Prisoners and Politics

AS THE Administration backed and filled about the bombing of North Vietnam and the helicopter raid on Son Tay last week, it became clear that the raid was far more than a humanitarian gesture intended to get some of the estimated 378 American prisoners home for Thanksgiving turkey. The contradictory statements, clumsy lies and badly timed revelations, like a magician's facile patter, distracted and confused almost everyone. But the evidence is mounting that the Administration is using the prisoners of war as emotional tokens in a cynical and dangerous game.

This Christmas, the nation's media will be flooded with advertisements for a government-sponsored campaign to free the prisoners by shaming the North Vietnamese. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, post offices began issuing the first of 135,000,000 special stamps reading POW/MIA (missing in action). More than half a million fund-raising letters will be sent to possible contributors, asking them to help the effort by buying a ten-dollar "POW Action Pack," containing stickers (Have a Heart, Hanoi), buttons, and suggestions for forming local groups to push for the freedom of the prisoners. As Christmas Seal season nears, TV and radio ads will urge Americans not to forget the flyers who cannot celebrate with their families. The effort will climax with "Operation 100 Tons," a letter-writing campaign designed to bury the North Vietnamese delegation to the Paris talks under 200,000 pounds of protest mail in the week before Christmas.

Nixon is taking a calculated gamble by encouraging the families of prisoners to organize and become more vocal. Under Johnson, Defense Department officials urged prisoners' wives to be loyal to military tradition by waiting in silence. They recognized that, once loosed, the POW question could quickly inflate into an emotional issue beyond the control of the Administration.

Nixon is no less aware that he may be sowing the wind by allowing the plight of the POW's to dominate the nation's attention this winter-but he expects that the North Vietnamese, not his Administration, will reap the whirlwind that results. The tear-jerking Christmas-in-Hanoi campaign is, in fact, part of a shrewd double-bladed political defense he has constructed to still domestic protest and free his hand further for acts of aggression against North Vietnam.

The Administration is attempting, as one spokesman puts it, to "put the monkey on Hanoi's back," because it cannot regain the POW's by negotiation and maintain its plans for perpetual war in Asia.

The "Vietnamization" policy requires that the prisoners of war be abandoned. If the policy works, there will never be a political settlement; instead, the South Vietnamese Army, with the help of American napalm, bombs, and defoliants, will be turned loose to hunt and kill their fellow Vietnamese indefinitely.

This outcome will suit Nixon and the interests he serves perfectly, but the families and friends of prisoners may not be so happy. For a prisoner exchange between two nations still at war is almost unheard of; and since the U. S. will be bombing and defoliating for many years to come, a postwar settlement may be 20 years away.

This could become a political liability for Nixon in 1972-if he allows the people to connect his obstinate refusal to negotiate with the continued captivity of the POW's. The solution is simple: put the blame on Hanoi.

EVEN though the North Vietnamese and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam offered in September to negotiate a prisoner exchange separately from the overall settlement as soon as the U. S. named a date for total withdrawal of its troops, the Administration continues to play watch-the-birdie by screaming that they have "refused" offers of a prisoner exchange.

Thus Nixon must make certain that he will receive no blame when the prisoners do not return; he does this by encouraging the American people to point the finger of blame at the North and pulling dramatic surprises like last week's "search and rescue" mission.

For the raid achieved a good press for the Administration: considering the facts that Laird and others have released, they could have accomplished little else. Laird broke up the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by saying that the intelligence for the operation was "excellent," adding that the U. S. did not yet possess a camera that could see through roofs, and so could not know whether the prisoners were there or not.

Puzzled observers noted that the U. S. has satellites which can see trucks and gun emplacements, which might have provided some clues about whether the camp was occupied or not. Laird pointed out that, of the known prison camp sites, Son Tay was the only one open enough to allow helicopter landings; this argument is a joke-something like the man who lost a dime in a dark alley and looked for it under the streetlight because he could see better there.

Certainly one of the real reasons for the raid was to discredit opposition to the brutal escalation-Laird explained that bombing had taken place north of the 19th parallel as a "diversionary" move to protect the raiders. Senators who questioned the justice of bombing supply dumps, rail lines, truck depots, and Army barracks in the Hanoi area were thus neatly put in the position of opposing efforts to free U. S. prisoners of war.

BUT White House press aide Ronald Ziegler may have provided a clue to another, hidden reason for the raid when he said that the U. S. "would, of course, hold the leaders of North Vietnam personally responsible for any action taken against prisoners of war."

A syndicated column by Jack Anderson published Monday explained what "personally responsible" means: Nixon, he revealed, is now seriously considering sending commandos into North Vietnam to murder North Vietnamese leaders whom he has pronounced guilty of mistreating American POWs. And if the Son Tay raid was a rotten rescue mission, it was certainly a fine dress rehearsal for an attack by helicopter-borne suicide-squads intent on assassinating Pham Van Dong or Vo Nguyen Giap.

The pretext for the Son Tay raid was fragile. Cora Weiss, who returned from Hanoi with the news that six prisoners of war had died, has claimed that Laird twisted the information and that, in her opinion, the prisoners did not die of mistreatment. The U. S. can easily hoke up another "mistreatment" scare whenever it decides that the North Vietnamese need a dose of terror, and send in the kamikaze killers.

Nixon should hesitate before he rushes into this campaign of war hysteria and duplicity: assassination, air piracy, and genocide are serious offenses, and the North Vietnamese are not the only people who may one day be held "personally responsible."