The most perplexing aspect of Ross Perot's campaign involved testimony he declined to make in public in June to Senator John Kerry's Select Committee on American POW/MIA Affairs about his views on the subject and his mysterious missions to negotiate with the Vietnamese.
Now that his presidential quest has been abandoned, Mr. Perot -- a long time champion of the POWs and lately a vociferous critic of the government's efforts on behalf of men still believed to be missing in action -- has agreed to come testify August 11, on the eve of the Republican convention. His timing could not be more provocative. The hearings may shed light on what exactly Mr. Perot discovered during his own officially sanctioned review of classified files on the POW/MIA question -- an episode that appears to have led to his now famous break with George Bush, then vice president.
Since the POW/MIA issue is uniquely inflammable, some advance disclaimers are in order. I myself have always regarded reports of POW sightings as on par with the many apparitions of Elvis, save that in the latter case, no powerful, organized interests have encouraged and circulated the claims for clearly political ends. With some qualifications that will momentarily become apparent, this remains my view: No substantial numbers of U.S. troops were left behind in Vietnam in 1973.
But to come to grips with the Bush-Perot clash one has to make a deliberate effort to see the world as others see it -- others who start from different premises and view the evidence differently.
Many sighting reports were (and are) in complete good faith. Though a fair number of charlatans -- and penniless refugees dependent on official U.S. goodwill -- have clearly moved into what quickly became an attractively remunerative field, there is no point is impugning the motives of most people who believe they saw, or heard, American POWs in Southeast Asia.
The point is less mystifying that it may seem at first hearing. Any number of Americans are likely to turn up in Indochina for perfectly comprehensible reasons. During the war, the desertion rate was phenomenal.
More important, however, the United States waged a long, secret war in Laos that it generally refused to acknowledge. Though American prisoners in Laos were supposed to be turned over in the wake of the 1973 accords, both the U.S. and the Vietnamese pretended that the Pathet Lao were not party to the accord -- as indeed, formally they were not. Though U.S. pilots who came down in Laos were rescued at higher rates than those shot down over North Vietnam, the question of prisoners taken in that pre-1973 secret war on the ground is murky.
Judging from a much quoted, but very cryptic remark by General Vernon Walters, some American covert forces may also have been captured in Cambodia. And a wide variety of missions, including some formally sponsored by the U.S. government and others funded by various private American groups, have operated on the ground since.
Adding to the turmoil, Chinese intelligence is widely believed to have promoted reports of prisoner sightings to prevent rapprochement between the United States and Vietnam, with which China has been intermittently at war.
The recent hearings before the Kerry committee clouded this already turbid picture still more. Some stunning testimony was placed in the record to indicate that back in 1973 American officials suspected that some prisoners might be missing, but did not want to talk about it.
(It should be borne in mind that a host of perfectly sensible reasons exist for the existence of discrepancies between reported captures and, actual apprehensions and that the number of people unaccounted for in Vietnam was unusually low compared to other conflicts. The U.S. government has also repeatedly run together the inevitably large number of MIAs whose demises are virtually certain, but which fail the stringent requirements for being officially reported as killed in combat, with POWs, thus grossly inflating the number of potential POWs.)
A particularly striking portion of the testimony in June of this year has implications for Mr. Perot's early views about the controversy, and accordingly, is worth quoting. The interlocutors are the committee chair, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Roger Shields, formerly a Pentagon official in charge of the Nixon administration's efforts to account for MIAs.
The Chairman: You recall going to see [then Deputy] Secretary of Defense William Clements in his office in early April  . . . correct?
Dr. Shields: That's correct.
The Chairman: And you heard him tell you, quote, all the American POWs are dead. And you said to him, "You cannot say that."
Dr. Shields: That's correct.
The Chairman: And he repeated to you, "You did not hear me. They are all dead."
Dr. Shields: That's essentially correct.
The Kerry Committee has also recently released a small flood of documents indicating that for years the government was shockingly uninterested in pursuing any evidence that did stray in. For example, one previously classified memo by a naval officer in charge of the Pentagon's investigation in the mid-1980s (Thomas A. Brooks, who retired as a rear admiral) spoke of "a mind-set to debunk" POW reports, along with a basic failure to employ "some of the most basic analystic tools such as plotting all sightings on a map to look for patterns, concentrations, etc."
It should now be easy to understand the rage that built up in relatives of the MIAs, government officials, military personnel, and reporters who tried to take these reports seriously.
Though they could see plainly that policy-makers were not seriously trying and were often blankly ignoring evidence, if they persisted, they were ridiculed, retired, passed over for promotion, and so on. If they were reporters -- even Emmy Award-winning reporters for CBS' "60 Minutes," such as Monica Jensen-Stevenson or her husband William Stevenson, author of the well known "A Man Called Intrepid" -- they were harassed, intimidated, and rebuffed by various government officials.
In the case of Ms. Jensen-Stevenson and her husband, a copy of their unpublished manuscript (eventually published as "Kiss The Boys Goodbye") somehow ended up in the government's hands. Nor is it surprising that reporters such as the Stevensons -- whose honesty in reporting what they themselves saw and heard I do not doubt, although, as I have indicated, I weigh the evidence about POWs very differently -- eventually began talking to America's most famous champion of the Vietnam POWs, Ross Perot.
He appears to entered the lists relatively late. In 1981 for example, when a Perot encounter with one adventurer who claimed knowledge of POWs briefly made news, his spokesperson emphasized that while "deeply interested in the subject" Mr. Perot "doesn't believe there are any MIAs or POWs left back in the bush or in the jungle camps." He added: "We went through this issue in the 1970s and were satisfied in our minds that there were no more Americans over there."
There is a very good reason to doubt this statement was pure window dressing. On the board of Mr. Perot's firm, Electronic Data Systems, shortly before its sale to General Motors was the very same W. P. Clements, then between terms as governor of Texas, whose role in defining the official U.S. position we have just examined.
Eventually, however, the long wagon train of skeptics alleging the government's bad faith appears to have moved Mr. Perot. In the mid-'80s, Mr. Perot repeatedly raised the issue with Reagan administration officials. A member of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board until 1985, he eventually sought and obtained clearance to delve directly into classified files dealing with the subject.
Though reliable evidence is scanty, his investigation appears to have stirred up a hornet's nest. In their "Kiss The Boys Goodbye," Ms. Jensen-Stevenson and her husband report that Mr. Perot, the investigator, was himself being investigated by someone during a trip to Washington to gather and review evidence.
For this telling detail, one must of course accept the Stevensons' word, since other sources are not talking. But other facts they supplied to a researcher for The Nation, who contacted them in Bangkok a few weeks ago, check out.
The Stevensons are also the most specific and detailed, but not the only source for what seems to have happened next. Ross Perot, the man who identified drugs with American economic decline and had spent vast sums of money fighting the scourge in Texas, came upon something unexpected in his POW investigation: drugs.
As most reliably documented by University of Wisconsin historian Alfred McCoy (first in a celebrated Yale thesis, which upon its publication twenty years ago, became the object of a disgraceful official disinformation campaign, and which has recently been revised and updated as "The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity In The Global Drug Trade") some American intelligence officials appear to have long been involved with the drug trade. Others have assuredly tolerated it for a variety of "national security" reasons.
The Stevensons relate what happened when Vice President Bush inquired how Mr. Perot's inquiry was going:
"Well, George, I go in looking for prisoners," said Mr. Perot, "but I spend all my time discovering the government has been moving drugs around the world and is involved in illegal arms deals. . . . I can't get at the prisoners because of the corruption among our own covert people."
According to the Stevensons, "this ended Perot's official access to the highly classified files as a one-man presidential investigator."
In early 1987, an obviously unhappy Mr. Perot gave an interview to Barron's magazine. There he poured out his frustration over General Motors, takeovers and the stock market. He also, however, made one striking observation that should have led someone in the press to inquire:
"There are things going on in Washington around this whole Iran arms deal-contra thing. We should have been able to see that coming . . . long before Reagan was even in the White House. . . . It is the same team of beautiful people selling arms around the world. This is not a new experience for them to be selling arms at a profit. I mean, some of them got caught once, in Australia [a reference to the collapse of the Nugan Hand Bank, which led to a major investigation by the Australian government]. They got caught again in Hawaii. Edwin Wilson got put in jail. And if you go back and follow the trail, these guys have been working together since the Bay of Pigs. And yet now, suddenly, it is all coming into focus. And we will clean it up."
But the bulk of the press did not inquire. Soon thereafter, Mr. Perot embarked on his celebrated trip to Vietnam and pursued a lengthy battle with Richard Armitage, a long time Pentagon official. Mr. Armitage, it may be worth recalling, called Mr. Perot "a fascist" in the days before he folded his campaign. It will be interesting to see what Mr. Perot has to say in the days before the GOP convention.
Thomas Ferguson is professor of political science and senior fellow at the John W. McCormick Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A different version of this article appears in the current issue of The Nation, for which Dr. Ferguson is a contributing editor.