FOR all the rumors that living Americans still languish behind barbed wire in Indochina, left behind after the Vietnam war, there's only one fully verifiable US prisoner in Southeast Asia: That's United States foreign policy toward Vietnam.
It's time that the question of American prisoners of war and missing in action from the Vietnam war be put into perspective and that progress toward normalized relations with Vietnam no longer be held hostage by the POW/MIA issue.
Since 1975 the US rightly has demanded a full accounting by Hanoi of all Americans, living or dead, whose whereabouts were unknown. Such an accounting has been a key condition to any warming of US relations with Vietnam. Vietnam has cooperated in returning the remains of many Americans killed in the war, but Hanoi has steadfastly denied that any living Americans remain in captivity.
Many Americans, not just the families of the missing men, disbelieve Hanoi. Their doubts have been a powerful political issue in the US.
It has flared again. Last summer a photo surfaced purporting to show three American POWs, and more recently a former Soviet KGB officer said his agents interrogated American captives in Vietnam in the late '70s. Experts regard the photo as a fake, and questions have arisen regarding the KGB officer's story. Nonetheless, the events have prompted a new congressional investigation.
This political energy is misdirected. Especially if it threatens to retard progress toward improving US relations with Vietnam - relations that are important to both US diplomatic and trade interests.
In the December 1991 Atlantic, scholar H. Bruce Franklin writes, "Every responsible investigation conducted since the end of the war has reached the same conclusion: There is no credible evidence that live Americans are being held against their will in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, or China."
Yet the myth survives, fanned partly by the bereaved families and partly by others for their own reasons. It should be laid decently to rest.
The US government should continue to press Vietnam for a full accounting of missing Americans. But improved relations with Vietnam would facilitate that accounting, not inhibit it.