January 27, 2017

1969. Bill Downs on the Code of Conduct Controversy Over Vietnam War Prisoners

The American Prisoners of War in Vietnam

In this clip from ABC World News Tonight with Frank Reynolds, Bill Downs reports on the controversy surrounding the United States Military Code of Conduct and the restrictions it placed on American prisoners of war in Vietnam as well as those taken by North Korea during the USS Pueblo crisis.
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

February 19, 1969

FRANK REYNOLDS: The testimony of the Pueblo crew raises serious questions about the workability of the United States Military Code of Conduct for prisoners of war. The code is not military law, it is a guide to servicemen on how to continue to protect their country even though they are in enemy hands. But the code is based on US military customs and traditions that may not apply to modern psychological warfare.

ABC Pentagon correspondent Bill Downs examines this question in the conclusion of his three-part study on the Code of Conduct.

BILL DOWNS: Here in Washington, the Pueblo hearings have produced a flood of mail to the Congress from a public that believes that Lieutenant Bucher and his men are being pilloried by the Navy for not living up to the Military Code of Conduct. The Pueblo's crew is not on trial in California, but the Code of Conduct certainly is.

The military insists that men cannot be sent into combat with advance permission to surrender or, if captured, to betray their country. But New York's Congressman Jonathan Bingham, some military men, and a growing number of civilians say the code is as outdated as the ancient Spartan code it's based on.

Bingham has demanded that President Nixon liberalize the code by executive order and, failing that, then the Congress should do it. I asked Bingham how he would change the code.

JONATHAN BINGHAM: What I'm saying is that when it's a question of signing a propaganda statement, which is clearly a propaganda statement and not a matter of factual information—that in that case they should be allowed to do so, and that by saying in advance—by making it clear that this is our policy that they're permitted to do that—you ruin the usefulness to the other side of such propaganda statements.

DOWNS: General Maxwell Taylor was top United Nations Commander in Korea during the release of American prisoners in the '50s. The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has strong feelings about the code.

MAXWELL TAYLOR: I think anyone who reads the Code of Conduct—I have it here in front of me—will recognize to a certain extent a sort of "ten commandments." And a man, being as fragile as he is, I'm quite sure the authors of this code never expected that every man that captured would behave this way. But it certainly sets a standard which the man should try to observe. And I was impressed in the Korean War that even without this the vast majority of our troops behaved just exactly the way this code is written. And it was the weak ones who failed. Perhaps the code can strengthen those who are weaker than most of their comrades.

BINGHAM: I think the fact of the matter is that, when the pressure becomes sufficient, when the torture is sufficient, there are very few human beings who can resist it over a period of time.

DOWNS: I asked the General if it wasn't foolish today to try and impose an ancient "return with victory or on your shield" combat standard. Wasn't such a code outdated?

TAYLOR: I hope it's not outdated. As a military man I feel that our armed forces always must come back with victory or on their shield. That's why they're here to defend our way of life; our democracy. I hope it would add to the stamina and determination of our armed forces, but I'm sure that one piece of paper is not the real answer as to carry to the men themselves and their basic training.

DOWNS: While this debate goes on, there are an estimated nine hundred other US fighting men now being held in North Vietnamese POW camps. While the negotiators talk in Paris, other GIs risk possible capture every day. Hanoi propaganda radio has broadcast a parade of alleged confessions from the US captives. Former Ambassador Averell Harriman spent more than three years trying to get those prisoners released. Harriman has little faith in the Military Code.

AVERELL HARRIMAN: Well, I think the code is a contradiction. I think it's outmoded. It doesn't deal with the such logical problems that in this war the prisoners have to face.

DOWNS: Former Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke, deeply disturbed by the Pueblo incident, had this surprise proposal.

ARLEIGH BURKE: You can put enough pressure on any man to break him, one way or another. And you can eventually get the truth from a man if you're willing to torture him enough, and torturing him in the way which will be effective for him. So, for that reason, there is some merit in the government issuing an order to all military people that there is no such thing as a Code of Conduct; that, when a man is captured, he can say anything he wants to say—hopefully that he will not jeopardize his unit, his nation, to protect himself. But there's nothing in between. There's nothing in between that and a rigid Code of Conduct.

DOWNS: The Vietnam conflict and the Pueblo incident are the first test of the Military Code of Conduct since the Korean War which produced that code. The military insists it can't send men into combat with prior permission to surrender. The critics of the code say it virtually demands that a man commit suicide for his country, that this is immoral. It's clear that many Americans sympathize with the men of the Pueblo and those captives still in enemy hands.

The unpopularity of the Vietnam War may relate to the public reaction against the Military Code—that, in such a war, it's even more unfair to expect soldiers to adhere to it if captured. In this sense, it seems that public pressure may already have begun changing the Military Code of Conduct.

Bill Downs, ABC News Washington.