice Department of Alexander Grube, a Latvian-American, who was identified taken as a "Russian seaman." He had been imprisoned in the Soviet gulag, including in the infamous Lubianka Prison, where he states he saw four American Army officers and 15 American soldiers and civilians. Grube further warned the U.S.government that any inquiry made to Soviet officials of specific individuals will result in their immediate execution.
This episode in the history of World War I illustrates succinctly the major problems which still affect attempts to account for and ensure the repatriation of U.S. military personnel captured by Communist regimes in the aftermath of World War II, the Korean War, and the Second Indochina War. 1) The bureaucratic and legal assertion by the U.S.Government that the men who were MIA were killed in action on the date they were reported as missing or sometime thereafter;2) the attempts by the Communist regime to use prisoners as barter for economic and diplomatic benefits;3) the dissimulation and lies of the Communist regime about the existence and location of prisoners;4) the on-again, off-again return of remains; and 5) where there is no clear military victory over the Communist enemy, the vulnerability of U.S. POW/MIAs who are at the mercy of the reluctance of the enemy and the U.S. government to pursue a clear, open policy for their repatriation.
"Captives' Release Repeatedly Sought," The New York Times, April 18. 1921 Herbert Hoover, Herbert Hoover, An American Epic Volume III, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, (Chicago: Henry Regnery Compant, 1961), pp.427-433