Status of War Prisoners

April 26, 1972

Report Outline
Repatriation Issue and U.S. Politics
Prisoner Conditions in Past Wars
Mistreatment and American Reaction
Special Focus

Repatriation Issue and U.S. Politics

Charges that Captive Offer Excuse for Bombing

The fate of American prisoners of war in Indochina is moving into the political arena this year—a full eight years after the first U.S. serviceman was captured there. According to Defense Department figures issued April 20, 492 Americans were prisoners. It is also assumed that some of the 1,054 missing in action may also be captives. The group of men is relatively small compared with the number of Americans killed (45,000) or wounded (300,000) in the war. Yet the emotionalism surrounding them is so strong that virtually every politician in quest of national office, regardless of his views on the war, calls for a speedy repatriation of war prisoners.

President Nixon has broken the virtual silence of the preceding Johnson administration on the prisoner issue by making it a public matter open to discussion in this country and around the world. He has cited Hanoi's unwillingness to release American captives as justification for retaining a residual force of Americans in South Viet Nam during “Vietnamiza-tion.” A number of Nixon's war critics and political foes argue that it is unrealistic to expect Hanoi to return these men until there is a total U.S. disengagement. These arguments intensified with the recent renewal of bombing raids deep into North Viet Nam. American B-52 bombers pounded targets over wide areas north of the 20th parallel, including Hanoi and Haiphong on April 16, 1972, in an attempt to stem a new Communist offensive in South Viet Nam.

War foes in the United States reasoned that more raids meant that more fliers would be shot down and imprisoned. It was recalled that prior bombardment of cities in the North had the effect of sustaining Hanoi's will to fight and, presumably, of postponing an eventual settlement of the war which would include prisoner repatriation. But there was some evidence to suggest that bombing and the prisoner issue are linked in the public mind in an altogether different way. A Harris Poll published March 13, 1972, indicated that 54 per cent of those questioned would favor a continuation of bombing “until North Viet Nam releases our prisoners.”

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
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May 2010  Confronting Rape as a War Crime
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Feb. 27, 2009  Closing Guantánamo Updated
Jul. 2008  Child Soldiers
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Aug. 25, 2006  Treatment of Detainees
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Dec. 13, 2002  Ethics of War
Sep. 13, 2002  New Defense Priorities
Jul. 07, 1995  War Crimes
Apr. 26, 1972  Status of War Prisoners
Oct. 07, 1970  Military Justice
Jul. 12, 1967  Treatment of War Prisoners
Dec. 03, 1952  War Prisoner Repatriation
Sep. 07, 1948  War Trials and Future Peace
Jul. 07, 1945  Enemy Property
Nov. 20, 1943  Courts-Martial and Military Law
Mar. 15, 1943  War Guilt Trials
Mar. 30, 1942  War Atrocities
Feb. 02, 1942  Prisoners of War
Aug. 11, 1938  Aerial Bombardment of Civilian Populations
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