8. Letter From the Presidential Commission on Americans Missing and Unaccounted For in Southeast Asia to President Carter1

Dear Mr. President:

The Presidential Commission has completed the visit you asked it to make to Vietnam and Laos to obtain an accounting for our personnel missing or unaccounted for in Southeast Asia. Our trip was long and arduous but worthwhile. We were well-received by our hosts in both countries.

We carried out your instructions to seek means of resolving the issue of our missing personnel, and we believe we achieved some concrete results in this regard. As you requested, we also obtained the views of the Vietnamese and Lao Governments on other matters of mutual concern, particularly the matter of normalization of relations between these countries and the United States.

We respectfully present for your consideration the attached report on our trip. It contains our observations and conclusions as well as certain recommendations which we hope will be useful in achieving a satisfactory resolution of the tragic problem of our missing personnel. We also hope it will be helpful to you in considering appropriate further steps toward normalization of relations with these two countries.


  • Leonard Woodcock
  • Mike Mansfield
  • Charles Yost
  • G.V. Montgomery
  • Marian Wright Edelman
[Page 21]


Report by the Presidential Commission on Americans Missing and Unaccounted for in Southeast Asia2

Report on Trip to Vietnam and Laos March 16–20, 1977

I. Mandate of the Commission

On February 25, 1977, the State Department announced that the President was sending a Presidential Commission of distinguished Americans to Southeast Asia to help him obtain an accounting about missing Americans in that region.3 Mr. Leonard Woodcock, President of the United Auto Workers, was chosen by the President to head the five-member Commission. Other members were: Former Senator Mike Mansfield, former Ambassador Charles W. Yost, Congressman G.V. Montgomery, and Mrs. Marian Wright Edelman, Director of the Children’s Defense Fund.

The Commission was charged with traveling to Vietnam and Laos to meet with representatives of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to seek information on our missing personnel, including the return of recoverable remains. The Commission was also instructed to receive from these governments their views on matters affecting our mutual relations. The Commission was requested by the President to report its findings directly to him on their return.

The Commission was not a diplomatic mission in the usual sense, in that it was not empowered to negotiate on behalf of the U.S. Government on matters involving relations between the U.S. and the two countries which it was to visit. However, the Commission was given authority to reach agreement with the Vietnamese and Lao authorities on matters pertaining to the question of our missing personnel in order to obtain information and recoverable remains.

Both White House and State Department announcements made clear that the U.S. Government remained concerned about all Americans lost in Southeast Asia, those still listed as missing as well as the larger number who have been presumed dead with no accounting being provided. The fact that a man has been declared dead for legal [Page 22] purposes did not affect the U.S. Government’s determination to seek information about him and to arrange for the return of his remains if they could be recovered.

The announcements also stated that the naming of the Commission and its trip to Indochina was a further, measured step which the U.S. Government was taking to put the recent conflict behind us and to establish more normal relations between ourselves and the countries of that area.

II. Preparations for the Trip

After receiving the Presidential mandate for its mission, the Commission immediately initiated a series of actions designed to insure careful preparation for its trip.

The Departments of State and Defense provided briefing material on the background and history of the MIA issue,4 including details on missing individuals and on past efforts to obtain information on them, as well as a review of U.S. relations with the countries of Indochina.

On Monday, March 7th, the Commission held its first formal meeting and briefing session at the Department of State.5 This briefing included discussions of previous dealings with the Vietnamese and Lao, in particular the Vietnamese position of linking their action on MIA’s under Article 8b of the Paris Agreement6 to what they claim was the remaining U.S. obligation to help heal the wounds of war to Vietnam by providing aid as stipulated by Article 21 of the same accord. The Commission concluded that it would be better to approach the Vietnamese in a humanitarian spirit of mutual cooperation, looking to the future, rather than to engage in sterile, legalistic debate of the past which focused on the war. Dr. Henry Kenny, former staff member of the House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia, described that Committee’s 1975 trip to Hanoi and Vientiane7 to obtain the return of three American pilots and to discuss the MIA problem with leaders of both countries.

In cooperation with the Commission, the Department of State arranged for U.S. representatives to meet with Vietnamese representatives in Paris to prepare further for the Commission’s visit to Hanoi. Mr. James D. Rosenthal, Director of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia Affairs, and chief of the Commission’s staff for its visit to Southeast [Page 23] Asia, attended this meeting and reported back to the Commission in Washington prior to its departure.

The Commission also met with non-governmental organizations and individuals who were concerned with the MIA problem and other matters pertinent to its mission. On March 7th, the Commission met with representatives of the National League of Families of Americans missing in Southeast Asia. The League said that they recognized an accounting for all the missing was impossible but that some men still missing were known to be alive at one time and the American people are entitled to know what happened to them. They urged the Commission to seek all possible information on these men. Chairman Woodcock and the Commission members assured the League representatives that this was the primary purpose of the trip and the Commission would do the best it could.

A meeting was also held on March 11th with representatives of the American Friends Service Committee, who briefed the Commission on their recent visit to Vietnam and urged it to consider humanitarian aid to that country. Mr. Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, who had been captured and released during the war in Cambodia, urged the Commission to approach Cambodia on the MIA issue, particularly in regard to the 25 international journalists missing in that country, four of whom are Americans. The Commission agreed to contact the Cambodians to try to arrange a meeting with Cambodian representatives during its trip.

Commission members also met or talked individually with persons and groups with a specific interest in their mission, such as MIA family members.

The Commission was fortunate to have the recently-published final report of the House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia,8 which documented in detail past military and diplomatic efforts to obtain a resolution of the MIA problem and which included recommendations for future action. All Commission members read this report thoroughly and were told later in Vietnam by SRV Deputy Foreign Minister Phan Hien that he had also read it.

On Saturday, March 12th, the Commission met with President Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.9 The President expressed [Page 24] his deep concern about obtaining a satisfactory MIA accounting and his hope for eventual normalization of relations with Vietnam and Laos. The Commission was directed not to apologize for past relations, but to emphasize the President’s desire for a new beginning with these governments on the basis of equality and mutual respect. It was instructed to seek all MIA information and to obtain all recoverable remains from the Vietnamese and Lao and to listen carefully to the concerns of these governments on other matters of mutual interest. The President asked Mr. Woodcock to deliver personal letters from him to Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong and to Lao President Souphanouvong.10

On March 13th the Commission departed Washington for Hawaii, where it received briefings by the Department of Defense, the Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC) and the Central Identification Laboratory (CIL). The DOD briefer indicated there were 2,546 Americans who did not return from the war in Indochina, of whom 758 are still listed as MIA or POW. “We have no evidence”, he said, “to indicate that any American servicemen are being held as prisoners in Southeast Asia, but whether a man is alive or dead does not relieve us of the responsibility to seek an accounting for him.” The briefings described the many efforts made to obtain information and recover remains, since the end of U.S. involvement in the Indochina War and the Paris Agreement of January 1973. The Commission was impressed by data showing that the number unaccounted for in Indochina is about 4% of those killed in that conflict. As indicated in the House Select Committee Report, this contrasts with the 22% unresolved cases in World War II and Korea. This impressed upon the Commission the need to be realistic in its expectations for a further Indochina accounting. The Commission also visited the CIL where it reviewed procedures for identifying recovered remains. The Commission was impressed by the CIL’s capability of identifying even partial remains and noted that CIL expertise is one reason why there is not yet an unknown soldier from the Vietnam War.

The Commission departed Hawaii on March 13th for the Philippines, where it remained overnight to rest and prepare further for its visit to Hanoi and Vientiane. U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines William H. Sullivan met with the Commission11 and provided it with [Page 25] the benefit of his many years of experience in negotiating with the Vietnamese.

III. Visit to Vietnam

Program in Hanoi

The Commission arrived in Hanoi at 2:45 p.m., March 16, 1977 aboard a U.S. Air Force C–141 from Clark Field and departed at approximately 10:00 a.m. March 19, 1977 aboard the same aircraft for Vientiane.

Deputy Foreign Minister Phan Hien greeted the Commission at Gia Lam Airport upon arrival. The Commission and staff were housed in the official Government Guest House as guests of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

The Commission was received by SRV Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ngyen Duy Trinh two hours after arrival. There were formal meetings on March 17 and 18 between the Commission and the Vietnamese delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Phan Hien, a meeting with Prime Minister Pham Van Dong in the afternoon of March 17, and a separate meeting between technical experts concerned with the development of MIA information and recovery of remains.12 Representative Montgomery was the only Commission member who attended the latter meeting.

In addition, Minister Trinh hosted a formal dinner and cultural performance for the Commission on March 17 and attended a dinner given in turn by the Commission on the next night. Other Commission activities included: a visit to the Hanoi City cemetery, located in Ha Dong Province roughly 20 kilometers from Hanoi, to see the remains of the 12 pilots which the Vietnamese agreed to turn over to the Commission; and a dignified ceremony upon reception of the remains at Gia Lam Airport on March 19 just prior to departure.

Members of the Commission also undertook individual activities. The Chairman had two private meetings with Deputy Foreign Minister Phan Hien, and Ms. Edelman visited a kindergarten and had a meeting with Mrs. Nguyen Thi Binh, Minister of Education.

Atmosphere in Hanoi

A significant aspect of the Commission’s visit to Vietnam was the cordial atmosphere which prevailed throughout its stay. The Vietnamese Government appeared to have made a major effort to ensure that the Commission’s stay was both pleasant and productive and that the [Page 26] Commission was treated with respect and dignity. This point is of importance because in Asia the form of a visit and the level of attention given to a delegation often conveys an essential political message. Using this standard, the Commission concludes that the Vietnamese leadership was indicating by this treatment the importance it attached to the Commission’s visit, and its genuine desire for a new and improved relationship with the United States. This did not, of course, mean that the Vietnamese were ready to concede on substantive issues, but it was—and is—an encouraging beginning to serious discussions on them.

The spirit of cordiality carried over into meetings as well. Phan Hien, an urbane and sophisticated diplomat, spoke in a spirit of conciliation during both of the formal meetings. While always forcefully representing the positions of his government, he interspersed his presentations with humorous asides and conveyed an obvious sincere desire to put the war behind us. There was a conspicuous absence of polemics or harsh rhetoric on either side.

Prime Minister Pham Van Dong also received the Commission for a special meeting at which the President’s personal letter was delivered to him. The talks with him were candid; he expressed his government’s policy firmly but without rancor or harshness despite the recent bitter past. He expressed particular appreciation for the President’s message and later asked the Commission to convey back to the President a letter from him in reply.13

There were sporadic attempts to restrict individual movement around Hanoi, but in general Commission members and staff were permitted to go where they wished. This was usually—but not always—under escort. Protocol officers explained that this was for security reasons, citing possible hostile acts by the populace which still remembers the “destruction caused by U.S. bombing.” These restrictions eased as the visit progressed. This point is important because it reminded the Commission that, despite all the good will and cordiality which marked the visit, there will for quite a while be an element of reserve toward us because of the long period when we and the Vietnamese were adversaries.

Substance of Talks in Hanoi

The essential elements of the Vietnamese position as expounded during the visit were contained in an Aide Memoire handed to Chairman Woodcock during the second formal discussions on March 18. The text [Page 27] of this Aide Memoire is attached.14 Further discussion of the major issues follows:

—Missing in Action

The highlight of the Commission’s talks in Hanoi was the SRV’s formal undertaking to give the U.S. all available information on our missing men as it is found and to return remains as they are recovered and exhumed. This new commitment was spelled out in Vice Minister Phan Hien’s remarks and his Aide Memoire and in the more general comments by Foreign Minister Trinh and Prime Minister Pham Van Dong. It was further refined in the Technical Sub-Commission meeting with officials of the Vietnamese agency responsible for seeking information on the missing and recovering remains.

The key elements in the Vietnamese statements were as follows:

a) The remains of the 12 U.S. airmen announced last September as killed in action would be returned to the U.S. and could be taken back by the Commission if desired.

b) All living U.S. military POW’s have been returned.

c) All U.S. civilians remaining in South Vietnam after April 30, 1975 who registered with the Vietnamese authorities have left the country.

d) The SRV has established a specialized office to seek information on missing Americans and to recover remains. Although terrain and the tropical conditions of Vietnam have hindered search efforts, this office is actively seeking information and the remains of missing Americans.

e) The SRV will give the U.S. “as soon as possible” all available information and remains as they are discovered.

f) The Vietnamese would welcome U.S. assistance for this work in the form of information and documents, as well as material means helpful to the search efforts.

Although the MIA undertaking was stated in unqualified terms, the Vietnamese made clear that they still considered this subject and other aspects of U.S.-SRV relations to be “inter-related.” They stated that their actions on MIA’s were in conformance with Article 8b of the Paris Accord, for example, and cited the need for comparable U.S. fulfillment of its alleged obligation under Article 21 to “heal the wounds of war” and provide reconstruction aid. Phan Hien also raised the issue of normalization of relations in this context. He was careful to say that none of these three points (i.e., MIA’s, normalization, and aid) should [Page 28] be considered as pre-conditions to the other two and it was not the SRV’s intention to raise the question this way. But he did note that they were closely related to each other and that both sides should take them in an overall context and apply their position in a flexible way. This appeared to go farther than previous SRV statements in reducing the specific linkage between Vietnamese action on MIA’s and U.S. agreement to provide aid. But it still suggests that actual Vietnamese performance on MIA’s will probably be subject to our willingness to move concretely to implement the spirit of good will displayed by the Commission’s visit.

The Technical Subcommission meeting was requested by the U.S. side and agreed on by the Vietnamese for the morning of March 18, prior to the second formal session with Phan Hien. Rep. Montgomery attended for the Commission with staff support by Mr. Sieverts, Dr. Shields, Dr. Kenny, and the JCRC representatives. Leading for the Vietnamese was Vu Hoang, Director of the Consular Department of the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Director of the Office Responsible for Seeking Information on the Missing and the Recovery of Remains. He was supported by two specialists.

The Vietnamese described their MIA office as organized from central to provincial levels and said it relies on local citizen groups for much of its information. They noted that the forested and mountainous terrain of Vietnam hindered searches, and that even where a plane had been seen coming down it was often hard to find it. Pilots who bailed out might come down many miles from the downed aircraft and were often lost, unless they landed in populated areas. Other impediments to successful searches noted by Mr. Hoang were the lack of specialized tools and transportation, the “attitude of the people” reluctant to help with U.S. MIA’s when so many of their own relatives had been lost, and the fact that in the South the search had only recently been organized.

The Vietnamese noted that they had substantially increased their budget for this work and confirmed that they would be pleased to receive materials to aid the search process, including case folders, anthropological books, tools, medical supplies and antiseptics, and transportation equipment. They also said they would look into the possibility of providing items such as dog tags, aircraft numbers, and personal effects, as well as remains of Americans lost in the South.

Mr. Hoang proposed that information and other materials be exchanged directly with him at his address in the Foreign Ministry. He asked with whom he could correspond and was given Mr. Sieverts’ name at the State Department as a point of contact.

The Sub-Commission also worked out procedures for the return of the 12 remains. The full Commission later visited the cemetery where the remains were being kept following their exhumation.

[Page 29]

In a brief private meeting following the final dinner, Phan Hien told the Commission that American citizen Tucker Gougelmann had died in Saigon in June 1976, and that his remains would be returned as soon as they could be hygienically exhumed. The Commission had asked Hien in its initial meeting about Mr. Gougelmann, the last known American remaining in Vietnam following the communist takeover who wished to leave. Hien also told the Commission at this final meeting that the Vietnamese believed another American may be buried in the Hanoi cemetery and promised to return his remains as well. Although they almost certainly have at least some additional MIA information available, they did not provide it to the Commission during its visit.

—Normalization of Relations

Pham Van Dong and Phan Hien both expressed a strong desire to move toward normal relations with the U.S. Their Aide Memoire states that “The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is prepared to establish diplomatic relations with the United States.” At the same time Phan Hien, in his remarks, noted that obstacles still exist on the road to normalizing relations, although expressing hope that with goodwill they could all be removed. He said Vietnam is prepared to normalize on the basis of sovereignty, mutual respect, non-interference in each other’s affairs and peaceful co-existence. Regarding diplomatic relations, he said Vietnam is prepared to establish them, but then added that this will depend on the attitude of the United States and “whether it will give up its erroneous policy of the past”. He stated that the Vietnamese view is that actions such as the U.S. economic blockade and the veto of Vietnam’s entry into the UN stem from this erroneous policy. Finally, he said that there are three key areas of discussion between us: the MIA’s, normalization, and aid. Phan Hien said we should not consider any one as a pre-condition to the other two, but noted that they clearly are inter-related.

Both Phan Hien and Pham Van Dong proposed negotiations between diplomatic representatives of the U.S. and SRV to discuss the elements and process of normalization. Phan Hien suggested talks at the level of special ambassador or higher in Paris. The Commission said it would convey this proposal to the President for his consideration.

Vietnamese leaders expressed clearly to the Commission their Government’s foreign policy, in particular regarding their neighbors in Southeast Asia. Phan Hien presented to the Commission Foreign Minister Trinh’s “Four Points” as the basis for their policy:

“1. Respect for each other’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality, mutual benefit and peaceful co-existence.

[Page 30]

2. Not to allow any foreign country to use one’s territory as a base for direct or indirect aggression and intervention against the other country and other countries in the region.

3. Establishment of friendly and good-neighborly relations, economic cooperation and cultural exchanges on the basis of equality and mutual benefit. Settlement of disputes among the countries in the region through negotiations in a spirit of equality, mutual understanding and respect.

4. Development of cooperation among the countries in the region for the building of prosperity in keeping with each country’s specific conditions, and for the sake of genuine independence, peace and neutrality in Southeast Asia, thereby contributing to peace in the world.”

Hien complained about the negative attitude of the new Thai authorities toward Vietnam and advised the U.S., as friends of Thailand, to urge the Thais to better their relations with the SRV by living up to the Thai-Vietnamese joint communique of last August 6. The Commission expressed the new U.S. Administration’s desire for a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Southeast Asia.

—Economic and Humanitarian Assistance

In both the Commission’s meetings with Phan Hien and Pham Van Dong as well as in the Aide Memoire which they presented, the Vietnamese emphasized their strong interest in receiving aid from the United States. In the Aide Memoire this was expressed as an American “responsibility” and “obligation”. In the formal meetings, aid was generally categorized as something the United States “should” do.

In Phan Hien’s initial presentation, he cited three ways of looking at the U.S. “responsibility” to contribute to post war reconstruction: legal, humanitarian, and on the basis of reciprocity. Under the legal, he noted the U.S. obligation under Article 21 of the Paris Agreement, pledges allegedly made in President Nixon’s February 1, 1973 message to Pham Van Dong, and a letter sent in mid-1973 by Maurice Williams (U.S. Representative to the Joint Economic Commission) to his Vietnamese counterpart “acknowledging” U.S. responsibility to provide aid. Pham Van Dong also made reference to this legal aspect of the problem. Both stressed, however, that if the U.S. did not wish to consider the problem in a legal context, they are perfectly prepared to deemphasize such references. They said they were ready to be flexible in discussing the modalities of how we might provide aid to them. The Commission found their willingness to deemphasize references to the Paris Accords and legal obligations of the United States to be a somewhat encouraging sign. At the same time, the Commission recognizes that it does not represent any fundamental changes in their position.

In place of the legal basis for our providing assistance, Phan Hien and the Prime Minister turned to a discussion of a humanitarian basis [Page 31] for aid. Suggesting they were performing a humanitarian act in working to alleviate the suffering of the MIA families, they stated that in fairness we should be willing to act humanely to repair some of the destruction caused during the war. Phan Hien indicated that Vietnam has a pressing immediate need for food aid, fertilizer, farm machinery, building materials for schools and hospitals, raw materials for its factories, and medicines. He later presented the Commission as part of the Aide Memoire a specific list of these items along with quantities they need over the next five years.

In the third aspect—reciprocity—Phan Hien made the point that actions cannot come from just one side. Obliquely referring to their accounting for the MIA’s and providing aid, he indicated that each side must take steps which address the concerns of the other. As noted earlier, he did not specifically link the two issues, although at a later point he noted that aid, an MIA accounting, and normalization are “interrelated.”

At other times, the Vietnamese referred to our providing aid to them as a matter of conscience or as a moral obligation. Pham Van Dong said aid is an “obligation we should fulfill—an obligation to be fulfilled with all your conscience and all your sense of responsibility.” He added that “In brief, we have obligations which are related to each other. So we should start from this position.”

Phan Hien also indicated his government’s willingness to be flexible regarding the form aid might take. While not specifically stating which they might prefer, he referred to discussion with previous U.S. administrations in which various forms of aid were mentioned, including concessional, bilateral and multilateral. He called on us to put forth some ideas by saying “our intention is that the U.S. make substantial contributions to healing the wounds of the war and to the reconstruction of Vietnam. As to the forms and measures, you may make suggestions.”

—Refugees and Family Reunification

The Vietnamese said they would be “generous” with regard to their citizens wishing to join relatives in the U.S., and to those wanting to return to Vietnam from abroad, providing they follow proper procedures. The Commission welcomed this statement and suggested continued efforts to resolve this problem through the Red Cross. Phan Hien also took the occasion to express concern about alleged activities of refugees in the U.S. which “undermine” the improvement of relations. Chairman Woodcock responded that no such group could affect the freely-chosen policies of the U.S. Government.

The UNHCR representative in Hanoi told the Commission staff he was hopeful the Vietnamese would agree soon to the departure of [Page 32] children and other relatives of U.S. citizens who remain in South Vietnam.

—Social Problems

In response to her request the Vietnamese arranged for Ms. Edelman to visit a kindergarten-child care center, and to meet with the Minister of Education, Mme. Nguyen Thi Binh (formerly Foreign Minister of the PRG). In discussions with Ms. Edelman the Vietnamese described their efforts to care for orphans (who they said numbered 500,000 including those with one parent) and to rehabilitate “street children” in South Vietnam. The Vietnamese said nutrition was their main child care problem, reflecting their overall concern about their current food shortages.

With Ms. Edelman and in discussions with the Commission, the Vietnamese referred to their continuing efforts to rehabilitate up to 400,000 former prostitutes, 100,000 drug addicts, and to treat venereal disease. They also noted that over 4 million of their population remained unemployed, mainly in South Vietnam.

IV. Visit to Laos

Some 550 Americans are listed as missing or dead in Laos. The President therefore asked the Commission to visit that country as well to seek the cooperation of the Lao authorities in resolving these cases. Secretary of State Vance addressed a letter to Phoune Sipaseuth, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic (LPDR) on February 24, 1977 asking that the Commission be received in Laos. Minister Phoune replied on March 12 accepting the Secretary’s proposal.15

Program in Vientiane

The Commission went from Hanoi to Vientiane, capital of Laos, early March 19 by U.S. military aircraft and remained until late afternoon March 20. The Commission met for two hours in formal talks with the LPDR delegation headed by Nouphan Sitphasay, Secretary of State (Deputy Foreign Minister) on March 19.16 The next day the Commission was received in separate meetings by Foreign Minister Phoune and by LPDR President Souphanouvong, to whom Chairman [Page 33] Woodcock delivered a personal letter from President Carter. The Commission was honored at a dinner given by the Lao Government March 19 and returned the hospitality with a luncheon March 20 attended by Minister Phoune and other high-level Lao officials.

Atmosphere in Vientiane

Although the U.S. maintains a small Embassy in Vientiane ably led by Chargé d’Affaires Thomas J. Corcoran, Lao-American relations have been cool since events in the spring of 1975 and the subsequent establishment of the LPDR in December of that year. However, working in cooperation with our Embassy, the Lao arranged a warm reception for the Commission and made it evident throughout the visit that the Commission was welcome. The Commission was greeted at the airport by Deputy Foreign Minister Nouphan and escorted to accommodations provided by the Lao government in Vientiane’s largest hotel. In the Commission’s meetings with President Souphanouvong and Foreign Minister Phoune, both expressed the view that the Commission’s visit was evidence of a new American attitude toward their country, and a demonstration of the President’s desire to improve relations with Laos.

As in Vietnam, the tone and atmosphere of the Commission’s visit to Laos was important. Chairman Woodcock made the point that the Commission had come not to replace the work of our Embassy but to underscore the President’s desire to improve relations with Laos on the basis of mutual respect and benefit. He relayed the President’s desire to help remove the obstacles to improved relations, such as the MIA question. This new spirit was apparently understood and accepted by the Lao, whose leaders responded in a similar vein.

Substance of Talks in Vientiane

The Commission made clear to the Lao authorities the great importance the President and the American people attach to obtaining the best accounting possible for the Americans listed as missing or dead in Laos. The Chairman stated that the Commission would welcome any definite information or remains the Lao may have on these men, and indicated U.S. willingness to cooperate fully with the Lao in casualty resolution. He expressed the hope that the two parties could agree, during the Commission’s visit, on an orderly procedure to resolve the issue. He noted to all the Lao leaders that progress on this issue would be a significant step toward improvement of U.S.-Lao relations.

The Lao expressed to the Commission their sympathy with the MIA families and their wish to relieve the latter’s suffering. They noted the great difficulty of finding MIA information and remains in the rugged terrain of Laos, particularly given the country’s small population and lack of material means. The Lao did assure the Commission that there are no Americans who have been captured and are alive in [Page 34] Laos, and that all Americans captured during the war had been returned to the U.S. They stated that the Lao Government had ordered before, and will now order again, the people of Laos to seek information and remains. But they regretted that they had no such information or remains now to provide the Commission.

In both formal and informal meetings, responsible Lao officials agreed to receive further MIA case files, as well as other material that we could provide to assist their search. Commission members stressed that we understood the difficulties involved in Laos and were realistic in our expectations of what information could be developed. The Commission nevertheless emphasized the importance of all information, such as aircraft tail numbers, ID cards, dog tags, and even partial remains, as being helpful to the United States.

The Lao made clear to the Commission that they connected the MIA problem with that of U.S. assistance to “heal the wounds of war” and rebuild their country. They expressed the belief that the two problems should be resolved together, since both resulted from the war. They noted that if one speaks of humanitarian concern for the MIA’s, one must also think of the damage Laos suffered at U.S. hands during the war. They said the Lao people could be expected to search for MIA information only when they see that the U.S. Government is interested in healing this damage and helping reconstruct the country. In more general terms, they indicated that the MIA problem can be resolved when there is a new relationship between the two countries and when U.S. policy has changed from hostility to friendship.

The Commission was informed during its visit of the problem of unexploded ordnance in Laos. The UNHCR representative in Vientiane, who recently visited the Plain of Jars, reported that 15 persons had been killed during the past year in one village of 3400 people by such unexploded war materiel. The Commission believes the U.S. could provide advice and technical assistance on how to defuse such ordnance, and that the American people would understand and support such an effort.

In this regard the Lao, in the formal talks, laid great emphasis on difficulties caused by what they termed “reactionaries” engaged in hostile activities against their government. They expressed particular concern at what they claimed was Thai hostility toward them and Thai support for anti-LPDR elements both within Laos and in Thailand. They noted that the previous U.S. administration had been hostile toward Laos, and charged that it had supported some of these elements. They said that in any case, the U.S. Government has provided aid to the Thai, thus enabling the latter to support such elements. They expressed the belief that the U.S. should resolve this problem in order to provide a new atmosphere for relations between Laos and the U.S.

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The Commission assured the Lao that the U.S. has no hostile intentions toward them and does not support elements hostile to the LPDR either within Laos or outside the country. Senator Mansfield made a particularly forceful rebuttal of the Lao charges, based on his experience and previous visits to Laos. The Lao took careful note of these assurances, and both President Souphanouvong and Minister Phoune welcomed them as an indication of a new attitude on the part of the U.S. Government toward their country.

The Commission concludes from its visit to Laos that the Lao probably have considerably less information on MIA’s than the Vietnamese, and are less able to develop additional information or locate remains. They probably could produce some, however, and could gather more if they so desired. For example, there are a very few MIA’s who were known to be in Lao hands in the 1960’s and there are recent reports of scattered aircraft parts in the countryside which may resolve a few more cases.

The Commission feels that this will most likely happen in the context of a general improvement of relations with Laos. The Commission’s visit helped considerably in this regard, not only as a demonstration of the new Administration’s interest, but also as a means of assuring the Lao that we have no hostile intent toward them. The Commission took note of the formal LPDR statement that no Americans are alive and prisoner in Laos, which though tragic seems true in light of all the evidence available. The Commission finds encouraging the Lao expression of willingness to accept further case files and other materials from us, and to cooperate more closely with us through our embassy on the MIA problem. Thus, while disappointed that it was not able to obtain further information and remains from the Lao during its visit, the Commission feels the trip was worthwhile in that it set a new tone for U.S.-Lao relations, emphasized to the Lao the importance we continue to attach to the MIA issue, and helped establish procedures for obtaining further information. One press report after the Commission’s departure indicated that the Lao were setting up a committee to search for information, though this could not be confirmed at time of writing.

V. Cambodia

Due to the current lack of communication between the U.S. and the Cambodian Government and the apparent unsettled situation in Phnom Penh, the Commission decided it was best not to try to go to the Cambodian capital. Instead, it was decided to attempt to arrange a contact with an Ambassador of Democratic Cambodia at a location in Southeast Asia. It was hoped that should such a meeting be possible, it would be a significant first step toward opening a dialogue with this [Page 36] new government, thus possibly improving our chances of obtaining information on those missing or killed in Cambodia, including the 25 journalists of various nationalities (four of whom are Americans). A representative of our Liaison Office in Peking delivered a formal request for such a meeting to the Democratic Cambodia Embassy in Peking.17

On March 19 Radio Phnom Penh carried the text of a press communique issued by the Cambodian Foreign Ministry refusing our request and hurling harsh invective at the U.S. (the text is attached).18 The Commission therefore was unable to meet with any representatives of the Cambodian government and was unable to provide any information about our people missing or killed there.

VI. Press

American media viewed the Commission’s trip as a major news event. The MIA issue was still generating widespread interest, the prospects for normalization reflected a significant foreign affairs initiative, and a visit to Hanoi, the first by American newsmen in five years, offered obvious human interest angles.

At the Commission’s request, the State Department called Vietnamese attention to our media’s strong interest in the visit and sought approval for their entry. Despite our effort to increase the number, the Vietnamese approved only five, who were selected by the State Department Correspondents’ Association. NBC’s John Hart served as pool reporter for American television and radio networks; CBS’s Willis Brown was the pool TV cameraman. Time Magazine’s Strobe Talbott represented the American news-magazines. AP’s Peter Arnett and UPI’s Richard Growald served their own companies.

Because the Vietnamese insisted that our press accompany the Commission, the trip proved unusual. Aboard the plane throughout the 24,000 mile journey, the press, the Commission and the staff mixed freely. Both in Hanoi and Vientiane, the press was considered part of the delegation, was housed and ate with the Commission and staff, and attended all events except the talks themselves. The accessibility and frankness of the Commission with the press comported with the American public’s great interest in the mission, and reflected the openness which characterizes the Administration’s approach to public affairs.

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American media coverage for the Commission was extensive, both in print and broadcasts. The Commission believes the public has received a fair and full account of its activities which should aid in developing the public support necessary for future Administration actions. A continuation of this openness is recommended as we move ahead.

The Vietnamese developed a fine appreciation of the importance of the American media during the war and afforded our accompanying press unusual cooperation. Special interviews were provided to them by the Vietnamese Prime Minister and the Deputy Foreign Minister for Press and Information.

In their meeting with the latter, the newsmen requested approval to remain in Vietnam to cover developments in greater detail. They were told that adequate facilities were not available at this time, but the Deputy Foreign Minister also pointed out that while over the years there had been about a dozen American newsmen in Hanoi, no Vietnamese journalists had ever been to the United States. The American newsmen offered to initiate an invitation. Should the Vietnamese seek visas as a result of this invitation, it will present the Administration with an opportunity to make a meaningful positive gesture by permitting them entry into the U.S. Although the Vietnamese media obviously reflect the constraints of a communist society, reciprocal visits would be in the interests of the normalization process generally.

While in Hanoi the American newsmen were usually free to walk around the immediate downtown area. At first, this had to be done in the company of English-speaking guides, but this gradually eased and enterprising newsmen found themselves able to explore their own interests on their own, when they chose to do so—within the obvious limits of language, and lack of familiarity with the local scene.

VII. Military Support for the Commission

Military support for the Commission was excellent. In addition to arranging briefings in Washington and Honolulu, the Defense Department and military services provided excellent transportation and billeting arrangements. Both the VC–135 which carried the Commission to the Philippines and the C–141 for the trip to Indochina were well equipped for the extensive work which was done on board. Arrangements at CINCPAC and Clark Air Base were also fully satisfactory.

VIII. Commission’s Conclusions

Missing in Action

Although the Commission was able to obtain only the 12 remains as well as information on Tucker Gougelmann and a promise to deliver another set of remains during its brief stay, the Commission’s visit did [Page 38] appear to create a new and favorable climate for improved relations with both Vietnam and Laos. In the Commission’s view, the best hope for obtaining a proper accounting for our MIA’s lies in the context of such improved relations. The Commission believes that the creation of this new spirit is the most significant contribution to the accomplishment of the mission assigned it by the President.

The Commission also believes it impressed upon the Vietnamese and Lao our realistic attitude on the MIA issue and our intention to resolve it on a reasonable basis in order to remove it as an obstacle to normalization. The Commission believes this approach is more likely to elicit further information and remains than continuing past policies of confronting the Vietnamese and Lao on the issue.

On the basis of its talks with Vietnamese and Laos officials at the highest level, and on other information available to it, the Commission specifically concludes:

1. There is no evidence to indicate that any American POW’s from the Indochina conflict remain alive.

2. Americans who stayed in Vietnam after April 30, 1975, who registered with the Foreign Ministry and wished to leave have probably all been allowed to depart the country.

3. Although there continue to be occasional rumors of deserters or defectors still living in Indochina, the Commission found no evidence to support this conjecture.

4. The Vietnamese have not given us all the information they probably have, in part because of their concentration on the return of remains. The Commission believes it succeeded in making clear to the Vietnamese the importance we attach to receiving all kinds of information, however slight or fragmentary it may be.

5. The Vietnamese gave a clear formal assurance that they would look for MIA information and remains and that they would provide such information and remains to the U.S. They did not make this specifically contingent on our provision of aid, but they do see action on MIA’s as related to resolution of other issues of concern to them.

6. For reasons of terrain, climate, circumstances of loss, and passage of time, it is probable that no accounting will ever be possible for most of the Americans lost in Indochina. Even where information may once have been available, it may no longer be recoverable due to the ravages of time and physical changes.

7. A new procedure has been established for the continuing exchange of MIA information between the U.S. and the SRV. The U.S. will use this mechanism to furnish additional information and materials to assist MIA searches.

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8. The Lao authorities called attention to the difficulty of MIA search efforts in view of the difficult terrain in their country, but undertook to provide information and remains as they were found.

9. The Commission was unable to meet with representatives of the Cambodian Government. That government has repeatedly denied that it holds any foreign prisoners, and the Commission considers it unlikely that additional MIA information will be forthcoming from that country.

Normalization of Relations

1. Both the Vietnamese and Lao leaders are clearly interested in establishing a new and friendlier relationship with the United States.

2. They indicate that they are willing to look to the future rather than the past in such a relationship, although they consider that the U.S. has remaining obligation to repair the damage caused by the war in their countries. This is likely to continue to be an important factor in working out new or improved relations with these two countries.

3. Both Vietnam and Laos have a clear interest in such a new relationship. Vietnam in particular apparently looks forward to benefits in such matters as trade and other long-term economic arrangements.

4. The Vietnamese are willing to enter into immediate high-level diplomatic discussions with the U.S. on normalization. They made clear their interest in establishing formal diplomatic relations as quickly as possible. They indicated their desire to see past “erroneous” U.S. policies on such matters as UN membership and the trade embargo changed.

5. Both the Vietnamese and Lao leaders appear to view the present U.S. intentions toward them as more positive than in the past. They have a positive attitude themselves toward the new U.S. administration. They were pleased to understand that the U.S. is prepared to deal with them on the basis of equality and mutual respect, and that the U.S. has an interest in the stability and prosperity of Southeast Asia.

6. The Lao appreciated the Commission’s assurances that the U.S. government has no hostile intentions toward their regime and is not supporting elements trying to overthrow it, but they are likely to remain sensitive and suspicious as long as indigenous insurgent activity continues to give them significant problems.

Economic and Humanitarian Assistance

1. The Vietnamese clearly expect a significant U.S. contribution to their postwar economic reconstruction.

2. At the same time they indicated flexibility about the form this aid might take and the basis on which it could be given. They listed concessional aid, bilateral aid, multilateral aid and long term loans as forms of aid which have been discussed in the past, although they did [Page 40] not specify which of these they preferred or whether any one form alone would be acceptable.

3. The Vietnamese seem prepared to deemphasize references to this aid as coming from U.S. obligations under the Paris Agreement. This remains clearly their own position, but they appear willing to discuss aid instead in humanitarian and moral terms. They indicated that they understand our domestic political constraints on this issue.

4. While not specifically linking provisions of U.S. aid to either an MIA accounting or normalization, the Vietnamese stated that these three issues are “inter-related” and indicated that they would expect both sides to take actions regarding the other’s concerns. They did state that none of these three issues was a precondition to the other two. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen how forthcoming the Vietnamese may be in accounting for the MIA’s if the U.S. does not take some steps on aid.

IX. Recommendations

1. The Commission believes that resumption of talks in Paris between representatives of the U.S. and Vietnamese governments would be a most useful way of continuing the dialogue begun during its mission to Hanoi.

2. The Commission believes that normalization of relations affords the best prospect for obtaining a fuller accounting for our missing personnel and recommends that the normalization process be pursued vigorously for this as well as other reasons.

3. The Commission believes it most important to continue the technical exchanges with the Vietnamese Agency on Accounting for MIA’s which were initiated in Hanoi.

4. In addition to talks in Paris, consideration should be given to proposing that a U.S. representative personally bring such information to Hanoi, and to inviting Vietnamese representatives to visit the U.S. Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu.

5. In view of the Vietnamese statements that they would be glad to receive material assistance to aid their search for U.S. remains, the Commission recommends that this subject be considered promptly within the U.S. Government with a view to quickly providing whatever assistance is appropriate.

6. Consideration should also be given to offering technical advice and assistance on defusing unexploded ordnance, which the Commission understands continues to be a serious problem in some areas. An international agency such as UNHCR could be helpful in arrangements for providing such information.

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7. Another possible action would be to encourage private American groups to increase humanitarian aid programs for Indochina, in such areas as food and medical supplies, including prosthetic equipment.19

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Country Chron File, Box 56, Vietnam 1977. No classification marking. Carter initialed the top of the page. A stamped notation at the top of the page also indicates that Carter saw it. The members of the Commission (also known as the Woodcock Commission) were Leonard Woodcock, Michael Mansfield, Charles Yost, G.V. Montgomery, and Marian Wright Edelman.
  2. No classification marking.
  3. See Department of State Bulletin, March 21, 1977, p. 258.
  4. Not found.
  5. No minutes of this meeting have been found.
  6. Reference is to the “Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam.” For the text, see the Department of State Bulletin, February 12, 1973, pp. 169–188.
  7. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. E–12, Documents on East and Southeast Asia, 1973–1976, Document 83.
  8. Not found.
  9. The meeting took place from 10:17 until 10:50 a.m. in the Cabinet Room at the White House. (Carter Library, Presidential Materials, President’s Daily Diary) The memorandum of conversation of this meeting is in Department of State, Miscellaneous Old Vietnam Political Records, 1968–1991, Lot 94D430, Viet Nam Normalization of Relations (SRV). The President’s statement after the meeting is in Public Papers: Carter, 1977, Book I, p. 377.
  10. The March 12 letter to Lao President Souphanouvong is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, President’s Correspondence with Foreign Leaders File, Laos, Box 12, President Souphanouvong, 3/77. The March 12 letter to Prime Minister Pham Van Dong is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, President’s Correspondence with Foreign Leaders File, Vietnam, Box 21, Vietnam Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, 3/77.
  11. No record of this meeting has been found.
  12. No records of the meetings in Hanoi have been found. Woodcock sent a summary report of the meetings in telegram 581 from Vientiane, March 20. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P850070–2771, P840084–1307, N770002–0114)
  13. Not found.
  14. Not attached. The March 18 Vietnamese Aide-Mémoire is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Country Chron File, Box 56, Vietnam, 1977.
  15. Vance’s letter was transmitted in telegram 41182 to Vientiane, February 24. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P900105–0843, P850070–2785, P800033–1154) Phoune’s reply is in telegram 493 from Vientiane, March 12. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P850070–2781, N770002–0044)
  16. No records of the meetings in Vientiane have been found. Woodcock reported on the meetings in telegrams 581 and 583 from Vientiane, March 20. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P850070–2771, P840084–1307, N770002–0114 and D770099–0973)
  17. The request was delivered via telegram 467 from Beijing, March 14. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P840084–2065, N770002–0062)
  18. Not attached.
  19. For President Carter’s March 23 statement to reporters on the Commission’s report, see Public Papers: Carter, 1977, Book I, pp. 489–490.