SEN. John Vessey Jr. has his work cut out for him when he visits Vietnam next week.
Originally billed as a visit to discuss progress on the POW/MIA issue, his trip is moving closer to becoming an investigation following the release of a document that says Vietnam held more than twice as many United States prisoners of war as it claimed during the 1972 peace negotiations. Hanoi, which seeks better political and business ties with the US, claims the document is a fake.
Despite the pressure from the US business community to relax the remaining restrictions on trade with Vietnam, the White House should first pursue the truth about the document's authenticity and accuracy. If the document proves accurate, then before Washington considers more-open relations, Vietnam must be called to account for the additional POWs. If the document proves to be fabricated, the US should proceed quickly to normalize relations with Hanoi.
Getting to the truth may be difficult. The report, found in Soviet Communist Party archives, was translated from Vietnamese to Russian to English, so mangling the names of US servicemen listed that none match US records. The document, dated 1972, listed the alleged author, Gen. Tran Van Quang, as deputy chief of staff of the North Vietnamese Army. Hanoi claims that at the time he was only a commander of a military district and so would have no reason to write such a report. The document speaks of separat ing prisoners by rank, yet US POWs have said that didn't happen. In other places, however, historical facts converge.
The US has placed several markers along the road to better relations with Vietnam: withdrawal of its forces from Cambodia, cooperation in bringing about a peace agreement in Cambodia, and full accounting for US POWs and MIAs. The first two fulfilled and progress made on the third, it is in Hanoi's long-term interest to help resolve this latest bout of uncertainty about its treatment of US prisoners during the Vietnam war.