I would have been none the wiser about McCain, the prisoners of war he left behind and the man who tried to expose Sen. McCain’s most covered-up disgrace, were it not for Ron Unz who publicized Sydney Schanberg’s heroic efforts.
The death on Saturday of Sydney Schanberg at age 82 should sadden us not only for the loss of one of our most renowned journalists but also for what his story reveals about the nature of our national media.
Syd had made his career at the New York Times for 26 years, winning a Pulitzer Prize, two George Polk Memorial awards, and numerous other honors. His passing received the notice it deserved, with the world’s most prestigious broadsheet devoting nearly a full page of its Sunday edition to his obituary, a singular honor that in this degraded era is more typically reserved for leading pop stars or sports figures. Several photos were included of his Cambodia reporting, which had become the basis for the Oscar-winning film The Killing Fields, one of Hollywood’s most memorable accounts of our disastrous Indo-Chinese War.
But for all the 1,300 words and numerous images charting his long and illustrious journalistic history, not even a single mention was made of the biggest story of his career, which has seemingly vanished down the memory hole without trace. And therein lies a tale.
Could a news story ever be “too big” for the media to cover? Every journalist is always seeking a major expose, a piece that not merely reaches the transitory front pages but also might win a journalistic prize or even change the history books. Stories such as these appear rarely but can make a reporter’s career, and it is difficult to imagine a writer turning one down, or an editor rejecting it.
But what if the story is so big that it actually reveals dangerous truths about the real nature of the American media, portrays too many powerful people in a very negative light, and perhaps leads to a widespread loss of faith in our major news media? If readers were to see a story like that, they might naturally begin to wonder “why hadn’t we ever been told?” or even “what else might be out there?”
Towards the end of the 2008 presidential campaign, while John McCain battled Barack Obama for the White House, I clicked an intriguing link on a small website and discovered Syd’s remarkable expose, one which had been passed over or rejected by every major media outlet in the country, his enormous personal reputation notwithstanding.
The basic outline of events he described was a simple one. During the Paris Peace Talks that ended the Vietnam War, the U.S. government had committed to pay its Hanoi adversaries $3.25 billion in war reparations, and in exchange would receive back the American POWs held by the Vietnamese. The agreement was signed and the war officially ended, but the Vietnamese, suspecting a possible financial double-cross, kept back many hundreds of the imprisoned Americans until they received the promised payment.
For domestic political reasons, the Nixon Administration had characterized the billions of dollars pledged as “humanitarian assistance” and Congress balked at appropriating such a large sum for a hated Communist regime. Desperate for “peace with honor” and already suffering under the growing Watergate Scandal, Nixon and his aides could not admit that many hundreds of the POWs remained in enemy hands, and so declared them all returned, probably hoping to quietly arrange a trade of money for prisoners once the dust had settled. Similarly, Hanoi’s leaders falsely claimed that all the captives had been released, while they waited for their money to be paid. As a result, the two governments had jointly created a Big Lie, one which has largely maintained itself right down to the present day.
In the troubled aftermath of America’s military defeat and the Nixon resignation, our entire country sought to forget Vietnam, and neither elected officials nor journalists were eager to revisit the issue, let alone investigate one of the war’s dirtiest secrets. The Vietnamese continued to hold their American prisoners for most of the next twenty years, periodically making attempts to negotiate their release in exchange for the money they were still owed, but never found a American leader daring enough to take such a bold step. The Big Lie had grown just too enormous to be overturned.
Over the years, rumors surrounding the remaining POWs became widespread in veterans’ circles, and eventually these stories inspired a series of blockbuster Hollywood movies such as Rambo, Missing in Action, and Uncommon Valor, whose plots were all naturally dismissed or ridiculed as “rightwing conspiracy theories” by our elite media pundits. But the stories were all true, and even as American filmgoers watched Sylvester Stallone heroically free desperate American servicemen from Vietnamese prisons, the real-life American POWs were still being held under much those same horrible conditions, with no American leader willing to take the enormous political risk of attempting either to rescue or ransom them. Over the years, many of the POWs had died from ill-treatment, and the return of the miserable survivors after their secret captivity would unleash a firestorm of popular anger, surely destroying the many powerful individuals who had long known of their abandonment.
Eventually, America’s bipartisan political leadership sought to reestablish diplomatic relations with Hanoi and finally put the Vietnam War behind the country, but this important policy goal was obstructed by the residual political pressure from the resolute POW families. So a Senate Select Committee on the POWs was established in order to declare them non-existent once and for all. Sen. John McCain, a very high profile former POW himself, led the cover-up, perhaps because the very dubious nature of his own true war record left him eager to trade secrecy for secrecy. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, our media declared that the abandoned POWs had never existed and closed the books on the long, lingering controversy.
As it happens, not long after the committee issued its final report and shut down, a stunning document was unearthed in the newly-opened Kremlin archives. In the transcript of a Hanoi Politburo meeting, the Communist leadership discussed the true number of POWs they then held and made their decision to keep half of them back to ensure that America paid the billions of dollars it had promised. Former National Security Advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger both stated on national television that the document appeared genuine and it seemed undeniable that American POWs had indeed been left behind. Although the national media devoted a couple of days of major coverage to this uncomfortable revelation, it then reported denials from both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments, and quickly dropped the story, returning to the official narrative: There were no abandoned POWs and never had been.
As I reviewed Syd’s massively-documented 8,000 word exposition, …