WASHINGTON -- Bush administration officials say they believe that thousands of photographs and documents discovered in Vietnamese military archives will resolve dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of cases of missing American servicemen who remain unaccounted for as many as 25 years after they disappeared in Southeast Asia.
A day after Vietnam abruptly reversed a longstanding policy and offered to release records on missing and captured Americans from the war, the Bush administration yesterday promised families of the POWs and MIAs that they would soon be allowed to examine the documents and photographs.
While some of the documents have been in U.S. hands for several weeks, Gen. John Vessey, President Bush's special emissary to Vietnam for Prisoner-of-War/Missing-in-Action Affairs, brought more Vietnamese records back with him when he returned to Washington last night from a weekend trip to Hanoi.
"We have brought home some very important documentation," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former POW who accompanied General Vessey. Confirming that the records included photographs of dead U.S. servicemen, Mr. McCain said the newly obtained documents should "go a long way" toward resolving the POW-MIA issue and ending "this terrible nightmare for so many American families."
However, the initial reaction from POW activist groups and family support organizations was subdued -- a caution that appeared to reflect both past disappointments and concern by some that the focus of the POW-MIA accounting effort should be kept on the search for prisoners who many activists believe may still be alive in Indochina today.
Among the documents in Vietnam's archives, officials said, are photographs of Americans captured alive and of others who appear to be dead, but whose name tags or faces are clearly recognizable in the wreckage of downed planes. Some of the grisly photographs are of soldiers shot on the battlefield.
Although sources cautioned that many of the servicemen photographed alive are believed to have already been returned to the United States or known to have died in captivity, other photos could document the deaths of servicemen whose status was unknown.
"We have high hopes, and I think there's a real possibility that at least some discrepancy cases will be resolved," one knowledgeable Bush administration official said. "We've long suspected these guys [the Vietnamese] were fairly systematic about their documentation. But they have never owned up to it until now."
Word of the cache of documents came in a statement issued in Hanoi Monday.
The Vietnamese decision to turn over the documents concludes a fierce internal debate that has pitted political leaders in Hanoi against military officers and some diplomats.
But even as Vietnam's military and diplomatic officials argued to reluctant political leaders that the Hanoi government should open its archives, lower-level Vietnamese officials have recently been funneling many documents to American representatives without Hanoi's blessing.
Those documents, pored over intensely by American intelligence officials, made clear that the government of what was then North Vietnam had maintained meticulous documentation of American servicemen who were downed, captured or found dead in areas under the control of North Vietnamese forces.
In early October, as the evidence in U.S. possession mounted, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney confronted Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam in Washington.
State Department officials cautioned yesterday that while General Vessey had made "important progress," that progress did not meet the criteria set by the United States for such normalization.
U.S. statistics have 2,266 American servicemen unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.