As the U.S. ends its 20-year quagmire in Southwest Asia, there are disturbing reports about Americans missing in Afghanistan and unable to leave.
Those Americans — students, teachers, humanitarian aid workers, missionaries and contractors — may be hiding from the Taliban as they try to escape from a man-made hell. How many are unaccounted for? Maybe thousands.
President Biden has promised to bring home all Americans who want out of Afghanistan. If modern history is a guide, that may not happen.
What we see now may be another episode of the U.S. abandoning its citizens because it is expedient to do so. Despite the much-touted ethos to “leave no one behind,” American history shows that for the past 75 years, our government knowingly wrote off live prisoners of war.
Indeed, after World War II, and coming up through the wars in Korea and Southeast Asia, as well as the Cold War, U.S. military and civilian leaders knew the Communists had withheld from repatriating captured American soldiers, airmen and sailors, and our leaders did virtually nothing to recover them alive.
After the end of World War II in Europe, as many as 25,000 U.S. GIs captured by the Germans were subsequently imprisoned by the Soviets. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower knew it, but he did not stop it or call attention to it, as eyewitnesses in Eastern Europe reported seeing captive Americans in Russian custody.
After the Korean War armistice was signed and the prisoner exchanges were over, some U.S. POWs told of seeing others in the camps who had not been repatriated. In addition, the names of some who vanished had been printed in Communist propaganda, or they had been photographed in captivity, or they had made radio broadcasts. Gen. Mark Clark estimated as many as 2,000-3,000 Americans were still alive in enemy hands in 1953 — after the POW exchanges.
The story played out again in Southeast Asia. Names of Americans captured were sometimes broadcast over Radio Hanoi, while images of POWs appeared in Communist films and newspapers. Some pilots had parachuted from their doomed planes, and they confirmed their safe landings with their emergency radios. Despite the documentary evidence of their holding Americans, the Communists often denied the reports. Our leaders generally accepted their word.
After the Paris Agreement was signed Jan. 27, 1973, more than 2,500 Americans remained unaccounted for in both Vietnams, Laos and Cambodia. There were intelligence reports GIs had been taken to Communist China or to the Soviet Union — never to return.
The best description of the moral situation came from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, himself a hero of conscience.
“If the government of North Vietnam has difficulty explaining to you what happened to your brothers, with the American POWs who have not returned, I, on the basis of my experience in the [Gulag] Archipelago, can explain this quite clearly,” Solzhenitsyn said. “There is a law in the Archipelago that those have been treated the most harshly and who have withstood the most bravely, the most honest, the most courageous, the most unbending, never again come out into the world. … These are your best people. These are your first heroes, who, in solitary combat, have stood the test.”
If our country, our government, would write off our “best people,” it should be no surprise we are willing to give away others. After all, the ones we leave behind are “someone else,” unless that person is one of our loved ones or a close friend. What if you are the “someone else”?
Unless the American people rise up and demand our leaders work to repatriate all Americans from Afghanistan, those still trapped there may never come home.
The principle was articulated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who proclaimed, “No one is free, until we are all free.”
Imagine being trapped in a land where no one can hear you scream.