The Enemy in Our Hands: America's Treatment of Enemy Prisoners of War, from the Revolution to the War on Terror

By Robert C. Doyle | Go to book overview

THIRTEEN
Vietnam Quagmire
Enemy Prisoners of War, Phoenix,
and the Vietcong Infrastructure

The courage and skill of our men in battle will be matched by their
magnanimity when the battle ends. And all American military action
in Vietnam will stop as soon as aggression by others is stopped.

—Lyndon B. Johnson

During the Vietnam War, especially from 1965 to 1971, when American combat units took prisoners in the field, thousands of Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers fell into American hands. If enemy soldiers were captured in uniform, the process was relatively simple and standard. In accordance with the Rules of Engagement and the 1949 Geneva Convention, they were sent to one of the prison camps in South Vietnam to wait out the war in POW quarantine. The 1949 Geneva Convention and the 1964 agreement between the United States and South Vietnam protected North Vietnamese military prisoners and confirmed that North Vietnamese EPWs were to be treated fairly and humanely, with oversight by the International Red Cross. The Americans and the South Vietnamese agreed to respect the enemy’s uniform. The Vietcong, both military and civilian, constituted completely different and far more complicated problems.

The first problem involved sovereignty. North Vietnam, or the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), was established in 1954 after the French left Indochina and signed the 1954 Geneva Accords. Vietnam was split into North and South, but the DRV claimed sovereignty over all of Vietnam. Analogous to the problem with North Korea before the Korean War, the United States refused to recognize North Vietnam’s sovereignty diplomatically, although it did recognize its agreement to honor the Geneva Convention of 1949. Along with eighty-seven nations, the United States recognized South Vietnam, or the Government of Vietnam (GVN), although the Soviet Union vetoed its admission to the United Nations in 1957. As far as the North Vietnamese communists were concerned, the South was merely a puppet or surrogate of the United States, and they considered themselves the true patriots of

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