MIA Facts Site

The "Nixon Letter"

Background

One of the eternal mysteries of the MIA issue is this basic question:  Why would the Vietnamese not release all US POWs at the end of the war?      There are several theories proposed to answer this question, none of which hold up to scrutiny.  Briefly here are the leading theories.

bulletValuable Americans were kept for trade to the Soviets in exchange for their help during the war.  "Valuable" Americans include technical specialists, people with advanced degrees, and the like.  Not true.  The Air Force did a survey of men who were lost, comparing their college education, assignments, special skills, and the like.  There is no pattern to the return or non-return; signal intelligence specialists are missing at the same rate as loadmasters, etc.  For a more complete discussion of this topic, see this article.
bulletHard-core prisoners who resisted were kept.  No.  Read the memoirs of those who returned -- there was full-up resistance on the part of most US POWs and the guys who resisted came home the same as did those who did not resist as steadfastly.
bulletBadly injured POWs were not released for fear of exposing the shortcomings in the Vietnamese medical system.  Not true.  In the first place, US POWs in Hanoi were routinely treated at a Hanoi military hospital and there were many badly injured men who returned.  Another factor is that, if an individual were badly injured in his loss incident, he did not survive.  For a more complete discussion of this topic, see this article.
bulletNixon promised the Vietnamese money to rebuild the country and the Vietnamese kept a few US POWs back as an "insurance policy" -- if the US did not deliver on the money, they Vietnamese would spring these guys on us and we would pay ransom to get them back.  This is silly.  This theory is based on the famous "Nixon letter."  The MIA cult claims that Nixon sent a secret letter to the Vietnamese laying out just such a deal.  The purpose of this article is to provide the Nixon letter to everyone so folks can read the letter, think about it, and make up their own minds.

The Nixon Letter

As the negotiations to end the Vietnam War progressed through 1972, the North Vietnamese and their "Viet Cong" allies became more and more obstinate.  Nixon decided to put on some serious pressure in late 1972.  US forces mined the harbor of Haiphong, North Vietnam's main port, and we unleashed a horrendous bombing campaign, the "Christmas bombing" of December 1972.  These actions got their attention.  For example, the mining of Haiphong almost stopped the flow of equipment and munitions from the Soviet Union and East Europe to the point that, when the Christmas bombing started, Vietnamese missile units were running out of surface-to-air missiles.

The North Vietnamese had often raised the issue of paying to rebuild Vietnam.   They made these points:

  1. The US undoubtedly would help to rebuild South Vietnam, leaving the North to fend for themselves.  (Shows you how much they trusted their Soviet and Chinese friends.
  2. A post-war North Vietnam, with serious war damage, could never hope to be a full partner in economic progress, thus, rebuilding North Vietnam was in everyone's interest.
  3. The US had rebuilt Germany and Japan, each of whom had inflicted more damage on the US than had North Vietnam.

At some point, Kissinger and Nixon persuaded the North Vietnamese that, if they would reach a peace agreement, the US would make a statement of some kind regarding rebuilding North Vietnam.  On January 27, 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed.  On February 1, 1973, President Nixon sent the following letter to North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong.

Reproduced below is the "Nixon letter."  Actually, what is reproduced below is a State Department news bulletin in which State released the Nixon letter.   To make reading easier, I have highlighted the letter in green type.

Follows the full text of the 1977 Department of State release containing the "Nixon Letter."

Department Of State Bulletin
Vol. 76 - No. 1983
June 27, 1977

Former President Nixon's Message to Prime Minister Pham Van Dong

Department Announcement

The Department released on May 19, 1977, the text of a message dated February 1, 1973, from former President Nixon to the Prime Minister of the former Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Mr. Pham Van Dong. The existence and substance of this document have already been made public, including public references by the recipient. Its author has indicated no obligation to its release. In light of all present circumstances, we have determined that the message is no longer deemed sensitive, and it has been declassified.

TEXT OF MESSAGE FROM THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES TO THE PRIME MINISTER OF THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM.

February 1, 1973

The President wishes to inform the Democratic Republic of Vietnam of the principles which will govern United States participation in the postwar reconstruction of North Vietnam. As indicated in Article 21 of The Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam signed in Paris on January 27, 1973, the United States undertakes this participation in accordance with its traditional policies. These principles are as follows:

1) The Government of the United States of America will contribute to postwar reconstruction in North Vietnam without any political conditions.

2) Preliminary United States studies indicate that the appropriate programs for the United States contribution to postwar reconstruction will fall in the range of $3.25 billion of grant aid over five years. Other forms of aid will be agreed upon between the two parties. This estimate is subject to revision and to detailed discussion between the Government of the United States and the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

3) The United States will propose to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam the establishment of a United States-North Vietnamese Joint Economic Commission within 30 days from the date of this message.

4) The function of this Commission will be to develop programs for the United States contribution to reconstruction of North Vietnam. This United States contribution will be based upon such factors as:

(a) The needs of North Vietnam arising from the dislocation of war;

(b) The requirements for postwar reconstruction in the agricultural and industrial sectors of North Vietnam's economy.

5) The Joint Economic Commission will have an equal number of representatives from each side. It will agree upon a mechanism to administer the program which will constitute the United States contribution to the reconstruction of North Vietnam. The Commission will attempt to complete this agreement within 60 days after its establishment.

6) The two members of the Commission will function on the principle of respect for each other's sovereignty, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit. The officers of the Commission will be located at a place to be agreed upon by the United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

7) The United States considers that the implementation of the foregoing principles will promote economic, trade and other relations between the United States of America and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and will contribute to insuring a stable and lasting peace in Indochina. These principles accord with the spirit of Chapter VIII of The Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam which was signed in Paris on January 27, 1973.

UNDERSTANDING REGARDING ECONOMIC RECONSTRUCTION PROGRAM

It is understood that the recommendations of the Joint Economic Commission mentioned in the President's note to the Prime Minister will be implemented by each member in accordance with its own constitutional provisions.

NOTE REGARDING OTHER FORMS OF AID

In regard to other forms of aid, United States studies indicate that the appropriate programs could fall in the range of 1 to 1.5 billion dollars depending on food and other commodity needs of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

End of  the full text of the 1977 Department of State release containing the "Nixon Letter."

Consider this

This is the famous "Nixon letter" that is pointed to by the MIA cult as being proof that Nixon offered the Vietnamese a bribe of several billion dollars to release US POWs.  Note several points about this letter.

The date

This "pledge" to the North Vietnamese was made on February 1, 1973, several days AFTER the Paris Peace Accords, ending the war, were signed.  Thus, this letter was not a part of the peace agreement and it certainly was not a part of any terms of release for US POWs.

The escape clauses

Nixon carefully built into this letter  escape clauses for himself and for the US.  

  1. ". . . the establishment of a United States-North Vietnamese Joint Economic Commission. . .The Vietnamese wanted a blank check.  Nixon said that there would be a joint commission to decide on programs to rebuild the North.   Nixon knew that such a commission would likely collapse because of mutual distrust and because the Vietnamese would see the commission as a means for the US to dictate the post-war reconstruction process.
  2. ". . . the United States undertakes this participation in accordance with its traditional policies . . . " This phrase means that any US aid would be subject to our normal Constitutional process -- which means the Congress would be required to approve any money spent to rebuild Vietnam.  Nixon knew that reconstruction aid for North Vietnam had a snowball's chance in hell of being approved by any Congress in the immediate post-war era.
  3. It is understood that the recommendations of the Joint Economic Commission mentioned in the President's note to the Prime Minister will be implemented by each member in accordance with its own constitutional provisions.   This provides the same protection as number 2 -- Congressional approval would be required.

Not a Promise

Note that this letter is NOT a promise or a pledge to pay anything.  The introductory sentence states:  The President wishes to inform the Democratic Republic of Vietnam of the principles which will govern United States participation in the postwar reconstruction of North Vietnam.  This sentence means that, if the following terms are met -- joint commission, Congressional approval -- then we may help rebuild North Vietnam. 

This is not a promise and the Vietnamese were certainly sophisticated enough to recognize that fact.

You decide

And there you have it, the muchly-ballyhooed "Nixon letter."  You read it, you review the history and the context of the letter, then you tell me if this is a POW ransom note.

October 17, 2000