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U.S. Checks Out Report Hanoi Lied About POWs : Captives: 1972 Russian document a 'serious concern,' White House says. Envoy will discuss matter with Vietnam.

April 13, 1993|JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration is taking seriously a 1972 Russian document that seems to show that North Vietnam deceived the United States about American prisoners of war, and, an official said Monday, a presidential envoy will discuss the matter in Hanoi this week.

White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos said the Administration views the Russian document as "a serious concern." And a State Department official said it will be "the first order of business" when Gen. John W. Vessey Jr. arrives in Hanoi this week on a mission for President Clinton to assess whether Vietnam has been cooperating with the United States in accounting for Americans missing in action since the Vietnam War.

In the 1972 document, uncovered in the Russian archives by Harvard University researcher Stephen J. Morris, a Soviet official in Hanoi passed on to Moscow a report by a senior North Vietnamese military officer that claimed that there were 1,205 American POWs, rather than the 368 POWs that Hanoi publicly acknowledged it was holding at the time.

Under a 1973 peace agreement, 591 POWs were released from North Vietnamese prisons.

Russia formally turned over a copy of the document to the Clinton Administration last week.

According to a senior Administration official, Defense Department experts are rushing to analyze and verify it.

"This is a Russian report of a Vietnamese report. There are questions about it, and what it needs is a thorough analysis," the official told The Times.

Le Bang, Vietnam's ambassador to the United Nations, dismissed the document, terming it the latest in a series of fabrications aimed at derailing any improvement in ties between Washington and Hanoi.

"You can get anything in Russia right now, because people will make it for you," the Vietnamese ambassador told The Times. "Based on our experience of the past several years, whenever the relationship between the United States and Vietnam is about to develop, one of the elements opposed to it will try to block it."

The Clinton Administration has been in the midst of a top-level policy review to decide whether to lift the longstanding American trade embargo against Vietnam within the next few weeks.

U.S. businesses have been pressing for such a decision before the end of April. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank may take steps at a meeting here to clear the way for new international loans to Vietnam. If Hanoi receives these loans while the U.S. trade embargo is still in effect, American companies fear that their European and Asian competitors will garner most of the contracts for new business.

One senior U.S. official indicated Monday that the Administration has not yet shelved the proposals to lift the trade embargo.

"It is still very much an open question," he said. But he emphasized that Clinton will not take any new steps toward normal relations until he gets a full accounting from Vietnam on POWs and MIAs.

Another senior Administration official suggested that the Russian document could have a devastating impact on efforts toward normalization.

"I guess, if it's real and official--boom!" he said.

Several Vietnamese community leaders in Orange County, home to the largest population of Vietnamese outside of their native nation, said Monday that the document supports their argument against normalization.

"We can't trust them (the Vietnamese Communists) and this proves it," said Vy Xuan Cao, president of the Mutual Assn. of Overseas Nationalist Vietnamese based in Huntington Beach. "If they can lie about the prisoners of war issue, how can you trust them to deliver on future requirements or cooperative projects?"

Cao's group opposes lifting the trade embargo on Vietnam or renewing ties with the country.

But other prominent Vietnamese-Americans in Orange County expressed frustration that the latest finding might delay normalization. However, they spoke only on the condition that their names not be use, fearing harassment from hard-liners who oppose renewing ties to Vietnam.

"The U.S. has lost so many other soldiers in other wars, but the only reason this thing drags on is because the U.S. lost," said one Santa Ana social worker.

Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told the New York Times that he believes that the document is authentic and that he furthermore believes it likely that Vietnam shot "hundreds of American officers" in a massacre in the waning days of the war.

But Brzezinski noted that he had no concrete evidence to support his assertion.

The latest discovery came early this year while Morris was researching a book on Vietnam and turned up the 1972 document in the archives of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow.

The document was a translation, from Vietnamese into Russian, of a presentation to the North Vietnamese Politburo in September, 1972, by Gen. Tran Van Quang, deputy chief of staff of the North Vietnamese army. The report provides details of 1,205 American POWs held in 11 North Vietnamese prison camps.

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