[CRS Issue Brief for Congress]

92101: POWs and MIAs: Status and Accounting Issues

Updated November 7, 1996

Robert L. Goldich
Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division





Areas of Congressional Interest
Definition of Terms
U.S. POWs and MIAs in 20th Century Wars: Statistics
Vietnam War POWs and MIAs
Vietnam POW/MIAs: U.S. Government Policy and Organization
U.S.--Vietnamese Interaction on the POW/MIA Issue: Recent Developments
U.S. Policy and the Remains Issue
Vietnam POW/MIAs: Were Americans Left Behind? Are Any Still Alive?
The "Coverup" Issue
Release of POW/MIA Materials
The Senate Committee's Conclusions
POW/MIA Private Organization Issues
Have Americans Remained in Indochina Voluntarily?
Vietnam POW/MIAs: An Emerging Consensus On Some Aspects of What May Have Happened?
Information from the former Soviet Union
Are the Vietnamese, Laotians, or Cambodians Still Holding the Remains of Dead Americans?
Korean War POWs/MIAs
POWs and MIAs from Cold War Incidents
World War II POWs and MIAs: Soviet Imprisonment of U.S. POWs Liberated from the Germans




There has been great controversy about the status of U.S. prisoners of war (POWs) and missing in action (MIAs) in conflicts between the United States and the Communist powers during the Cold War. In 1993 the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs concluded that although it was possible some POWs were not returned at the end of the Vietnam War, there was no compelling evidence that any remained alive in captivity; and that although there was no "conspiracy" to cover up live POWs, there was serious U.S. Government neglect and mismanagement of the issue.

President Clinton's decision to normalize relations with Vietnam has exacerbated this longstanding debate. Proponents of normalization contend that Vietnamese cooperation on the POW/MIA issue has greatly increased and will be enhanced by normalization; opponents argue that cooperation has in fact been much less than supporters say, and that the Vietnamese can only be induced to cooperate by firmness rather than conciliation.

Those who believe Americans are now held, or were after the war ended, feel that even if no specific report of live Americans has thus far met rigorous proofs, the mass of information about live Americans is compelling. Those who doubt live Americans are still held, or were after the war ended, argue that despite vast efforts, not one report of a live American has been validated (with one exception, Marine PFC Robert Garwood, who returned in 1979). The U.S. Government says the possibility of Americans still being held in Indochina cannot be ruled out. Americans may have been kept by the Vietnamese after the war but killed later. Increased U.S. access to Vietnam has not yet led to public resolution of large numbers of MIA cases, although this may be due to some U.S. policies as well as Vietnamese noncooperation.

Several studies and analyses have concluded that Korean War POWs were transferred to the USSR and never returned, appearing to confirm long-held suspicions, although a joint U.S.-Russian commission set up to investigate such rumors has stated it has not found any proof of such transfers. During the Cold War, some U.S. military aircraft were shot down by Communist countries. There were indications then that the Soviets captured some of these planes' crews alive; the Russian Government has confirmed this, and studies done for the DOD POW/MIA Office agree. The Russians have stated that some Americans liberated from German POW camps at the end of World War II were imprisoned by the Soviets, a statement also supported by studies done for the DOD POW/MIA Office. All of these conclusions were supported by the investigations and final report of the Senate POW/MIA Committee. The committee felt the evidence regarding U.S. POWS from Vietnam being sent to the former USSR is much more ambiguous.

The FY1996 National Defense Authorization Act codified and makes more rigorous the policies and procedures for the accounting of military personnel who are missing. The FY1997 National Defense Authorization Act considerably mitigated the rigorous nature of some of these procedures. A bill to repeal the missing-persons provisions of the FY1997 defense authorization passed the House but was not acted on in the Senate before adjournment of the 104th Congress.


On September 27, 1996, H.R. 4000 passed the House. This bill would restore those provisions of the FY1996 National Defense Authorization Act which had instituted more rigorous requirements to account for military personnel in a missing status, but which were repealed by the FY1997 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 104-201, September 23, 1996). H.R. 4000 was not acted on by the Senate, however, before adjournment of the 104th Congress.


Areas of Congressional Interest

This issue brief summarizes numbers of U.S. POWs and MIAs lost during the Vietnam War (1961-1975) and the Korean War (1950-1953), compares these losses to other 20th century American wars, and describes the POW/MIA investigation and policy process. It discusses whether some POWs from the latter two wars were not returned to U.S. control when the wars ended, and whether some may still be alive. Further, it discusses whether Americans were captured by Communist countries during Cold War incidents, or by the Soviets after being liberated from German POW camps at the end of World War II, and whether any such Americans are still alive. Finally, the issue brief describes legislation and congressional oversight concerning the POW/MIA issue. For further information on broader aspects of U.S. relations with Vietnam, see CRS Issue Brief 96033, Vietnam-U.S. Relations: Issues for Congress; CRS Report 95-254 S, Vietnam in Transition and Vietnamese Relations with the United States; and CRS Report 95-820 S, Vietnam: Procedural and Jurisdictional Questions Regarding Normalization of U.S. Diplomatic and Economic Relations.

Definition of Terms

The following terms are frequently encountered in analyses of the POW/MIA issue:

-- POW (Prisoner Of War): Persons known to be, or have been, held by the enemy as a live prisoner or last seen under enemy control. -- MIA (Missing In Action): Persons removed from control of U.S. forces due to enemy action, but not known to either be a prisoner of war or dead. -- KIA-BNR (Killed In Action-Body Not Recovered): Persons known to have been killed in action, but body or remains not recovered by U.S. forces -- i.e., an aircraft exploding in midair or crashing; a body, or a person with unquestionably terminal wounds, not recovered due to enemy action or being lost at sea. -- PFOD (Presumptive Finding Of Death): An administrative finding by the appropriate military service Secretary, after statutory review procedures, that there is no current evidence to indicate that a person previously listed as MIA or POW could still be alive. -- Unaccounted For: An all-inclusive term -- not a legal status -- used to indicate Americans initially listed as POW, MIA, KIA-BNR, or PFOD, but about whom no further information is yet known.

Names are shifted, usually from the most uncertain status - MIA - to more certain categories, during and after hostilities, based on new information, or, in the case of a PFOD, lack of new information over time that indicates an individual is still living.

U.S. POWs and MIAs in 20th Century Wars: Statistics

Statistics on U.S. POWs and MIAs in Vietnam and past wars are often mutually irreconcilable. The procedures and terminology used for classifying what we would now refer to as POW, MIA, KIA-BNR, and PFOD were different -- or did not exist -- for previous wars. However, the following data provide a basis for some generalizations:

***TABLE or GRAPHIC not shown here***

Vietnam War POWs and MIAs

591 POWs were returned to U.S. control by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong authorities within the specified 2-month period after the signing of the Vietnam War peace treaty on Jan. 27, 1973. 67 U.S. civilians, not part of the official list of Americans unaccounted for in Indochina (most were trying to help or find their Vietnamese dependents) were trapped or stayed voluntarily in Vietnam after South Vietnam fell in April 1975. All were released by late 1976. Since 1976, some Americans have been imprisoned in Vietnam (almost all for civilian offenses) and eventually released. Most Americans now in Vietnamese prisons for criminal offenses (some of which would be characterized as "political" crimes by the Vietnamese authorities) are naturalized Americans of Vietnamese birth or ancestry. Since 1973, only one U.S. military member has returned alive from Vietnam. Marine Corps PFC Robert Garwood was first listed as a POW by U.S. authorities -- but never by the Vietnamese -- in 1965 and returned voluntarily to the U.S. in 1979. He was convicted of collaboration with the enemy, but his light sentence included no prison term.

After the return of the 591 POWs, 2,583 Americans were unaccounted for (not counting civilians trapped in Vietnam after the South fell, or who later visited Vietnam). Identified remains of 447 Americans have been returned from Vietnam (331), Laos (109), Cambodia (5), and China (2) since the war ended on Jan. 27, 1973. Table 3 summarizes data on Americans currently unaccounted for in Southeast Asia.

***TABLE or GRAPHIC not shown here***

Vietnam POW/MIAs: U.S. Government Policy and Organization. Since 1982, the official U.S. position regarding live Americans in Indochina has been as follows: "Although we have thus far been unable to prove that Americans are still being held against their will, the information available to us precludes ruling out that possibility. Actions to investigate live-sighting reports receive and will continue to receive necessary priority and resources based on the assumption that at least some Americans are still held captive. Should any report prove true, we will take appropriate action to ensure the return of those involved."

The DOD POW/MIA Office (DPMO), whose Director also serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/MIA Affairs -- DASD (PW/MIA) -- provides overall direction and control of DOD POW/MIA policy and operations. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) is responsible for POW/MIA intelligence analysis. Indochina operations are supervised by DOD's Joint Task Force--Full Accounting (JTF-FA), headquartered in Hawaii, which maintains POW/MIA files, conducts research and interviews in Indochina and elsewhere in Asia with refugees and others, and staffs the U.S. POW/MIA investigative organization in Indochina. The U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) in Hawaii identifies remains returned from Indochina, the Korean War, and World War II. Total costs of DOD's POW/MIA-related efforts (except for military personnel costs and a few very minor other categories) are as follows: FY1992, $38.7 million; FY1993, $43.4 million; FY1994, $58.7 million; and estimated for FY1995, $53.6 million.

POW/MIA information comes from refugees and other human contacts and assets, physical evidence (such as "dog tags" worn by U.S. military personnel, photographs, and aircraft debris), communications intelligence and aerial reconnaissance, and open sources. Between the fall of South Vietnam in April 1975 and November 1, 1996, according to DOD, 19,576 reports of all kinds have been acquired by the U.S. Government about alleged live Americans in Indochina, including 1,813 alleged first-hand sightings. Of the 1,813, about 68% (1,235) correlate with persons since accounted for (i.e., returned live or known dead Americans); another 26% (477) have been determined to be fabrications; and 45 (3%) correlate to wartime sightings of Americans. The remaining 56, or 3%, involve sightings of Americans in either a captive (41) or non-captive (15) environment, "represent the focus of DIA analytical and collection efforts," and are still under investigation.

U.S.--Vietnamese Interaction on the POW/MIA Issue: Recent Developments. In May 1996, President Clinton nominated Representative Pete Peterson to be the first U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam. Representative Peterson is a retired Air Force colonel who spent 6 1/2 years as a POW in North Vietnam. On May 29, the President made a formal determination that the Vietnamese Government was "cooperating in full faith with the United States" in resolving the POW/MIA issue; such certification was required by law before appropriated funds could be used to support U.S. diplomatic representation in Vietnam. The President stated that he believed the law was unconstitutional, but that he was submitting the information anyway "as a matter of comity" between the executive and legislative branches. These two events represented a continuation of a process which began in 1991, when the U.S. opened a POW/MIA liaison office in Vietnam, and gained vigor in July 1995, when President Clinton announced that the United States and Vietnam would establish normal diplomatic relations. Representative Peterson's nomination was not acted on during the 104th Congress because of constitutional concerns relating to his status as a sitting Member of Congress, and possible opposition to continued normalization of relations with Vietnam. The former concern will no longer be operative when the 105th Congress convenes, however, as Mr. Peterson did not run for reelection.

Since the process leading to normalization began in 1991, the U.S. has gained substantial access to aircraft crash sites, Vietnamese records, and Vietnamese civilians, and has established a substantial permanent presence of military and civilian personnel. This increased access has not yet led to large numbers of Americans being removed from the rolls of over 2,000 people who are unaccounted for; almost all of the material has turned out to be redundant, already in U.S. hands, or pertaining to resolved cases; and there continues to be evidence that the Vietnamese retain large amounts of unreleased data, which is of much more importance in learning the fate of unaccounted-for Americans than excavations of crash sites and other field research. Normalization has exacerbated the debate over Vietnamese cooperation on the issue. Proponents of normalization contend that Vietnamese cooperation on the POW/MIA issue has greatly increased and will be enhanced by normalization; opponents argue that cooperation has in fact been much less than supporters say, and that the Vietnamese can only be induced to cooperate by firmness rather than conciliation.

U.S. Policy and the Remains Issue. Increased access to Vietnamese records and materials raises the issue of whether the U.S. will insist on changing the status of an individual based only on recovery of remains. Will a person be formally removed from the list of unaccounted-for Americans based solely on records, no matter how conclusive? Or will the U.S. Government insist that only recovery of remains, no matter how fragmentary, will suffice? U.S. authorities have not indicated how they will proceed. For instance, on Nov. 13, 1995, the DPMO reported that of those Americans listed as unaccounted for, 567 (out of 2,202 when the report was completed in mid-1995) had "perished and their cases cannot be resolved through the repatriation of remains." This was due to deaths resulting from aircraft explosions, crashes at sea, drowned, or simply disappeared and never seen again, with no evidence to account for their later location. Some have criticized this assertion, stating that it is likely the Vietnamese have documentary evidence about the fate of at least some of them.

Pressure to make a decision is growing. The Vietnamese are urging U.S. authorities to formally close many cases based on new evidence; indications are that concerns over public reaction, more than disagreements on the part of American analysts that the individuals concerned really are dead, are holding up the decision to close these cases. The question may be as follows: if evidence other than remains is not conclusive, what use is it, if no remains are available?

Vietnam POW/MIAs: Were Americans Left Behind? Are Any Still Alive? Those who believe Americans are still held, or were held after the war ended, feel that even if no specific report has thus far been proved, the numbers unaccounted for, and the cumulative mass of information -- sightings, descriptions, and physical evidence -- about live Americans is compelling. Those who doubt Americans are still held, or were when the war ended, argue that despite numerous reports, exhaustive interrogations, and formidable technical means used by U.S. intelligence agencies, no report of a live American (with the exception of Garwood) has been validated as to who, when, and where the individual is or was. They believe that much of the "evidence" cited relates to already accounted-for Americans, wishful thinking, or fabrication.

The "Coverup" Issue. Some say the U.S. Government has engaged in a "coverup" of evidence about live Americans still being held in Indochina. Their assertions are based on sources similar to those used by the Government, but they attach greater credence to some sources than does the Government, and suggest that the criteria set by the Government for validating reports of live Americans are unreasonably, and perhaps deliberately, high. Some critics of DIA have charged that the agency's unwillingness to release intelligence data has been a smokescreen for a coverup. The Government rebuts the allegations of coverup by stating that such assertions are based on incomplete, unevaluated, and unverified data, which DIA analysis has shown to be inaccurate, dubious, or fraudulent. It also asserts that numerous investigations have cleared DIA of coverup charges, and that the ability to maintain a coverup strains credulity in an era of press leaks and openness. Much of the data cited by DIA as refuting claims of Americans still being held is classified, on the grounds that releasing it would endanger intelligence sources and methods, and would provide more fertile ground for fabrication of bogus claims about live Americans. Since 1982, it has been U.S. policy to provide intelligence to families of unaccounted-for Americans that pertains or may pertain to their missing men.

Release of POW/MIA Materials. Legislation was passed in 1991 to require release of most Vietnam POW/MIA documents. The Senate voted in 1992 to request the Administration to release more information; a few days later, the Administration agreed to do so. In 1993, the first increment of documents (their total runs into the millions of pages) was made available for public review in the Library of Congress. The Library's Federal Research Division is responsible for much of the indexing and cataloging of these documents, and the Photoduplication Service of the Library makes microfilm and paper copies of documents available to the general public at cost. A computer work station in the Library of Congress Computer Catalog Center in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library contains an automated data base of the documents. Copies are also available through interlibrary loans.

The Senate Committee's Conclusions. The Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs (August 1991-December 1992) concluded some POWs may not have returned at the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, although there was no credible evidence to suggest that any were still alive in captivity; that although there was no "conspiracy" to cover up live POWs, there was serious neglect and mismanagement of the issue; that about 100 U.S. POWs expected to be returned were not; and that despite previous dismissals of the possibility that some POWs were still alive, the committee had "uncovered evidence that precludes it from taking the same view."

The committee said a lack of will to continue investigating the issue in the aftermath of Vietnam, on the part of both DOD and political leadership in successive Administrations in the 1970s, contributed to what observers have called "a mindset to debunk" reports of live Americans, as well as a desire on the part of successive Administrations to wash their hands of the issue. Committee hearings indicate that when the war ended senior policymakers, including President Nixon, recognized the possibility of live Americans could not be ruled out, and disagreed over what could be done about it. Some wanted to be more forceful in public on the issue; others appeared to have been inclined to assume that little could be done, given the lack of military pressure the U.S. could apply to North Vietnam at the time, due to war-weariness.

These conditions may have contributed to the comparatively less-vigorous effort on the issue that characterized not only the Nixon and Ford Administrations, but that of President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) as well. The Carter Administration's unwillingness to elevate the issue to a higher profile, some have argued, also resulted from President Carter and members of his Administration having been opposed to the Vietnam War in the first place, and being desirous of expediting the normalization of relations with Vietnam until that country invaded Cambodia in late 1978.

These problems have been held responsible by many for the lack of attention, and the loss of fresher information, regarding POW/MIAs in the 1970s. In addition, the committee hearings, and subsequent developments, could be construed as indicating that problems of inadequate intelligence organization and analysis, and a "debunking mindset," continued during the 1980s and still exist. Concerns have been expressed that experienced field investigators in Indochina have been reassigned and replaced with less capable individuals; that some POW/MIA-related documents have been destroyed without fully examining their contents; that it took the Clinton Administration over a year to appoint a new Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/MIA Affairs; and that a Vietnam veteran active in the anti-Vietnam War movement was at one time considered for a post in the DPMO.

POW/MIA Private Organization Issues. DIA says some POW/MIA organizations have appealed for money based on "highly suspicious, and often demonstrably false claims;" some individuals have been convicted of fraud in connection with POW/MIA fundraising. The Senate committee report stated "the vast majority of private organizations engaged in POW/MIA related activities reflect the highest standards of voluntary, public service and deserve the nation's gratitude and praise." However, it also stated that "In some instances, an excessive percentage of funds raised has been retained by the fundraising organization. In others, the fundraising solicitations have over-stated to the point of distortion the weight of evidence indicating that live U.S. POWs continue to be held in Southeast Asia."

Distinct from other groups is the National League of Families of American Prisoners of War and Missing in Southeast Asia. The League is the only national organization composed solely of the families of unaccounted-for Americans, and is a registered non-profit organization. The League also continues to believe live Americans are still in Indochina, but on the basis of a general preponderance of evidence, known discrepancy cases, and the history of the issue, rather than specific validated proof. The League director, Ann Mills Griffiths, was until recently a member of the Government's POW/MIA Interagency Group (IAG) involved in setting POW/MIA policy and negotiating with the Vietnamese and Laotians -- an unusual involvement of a private citizen in the foreign policy process. The Senate Committee report, commenting on this arrangement, suggested that "although the IAG should consult regularly with the League and other POW/MIA family organizations, the Committee believes that the role of the IAG and issues of membership on it should be reviewed by the new Administration." Apparently the Clinton Administration concurred; a new interagency POW/MIA policy process has been established from which Mrs. Griffiths has been excluded. This has in turn led to charges of bias from various POW/MIA activists.

Have Americans Remained in Indochina Voluntarily? Some think Americans may have stayed in Indochina voluntarily, citing Garwood as an example. Another deserter, Army PFC McKinley Nolan, defected to the Vietnamese Communists in 1967 and was killed by the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian Communists) in 1975 or 1976. Ideological conviction, collaboration with the enemy and a fear of punishment upon return to the U.S., personal problems at home, a local wife and children, "brainwashing" by Communist captors -- or a combination of these factors -- could have played a role in other Americans remaining in Indochina voluntarily.

The U.S. Government does not seek forced repatriation of Americans living in Indochina voluntarily, but would like to notify their families of their status. The Vietnamese deny Americans are living in areas "under their control," i.e., do not explicitly rule out Americans not "under their control." In addition, the U.S. Government policy cited above on live Americans is careful to refer to "Americans... still being held against their will." U.S. officials have said they would not classify any American as being in Communist Indochina voluntarily until all facts were known.

Vietnam POW/MIAs: An Emerging Consensus On Some Aspects of What May Have Happened? The gap between extremes on the Vietnam POW/MIA issue may have been narrowed by recent events. For many years, the debate was framed along sharply divergent lines. Those who argued live Americans were, or had been, kept in Indochina after the war concentrated on factors such as the following:

Information from the former Soviet Union. A variety of information regarding POWs has come from the former Soviet Union. In 1993 two Vietnamese military documents, translated into Russian, were found in former Soviet archives. Both contained detailed statistics indicating roughly twice as many U.S. POWs were held by the Vietnamese as of late 1972, as were actually returned in early 1973. While some of the data in these documents does not jibe with U.S. statistics, other data does, and the general tone of both seems consonant with similar material obtained from Communist countries. The Vietnamese have denounced the documents as forgeries. There are considerable inconsistencies between both the qualitative information and the POW statistics in the documents and other data from U.S. and Vietnamese sources. However, those who argue the documents are at least as credible as their refutations, and that DOD has denounced them with excessive vigor and based on only superficial analysis, appear to have a strong case as well. The issue is still in doubt.

A former Soviet KGB general asserted that U.S. POWs were interrogated in Vietnam after 1973 by Soviet agents, although his remarks were imprecise, contradictory, and denied by other Soviet intelligence personnel. On Sept. 2, 1994, officials of the U.S.- Russian joint commission investigating Soviet involvement with U.S. POWs stated that they had found no evidence of Soviet interrogations of U.S. POWs in Vietnam, or transfer of Vietnam POWs to the USSR. (Russian President Yeltsin has stated that "several American soldiers who evaded fighting in Vietnam were clandestinely moved" from Japan to the USSR, and after short stays in the USSR to other European countries.)

During hearings before the Military Personnel Subcommittee, House National Security Committee, on September 17, 1996, it was asserted that U.S. POWs were transferred to the USSR during the Vietnam War and were also used as "guinea pigs" for Communist military establishments' chemical/biological/radiological experiments before being killed. However, there has been little supporting evidence offered to back up this claim, compared to others regarding the possibility of live Americans not being returned at the end of the Vietnam War.

In addition, former personnel of the National Security Agency charged with monitoring Soviet communications transmissions claim that American POWs from the Vietnam War, particularly those with scientific or technical expertise, were shipped to the former Soviet Union to be exploited by Soviet intelligence . (See below, Korean War POWs and MIAs, and World War II POWs and MIAs: Soviet Imprisonment of U.S. POWs Liberated from the Germans.)

Arguments against and for live Americans still being in Indochina.

Those who argued it was unlikely that live Americans were still in Indochina noted the following factors:

A scenario consistent with most of the propositions advanced by both sides is as follows: Live Americans may have been kept by the Vietnamese after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in early 1973, but may have been killed by the Vietnamese when it became apparent that (1) they could not be used as bargaining chips in negotiations for U.S. aid, (2) they were not required as hostages against a U.S. renewal of hostilities, after North Vietnam successfully conquered South Vietnam in 1975 without a U.S. military response; and/or (3) when a growing Western, including American, presence in Vietnam led the Vietnamese to think that their existence would be uncovered.

This latter scenario is consistent with the following: (1) few if any Americans are still in Indochina, at this time; (2) the Vietnamese held U.S. POWs as hostages to proposed American financial aid ("reparations"), possible U.S. reinvolvement in the war, and/or other political concessions, the discussion of which has been public knowledge since shortly after the end of the war; (3) some deserters from U.S. forces remained in Vietnam voluntarily, and perhaps temporarily; and (4) the U.S. Government may not have pressed the issue as much as it otherwise might, thinking such pressure could result in the certain deaths of Americans who might still be alive, or that it was seeking to avoid public pressure to pay reparations -- what could be construed as blackmail -- to the Vietnamese. Nor is it inconsistent with suggestions that American POWs were taken to the Soviet Union for intelligence purposes.

The final report of the Senate POW/MIA Committee, completed in Jan. 1993, at least authoritatively narrowed some of these areas of disagreement. However, because it is never possible at the end of any major war to account for all missing personnel, it is unlikely that the Indochina POW/MIA controversy will ever be completely stilled, even if much more information from Vietnam and other sources -- such as the former Soviet Union -- is forthcoming over time.

Are the Vietnamese, Laotians, or Cambodians Still Holding the Remains of Dead Americans? The slow return of remains since 1973 suggests the Vietnamese have -- or had -- a stockpile which they release as they see fit. In 1979-80, a mortician who left Vietnam told U.S. authorities remains of about 450 Americans were held in Hanoi. His account is regarded as credible by virtually all involved with the issue. Wartime intelligence indicated that North Vietnam kept a central file on all Americans who came under their control, alive or dead, including those who died in captivity, and information that North Vietnam provided to the United States on some dead Americans in 1973 suggests systematic recordkeeping. The conditions of 65% of the remains returned from Vietnam, according to forensic analysis, indicate long-term storage. Some DIA officials suggest the Vietnamese have "exhausted their stockpile" of remains over the past 20 years; others suggest that while the Hanoi remains may have been returned, others are held by the Vietnamese Government elsewhere in Vietnam.

Some Vietnamese officials say they have provided detailed records to the U.S., and charge the U.S. has not released these records. As noted above, U.S. personnel in Vietnam say the Vietnamese have been much more forthcoming with information and records, although it remains to be seen if these records lead to the resolution of MIA cases. Others suggest the Vietnamese have not released various records and remains because both would indicate mistreatment of POWs, and might also indicate some were alive when the war ended but died in Vietnamese custody thereafter. This latter possibility is consistent with revelations in mid-February 1995 that an American who has done research in Vietnamese archives since 1989, has several thousand photographs showing dead U.S. prisoners in circumstances suggesting they had been tortured or killed after being captured.

The large number of Americans lost in or over Laos, the number of known discrepancy cases, and the few Americans returned who had been captured in Laos suggest that the Laotians know more about the fate of unaccounted-for Americans than they have yet stated. On the other hand, successive Lao governments, anti-Communist and Communist, have exercised little control over large parts of their country, due to Vietnamese occupation and their own lack of resources, suggesting (1) the Laotians may not have the ability to provide many answers about missing Americans, and (2) such answers may be better found from the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese said in late 1992 they would provide the U.S. with information about Americans missing in Laos -- a breakthrough admission, although, like other "breakthroughs," it has not yet resulted in a measurable diminution of the rolls of unaccounted for Americans. Laos is, however, one area where searches of aircraft crash sites have resulted in the recent identification of some unaccounted-for Americans.

Until 1990, U.S. official and private efforts to obtain Cambodian cooperation met with no response. However, during 1990-1992, U.S. personnel received 11 sets of remains at Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. Three have been identified as American.

Korean War POWs/MIAs

Since the Korean War ended in 1953, there have been rumors Americans captured by the North Koreans or Chinese were, and perhaps still are, held against their will in North Korea, China, or the former USSR. TABLES 1 and 2, above, provide statistics on American POW/MIAs from the Korean War. There is little doubt that the Communist powers involved in the war have withheld much information on POW/MIA from the United States.

DOD senior officials have periodically stated that there is little or no evidence that Korean War POWs were transferred to the Soviet Union. For instance, the executive summary of the Comprehensive Report of the U.S. Side of the Joint U.S.-Russian Commission on POW/MIAs, released on June 17, 1996, is tentative at best on the likelihood of such transfers. However, this diffidence -- or, in some cases, denial -- appears to be at gross variance from numerous analyses prepared for DOD itself. A 1993 study prepared for the DOD POW/MIA Office stated that "U.S. Korean War POWs were transferred to the Soviet Union and never repatriated." The DPMO released this report only after strong public and congressional pressure, and stated that it does not "prove" the USSR held Korean War POWs -- an assertion that seems dubious, given the RAND study results. The report's conclusions are identical to those of a Rand Corporation study, done under contract to the DPMO; the Rand study's principal author testified before the Senate POW/MIA Committee and his study was published in the Committee hearings.

More recently, in mid-June 1996, the press learned that a DOD internal report prepared in mid-March 1996 had concluded that up to 10-15 Korean War POWs might still be alive in North Korea, and that some might want to return to the United States. The DOD report was based on alleged live sightings of Caucasians by foreign nationals in North Korea and reports from North Korean defectors. There are indications that some of these sightings may be of American soldiers who defected to North Korea in the post-Korean War era. There were at least four such American defectors in the 1960s, and all four are known to be alive. On September 17, 1996, the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House National Security Committee held hearings in which lengthy documentation, including materials from the era immediately following the end of the Korean War, was presented in support of the assertion that (1) some Korean War POWs were not returned after the end of the war, (2) some were transferred to the Soviet Union, and (3) some were used, during and after the end of the war, as "guinea pigs" for chemical/biological/radiological warfare experiments by various Communist countries' military medical establishments.

Some U.S. POWs were not released by China until 1955, two years after the war ended. Declassified U.S. documents indicate that the U.S. Government maintained an intensive interest in live POWs from the Korean War throughout the 1950s. The documents are more explicit than anything yet released regarding the Vietnam War. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the Soviets, Chinese, and North Koreans maintained labor camps containing millions of political prisoners. The end of the Korean War in 1953 was followed by intensely bitter relations between the U.S., the North Koreans, and the Chinese. This suggests that the two Communist enemies of the United States during the Korean War, as well as a Stalinist Soviet Union, were very inclined to hold live Americans -- perhaps more so than Vietnam in the 1970s.

During the mid-1950s, the U.S. demanded the North Koreans and Chinese account for missing Americans. After 1955, due to the lack of response by the Communists (except for the return of 1,868 remains in 1954), the issue abated, although the United States periodically raised the issue. In 1957, House Foreign Affairs Committee hearings on the Korean MIA issue aired frustrations similar to those raised since 1973 on Indochina MIAs. In the early 1980s, the issue of Korean MIAs began to get more attention. In 1982, the U.S. began asking for the return of the remains of American dead (as distinct from, and in addition to, the general demand for "an accounting" of U.S. MIAs and POWs). The U.S. has tried to arrange a mutual return of remains with North Korea, but without a positive response. Since 1990, North Korea has returned the alleged remains of 207 U.S. personnel. Only four have been officially identified as American. A U.S. mission visited China in early 1993 to discuss the issue; the Chinese reply, according to U.S. officials, was "a brushoff."

Despite some contact with North Korea regarding the issue, there have been no concrete results yet leading to clarification of any substantial number of Korean War MIA cases. In January 1996 negotiations with North Korea broke down because of the unwillingness of the United States to meet North Korean demands for payment of "expenses" -- of several million dollars -- which the North Koreans claim is the cost of returning remains to U.S. authorities, but which detractors regard as ransom. In May 1996, however, the United States and North Korea agreed on parameters for conducting field investigations for U.S. MIAs, in return for which the United States would pay North Korea $2 million for remains returned in the early 1990s (despite the fact that almost none of these remains turned out to be those of Americans). The reason for the change in U.S. policy is not clear. U.S. military personnel have made one visit to North Korea so far as the result of these agreements, and have obtained some remains which may be those of Americans. A second visit has been postponed due to the incident in which an intelligence -gathering North Korean submarine grounded on South Korean territory, and the combat which has accompanied South Korean efforts to capture or kill the submarine's crew.

Since 1982 there has been some activism among a few Korean War veterans and veterans groups regarding Korean War POWs and MIAs. In 1984, after a Federal court-directed hearing, one Korean MIA's status was changed by the Army to POW -- although, as with others known to have been POWs, the PFOD made for him stands. Some Korean War veterans have met with the North Koreans to secure a further accounting of missing Americans, but there have been no concrete results.

POWs and MIAs from Cold War Incidents

During the Cold War (1946-1991), some U.S. military aircraft were shot down by the USSR, Eastern European countries, China, and North Korea. Some of these aircraft were performing intelligence missions near or actually inside Soviet airspace; others were definitely in international airspace and/or were not involved in intelligence operations. While virtually all such aircraft losses were acknowledged at the time, often with considerable publicity, their intelligence functions were not.

Between 1946 and 1977, according to a DOD list released in 1992, there were at least 38 such incidents and one involving a ship (the seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo, by the North Koreans in early 1968). Of the 364 crewmembers, 187 were eventually returned to U.S. custody, the remains of 34 were recovered, 11 were known to be dead from eyewitness reports but remains were not recovered, and 132 were "not recovered, fate unknown." In 1956, the U.S. formally asked the USSR about the crews of two aircraft shot down by Soviet forces in 1950 and 1952, citing intelligence reports (apparently obtained from German and Japanese POWs from World War II, many of whom were not released by the Soviets until 1954-1955) that some crewmembers of these aircraft had been seen and spoken to in Soviet concentration camps. Russian President Yeltsin's letter to the Senate POW/MIA Committee explicitly acknowledged the shooting down of some U.S. aircraft by the Soviets and the recovery of some surviving crewmen. The first tangible evidence of such incidents from Soviet soil came in September 1994, when U.S. and Russian investigators found the remains of a U.S. Air Force officer who had been a crewmember of a U.S. plane shot down by the Soviets while performing an intelligence mission near Soviet territory in 1952.

The Senate Committee report, based in large part on the Rand Corporation study described above, generally endorses this evidence. In addition, as yet unpublished work by the DPMO, based on analysis similar to that done regarding Korean War POWs, suggests strongly that some Cold War shootdown crewmen survived and were taken prisoner by the Soviets.

A second type of "Cold War incident" involves kidnapping of U.S. personnel in or near Soviet-occupied territory in Europe after the end of World War II, by Soviet intelligence agents. Some such Americans were allegedly seen, and identified as Americans, in the late 1940s and early 1950s by German POWs who were kept in Soviet concentration camps until 1954-1955. Some of these Americans, however, rather than victims, appear to have been defectors, or wandered into the Soviet sector of Berlin and Vienna, or elsewhere in Eastern Europe, for nonpolitical reasons (romantic entanglements, drunkenness, and the like).

World War II POWs and MIAs: Soviet Imprisonment of U.S. POWs Liberated from the Germans

There are allegations the USSR held in its prison camps up to 25,000 American POWs liberated from the Germans in 1945. This large number appears to have no foundation in fact, based on systematic research by the Rand Corporation, as well as the fact that the large flow of information on the Soviet concentration camp system since the early 1960s, both in writing and from emigre accounts, has provided no indication of mass imprisonment of Americans. Rand does, however, state that 191 Americans are known not to have been repatriated by the Soviets. In addition, in 1992 Russian President Yeltsin stated that about 450 Americans were not returned, sometimes on the basis of ethnic origin. Both figures are consonant with other knowledge of the arbitrary and brutal nature of the Stalinist USSR. Contemporary accounts of U.S. dealings with the Soviet Union during and immediately after World War II on the POW issue are replete with accounts of Soviet obfuscation, truculence, and reluctant cooperation.

Some Americans were taken in arms against Soviet forces; these were probably U.S. citizens of German birth who were in Germany during World War II and served in the German armed forces or who otherwise ran afoul of the Red Army as it advanced into Central Europe. Other accounts suggest the Soviet secret police singled out American soldiers with German, Russian, or Jewish names for special attention. The motivation for holding others is not known. The Russians have released the names of 39 Americans who had been sent to Soviet labor camps after World War II on bogus espionage charges. However, all of these appear to be civilians living in the USSR who held dual Soviet-American citizenship, or their children; apparently none are U.S. military personnel.

The Joint U.S.-Russian Commission on POWs/MIAs set up by both countries to investigate the allegations of Soviet involvement with U.S. POWs in all wars since World War II has been operating since mid-1992 with mixed results. A good deal of information has been obtained, as the DPMO report on Korean War POWs indicates. However, there has been considerable obstruction of the Commission's work by officials still sympathetic to Communist ideology and the former Soviet regime.


P.L. 104-106 (H.R. 1530, S.1026), Feb. 10, 1996
FY1996 National Defense Authorization Act.Section 569: Insures that, as a general rule, military personnel who are missing will be fully accounted for and not declared dead solely because of the passage of time. Strengthens the requirement for investigations of missing personnel and establishes a progressive hierarchy of such investigations; increases requirements for prompt notification of next of kin; establishes rights for and criteria regarding legal representation of next of kin during the investigative process. Section 1085: Makes minor modifications in reporting criteria and report due dates originally contained in P.L. 102-190 (Dec. 5, 1991), FY1992 National Defense Authorization Act. Section 1082. Disclosure of Information Concerning United States Personnel Classified as Prisoner of War or Missing in Action during Vietnam Conflict.

P.L. 104-201 (H.R. 3230, S. 1745), Sep. 23, 1996 FY1997 National Defense Authorization Act. Section 578. Repeals applicability of more stringent missing persons procedures contained in Section 569 of the FY1996 National Defense Authorization Act to DOD civilian employees and contractors; makes various status reviews and reporting requirements for missing persons less stringent; repeals statutory penalties for withholding information on such missing persons; makes less stringent requirements for information to accompany a recommendation for changing missing status to that of death; liberalizes justifications for reviews of status of Korean War, Cold War, and Vietnam War missing persons classified as KIA/BNR. [Provisions from Section 537 of the Senate bill providing for repeal of the requirement that counsel be appointed for a missing person and judicial review of the missing persons process were dropped in conference.] Reported by Senate Armed Services Committee, May 13, 1996, S.Rept. 104-267. Passed Senate July 10, 1996. No comparable House provisions. Conference report submitted July 30, 1996, H.Rept. 104-724. Passed House August 1, 1996; passed Senate September 10, 1996, clearing the measure for the President.

H.R. 4000 (Dornan) To restore provisions of Title 10, U.S. Code, relating to missing persons, in effect before the enactment of the FY1997 National Defense Authorization Act. Would reenact into law the various statutes repealed by Section 578, FY1997 National Defense Authorization Act, noted immediately above. Reported by Armed Services Committee, September 17, 1996, H.Rept. 104-806. Passed House September 27, 1996. No Senate action before adjournment of 104th Congress sine die.


Cole, Paul M. POW/MIA Issues. Volume 1, The Korean War; Volume 2, World War II and the Early Cold War; Volume 3, Appendixes. Reports no. MR-351/1, 2, and 3-USDP. Santa Monica, CA, National Defense Research Institute, The Rand Corporation, 1994. 284, 182, and 302 p.

Keating, Susan Katz. Prisoners of Hope. New York, Random House, 1994. 276p.

Kristof, Nicholas D. "New Account Adds to the Mystery About the Fate of American P.O.W.'s in North Korea." New York Times, September 8, 1996: 10.

Larson, Ruth. "American POWs Became `Guinea Pigs.'" Washington Times, September 18, 1996: A1, A20.

Shenon, Philip. "U.S., in 50"s, Knew North Korea Held American P.O.W.'s." New York Times, September 17, 1996: 1.

U.S. Congress. Senate. Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. POW/MIA's. Report. Jan. 13, 1993. Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1993 (103rd Congress, 1st session. Senate. Report no. 103-1.) 1223 p.

-----House. Committee on International Relations. Vietnam: When Will we Get a Full Accounting? Hearing, 104th Congress, 1st session. July 12, 1995. July 12, 1995. Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1995. 547 p.

-----Committee on National Security. Accounting for U.S. POW/MIA's in Southeast Asia. Hearing, 104th Congress, 2nd session. June 28, 1995. Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1996. 866 p.