Mr. Al Santoli's Review
The book review
The following book review appeared in the Washington Times (newspaper) on
August 15, 1999.
August 15, 1999
The Incomplete POW Story
Honor Bound: American Prisoners Of War In Southeast Asia, 1961-1973
By Stuart I. Rochester and Frederick Kiley
Naval Institute Press, $36.95, 706 pages, illus.
By Al Santoli
The saga of American prisoners in communist hands during the war in
Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia is a complex web. There was the personal
courage of some 700 Americans who returned, the savagery of their
captors, and the treachery of American leftists such as Jane Fonda and
Ramsey Clark. There was international political intrigue by the Soviet
Union, Cuba and China, and the continuing tragedy of some 600 Americans
who never returned from Laos plus scores of others who were known by
U.S. intelligence to be last known alive in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia
but whose fates are still not credibly resolved.
In "Honor Bound: The History of American Prisoners of War in Southeast
Asia, 1961-73," an official U.S. Government publication by the
Historical Office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Stuart
Rochester and Frederick Kiley make a herculean "attempt at a
comprehensive, objective, documented history," of the POW experience.
The authors convey remarkably well the courageous survival, resistance
and efforts to maintain dignity by many of the prisoners, as well as
questionable conduct by others. However, by relying on the guidance of
Defense Department career analysts and by not including a growing body
of official documents and the perceptions of some former prisoners that
raise questions as to whether all Americans came home, the book falls
short of its well-intended objective.
Since the end of the Cold War, the declassification of countless
intelligence documents in the former Soviet Union and the United States
indicates that there is a darker legacy of Americans hidden and/or
abandoned in communist gulags that has yet to be fully revealed.
Unfortunately, the authors dismiss all of those concerned
Americans outside of the Defense Department who seek honest answers
-including many family members of the missing service men - as "a swarm
of polemicists and opportunists."
"Honor Bound" cites the Viet Minh-French Indochina War to set the
historical stage for the capture of American prisoners of war. Mr.
Rochester and Mr. Kiley describe the inhumane treatment of French
prisoners by the Viet Minh, and the widespread barbaric communist
practice to "brainwash" prisoners for use as pawns in psychological
warfare against their countrymen. However, the authors ignore the
crucial U.S.-government-funded study of the French prisoner of war
experience done by the Rand Corporation and published in 1969.
The conclusions of that study were prophetic of Vietnamese communist
negotiations, tactics and objectives that the Nixon administration
experienced in 1972-73. It warned that the North Vietnamese would deny
the existence of POWs captured by them in Cambodia and Laos. It also
warned that the North Vietnamese communists would deliberately hold
Americans back for ransom and call it war reparations, as they had with
The dogmatic North Vietnamese would also insist, for political reasons,
that they had no control over those captives and would insist the U.S.
government should negotiate directly with their surrogate communist
revolutionary movements in Laos and Cambodia, which for political
reasons the Americans would refuse to do.
More significantly, the Rand experts believed that as happened with
French prisoners, the Vietnamese communists would not release all
American POWs at the end of hostilities, but would withhold some,
waiting for the United States to meet all military, political and
monetary commitments that the North Vietnamese believed owed to them.
These points are key to understanding the fate of the missing
servicemen, especially the scores whose fates were not credibly resolved
at the end of the war. The forthcoming second edition of "Honor Bound"
is being revised to include critical insight and criticism by former
American prisoners of war, who were dissatisfied with factual
inaccuracies and omissions in the first edition. For example, the book
states that POW Michael Benge was frequently taken out of the prison
camp to a North Vietnamese hospital for medical treatment of his acute
In reality, Mr. Benge was brutally treated by prison guards for this
illness by being thrown in solitary confinement without water. Although
Mr. Benge currently lives near the Pentagon, the authors did not
contact him for accuracy before publication. He is only one of a number
of former prisoners who have challenged the book's accuracy.
On the other hand, the authors relied heavily on much-maligned
Department of Defense sources such as Robert DeStatte, who was chastised
by a Congressional oversight chairman for misdiagnosing the brutal
Cuban interrogators in North Vietnam who savagely beat a number of
Americans, resulting in at least two deaths, as "an English language
program that went awry."
The Defense Intelligence Agency believes that all prisoners in the
Vietnamese prison system returned home. The primary reason by which
analysts and some former prisoners continue to maintain this belief is
because of the communication network among prisoners in the camps.
However, many camps were isolated, especially those in Laos, Cambodia,
China and in South Vietnam.
The authors cite former prisoner Ernie Brace, one of the few Americans
captured in Laos, who was transferred to North Vietnam and subsequently
returned. Although the writers state that Mr. Brace was held in a
prison camp at Dien Bien Phu for four and a half years, they do not
emphasize that he was without any communication with Americans in other
camps before being moved to Hanoi for release in 1973 as a token POW
The papers of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIAs housed at the
National Archives include an assessment by Senate investigators that
states, "The intelligence suggests that a second set of undisclosed
camps existed along the Chinese border and in western Vietnam." This
secret second tier of camps would have included Dien Bien Phu. The only
reason we know of that camp today is through Mr. Brace. Other places
cited in intelligence during the war, such as a Russian-Chinese
interrogation facility at Vinh Phu during 1967, have yet to be
resolved. Nor do we know of all the American MIAs who were brought
there and their ultimate fate.
We may never learn in our lifetime the full story of the Indochina
POW/MIA experience or the true fates of many Americans who did not
return. However, because "Honor Bound" is an official U.S. Government
"historical" publication - and for all the book's clear qualities in
other regards - it is regrettable that the authors did not take the
time to circulate a draft for comment by all of those cited before
publication. Now these historical inaccuracies will be cited as
fact by other historians and researchers for generations to come.
Al Santoli is the author of Everything We Had: An Oral History of the
Vietnam War and To Bear Any Burden: The Vietnam War and Its
Aftermath. He has served as an investigator for the U.S. House of
Representatives POW/MIA Task Force.
The author responds
Letter: (Washington Times, 8/29/99, p.B2.
"Book reviewer spent too much time on MIA issue."
By Winston Churchill's definition, a fanatic is one who never
changes his mind or the subject. If not a fanatic, longtime MIA
investigator Al Santoli read a different book from the one I co-wrote. Mr. Santoli
spends almost the entire review discussing his own preoccupation with
MIAs rather than the book's subject.
"Honor Bound" is a 700-page book that deals with the
U.S. POWs in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Approximately two
pages touch on the MIA issue, yet Mr. Santoli devotes the bulk of the
review to a rehash of his now-familiar speculation and accusations
regarding what happened to the missing. Moreover, his piece is so
riddled with inaccuracies and mischaracterizations of purported gaps and
omissions that one has to assume he either skipped parts of the book or
fabricated details to suit his own purpose.
Contrary to Mr. Santoli's insinuation, the book has received
overwhelming praise from former POWs. No less a stickler than Vice Adm.
James Stockdale has called the work "a monumental achievement, not only
in its depth and breadth of treatment but in its honesty and accuracy."
Mr. Santoli's concern about the fate of the Vietnam War's MIA is
understandable but misplaced. He does nothing to enhance the credibility
of his own debatable views by denigrating the serious efforts of others,
whether DIA analysts or independent scholars, who are earnestly striving
to separate facts from fiction in an ongoing search for difficult
answers to questions in which no one, not even a true believer such as
Mr. Santoli, can claim a monopoly on truth or understanding.
Here are links to other articles in
- Follow this link to read the statement by Mr. Robert J.
Destatte, senior DOD POW-MIA analyst regarding the "Cuban program."
Statement made November 4, 1999, in Congressional hearing.
- Follow this link to an article regarding CDR Beck and
- Follow this link to an article about former
Congressman Bob Dornan and his venture into the "Cuban program." This link takes you to a copy of a "special
orders" speech made by Dornan, attacking Bob Destatte.
- Follow this link to a collection of newspaper
articles that report on the November 4 hearings.
- Follow this link to a collection of items from the
official record of a previous Congressional hearing.
- If you have a copy of the book Honor
Bound: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1961 - 1973, you can
read about the "Cuban program" on pages 394 - 407