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Politics and the POW issue

Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have issued a report charging that our government has routinely ignored or covered up evidence that some Vietnam-era prisoners of war and missing in action are still alive in Southeast Asia. By lending their name to such unsubstantiated charges, the committee's Republicans are unnecessarily manipulating the emotions of the relatives and friends of thousands of American soldiers who were never accounted for after the Vietnam War. They also are gratuitously insulting the president and the Pentagon. So far, Pentagon and White House spokesmen have been measured in their public denials of the report's allegations. They've probably been more direct in private. After all, Republican administrations have been in power in Washington for all but four years since the end of the Vietnam War.

Whatever they may think of Jimmy Carter, do Republican senators truly believe that representatives of the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush administrations purposely "downplayed or denied the reports of POW-MIAs and failed to take adequate steps to prove or disprove the reports"? Are they seriously charging that those administrations sacrificed the POWs as part of a larger policy "intended to make diplomatic recognition and financial support of the revolutionary regimes (in Southeast Asia) possible"?

Of course, just the opposite is true: Those who oppose diplomatic recognition and financial support for Vietnam keep distorting the POW-MIA issue as a way of preventing the normalization of relations.

So far, they have succeeded. The United States has reached a true rapprochement with the Soviet Union and its former satellites, and the Bush administration seems almost blindly committed to normal relations with China. However, U.S. relations with Vietnam are still non-existent almost two decades after the end of the war. They are likely to remain so until the country's psychological scars heal, and the Republicans' report only delays that process.

There is less reason to doubt the motives of U.S. Army Col. Millard Peck, a Vietnam veteran who recently resigned from the Pentagon's special office for prisoners of war. Peck told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee this week that the government has not made "an honest effort" to explore the possibility that POWs are still alive in Southeast Asia.

Obviously, our government has an obligation to investigate as vigorously as possible any credible report related to the fate of Americans missing in Southeast Asia or elsewhere. Our Vietnam-era POWs and MIAs should never be forgotten. At the same time, though, the likelihood of new evidence recedes with each passing year, and the remnants of the POW-MIA issue should not be allowed to distort American foreign policy in the 1990s. Subcommittee Chairman Steven Solarz says that Peck, despite his criticism, "has not . . . presented convincing evidence of some sort of Machiavellian conspiracy to suppress evidence."

The United States has reached reconciliations with all of its other former enemies, and our post-Vietnam healing process can never be complete until we reach a similar reconciliation with Vietnam. The Bush administration recently took a symbolic step in that direction by approving $1-million in aid to be used to purchase artificial limbs for Vietnamese victims of the war. It was the first American aid to Vietnam since the end of hostilities.

The prospect of improved ties with Vietnam, not any new evidence related to American POWs, is what has spurred some of the Republican senators and other advocates to action. Anti-communist demagoguery has worked for them before, and they're resorting to it again _ even if it means giving false hope to thousands of families for whom the Vietnam War psychologically still is not over.

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