TWO former defense secretaries who served under President Richard Nixon said Sept. 21 the government knew that American airmen were alive in Laos at the end of the Vietnam War and were not returned.
On March 29, 1973, in a televised address to the nation, Mr. Nixon said that, as a result of the Paris peace accords with North Vietnam: "All of our American POWs are on their way home." Melvin Laird and James R. Schlesinger, however, told the Senate Select Committee on Prisoner-of-War and Missing-in-Action Affairs that downed airmen were contacted on the ground in Laos by United States forces.
During peace negotiations with neighboring North Vietnam, US officials were given only a list of 10 prisoners in Laos.
Mr. Schlesinger said he "can come to no other conclusion" than that the United States left men behind. But he added, "That does not mean that there are any alive today."
Mr. Laird testified that the Defense Department had solid information, such as letters, eyewitness reports, or direct radio contact on about 20 American airmen who survived downings in Laos. Laird said he notified Nixon of these estimates in late 1972. Only 10 were released the next year.