WASHINGTON — UNITED States officials are eager to probe into Hanoi's musty archives for clues to the fate of 2,500 missing American soldiers from the Vietnam War. But US archives may hold the clues to the fate of 200,000 Vietnamese missing-in-action (MIA) during the same conflict.
Perhaps the largest collection of documents, letters, poems, and data assembled from slain or captured Vietnamese communists is the 300,000 entries compiled during the war by the US Combined Enemy Document Exploitation Center in Saigon. The files take up 16 miles of microfilm and copies are stored at the National Archives and several colleges, including the University of Massachusetts (UMass) at Boston.
But researchers have a hard time accessing the documents. First, neither the Vietnamese government nor the US has allocated the $20,000 needed to copy the files and send them, along with a microfilm reading machine, to Vietnam, says Kevin Bowen, curator of the UMass collection.
The other problem, Mr. Bowen says, is that an old computer at the National Archives has broken down. Without this machine - which is no longer manufactured - researchers cannot read the codes on the edge of the microfilm that identify the date and place where the documents were obtained. This makes indexing the files impossible.
Another treasure trove of documents on Vietnamese POWs and MIAs is housed at the University of California, Berkeley. Prof. Douglas Pike, director of the university's Indochina Archives, says that Vietnamese scholars at the Institute for International Relations in Hanoi have access to his archives and were informed that they include "several hundred thousand" pages dealing with Vietnamese MIAs.
But Vietnamese do not appear to be as interested in tracking down their missing soldiers as Americans are. Professor Pike says that Vietnamese researchers "have other priorities."
One Army intelligence officer who served in Vietnam says "the Vietnamese are more realistic - they bury their dead and get on with life. There's also no political group pushing" for accounting of their MIAs.
However, Pham Tien Duat, a veteran of the Ho Chi Minh trail who now edits Weekly Art and Literature magazine in Hanoi, said during a recent trip to the US that many Vietnamese families would be interested in using the files in US archives. "Vietnamese are very anxious to find out what happened to our missing soldiers and we resent very much that the Americans search for their dead while we lack the money to do so," he said.