Vietnam MIAs: Ghosts Return to Haunt McCain and the US Press

The ghosts that haunt Senator John McCain are about 600 in number and right now they are mustering for an onslaught. McCain, one of America’s foremost Republicans and President Barack Obama’s opponent in 2008, is currently locked in a desperate bid for political survival in his home state of Arizona. After 20 years of immunity from challenge from his fellow Republicans, he’s now involved in a close primary battle with J.D. Hayworth, a former congressman turned radio broadcaster who sports the Tea Party label. Hayworth says McCain is a fake Republican, soft on issues like immigration. The polls have been tightening, and if McCain got bludgeoned by some new disclosure, it could finish him off.

That very disclosure is now bursting over the head of McCain, the former Navy pilot who was held in a North Vietnamese prison for five years, and returned to the US as a war hero. His nemesis is Sydney Schanberg, a former New York Times reporter who won a Pulitzer prize for his reporting from Cambodia that formed the basis for the Oscar-winning movie, The Killing Fields.

In recent years Schanberg has worked relentlessly on one of the great mysteries of the Vietnam War, one that still causes hundreds of American families enduring pain. Did the US government abandon American POWs in Vietnam? By 1990 there were so many stories, sightings, intelligence reports, of American POWs left behind in Vietnam after the war was over, that pressure from Vietnam vets and the families of the MIAs prompted the formation of a special committee of the US Senate to investigate. The chairman was John Kerry, a Navy man who had served in Vietnam. McCain, as a former POW, was its most pivotal member.

Down the years Schanberg has pieced together the evidence, much of it covered up by the Senate committee. In 1993, an American historian unearthed in Soviet archives the record of a briefing of a Vietnamese general to the Soviet politbureau. The briefing took place in 1973, right before the final peace agreement between the US and Hanoi. What the Vietnamese general told the Russians was that his government was intent on getting war reparations, $3.25 billion in reconstruction money, pledged by the US in peace negotiations headed on the US side by Henry Kissinger. The general told the Russians that Hanoi would hold back a large number of POWs until the money arrived. It seems the Vietnamese had successfully used the same tactic with the French, to elicit promised funds, after which POWs were transferred.

But Nixon and Kissinger had attached to the deal a codicil to the effect that the US Congress would have to approve the reparations – which the two knew was an impossibility in the political atmosphere of the time. Thus they effectively sealed the POWs fate. On signature of the 1973 treaty Hanoi released the names of 591 POWs scheduled to be returned. , At the time there was widespread consternation in the US – in the New York Times for example — at the  unexpectedly low number. In fact, as top official in the US government knew, about 600 POWs were being held back, against delivery of the promised $3.25 billion.

All of this was suppressed by the Kerry-McCain committee, with the complicity of the US press, enamored of both McCain and Kerry. McCain was particularly vicious in mocking what he and his press allies suggested were the fantasies of MIA families and Vietnam vets.

“In a private briefing in 1992,” Schanberg writes, “high-level CIA officials told me that as the years passed and the ransom never came, it became more and more difficult for either government to admit that it knew from the start about the unacknowledged prisoners. Those prisoners had not only become useless as bargaining chips but also posed a risk to Hanoi’s desire to be accepted into the international community. “The CIA officials said their intelligence indicated strongly that the remaining men – those who had not died from illness or hard labor or torture – were eventually executed.”

Schanberg stigmatizes the indifference of the press:

“In recent years, I have offered my POW stories to a long list of editors of leading newspapers, magazines, and significant websites that do original reporting. And when they decline my offerings, I have urged them to do their own POW investigation with their own staff under their own supervision. The list of these news organizations includes the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, New York magazine, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Vanity Fair, Salon, Slate, Talking Points Memo, ProPublica, Politico, and others. To my knowledge, none have attempted or produced a piece. Their explanations for avoiding the story have never rung true. … Some said they didn’t have enough staff to do the story. Others said the story was ‘old’ —even though we have never found out what happened to the missing prisoners. …

“I asked these editors about the mountain of hard evidence attesting to the existence of abandoned men. In particular, I asked about the witness evidence, the 1,600 firsthand live sightings of American prisoners after the war. Did these journalists believe that every last one of the 1,600 witnesses was lying or mistaken? Many of these Vietnamese witnesses were interrogated by U.S. intelligence officers. Many were given lie-detector tests. They passed. The interrogators’ reports graded the bulk of the witnesses ‘credible.’

“I would run through the long gamut of known intelligence—official radio intercepts of prisoners being moved to and from labor camps in Laos, satellite photos, conversations overheard by Secret Service agents inside the White House, ransom offers from Hanoi through third parties, sworn public testimony by three U.S. defense secretaries who served during the Vietnam era that ‘men were left behind.’ The press wasn’t and isn’t interested.” In late 2008 The Nation published a shorted version of Schanberg’s investigation, and Hamilton Fish put a much fuller account up on the National Institute’s website.”

In the presidential campaign of 2008, as we reported more than once here in CounterPunch at the time,  McCain faced accusations that in fact, as a POW, he had broken and cooperated with his North Vietnamese captors, who regarded McCain as a valuable prize because his father was a prominent US admiral, at the time commander of all US forces in the Pacific. McCain Jr., so his accusers said, disclosed vital information, and made broadcasts denouncing the US, which were then used by the Vietnamese to break other POWs.

The issue never became a big one in 2008 – but now it’s coming back with a vengeance. This last Wednesday, the American Conservative, a monthly, released a special issue, ‘The Men our Media Forgot’, with Schanberg’s full story and accompanying commentary by the veteran reporter.  The US media, pressured in any number of ways by successive US governments to ridicule and suppress enquiries into the missing POWs, are the prime target, but McCain also bulks large in The American Conservative’s sights, since McCain’s present political crisis forms an excellent peg for Schanberg’s story. The calculation is evidently that this could be a huge boost to Hayworth.

In one of his two pieces in  The American Conservative, titled ‘McCain and the POW Cover-Up’, Schanberg insinuates, without saying so directly, that the Pentagon blackmailed McCain to squelch the MIA hearings:

“It’s not clear whether the taped confession McCain gave to his captors to avoid further torture has played a role in his postwar behavior in the Senate. That confession was played endlessly over the prison loudspeaker system at Hoa Lo – to try to break down other prisoners – and was broadcast over Hanoi’s state radio.

“Reportedly, he confessed to being a war criminal who had bombed civilian targets. The Pentagon has a copy of the confession but will not release it. Also, no outsider I know of has ever seen a non-redacted copy of the debriefing of McCain when he returned from captivity, which is classified but could be made public by McCain.”

Can this nation’s major newspapers and television networks sedulously refuse to discuss assertions that US servicemen were abandoned by their government? The answer is yes. An example: On October 22, 2003 the Independent Commission of Inquiry into the Israeli Attack on the USS Liberty on June 8, 1967, resulting in the deaths of 34 US crew members and the wounding of 173, issued its report on Capitol Hill. Among its findings:

“There is compelling evidence that Israel’s attack was a deliberate attempt to destroy an American ship and kill her entire crew; evidence of such intent is supported by statements from Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Undersecretary of State George Ball, former CIA director Richard Helms, former NSA directors Lieutenant General William Odom, USA (Ret), Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, USN (Ret).” The crew, the report said, were “abandoned by their own government… fearing conflict with Israel, the White House deliberately prevented the US Navy from coming to the defense of USS Liberty… due to the influence of Israel’s powerful supporters in the United States, the White House deliberately covered up the facts of this attack from the American people… there has been an official cover-up without precedent in American naval history.”

Signing these emphatic conclusions were some of America’s best known military men: Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen Raymond G. Davis, former assistant commandant of the Marine Corps; Rear Admiral Merlin Staring, former Judge Advocate General of the Navy, and Ambassador James Akins (Ret), former United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. And how were these categorical conclusions dealt with in the press? Reviewing the record four years later, Alison Weir, executive director of If Americans Knew, reported here  on the CounterPunch website that a review of the hundreds of newspapers indexed by Lexis-Nexis “does not turn up a single US newspaper that mentioned this commission, a single US television station, a single US radio station, a single US magazine. “While it was mentioned in an Associated Press report focusing on one of the commission’s most dramatic revelations, Lexis reveals only a sprinkling of news media printed information from this AP report, and those few that did failed to mention this commission itself, its extremely star-studded composition, and the entirety of its findings.”

And who, in the case of the Liberty, conducted the initial, cursory Navy Court of Inquiry in the immediate aftermath of the attack? None other than Admiral John S. McCain, father of Arizona’s senior US senator,  preparing the hasty cover-up under the supervision of Johnson’s White House and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

Millions of words  have been expended down the decades on the matter of the press’s role in “cover-ups.” Every cover-up has its own specific mix – whether it be fear of the Israel lobby, as with the saga of the Liberty; or direct pressure from a government agency, as when the CIA persuaded Arthur Hays Sulzberger of the New York Times to suppress Sydney Gruson’s reports of the Agency’s role in the 1953 Guatemalan coup overthrowing President Arbenz; or the competitive rivalries that prompted the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and New York Times to launch a collective onslaught on the San Jose Mercury News for Gary Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series in 1996, charging CIA complicity in the importing of cocaine into the US.  The blend varies from case to case but there are consistent features, starting with the extreme unease with which the corporate press  approaches a story which casting  grave discredit on the government of the United States.

The onslaught on the Isolationists who strove to keep America clear of both World Wars furnish the clearest illustration here of this antipathy.  In the case of the Second World War,  there is a mountain of evidence attesting to FDR’s prolonged, devious  and ultimately successful campaign to get America into the war. The role of the British intelligence services in this enterprise has been slowly excavated down the years. Professor Thomas Mahl, who published a brilliant excavation of the covert British campaign in his 1998 book Desperate Deception — British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44 writes in his introduction that “until recently, the study of the intelligence history of World War II has lacked respectability. The conventional charge is that it smacks too much of conspiracy – a word with a very unprofessional ring among American historians… Graduate students are warned about the ‘furtive fallacy.’… How does the historian avoid the charge  that he is indulging in conspiracy history when he explores the activities of a thousand people, occupying two floors of Rockefeller Center, in their efforts to involve the United States in a major war? What should we properly call the public rigging of an opinion poll, the planting of a lover, or a fraudulent letter by an intelligence agency in order to gain information or to influence policy?”

The ruthless campaign to discredit Charles Beard’s pioneering 1948 book, President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War 1941 attested to the determination by the foreign policy and academic establishments to crush the Non-Interventionists and neutralize them as a political force amid the postwar rise of American Empire. Denouncing “conspiracy mongering” was an integral part of this campaign – never more vehement than when addressing the whole issue of FDR’s conduct in the run-up to Pearl Harbor.

Sometimes a conspiracy does surface, propelled into the light of day by a tenacious journalist. But by then the caravan has moved on. Webb’s charges became “an old discredited  story”, just as the murder bids on Castro became, by the mid-80s, “alleged” once more. Despite the conclusive and damning  record the assault on the US Liberty reverts in many references these days to the comforting rationale of a case of possible “mistaken identity on which the jury is still out.” As so often, the jury came back in and issued its verdict, but by then the press box was empty.

But maybe now, with the decline in power of the established corporate press, the far greater availability of dissenting versions of politics and history, the exposure of the  methods used to coerce publish support for the 2003 US attack on Iraq, have engendered a greater sense of realism on the part of Americans as to what their government is capable of. And maybe in this more fertile soil, Sydney Schanberg’s  long battle to get the press t focus on the fate of the POWs will be rewarded, with the bonus of McCain’s discomfiture in Arizona.

America’s Fastest Growing  Cult: the Confederate Flag

In our latest newsletter, read  Kevin Alexander Gray  on the folks who REALLY think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a big mistake.  Kevin, who set fire to a confederate flag on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds a few years back, has written a marvelous piece about the comeback of the Confederacy, memorialized in parks, graveyards, front yard flags, gubernatorial tributes, “confederate history months” and a hundred other ways of saying that in the Civil War the wrong side won.

“The perfect moral compass of a climber and a lickspittle” – that’s how Norman Finkelstein describes her in our latest newsletter, looking back on how Elena Kagan covered for Alan Dershowitz during the plagiarism face off.  How did she seem at Princeton? Fellow-class member Fritz Neal remembers. Also, Carl Ginsburg on how Wall Street is making billions, betting on national collapse.

I urge you to  subscribe now!

ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at




Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.