The absence of U.S. relations with the Communist regimes of Indochina helps keep alive reports of Americans missing in action allegedly still held captive. Although there is contact on MIA reports, the absence of better communication creates agony for families with each plausible rumor. This happened again in the surfacing of a photograph purporting to show three pilots, downed from 1966 to 1970, together on May 25, 1990, suitably aged.
Vietnam's withholding of information on MIAs has not been a barrier to diplomatic relations since negotiations collapsed in 1976-77. That failure was caused by the unwillingness of the Carter administration and Congress to pay $4.7 billion aid to Hanoi that President Nixon had secretly promised in 1973. Hanoi gave up on aid and seeks ties for investment and trade, but official Washington has feared to touch the issue these past 14 years.
The Pentagon lists 2,274 Americans missing in action in the Indochinese war. In 1976, a House select committee chaired by Rep. Sonny Montgomery, D-Miss., concluded that "no Americans are still being held alive as prisoners in Indochina or elsewhere, as a result of the war in Indochina." In April 1990, Vietnam returned the remains of 10 bodies, of whom the Pentagon could identify one.
This does not deny the likely presence in Vietnam of Americans who defected or choose to live there. Nor does it rule out the possibility raised by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, of servicemen "in the hands of small groups way off in the jungle or up in the mountains" of Laos or Cambodia.
In the mid-1980s, plastic bags floated down the Mekong River and balloons with leaflets offering $2.4 million from donors for information leading to the return of MIAs inspired a rash of rumored sightings and questionable evidence, but no MIAs. The photo now circulated nine months after the Pentagon began analyzing it is either genuine or a skillful fake. The government should make every effort to enlist the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian governments in checking it out -- and is.
Still, tantalizing evidence will surface in ways impossible to confirm or disprove until the United States has its own missions in Hanoi, Phnom Penh and Vientiane, able to check out every tip promptly. There are other reasons to want open channels, including the search for peace in Cambodia, the promulgation of private enterprise in Vietnam and pressure for human rights. But getting better information on MIAs and sending out more search parties to old plane wrecks are reason enough.