Book: Castro gave POW ransom plan to Vietnam

Cuban dictator taught Hanoi how to capture U.S. POWs to squeeze $$ from U.S.

By C.J. Raven
U.S. Veteran Dispatch
May 24, 2007

A book due in stores May 29 charges Cuban dictator Fidel Castro with providing the communist North Vietnamese government a strategy to capture and trade for money American prisoners of war.

"An Enormous Crime; The Definitive Account of American POWs Abandoned in Southeast Asia," from St. Martin's Press, details how Castro won the confidence of Ho Chi Minh and convinced him and North Vietnamese military leaders to implement the so-called Cuban Plan during the earliest days of the Vietnam War.

Authors Bill Hendon, a former U.S. Republican congressman from North Carolina, and Elizabeth A. Stewart, whose father was shot down and remains missing in North Vietnam, have assembled more than 60,000 pages of previously unpublished U.S. documents. The information clearly illustrates that the U.S. government has always known about hundreds of American POWs who were never released.

Hendon and Stewart reveal that long after the Vietnam War ended and the Nixon Administration reneged on its promise to pay $4.75 billion in reconstruction aid, North Vietnam continued to hold a second, "secret" group of American POWs, to be used in a future trade for aid.

Fidel Castro's influence in communist circles was deep, and even penetrated the officer level of the North Vietnamese Army:

Thirty two years ago, just after the fall of Saigon in April 1975 and the complete takeover of Vietnam by the North Vietnamese, communist Colonel Le Phuong whispered a state secret to an old friend: "We still keep about 800 America pilots alive. We will exchange these pilots with conditions."

His old friend was shocked. He said to the colonel, "I believe we have released all the American pilots two years ago in the exchange of war prisoners after the Paris Peace Agreement."

The colonel shook his head and explained, "We are not so stupid to do that. Cuba suggested to us to keep them back for future negotiations, just as Cuba itself had done previously."

"An Enormous Crime" reveals that indeed, 14 years earlier in the aftermath of the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco Fidel Castro had successfully forced President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy into paying $53 million for 1,200 captured Bay of Pigs soldiers. He taught Hanoi a valuable lesson: America values captured soldiers and will pay big money to get them back.

The story was simple: after the 1,200 U.S.-trained and equipped, anti-communist soldiers were captured by Castro's military forces, Fidel immediately stated he would be willing to exchange them for "indemnification" or "war reparations" for the "damage" caused during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Specifically, Castro demanded 500 Super D-8 Caterpillar tractors worth $28 million.

The Kennedy brothers, reeling from their first major foreign policy failure, jumped at the opportunity to recover these freedom fighters. An all-out national campaign, known as the Tractors for Freedom Committee, was launched and led by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Milton Eisenhower, the former president's distinguished brother, and famed United Auto Workers union leader Walter Reuther.

President Kennedy urged all Americans to contribute to the purchase of the tractors. Calling the prisoners "our brothers," the president expressed confidence that "every American would want to help." He even pledged to make the first donation himself.

Thousand upon thousand of Americans contributed by sending their donations to the Tractor Committee's Post Office Box Freedom near the UAW headquarters in Detroit.

But then Congress stepped in to stop the deal. Senators labeled it "tribute" and "ransom" and threatened to stop the exchange. Sen. Thomas Dodd said, "The American people will, for the first time to my knowledge, be making use of ransom and tribute as an instrument of policy. If we start to pay tribute now for 1,000 of the 1 billion communist hostages, where will it stop?"

Former Vice President Richard Nixon declared the exchange plan "morally wrong." Nixon declared that America had "decided 100 years ago that human lives are not something to be bartered on the slave block." To continue with the trade, the former vice president and Kennedy rival said, "would encourage every tin horn dictator around the world to try to take advantage of America."

Opponents of the tractors-for-hostage plan then raised the possibility that Castro would use these tractors to build military installations and missile sites. So, under mounting media and Congressional pressure, Kennedy pulled the deal off the table and all hope for the 1,200 hostages seemed lost.

The next year Castro, even more desperate for money, tried a new approach: He put all 1,200 prisoners on trial and levied fines on them totaling $62 million.

As soon as President Kennedy heard about this, he jumped at yet another opportunity to recover these prisoners. Using New York lawyer James Donovan, who had negotiated the release of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers from the Soviets, Robert Kennedy opened a new dialogue with Castro. They quickly made a new deal: $53 million payable in medicines, powdered milk and baby food in return for all 1,200 prisoners.

As US News & World Report reported at that time: "The first shipment of the Castro Ransom, 32,000 pounds of medicines, was flown from New York to Miami during the night of December 17. Eight domestic airlines began flying 600,000 pounds of supplies to Florida; 19 railroads soon had 80 boxcars on this special run; eight trucking firms were moving 420,000 pounds of supplies from distant points, and 15 shipping companies had put up a ship and the money to move its cargo to Havana ... it was a logistical operation almost without parallel except in wartime."

Castro released all the prisoners before Christmas. They were flown to Miami where President Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy greeted them at a huge Orange Bowl Rally.

While JFK basked in the glory of fulfilling his obligation to recover these pro-American fighters, 90 miles away another event was underway. Communist leaders from all across the globe flew to Havana to celebrate the fourth anniversary of Castro's Revolution.

Castro rose to speak to thunderous applause for having, in effect, "taken" America and Kennedy for $53 million. Castro derided Kennedy as a "vulgar pirate chief."

The Cuban dictator then boasted, "For the first time in history imperialism has paid war indemnification. They call it ransom. We don't care what they call it. They had to agree to pay indemnification."

Sitting nearby, and listening carefully, was the delegation from North Vietnam.

On the other side of the world, the war in Vietnam soon escalated. Less than two years after that meeting in Havana, the North Vietnamese Communist Party Central Committee ordered the training of all North Vietnamese military personnel and civilians. They were to capture American military personnel alive and use them "as hostages to compel the U.S., in the event of a cease-fire, to pay war reparations for the destruction inflicted upon NVN by the United States."

"An Enormous Crime" reveals that North Vietnamese instructors taught their subordinates how to capture American soldiers and keep them alive so that the United States would have to "exchange equipment for them and build up the country."

Clearly, Castro's example taught Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese leadership a valuable lesson: American POWs had great value for future negotiations.

"An Enormous Crime" recounts numerous instances where Castro's Plan was evident even after the Vietnam War:

A US Joint Casualty Resolution Center report of 180 U.S. POWs sighted in 1976 -- three years after the return of POWs following the Paris Peace Accords -- stated, "The objective in holding them after 1973 was to follow the 'Cuban' style of holding Americans after the conflict in order to obtain an advantage in future dealings with the U.S."

A Defense Intelligence Agency report of a 1977 sighting of American POWs stated that North Vietnamese soldiers "explained that U.S. leaders had signed an agreement in Paris to provide reconstruction aid to Vietnam when the POWs were returned, but that even after some of the POWs were returned there was no aid, so they continued to hold these POWs."

A Defense Intelligence Agency report of U.S. POWs held in Haiphong's Tran Phu Prison in 1977 quoted a source who said, "The reason I know they were American pilots is because the communist security people told me that. They also let me know that each American pilot was worth two-three factories, so they had to keep them for trade."

"AN ENORMOUS CRIME" also reveals for the first time a series of "distress" signals from captured U.S. pilots, all long after the war ended, ranging from laundry carefully placed on building rooftops to grass cut in fields next to remote POW camps.

These U.S. pilots are using E&E (Escape and Evade) codes they were given before their missions began. The message is clear: "I am alive! Please come and rescue me!"

Fidel Castro, who taught and inspired the North Vietnamese, shares the blame for the plight of these men as POWs still held against their will years after the war has ended.