Was Rambo Right? Hundreds of POWs may have been left to die in Vietnam, abandoned by their government – and our media

Email Print

by Ron Unz: His-Panic



In the closing days of the 2008 presidential campaign, I clicked an
ambiguous link on an obscure website and stumbled into a parallel

During the
previous two years of that long election cycle, the media narrative
surrounding Sen. John McCain had been one of unblemished heroism
and selfless devotion to his fellow servicemen. Thousands of stories
on television and in print had told of his brutal torture at the
hands of his North Vietnamese captors, his steely refusal to crack,
and his later political career aimed at serving the needs of fellow
Vietnam veterans. This storyline had first reached the national
stage during his 2000 campaign, then returned with even greater
force as he successfully sought the 2008 Republican nomination.
Seemingly accepted by all, this history became a centerpiece of
his campaign. McCain’s supporters touted his heroism as proof
that he possessed the character to be entrusted with America’s
highest office, while his detractors merely sought to change the

Once I clicked
that link, I encountered a very different John McCain.

I read copious,
detailed evidence that hundreds of American POWs had been condemned
to death at enemy hands by top American leaders, apparently because
their safe return home would have constituted a major political
embarrassment. I found documentation that the cover-up of this betrayal
had gone on for decades, eventually drawing in a certain Arizona
senator. According to this remarkable reconstruction of events,
the average teenage moviegoer of the 1980s watching mindless action
films such as Rambo,
in Action
, and Uncommon
was seeing reality portrayed on screen, while the
policy expert reading sober articles in the pages of The New
Republic and The Atlantic was absorbing lies and propaganda.
Since I had been believing those very articles, this was a stunning

But was this
alternate description of reality correct? Could this one article
be true and all the countless contrary pieces I had read in America’s
most prestigious publications be false, merely the presentation
of official propaganda endlessly repeated? I cannot say. I am not
an expert on the history of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

Yet consider
the source. The author of that remarkable 8,000-word exposé
– “McCain
and the POW Cover-Up
,” published on The Nation Institute’s
website – was Sydney Schanberg, one of America’s foremost
Vietnam War journalists. His reporting won him a Pulitzer Prize,
and his subsequent book on Cambodia was made into The
Killing Fields
, an Oscar-winning movie. Schanberg later
served as one of the highest-ranking editors at the New York
Times, with a third of the reporters at our national newspaper
of record working under him. A case can be made that no living American
journalist can write with greater credibility on Vietnam War matters.
And he had labored for years researching and exhaustively documenting
the story of American POWs abandoned in Indochina – a story
that if true might easily represent the single greatest act of national
dishonor ever committed by our political leaders.

He presented
a mass of evidence with names, dates, and documentary detail. Many
of the individuals mentioned are still alive and could be interviewed
or called to testify. Sealed government records could be ordered
unsealed. If America wishes to determine the truth, it can do so.

Yet what I
found most remarkable about Schanberg’s essay were not its
explosive historical claims but the absolute silence with which
they were received in the mainstream media. In 2008, John McCain’s
heroic war record and personal patriotism were central to his quest
for supreme power – a goal he came very close to achieving. But
when one of America’s most eminent journalists published an
exhaustive report that the candidate had instead served as one of
the leading figures in a monumental act of national treachery, our
media took no notice. McCain’s public critics and the operatives
of his Democratic opponent might eagerly seize upon every rumor
that the senator had had a private lunch with a disreputable corporate
lobbyist, but they ignored documented claims that he had covered
up the killing of hundreds of American POWs. These allegations were
serious enough and sufficiently documented to warrant national attention – yet
they received none.

All of this
might seem unimaginable except that it falls into a strong pattern
of the press avoiding stories of overwhelming importance. Consider
how many of the national disasters of the past few years have been
caused by the unwillingness of our major media to question official
truths or the widespread beliefs of our elites. The Iraq “cakewalk”
to eliminate Saddam’s WMDs, the nationwide housing bubble,
and the Madoff swindle might have been prevented or would never
have reached such massive proportions if reporters and editors had
been willing to investigate and present claims contrary to the soothing
blandishments of the powerful. Instead, it has become the norm for
press outlets simply to repeat, with a few word substitutions, stories
indistinguishable from those previously published by dozens of other
press outlets, without ever examining any contrary evidence that
might raise doubts about this perceived reality. Truth has come
to mean the lies that everyone believes.

A couple of
years ago, in one of my last exchanges with my late friend Lt. Gen.
Bill Odom, who ran the National Security Agency for President Ronald
Reagan, we agreed a case could be made that today’s major American
media had become just as dishonest and unreliable as the old Soviet
propaganda outlets of the late 1970s. At the time, we were discussing
the coverage of our road to the Iraq War, but subsequent events
have demonstrated that this national illness is far more advanced
than either of us had suspected. Whether or not Schanberg is proven
correct, the shameful cowardice of our mainstream media is already
proven by the wall of silence surrounding his work.

In an attempt
to breach that wall, we present Schanberg’s account of how
his remarkable story was buried, as well as his explosive original
article. TAC has also convened a symposium of critics drawn
from military, political, and journalism backgrounds to explain
how this report could have failed to reach a mass audience. A small
political magazine does not have the resources to investigate the
detailed evidence of Schanberg’s case, but we can hold a mirror
up to America’s major media and force them to see what stories
they now regard as completely non-newsworthy.

And if Schanberg’s
claims are indeed correct, they reveal the lethal consequences of
America’s overweening national pride. After all, his history
is a simple one. Following the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954,
the Vietnamese refused to return their French POWs unless Paris
agreed to pay financial compensation for the war. The French leaders
paid the money and got their men back. Similarly, the Vietnamese
refused to return their American POWs unless the U.S. government
agreed to pay reparations. Nixon signed a document promising to
do exactly that, but the Vietnamese, being cautious, kept many of
the POWs back until the money was delivered. Then Congress refused
to authorize the funds because “America doesn’t lose wars.”
Nixon and later U.S. leaders never acknowledged the fate of these
captives lest the American people become outraged. And as the years
and decades went by, and various schemes to ransom or rescue the
POWs were considered and rejected, their continued existence became
a major liability to numerous powerful political figures, whose
reputations would have been destroyed if any of the prisoners ever
returned and told his story to the American people. So none of them
ever came home.

Read Sydney
Schanberg’s exposé "McCain and the POW Cover-Up"

And read
account of how this story was buried by the mainstream media here

For further
perspectives on this story, visit the links below:

Peter Richardson:
Why small
media breaks the big stories

Gareth Porter:
The evidence
doesn’t stack up

Andrew J.
Bacevich: Will
Iraq be forgotten as well?

John LeBoutillier:
How the
D.C. media covers for the establishment

Cockburn: Sometimes
conspiracy theories are true

28, 2010

Unz is a Silicon Valley software developer and publisher of The
American Conservative

Email Print