Sydney Schanberg has an illustrious journalistic career going back to the Vietnam War. But in peddling the story of an alleged high-level cover-up of U.S. prisoners of war said to have been left behind after the war, he has inexplicably swallowed one of history’s spectacular frauds. Schanberg’s article incorporates deceptions that have built this political myth, which has been successfully exploited by ambitious and unprincipled figures for decades.
Schanberg failed to do what any responsible journalist investigating the issue would have done, which is to do enough research to verify the outrageous claims made by those who have advocated this conspiratorial view. He substituted personal conviction for careful spade work.
The centerpiece of Schanberg’s story is the famous document from the Soviet archives, in which a senior North Vietnamese general named Tran Van Quang allegedly said in 1972 that there were 1,205 American prisoners of war, not the 591 handed over after the war. Schanberg informs readers—not once but three times—that Quang told the politburo that Hanoi “would keep many of them at war’s end as leverage to ensure getting war reparations from Washington.”
Many of the document’s figures, such as the numbers of officers of different U.S. ranks held, are so seriously inaccurate as to bring its authenticity into question. For example, it uses the term “prisoners of war” to refer to the U.S. servicemen held—a designation that the Vietnamese Communists never employed—and combines the powerful South Vietnamese corps commander Gen. Ngo Dzu and the powerless peace candidate Truong Dinh Dzu into a single composite political figure.
But it doesn’t even matter if the document is authentic or not because, contrary to Schanberg’s claims, it says nothing at all about holding POWs after the war.