US military personnel salute as one of the 21 sets of remains of US servicemen killed in Vietnam passes by. The remains of the soldier being loaded aboard a C-141 Starlifter aircraft was originally classified as MIA, just one of 136 servicemen's remains that have been returned to the United States to date.
According to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office there are still 1,681 U.S. servicemen still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.
Following the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, 591 U.S. prisoners of war were returned during Operation Homecoming. The U.S. listed about 1,350 Americans as prisoners of war or missing in action and roughly 1,200 Americans reported killed in action and body not recovered. By the early 1990s, this had been reduced to a total of 2,255 unaccounted for from the war, which constituted less than 4 percent of the total 58,152 U.S. service members killed.
About 80 percent of those missing were airmen who were shot down over North Vietnam or Laos, usually over remote mountains, tropical rain forest, or water; the rest typically disappeared in dense, confused fighting in jungles. Investigations of these incidents have involved determining whether the men involved survived their shoot down, and if not efforts to recover their remains. POW/MIA activists played a role in pushing the U.S. government to improve its efforts in resolving the fates of the missing.
Considerable speculation and investigation has gone to a theory that a significant number of these men were captured as prisoners of war by Communist forces in the two countries and kept as live prisoners after the war's conclusion for the United States in 1973. The U.S. government has steadfastly denied that prisoners were left behind or that any effort has been made to cover up their existence. Several congressional investigations have looked into the issue, culminating with the largest and most thorough, the United States Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs of 1991–1993 led by Senators John Kerry, Bob Smith, and John McCain. Its unanimous conclusion found "no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia."
This missing in action issue has been a highly emotional one to those involved, and is often considered the last depressing, divisive aftereffect of the Vietnam War. To skeptics, "live prisoners" is a conspiracy theory unsupported by motivation or evidence, and the foundation for a cottage industry of charlatans who have preyed upon the hopes of the families of the missing. As two skeptics wrote in 1995, "The conspiracy myth surrounding the Americans who remained missing after Operation Homecoming in 1973 had evolved to baroque intricacy. By 1992, there were thousands of zealots—who believed with cult like fervor that hundreds of American POWs had been deliberately and callously abandoned in Indochina after the war, that there was a vast conspiracy within the armed forces and the executive branch—spanning five administrations—to cover up all evidence of this betrayal, and that the governments of Communist Vietnam and Laos continued to hold an unspecified number of living American POWs, despite their adamant denials of this charge." Believers reject such notions; as one wrote in 1994, "It is not conspiracy theory, not paranoid myth, not Rambo fantasy. It is only hard evidence of a national disgrace: American prisoners were left behind at the end of the Vietnam War. They were abandoned because six presidents and official Washington could not admit their guilty secret. They were forgotten because the press and most Americans turned away from all things that reminded them of Vietnam."
There are also a large number of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong MIAs from the Vietnam war whose remains have yet to be recovered. In 1974, General Võ Nguyên Giáp stated that they had 330,000 missing in action. As of 1999, estimates of those missing were usually around 300,000. This figure does not include those missing from former South Vietnamese armed forces, who are given little consideration under the Vietnamese regime. The Vietnamese government did not have any organized program to search for its own missing, in comparison to what it had established to search for American missing.
Images provided courtesy of the Archival Research Catalogue, National Archives, USA