The '1205 Document': A Story of American Prisoners, Vietnamese Agents, Soviet Archives, Washington Bureaucrats, and the Media

The '1205 Document': A Story of American Prisoners, Vietnamese Agents, Soviet Archives, Washington Bureaucrats, and the Media

Mini Teaser: Last January, I was sitting in the former headquarters of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, reading top-secret Soviet files about the Vietnam war.

by Author(s): Stephen J. Morris

Last January, I was sitting in the former headquarters of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, reading top-secret Soviet files about the Vietnam war. While turning the pages of a file, I unexpectedly came upon a startling document by a Vietnamese Communist general. It was a Russian translation of a report dated September 15, 1972 by Lieutenant General Tran Van Quang to the Vietnamese Worker's (Communist) Party politburo, detailing the number of American prisoners of war held by the North Vietnamese on that date. The document was the product of the former Soviet Armed Forces Main Intelligence Directorate (Glavnoye Razvedivatelnoye Upravleniye--GRU). Though I was unfamiliar with the details of the controversy surrounding missing American servicemen, I knew enough to realize immediately that the number of prisoners cited by the Vietnamese general--1205--exceeded the number of American POWs who were actually released six months later in early 1973, under the terms of the Paris Peace Agreement, by more than seven hundred. If the information in the document was accurate, its implications were likely to be explosive.

In the document General Quang described the American prisoners as being divided into three political categories--"progressives," "neutral," and "reactionary." The "progressives" would be released first. More important, Quang stated that Hanoi had created a separate secret camp system unknown to other prisoners. He acknowledged that in public Hanoi had deliberately understated the number of prisoners it was holding. Quang explained that Vietnamese communist policy was eventually to use the secret prisoners to achieve all its political, military, and economic objectives.

The archive in which I discovered the document bears the unassuming title of the Center for the Preservation of Contemporary Documents. It is just one of several major archives of the former Soviet Union's ruling party-state command center, which were requisitioned and sealed by Boris Yeltsin in the immediate aftermath of the abortive coup d'état of August 1991. I was engaged in research on projects that had nothing specifically to do with American prisoners of war and missing in action. The MIA issue was not an area of my professional interest.

My initial archival work in Moscow began in October 1992, when I worked on my own and was restricted to the pre-1953 Central Committee Archive. But by November I was affiliated with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Cold War International History Project, and enjoyed the special access to the post-1953 archives allowed by the Russians to such scholars.

The procedures for work at the archive are of some importance. Although the archivists knew of my topics, they did not know which files I would be requesting until the day I actually made the specific request. In fact, my own decisions about what files to request were made on a day-by-day basis and depended upon my ongoing reading of the Opisi (the folio catalogues). Following a request for files and their location by staff, the files would be screened by a senior archivist named Yuri Konstantinovich Maalov, who had the right to reject any particular request. As was the case with other researchers, all the files that I requested to see had not yet been officially declassified, and almost all were marked secret or top secret. Maalov refused me access to only two or three of all the files that I asked for during the time I worked there. But he did threaten to stop my archival access completely on other occasions. For anyone familiar with procedures at the archive, the suggestion made by Hanoi and some of its Western acolytes that the document was planted is absurd.

The first weeks of my work were devoted to the origins of Vietnam's decision to invade Cambodia. Then in mid-December I switched to a second project on the history of American intervention in Vietnam. As I knew that I might not have the time to research the entire historical period, and as the years 1972 and 1973 were central to one of the main arguments of my book, I began by asking for material for those years. All of the files requested came from the central committee department dealing with "Communist and Workers' Parties in Socialist Countries," i.e. ruling Communist parties. Most of them originated in the Soviet foreign ministry, and most consisted of reports from the Soviet embassy in Hanoi. A very few were KGB field reports or analyses, and a few others were reports of the Soviet Army General Staff, including those of the GRU.

On December 14, 1993 I requested ten files dealing with the year 1972. The set of requests was vetted and approved by Maalov on December 15 and I received them in the Archive reading hall on December 16. Because I was backed up with reading previously ordered files, and with Christmas and the New Year intervening, I did not reach the 1972 Soviet military file until January 1993. I did not discover any information about American POWs until I read the last section of the very last document in the file, on or about January 8. My initial reaction to what it contained was a mixture of shock and excitement. But it was only several days later, after telephone calls to better informed acquaintances in the United States, that I was certain that the document was of great significance. Only after several more days of inquiry at the U.S. embassy, did I realize that the U.S. government knew nothing about it.

Context and Evaluation

The document in question deals with more than the issue of American POWs being held in North Vietnam. That subject is addressed in only eight pages towards the end of its twenty-five pages. The rest of the document deals with two other issues: the attempt of the Vietnamese Communists to seduce disgruntled South Vietnamese generals and politicians into joining a coalition government with the Communists; and the dispatch of a team of assassins to carry out a campaign of terrorist subversion in South Vietnam.

The document was located in a file of the Soviet general staff which contained other documents all dated and pertaining to events occurring during the year 1972. In contrast with the files containing documents of the Soviet foreign ministry for 1972, the Soviet military files contained information of a highly sensitive nature and indicate that ties between the Soviet and Vietnamese military were close and informal at this time. This is not surprising, as between 1968 and 1972 the Vietnamese Communists shifted from neutrality in the Sino-Soviet dispute to a pro-Soviet foreign policy. Hanoi's army was re-equipped from the Soviet arsenal and reoriented itself in line with Soviet military doctrine. More Vietnamese officers were trained in Soviet military academies, and closer relations evolved between Soviet military advisers and Vietnamese military officers.

Clearly the document is the product of Soviet intelligence work. Having read the entire Soviet military file, I conclude that the Soviet military's GRU had a Vietnamese agent placed at a very high level of the Vietnamese party. This conclusion is critical for evaluating the document at issue. For it entails, among other things, that Quang's speech was prepared for the Vietnamese politburo, not for a Soviet audience.

Furthermore, the style of the document is clearly that of an oral report, not a written speech. This is most apparent in the section in which Quang carefully recites statistical data with no concern for sentence structure. It is therefore likely that the document is the translation of a transcript (either written notes or a tape recording) of a speech by General Quang. It is also likely that the translation was undertaken by a GRU case officer from the notes or tape recording provided by a well-placed Vietnamese agent. This assumption makes it easier to explain the document's possible factual inaccuracies.

More important is the endorsement of the document's authenticity and value by two key Soviet officials at the time. The then head of the Soviet GRU, General Pyotr Ivashutin, signed an executive summary of the document which was sent to the central committee. The member of the CPSU secretariat responsible for relations with ruling Communist parties, Konstantin Katushev, wrote a handwritten instruction across the front of Ivashutin's executive summary ordering his deputy to prepare a brief report on the prisoners of war for the CPSU politburo. These officials clearly believed that the report was significant and basically accurate. Ivashutin had by that time held his important post for twelve years, and his judgment must carry considerable weight. Both he and Katushev were well schooled in the art of political disinformation and deception, and were most unlikely to have been fooled by any effort in that direction on the part of the Vietnamese. Further, if as I have suggested this document, like others in the file, was passed by a Vietnamese agent, the question arises: What motive could such an agent have had for deceiving the Soviets on such a matter?

These considerations lead to the conclusion that the original Vietnamese source of the Russian document was probably an authentic Vietnamese transcript (handwritten notes or tape recording) of an oral report by General Quang to his politburo. But the Vietnamese transcript was then translated into Russian, with some editorial comments by the Russians, a process that allowed for error. Further, the translation may have had to be undertaken in a rushed manner, with the transcript available for only a limited time, which would have increased the chance of errors.

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