Vietnam Releases U.S. Prisoners of War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The release of American prisoners of war by Vietnam and the simultaneous withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Indochina signaled the end of U.S. military involvement in a war that had become increasingly unpopular.

Summary of Event

The opinions of the U.S. government and the peace movement about the prisoner of war (POW) issue mirrored different approaches to understanding the Vietnam War. The government viewed publicizing the incarceration of POWs as one way to arouse indignation of U.S. citizens toward Hanoi. The peace movement attempted to deflect attention from the problems of POWs in North Vietnam by stressing the U.S. responsibility for torture of prisoners held in South Vietnam. While the U.S. government sought a military solution in Vietnam and mechanisms to contain dissent at home, the peace movement criticized U.S. domestic and foreign policies in social, political, and cultural terms. Paris Peace Accords (1973) Prisoners of war, Vietnam War Vietnam War (1959-1975);prisoners of war [kw]Vietnam Releases U.S. Prisoners of War (Jan. 27, 1973) [kw]U.S. Prisoners of War, Vietnam Releases (Jan. 27, 1973) [kw]Prisoners of War, Vietnam Releases U.S. (Jan. 27, 1973) [kw]War, Vietnam Releases U.S. Prisoners of (Jan. 27, 1973) Paris Peace Accords (1973) Prisoners of war, Vietnam War Vietnam War (1959-1975);prisoners of war [g]Southeast Asia;Jan. 27, 1973: Vietnam Releases U.S. Prisoners of War[01030] [g]Vietnam;Jan. 27, 1973: Vietnam Releases U.S. Prisoners of War[01030] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Jan. 27, 1973: Vietnam Releases U.S. Prisoners of War[01030] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 27, 1973: Vietnam Releases U.S. Prisoners of War[01030] [c]Vietnam War;Jan. 27, 1973: Vietnam Releases U.S. Prisoners of War[01030] Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;U.S.-Vietnam relations[U.S. Vietnam relations] Kissinger, Henry [p]Kissinger, Henry;U.S.-Vietnam relations[U.S. Vietnam relations] Le Duc Tho Laird, Melvin R. Nguyen Van Thieu King, Martin Luther, Jr. Fonda, Jane

The peace movement in the United States was influenced heavily by the Civil Rights movement Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s. Especially influential was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which worked to oppose racial segregation in the southern states. Students of all races who had been active in the Civil Rights movement through freedom rides, boycotts, and voter-registration projects learned to demonstrate their discontent and to integrate nonexclusive organization and nonviolent protest.

Students for a Democratic Society Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) became one of the largest organizations associated with the peace movement during the late 1960’s. In 1962, leaders of SDS drafted the Port Huron statement, which called for nonexclusion of socialist and communist groups and for participatory, grassroots democracy. The rejection of “red-baiting” and promotion of democratic decision making and nonexclusion by SDS became hallmarks of the peace movement and were used to define a “New Left,” which rejected dogma and the fragmentation of the “Old Left.” The prominence of SDS dramatically increased as a result of its decision to protest the U.S. intervention in Vietnam by sponsoring the first national demonstration against the war in Washington, D.C., and by organizing teach-ins, at which people would learn about Vietnam and U.S. policy. By June, 1969, however, SDS had become factionalized to the point that it dissolved.

Despite popular perceptions, the peace movement had a broader base than student organizations. Groups of African Americans protested U.S. involvement in Vietnam as well. Since the combat soldiers who were sent to Vietnam were disproportionately black, and since many blacks were upset at the federal government for not protecting their rights while it was using rhetoric that the United States was defending the rights of Vietnamese, many blacks (especially the youths involved with SNCC) were strongly involved in the antiwar movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., became an active leader in the peace movement in 1967, stressing that the importance of his emphasis on promoting nonviolence in the Civil Rights movement paled in comparison with the level of violence the United States was using in Vietnam.

Prominent Hollywood personalities also became involved with activities in support of the peace movement. In 1970 and 1971, actor Jane Fonda and other entertainers toured under the name “Free the Army Antiwar Troupe” in areas around U.S. military bases in order to encourage military personnel to protest U.S. policies. When Fonda visited Hanoi in 1972, she made numerous antiwar radio broadcasts to U.S. troops. Although Fonda had seen POWs, upon returning to the United States she did not defend them. In reaction to her trip and reports, government officials in Colorado and Maryland tried to ban Fonda from entering their states.

The Paris Peace Accords, which officially ended the Vietnam War, are signed on January 27, 1973.

(NARA)

An intellectual wing, embodied in the Community of Concerned Asian Scholars Community of Concerned Asian Scholars (CCAS), became a large factor in the peace movement. Consisting of academics and graduate students who had been trained in various aspects of Asian studies, the CCAS broke from the larger academic community (particularly the Association for Asian Studies), which refused to take an official stand on the war. Seeing complicity in silence, CCAS members were determined to take responsibility for the results of their research. Once organized, the CCAS became a source for vital information on Vietnam for a movement (and a society) that had little understanding of the country or its people. Through books, lectures, periodicals, and conferences, the CCAS served as a counter to the governmental disinformation about Vietnam and U.S. policy.

Utilizing many different tactics, the peace movement was able to exert considerable influence on public opinion. Large marches became a major way in which the movement was able to show its strength and gain media attention. On April 24, 1971, one million protesters crowded Washington, D.C., in the largest demonstration in U.S. history. Parts of the movement also used direct action, especially targeting the draft. Youths burned their draft cards at the risk of imprisonment, and priests destroyed draft boards’ records in symbolic protest. The use of teach-ins to spread information about Vietnam spread to college campuses across the United States. On October 15, 1969, millions of people participated in a day of moratorium by not working.

The governmental response to the peace movement was multifaceted. Most visibly, the U.S. government, especially under President Richard M. Nixon, countered demonstrators with strong rhetoric, painting the demonstrators as unpatriotic radicals. This rhetoric sprang from the attitude that protesters were students who were self-indulgent and morally rudderless, allowing officials to discredit their actions. In addition to this criticism, the government instituted harsh policies against the peace movement. More than three thousand draft resisters were imprisoned for burning draft cards or tampering with draft records.

Furthermore, the Nixon administration established domestic espionage and infiltration programs, using both the Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The FBI and CIA systematically spied on and attempted to subvert activist organizations by planting agents. The information gathered or created was then used to blacklist antiwar activists and, in some instances, was used to bring charges against organizations, diverting their resources from opposing the war. A major target was the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars. Evidence suggests that the agencies used provocateurs to participate in illegal activities, thereby entrapping activists.

Part of the Nixon administration’s response to defuse public opinion was to open public negotiations and to implement “Vietnamization,” which called for an increased reliance on Vietnamese troops and a reduction in the number of U.S. troops deployed in Vietnam. The chief proponent of Vietnamization, Melvin R. Laird, also recommended that the administration make the prisoners of war a public issue, breaking the silence on the issue that had prevailed during Lyndon B. Johnson’s Johnson, Lyndon B. presidential administration. The United States intended to use the POW issue “to bring world opinion to bear on the North Vietnamese” by charging that the Vietnamese had maltreated and tortured prisoners. In accordance with this goal, in 1969 and 1970 the United States brought up the issue with the International Red Cross and the United Nations. Finally, some prisoners who were released early were used to broadcast charges of maltreatment by their captors. Making the POWs a public issue in tandem with negotiations also allowed the administration to dismiss immediate withdrawal plans as unrealistic, since they did not resolve the issue of the POWs.

Critics of the administration’s policy charged that the rhetoric used against the Vietnamese merely increased the value of the prisoners as hostages. Another charge of the peace movement was that the Nixon administration manipulated the issue of the prisoners to expand the war and to continue to keep U.S. forces in Vietnam.

Both sides in the war violated international standards for treatment of prisoners. The recounting of torture by U.S. prisoners, the early parading of prisoners as “war criminals” in Hanoi, and the lack of information given about the prisoners by the government of North Vietnam all were clear violations of international conventions. In South Vietnam, however, treatment was as harsh if not harsher. It was revealed that prisoners were kept in “tiger cages” on Con Son island. Guerrillas who were captured were classified as political dissidents, not prisoners of war (and thus were not protected by international conventions). Aside from the evidence of torture of prisoners, there was strong evidence showing that U.S. forces often killed prisoners in the battlefield in order to raise body-count figures.

On January 27, 1973, the Paris Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam and a protocol on prisoners of war were signed by the United States, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam (National Liberation Front), and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). When the POWs were returned to the United States, the treatment they received was less than honorable. They were not allowed to speak freely for a period after their return, and when they were allowed to speak, it was in controlled press conferences. Some prisoners who had made statements against the war while captives were charged with aiding the enemy. These charges were dismissed after one of the accused shot himself to death. Because there no longer existed any clear issue around which the peace movement could organize, the diverse groups had no reason to continue to work together, and they returned to separate domestic concerns.

Significance

The peace movement in the Vietnam era changed the way people in the United States thought about government and politics. Foremost among these changes was that a large segment of the population grew to distrust the federal government, especially the presidency. A direct result of this sentiment was the War Powers Act of 1973, War Powers Act (1973) which was intended to curb the power of the president to commit U.S. troops abroad.

For the first time since the founding of a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy after World War II, the public grew to challenge the assumptions that underlay U.S. policy. The congressional consensus broke down, resulting in the decision of the United States not to send troops to Angola. The change in perspective about the public’s right to debate foreign policy also led to a larger segment active in challenging presidential and State Department decisions.

The methods of the peace movement in the Vietnam era permeated society to such an extent that the ideals of nonviolent resistance and grassroots organizing became mainstays of social movements. Not only did progressive organizations continue to use these protest tactics, but conservative organizations, notably antiabortion groups, also adopted similar strategies in pursuit of their goals.

Scholars who were blacklisted for their antiwar activities in the Vietnam era continued to feel the war’s impact, as some still were unable to get jobs within the field of Asian studies. In large part, these scholars’ input on governmental decisions was limited, as was their access to research and grant money. Their prolific output of information during the war changed the context of academic debate, however, and helped to encourage a strain of activist scholars.

The division in society did not end with the war but continued to manifest itself in various ways in the United States. Conflict continued over the issue of whether there were any living prisoners of war or soldiers missing in action (MIA) remaining in Indochina. In large part, however, the number of MIAs included a significant number of people known to have been killed in action. Still, some organizations such as the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia continued to demand a full accounting of every MIA.

Strongly related to the issue of MIAs was the dispute over whether and when the United States should normalize relations with Vietnam. Those who believed that U.S. prisoners were still being held in Vietnam and who accused Vietnam of not cooperating on the POW and MIA issues often used this to dismiss the possibility of normalization, expressing continued hostility toward the country of Vietnam. Nonetheless progress in normalization of U.S. relations with Vietnam began in the late 1980’s and accelerated in the early 1990’s. In 1995, President Bill Clinton Clinton, Bill reestablished full diplomatic relations, signaling the two nations’ willingness to overcome the wounds of war. Paris Peace Accords (1973) Prisoners of war, Vietnam War Vietnam War (1959-1975);prisoners of war

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. 2d rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. An exhaustive history of the strife in Vietnam. Features an annotated bibliography, index, and photos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rochester, Stuart I., and Frederick T. Kiley. Honor Bound: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1999. An inclusive, scholarly account of the experiences of almost eight hundred prisoners of war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosas, Allan. The Legal Status of Prisoners of War: A Study in International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1976. Despite a legalistic approach, pages 167-185 provide an excellent, balanced summary of issues relating to prisoners of war during the Vietnam War, showing how the U.S. experience in Korea shaped POW negotiations and how the issue of POWs in the Vietnam War differed from standard practice. The book utilizes a balance of official and primary source material from many perspectives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sale, Kirkpatrick. SDS. New York: Random House, 1973. Traces the history of the organization from its beginning as an offshoot of the League of Industrial Democracy to its factionalized stage. A definitive history of the group made possible by the use of the SDS archives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars: 1945-90. New York: Harper & Row, 1991. Highly accessible and readable overview of the U.S. involvement in and with Vietnam. This well-documented account provides a balance of social and political angles of U.S. involvement.

U.S. Troops Leave Vietnam

United States Grants Amnesty to Vietnam War Draft Evaders

Indo-Chinese Boat People Begin Fleeing Vietnam

United States Recognizes Vietnam

Vietnamese Refugees Riot in Hong Kong

Categories: History Content