MIA Facts Site

What Did They Know
When Did They Know It

Summary.  On the MIA "activist" sites, in their literature, and in their public comments one hears claims that many senior US officials have "admitted" that we left US POWs behind at the end of the Vietnam War.  Not exactly.  Let's put things into perspective.


One does not need to do much searching in the MIA "activist" literature, visit many of their web site, or listen to many of their speeches to hear claims that Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger, James Schlesinger, William Casey, and any number of other senior US officials have stated or testified that we knowingly abandoned US POWs in SEAsia.  I will not quote these claims here -- visit the activist web sites and read these claims for yourself.  And, the fact is many of these individuals did say that, while they were in their positions, they either believed or had information that led them to believe that US POWs could still be alive in SEAsia.

Such statements are usually taken out of context and misquoted by the MIA "activists."  More important, though, there is never any examination of what these statements are about, when they were made, and what the individual in question knew when he was making the statement.

Old News

In every case that I have read, the person being quoted was a Secretary of Defense Secretary of State, Deputy or Assistant Secretary, or -- in Kissinger's case -- National Security Advisor.  And in every case I have heard quoted, the individual last held that position in the 1970's.  This fact is key.

What Did We Know and When Did We Know It?

Think about this

If one were to ask Thomas Jefferson how long it takes news to travel from New York to Richmond, he would say "several days."  Now, we all know that news travels from New York to Richmond instantaneously -- why does Jefferson say it takes several days?   Because, at the time Thomas Jefferson was living -- the late 1700-early 1800's -- it did take several days for news to travel from New York to Richmond.  This example illustrates a fundamental and irrevocable fact:  What we know is determined by when we know it.  We cannot know something that happens in the future.  We can only know what our experience tells us and experience is history.

What did they know?

At the end of the Vietnam War (1973 for the US, although the war did not end for our Republic of Vietnam allies until 1975) 591 US POWs returned during Operation Homecoming, spring 1973.  At the same time, 2,583 men remained "missing in action" -- a number that is somewhat misleading.  At the end of the war, there were 1,095 men whose status was Killed In Action/Body Not Recovered (KIA/BNR).  This designation means that these men died but their bodies could not be recovered.  In these cases, there were eyewitnesses to their loss and/or search efforts that determined that these men were dead and could not be recovered.  Thus, there were really only 1,488 men who could have been considered "missing." 

Among the 1,488 men who were missing, an analysis of what was known about their loss combined with information collected from returned POWs made it clear that most of these men died in their loss incidents or died avoiding capture.  Still, there were serious questions that remained well through the 1970's and into the 1980's.

Last known alive

There were men who were last known alive but who did not appear in the prison system and who did not return at Operation Homecoming.  For example:

bulletThe two crewmembers of an F-4 ejected when their aircraft was shot down over North Vietnam.  Both landed safely and were in radio contact with rescue forces.   Because of heavy anti-aircraft fire, they could not be rescued and, after about 24 hours, they were no longer on the radio.  What happened to these men?  Were they captured or were they killed evading capture? It was not until the early 1990's that definitive evidence was obtained proving that these men were indeed shot and killed while evading capture.
bulletThe pilot of an F-105 ejected when his aircraft was hit.  His wingman saw him hanging, motionless, in his parachute as the chute descended and landed.  The man lay on the ground and did not move.  Enemy troops were seen dragging the parachute, with the US pilot still in the harness, into the woodline.  What happened to this man?   In the late 1980's, his remains were returned -- he had died in the ejection or in his landing.


Over 450 Americans were "missing" in Laos at the end of the war and only nine US POWs who had been captured in Laos were released from Hanoi.  US officials had expected more men to return as POWs from Laos.  ( For a detailed discussion of Laos, see this article. )  Thus, there were questions as to the fate of Americans lost in Laos and there was concern that some of them may still be prisoners.

Our View of  the North Vietnamese

As one would expect, relations between the US and the North Vietnamese were tense, unfriendly, and filled with suspicion.  After all, we had just left without a clear victory.  After the North Vietnamese conquest of the south in 1975, we were humiliated and angered and the atmosphere between our two nations was poisoned.  We looked at the North Vietnamese as barbarians capable of unspeakable crimes.

And their view of us

The feelings of hatred, mistrust and suspicion were mutual.  For years after 1975, refugees from the former Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) continued to come to the US where many of them formed emigre organizations that pledged to overthrow the communist regime in Vietnam.  The ruling communist party believed that the US government supported these groups and they were convinced that we were attempting to overthrow them.   In international bodies, we opposed all proposed aid and assistance to the Vietnamese.

The atmosphere between our two countries was poisoned with neither side trusting the other -- vestiges of these attitudes remain to this day (June 2001).

The reporting

Add to this mixture of uncertainty and mistrust the impact of reports coming in from various sources claiming that US POWs were being held in Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia.   Many of these stories sounded legitimate and only after thorough investigation were they found to be bogus or mistaken identity. 

For example, there is the "Tell the world about us" tale.  In the late 1970's  -- I do not recall the date -- a Swedish engineer who had been working on a road project in northern Vietnam surfaced with a compelling story.  He claimed that he had seen a group of Caucasian men being used as forced labor on a road project -- one of them had shouted to him "Tell the world about us!!"  This story -- which first surfaced in a Hong Kong bar -- flashed around the world and raised the question as to who or what did this man see.  As it turned out, he saw a group of former South Vietnamese military officers who were being forced to labor on public works projects in the north.  None of them had spoken to him, though some had waved at him -- he had told the straight story and it was embellished by his comrades as they told it.

. . . and what did it mean?

With this background it is clear to see what is going on here.  Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Assistant Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, Henry Kissinger -- all of them know the above information.  The prudent, responsible, and logical conclusion for them to reach was that it was possible that US POWs were still being held in SEAsia.  They had no proof or evidence of who, where, how many, and why, but they could not ignore what they knew at the time.

Thus, when one asks these men -- who held their positions in the 1970's -- what they knew about US POWs in SEAsia, they respond -- prudently and logically -- that they had reason to believe that US POWs were possibly still being held.  In view of what they knew and when they knew it, this is what they should have concluded.  They had no specific evidence of who, what, when, where, and how many, but in light of what they did know, they could not rule out the possibility.

Today, when the MIA "activists" cite remarks by these former officials, it is important to remember that you are hearing hearing opinions formed 20 or more years ago.  We know much more today than we did then and the conclusions are much different today.

What we have learned since

Since 1973, we have learned volumes about the fates of missing men and it is clear that those who did not return in Operation Homecoming (or the few who were released or escaped during the war) all died in their loss incident, died in captivity, of died evading capture.  If you did not return at Homecoming, you were dead.  (There were a few exceptions -- see this article for examples of those. )   What have we learned and how have we learned it?

bulletReturning prisoners were debriefed as to their knowledge of missing men.
bulletIntelligence collection aimed at SEAsia continued.
bulletThe hundreds of thousands of refugees coming from Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia were screened for knowledge of missing Americans.
bulletUS organizations and officials maintained contact with the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians and were able to return remains of missing Americans and learned the fates of many missing.
bulletSince the late 1980's:
bulletUS teams have gone into Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia regularly to search for loss sites and conduct on-the-scene investigations of loss incidents.
bulletEvery loss incident in Cambodia has been investigated to completion.
bulletEvery known loss site in Vietnam has been visited at least once and the plan is to conduct thorough research and investigation of each site.
bulletIn Laos, things move much more slowly because of the difficult terrain but US teams go into Laos on alternate months where they excavate crash sites.
bulletUS teams go into Vietnam in alternate months, staying a month at a time, where they excavate loss sites.
bulletUS investigators are stationed in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia where they conduct research in war-time records, interview war-time eyewitnesses, and follow up every possible lead to determine the fate of missing Americans.
bulletEvery piece of evidence collected during and since the war is reviewed time and again.

As a result of all this work, we know much more now than we did at the end of the war, in the 1970's, and even up into the early 1990's. This is a fact that the MIA "activist cult" does not want to recognize.  They prefer to live in the past -- they prefer to trot out statements made by senior officials who did not know what we know today.  These men were not fools or liars -- they were simply stating what they knew at the time -- and time has moved on.

Finally, the Bill Casey myth

William Casey served as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1982 until his resignation in 1987; he died shortly after he resigned.  In early 1987, former Congressman Billy Hendon and his henchman Congressman -- now Senator -- Bob Smith -- requested a meeting with Casey.   Hendon had one of his bogus MIA sighting stories and he was trying to interest Casey in some sort of CIA covert action.  According to other CIA officers who were in the meeting -- and with whom I spoke a few days later -- Casey was polite, asked Hendon to turn over his information, and the agency would review what Hendon had.  What he had was typical of the bogus stories that floated around the refugee camps in Thailand. 

After Casey's death, Hendon went public and claimed that Casey had said to him and to Smith: "We left them (US POWs) there and everyone knows it." 

This claim by Hendon has become a staple on the MIA "activist" list of claims.  It is bogus.  Casey never said such a thing -- he did not even come close.  Then Hendon emerged with this tale -- AFTER Casey was dead.  Casey's executive assistant was in the meeting and, as usual, took notes.  Not a single one of the CIA officers in the meeting heard Casey say such a thing and the notes of the meeting do not reflect such a comment.  It's all a Hendon lie.

In conclusion

In conclusion, the MIA "activist" crowd will continue to tell us that Kissinger said this, Schlesinger said that, Casey said something else and that proves we left men behind.  Not so.  These men were speaking based on what they knew at the time -- except for Casey about whom Hendon made up a lie -- they did not know what we know now.