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POW Hearings Rekindle Issues Of Vietnam War

New allegations that missing Americans were abandoned roil election-year climate. VIETNAM LEGACY

SEVENTEEN years after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War is reemerging as a powerful and potentially divisive issue in American politics.

The baby-boom generation that did most of the fighting and protesting of the Vietnam era now holds many of the positions of power in American political life.

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The war was a touchstone of their lives - as World War II was for George Bush - and in recent months it has become clear that time has not healed all the generational wounds caused by United States involvement in Southeast Asia.

The "what did you do in the war?" question, which continues to dog Bill Clinton, seems set to become a staple query for baby-boomer politicians. And now the emotional issue of US POWs has been set alight by the charge by former Nixon administration aides that the US pulled out of Vietnam knowing full well it was leaving American boys behind.

Whether the charge is true or not, "to Americans it brings home again what really happened in that war," says Michael Vlahos, project director at the Center for Naval Analysis in Washington. "We had almost forgotten it."

The hearings of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs have in themselves been powerfully evocative of past disputes. The sight of Henry Kissinger this week, sparring with lawmakers about the Paris peace talks, seemed straight out of the early 1970s. Dr. Kissinger flatly denied that the Nixon administration knowingly abandoned Americans who were prisoners of war as it withdrew US forces in 1973. He called the charge "the most dishonorable accusation that can be made."

Earlier, two Nixon secretaries of defense, James Schlesinger and Melvin Laird, testified that they now believe that Nixon went ahead with the pullout even though there were strong indications that Americans might still be held in Laos or Vietnam.

Kissinger, named secretary of state in September 1973, said that no one in the administration at the time was fully satisfied with North Vietnam's accounting for missing US servicemen, and that it is possible Hanoi kept hold of some Americans in violation of the peace accords. But he said there were no confirmed reports of such prisoners. If there had been, "we would have taken the most drastic steps," Kissinger insisted.

That lack of hard evidence is what lies at the heart of the continuing POW dispute. There is no "smoking gun" proving that US prisoners existed in Southeast Asia at any time after the US pullout. But "we have a lot of evidence about people that survived capture, but didn't come back," says John Macartney, a professor of international relations at American University in Washington who was a US Air Force fighter pilot in the Vietnam War.

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For instance, on May 17, 1967, a Navy lieutenant named Ronald Dodge was forced to eject from his F-80 aircraft over North Vietnam. Later that day, a Radio Hanoi broadcast indicated he had been immediately captured. That fall a photograph of him was published in Paris Match magazine. To this day his fate is unknown.

Mr. Laird told Congress that he had relatively good information, such as eyewitness reports or letters written after capture, on some 23 US pilots shot down over Laos and not subsequently accounted for.

None of the officials who testified before Congress this week said they thought any Americans had been kept prisoner and were still alive. As to why the North Vietnamese or Laotians kept US POWs behind, they could only speculate that some were perhaps killed to hide evidence of torture, or were imprisoned from sheer malice.

"It's conceivable that one or two survived," Dr. Schlesinger said.

In pursuing his inquiry on POW affairs, the chairman of the Senate panel, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, must walk a fine line between helping POW families find the truth about their loved ones and simply reopening old wounds about the Vietnam War.

The irony of such an inquiry being undertaken by a lawmaking body that once pilloried a president for not getting out of Indochina fast enough was not lost on Kissinger, who called it "straight from Kafka." Former White House chief of Staff Alexander Haig was more blunt, saying: "I think there's a strong connotation of looking for some scapegoat."

Senator Kerry has denied those charges, saying that his panel has come to no conclusions and his purpose is not to refight old ideological battles.

But the danger of Vietnam becoming this generation's "bloody shirt" issue of accusation is real. James Fallows, Washington editor of the Atlantic Monthly, has used that phrase to describe the way the GOP is treating the issue of Bill Clinton and the draft.

"Abortion is the only issue more emotional and explosive than Vietnam memories," Mr. Fallows wrote in a recent opinion-page article.

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