Richard Nixon is heard agonizing on a newly released tape whether to tell families of missing American servicemen in Vietnam, “It’s over - we can’t find them,” or to raise hopes that some still might come home.
In the Oval Office conversation on April 11, 1973 - 11 weeks after the United States had signed the Paris peace accords that ended American military involvement in Vietnam - Nixon coached Roger Shields, who was in charge of the Pentagon’s prisoner recovery operations, on what to tell the families of 1,359 Americans then listed as missing.
He said Shields should write the families that the administration is doing all it can, “leaving no stone unturned, believe me, nothing, absolutely nothing.”
On the other hand, Nixon confided, “I am in a (unintelligible) mood on that to say, ‘Look, it’s over now; it’s over - we can’t find them.”
“That is a delicate thing,” Nixon continued. “They’ve got to figure we are doing everything we can to be sure that we have found everybody. But on the other hand, we must not destroy the certainty that they have. It is better of them to be certain the man is gone than it is to be uncertain and to continue to have (unintelligible) overlooked.”
After Hanoi signed the Paris peace accords in January 1973, it released 591 American prisoners.
The agreement, permitting the withdrawal of American forces, provided “peace with honor,” Nixon told the nation. But two years later, North Vietnam captured Saigon and the war ended with a communist victory.
The president’s comments - on 43 minutes of White House tapes released by the National Archives - are ambiguous, sometimes unintelligible, erratic and subject to various interpretations.
The tapes were made public with the concurrence of the Nixon family estate, which has fought to keep secret all of the former president’s thousands of hours of tapes.
They were the first Nixon tapes released that do not deal with Watergate; Congress passed a law requiring release of the Watergate tapes.
Prisoner-of-war organizations are likely to be disappointed if they expected the tapes to shed much light on whether the United States knowingly abandoned some prisoners in Vietnam and Laos.