| Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs:
The Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs was created because
in 1991, almost nineteen years after the formal termination of U.S.
participation in the Vietnam War, a part of the war remained very
much with us as a nation. For almost two decades, the questions of
whether American prisoners were left behind and, if so, whether
they remained alive somewhere in captivity had haunted America. The
failure to resolve these questions had raised doubts about the good
faith of our government, about whether a real commitment had been
made to the issue, about the wisdom of past actions taken or not
taken and about realistic options for the future.
The durability of the debate surrounding the POW/MIA issue caused-- it did not result from--creation of the Select Committee. The committee began its work at a time of swirling controversy and doubt about whether official U.S. handling of the issue matched the high priority the government claimed it received.
The Committee was established on August 2, 1991 when the Senate approved a Resolution introduced by Sen. Bob Smith providing for the creation of a Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs to serve during the remainder of the 102nd Congress. By October, 1991, a Chairman, Vice-chairman and ten additional Members had been appointed to the Committee and a Resolution providing funding had been approved.
Despite the passage of time, the work of previous Committees and commissions, the efforts of countless officials to clarify and explain and the public status throughout the past decade of this issue as one of highest national priority, a Wall Street Journal poll, taken shortly before the Committee was created, found that 69 percent of Americans believed that U.S. servicemen were still being held against their will in Southeast Asia and that of those, three- fourths felt the U.S. Government was not doing enough to bring the prisoners home.
As these numbers indicate, the POW/MIA issue has had a life of its own. The simple explanation for this is that although no American prisoners are known for certain to be alive, 2,264 continue to be officially "unaccounted for" and therefore not proven dead. In addition, the U.S. Government has continued to receive reports alleging that some Americans remain alive in captivity. It is only human nature to hope, in the absence of contrary proof, that a loved one has survived. And it is only to be expected, in such circumstances, that the American people, would demand the "fullest possible effort to establish the truth" .
The evidence of the past 20 years is that on a subject as personal and emotional as the survival of a husband, brother or son, it is simply not enough to talk of probabilities and the need for perspective. It means little to the family and friends of a missing serviceman to be told by some that the percentage of U.S. forces missing after Vietnam is lower than in previous wars or that it is inevitable that there will be a certain number unaccounted for in any major armed conflict and that the opposing side has far more MIAs than the U.S. The search for answers to POW/MIA questions is not about mathematics; it is about the fate of individual human beings who went to Indochina to fight for their country and who did not come back. Something very real happened to each of those brave men, and our country will not be at peace with itself until we are morally certain we have done all we could to find out what.
In addition to the emotional concerns of families, a second impetus for establishing the Committee was provided by legitimate unresolved questions of fact. Why, Americans asked, did so few of the U.S. airmen downed in Laos return home? How do we explain the dozens of unresolved, first-hand reports of Americans being sighted in captivity in Southeast Asia after the end of the war? Were the hundreds of resolved reports adequately investigated? How can we trust the assurances of Vietnam that it holds no prisoners when we have strong evidence that it has stockpiled American remains? What about the Tighe Commission's 1986 conclusion that "there is a strong possibility of U.S. prisoners being held?" And what about the steady drumbeat of rumors about conspiracy, cover-ups, photographs, failed rescue missions and mysterious videotapes?
All of this controversy was fueled in the period just prior to the Committee's creation by the February 12, 1991 resignation of Colonel Millard Peck as Director of DIA's Special Office for POW/MIA Affairs. In his letter of resignation, Col. Peck criticized what he called a "mindset to debunk" information that U.S. POWs might be alive and suggested that a "'cover-up' may be in progress."
Even more dramatic was the identification by family members in mid- 1991 of individuals in three photographs that appeared to depict American POWs in Southeast Asia. The photographs generated enormous publicity and sparked demands for an immediate government response.
Interest in the issue was stimulated, as well, by discussions of conditions for establishing normal diplomatic and economic relations between the United States and Vietnam. The U.S. State Department's "Road Map" to normalization required, among other things, full cooperation by Vietnam in resolving last known alive discrepancy cases, implementing a plan to resolve expeditiously live-sighting reports on which the U.S. requests assistance and the rapid repatriation of all recovered and recoverable American remains.