MIA Facts Site

The "5,000 POWs"

  Summary.   One article of faith in the MIA mythology is that "the U.S. government expected 5,000 prisoners to be returned by the North Vietnamese at the end of the war."  This statement appears in many MIA websites, home pages, newsletters, speeches, and other material.  The source of the figure 5,000 is cited as the New York Times, 1973.

At the time of Operation Homecoming -- the U.S. POW return in the spring of 1973 -- just over 2,500 Americans were even missing, half of those were known dead (Killed in Action - Body Not Recovered), and the other half were generally believed to be dead.  So, a little over 2,500 men not returned, how is it that the U.S. government expected twice that many to walk out of the jungles of Vietnam and the prisons of Hanoi?  Well, the fact is, no one expected that.  The figure of 5,000 is a concoction of the MIA myth makers.  Read on.

 Where did the number 5,000 originate?

From time to time, I have heard or read claims that the U.S. government "expected" 5,000 POWs to be returned from Vietnam at the end of the war. I found this number to be rather wacky, because only a little over 2,500 men were even missing.  The two most active newsgroups dealing with the Vietnam War -- the moderated soc.history.war.vietnam  and the free-wheeling alt.war.vietnam -- sometimes carry threads, started by various purveyors of MIA mythology, claiming that the U. S. Government expected 5,000 POWs to return.

I could never determine where this absurd number came from.  Now, I have found the answer.

In May 1991, Senator Jesse Helms, acting in his position as senior minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a report titled An Examination of U. S. Policy Toward POW/MIAs.  This hundred-or-so-page document was produced by a cabal of staffers in Helms' office and on the Committee staff who were closely tied to former Congressman Hendon. The principal author was one Tracy Usry. This report claimed that the U.S. POWs who returned in Operation Homecoming were only "12% of the figure of 5,000 held by the North Vietnamese reported by 'The New York Times.'"

The NYT claims that the North Vietnamese held 5,000 U. S. POWs???  I doubt it.

Not so fast

That is not at all what the NYT said.

The Helms report cited a March 1973 NYT story that was cited in an Associated Press dispatch.

Here is what the AP dispatch said:

"While the North Vietnamese did not list a number of prisoners they wanted freed, 'The New York Times' reported from Saigon today that  American sources set the demand at 5,000."

Thus, what the NYT and the AP were reporting was: THE NUMBER OF PRISONERS THAT THE NORTH VIETNAMESE EXPECTED SOUTH VIETNAM AND THE U.S. TO RETURN TO THE NORTH.  They expected us to return to them 5,000 of their guys.

Mendacity reigns supreme on the staff

The 5,000 number had nothing to do with U.S. POWs. In fact, when the error was pointed out, Helms' staff removed the New York Times citation from subsequent printings of the report BUT RETAINED THE 5,000 NUMBER in the text of the report. Instead of citing the NYT, the report now claims that the 5,000 number comes from "sources interviewed by the Committee staff." ( An Examination of U. S. Policy Toward POW/MIAs, November 1991 edition, pp. 5 - 8.) And people wonder why I claim that there is mythmaking at work here.

In November 1991, Usry was exposed as having falsified and misrepresented most of the information in An Examination of U. S. Policy Toward POW/MIAs. (Hearings Before the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, Part I of II, Nov. 5, 6, 7, and 15, 1991, pages 443 - 447.)

In January 1992, Helms' new chief of staff, a retired admiral (Nance) who knew a clown when he saw one, fired the whole gang. This came after several Republican members of the Committee, who had not been consulted before the report was issued, urged Helms to clean house. The admiral came under attack from Hendon and he is still considered a villain by many true believers.

Will the myth makers change their tune?

Okay, so the U.S. never expected 5,000 -- nor did we expect 2,500 -- POWs to be returned from Vietnam. The number comes from phony information but it is still quoted on the "MIA activist" grapevine as the "Senate report." Don't hold your breath for the various MIA web sites, newsletters, and radio programs to rush to correct their claims. 

If you would like to read some serious material about the mythology that surrounds the issue of Americans missing in Southeast Asia, check out my Home Page Bookstore for selected books on the Vietnam War POW-MIA issue.