Document created: 31 August 04
Air University Review, March-April 1970

Politics and Prisoners of War

Colonel Robert M. Krone

The evolution of the treatment of prisoners of war is a macabre story that encompasses the extremes of cruelty, neglect, deprivation, and maltreatment of human beings. Even when the stated intentions of captors were to provide humane treatment―during the last hundred years particularly―instances of barbarous treatment of prisoners of war have been numerous. It is particularly evident that a historical and fairly linear trend toward more humane treatment has been arrested during the wars of the twentieth century.

Other developments are apparent when one reviews the history of treatment of prisoners. The Korean and Vietnam wars and the seizure of the U.S. intelligence ship Pueblo by North Korea have introduced a considerably increased political dimension into this treatment. Scholars in the field of military strategy and tactics have excluded analysis of the treatment of prisoners of war (POW), evidently considering the prisoner to be an unfortunate by-product of war rather than as a political pawn to be exploited in the propaganda, public opinion, or bargaining facets of modern limited war. The fact that the use of prisoners for these ends is more a reflection of political goals than military tactics is of critical importance for our understanding of inhumane and apparently illogical treatment of U.S. prisoners in North Korea and North Vietnam during the last two decades.

Using the broad definition of “political,” one can say that war, in all its aspects, is a political act to achieve a nation’s objectives and impose its will on an enemy or prevent him from doing the same. Although war is certainly the extension of politics―if not politics itself―that definition is too broad to be useful for this investigation. The concern here is with the type of treatment of prisoners which has a discernible feedback into the decision-making centers of the opposition and which is designed primarily to provoke a response in the political, rather than the military, sphere. After tracing the history of the treatment of prisoners of war, I shall consider some of the implications of the recent trends of such treatment.

early history (before A D. 500)

Accounts of personal suffering and mass annihilation of prisoners of war and of periodic efforts to ameliorate conditions of prisoners through international treaties are abundant. Tales of the treatment of the enemy taken in warfare appear almost as early as written history itself. Egyptian and Assyrian bas-reliefs show prisoners at the feet of the conqueror, about to be killed. According to Chinese history, the Shangs (ca. 1523 to 1121 B.C.) decapitated their captured enemies as sacrifices, and later during the Eastern Chou Dynasty (ca. 400 B.C.) the practice of consecrating drums by smearing them with the blood of sacrificed captives of war is cited.1 Also during the fourth century B.C. in battles waged by the aggressive state of Ch’in, “heads were cut off by the tens of thousands.”2

In the Old Testament, Samuel quotes the word of the Lord to Saul:

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.3

On the subject of doing battle with the enemy, Moses interprets the word of the Lord to the Israelites:

. . . you shall save alive nothing that breathes: but you shall utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites . . . . 4

Moses gives us the motivation for this action by adding:

That they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the Lord your God.5

When the American Southern Eskimos (aborigines) took male prisoners of war, they either killed them immediately or reserved them “to torture for the edification and improvement of their children.”6 The North American Indians demonstrated a wide variety of cruelties against their prisoners:

The Nez Percé Indians . . . day after day, at a stated hour captives are brought out and made to hold scalps of their dead friends aloft on poles while the scalp-dance is performed about them, the female participators meanwhile exerting all their devilish ingenuity in tormenting their victims . . . . The Upper Dakotas . . . tied him to a stake and mutilated him before killing him . . . . The Apaches . . . scalp or burn at the stake . . . . The tribes of North Mexico . . . many cook and eat the flesh of their captives.7

The Romans occasionally used their prisoners for festive purposes in the coliseum; however, in general the Romans treated prisoners less harshly than the Greeks did.8 Plato stated the Greek view:  

And he who allows himself to be taken prisoner may as well be made a present to his enemies; he is their lawful prey, and let them do what they like with him.9

However, Plato did make a distinction between prisoners taken in foreign wars and other Greeks taken in city-state conflict. In the former case death or enslavement was appropriate treatment, whereas other Greeks should be spared to avoid a collective weakening of the Greek city-states.

In general, the ancients regarded foreigners as real or potential foes who had no rights and whose extermination was logical and necessary. However, even in ancient times the killing of captives began to give way to enslavement, ransoming, or exchange. The Treaty of Nicias (421 B.C.), which ended the first phase of the Peloponnesian War, provided for prisoner exchange, and Livy refers to conventions for exchange during the Punic Wars.10 In most cases prisoners became the property of their individual captors rather than of the state and thus became a source of personal interest and gain. One of the few evidences of considerate treatment of prisoners was the East Indian Code of Manu (ca. 500 B.C.), which recommended humane care for Indian prisoners.11

Middle Ages (A.D. 500-1500)

In spite of a series of legal, religious, and humanitarian efforts toward amelioration of the life of the prisoner of war, little progress was actually achieved until well into the Christian era. During the first portion of the Middle Ages, death or slavery continued to be the rule, but the payment of ransom for freedom was sometimes acceptable.

The growth of Christian doctrines of equality and brotherhood in Europe had some positive humanitarian effects, but, paradoxically, the same doctrine encouraged greater severity against the infidels. The history of the Crusades reveals little quarter being shown by the victors following the capture of a fortified city. Historian Lynn Montross describes the slaughter following the fall of Jerusalem to the Crusaders in 1099: “ . . . the men of the West literally waded in gore . . . likened to ‘treading out the winepress.’ ”12 The murder and pillage after the fall of Constantinople are other ugly Crusade events.

One of the earliest attempts at ending enslavement of prisoners as an institution was the appeal of the Lateran Council of 1179. This seems to have had little effect as slavery was firmly entrenched in the economic and social life of the Middle Ages. The Mongol conqueror Tamerlane  is said to have instructed his commanders to avoid needless cruelty after the battle was over, ordering that prisoners be spared, since “a living dog is of more use than a dead lion?”13

Chivalry in the Middle Ages also bad little effect on the treatment of prisoners. The obligation of chivalry extended only to the nobility. A prisoner of rank might be ransomed or exchanged, but slavery was the general practice until the influence of the Christian church brought about its abolition.

modern era  (since 1500)

During the last 500 years an increasing awareness of the injustice of maltreatment of prisoners of war has led to periodic international efforts to establish universally acceptable humane standards of treatment. The end of institutionalized enslavement of prisoners occurred with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) ending the Thirty Years’ War. It stipulated that prisoners of war were to be released without ransom. It was a hundred years later, however, before what would be considered modern rules relating to prisoners appeared. The liberal views of Montesquieu and Rousseau influenced the treatment of prisoners during the eighteenth century. Montesquieu maintained that “war gives no other right over prisoners than to disable them from doing any further harm by securing their persons.”14 And Rousseau challenged Hugo Grotius’s verdict of 1625 that “enemies captured in war become slaves.”15 Rousseau saw no such right of slavery in war. He maintained that war is a relation between states, not between individual men, and that the right to kill remains in force only as long as a soldier is armed. The loss of liberty is the only measure that can be taken toward a prisoner of war; once the war ceases, his liberty should be restored.16

The views of Montesquieu and Rousseau were not universally accepted in their day. The philosopher David Hume took the more popular and parochial view of the Greeks and the ancient Chinese: when fighting barbarians, who observe no rules of war, a civilized nation must “render every action or encounter as bloody and pernicious as possible to the first aggressors.”17 The British, who prided themselves on their humane treatment of European prisoners of war, applied a different standard to American prisoners during the Revolutionary War. It was estimated that 20,000 Americans died aboard British ships during that war as result of “inhuman, cruel, savage, and barbarous usage.”18 Such harsh treatment may well have been calculated as much as accidental, since the British continually exhorted the prisoners to desert and fight for Britain.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the practice of ransoming prisoners reached a zenith and then declined. Previous to that time a soldier’s pay did not come with regularity. A prisoner was then a valuable asset representing potential income, dependent upon the current supply and demand. During the seventeenth century a scale evolved which fixed the ransom value of a prisoner with superior rank at the equivalent of a year’s income and that of one of inferior rank at three months’ pay. At the end of the eighteenth century England and France agreed on a tariff to govern the exchange and ransom values of prisoners of war, a common soldier being worth one pound sterling and a French marshal or English admiral, 60 pounds.19

During the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon’s treatment of prisoners varied with the amount of resistance offered by the foe. His treatment of the Spanish was exceptionally harsh. During the Peninsular War (1808-14) the French met with heroic resistance during the siege of Saragossa. The Spanish defenders were offered liberal terms for surrendering, and then “every stipulation made with them was shamelessly violated. Twelve thousand pale and emaciated Spaniards, exhausted and staggering from fatigue . . . surrendered. Not six thousand reached the Pyrenees on the way to France.”20 Those that survived the long march to France were “summarily packed off in droves and distributed along the Western coast of France, where they were made to labour like ordinary convicts.”21

The treatment of prisoners in the American Civil War became a major issue between North and South during and after the war. President Lincoln asked General Francis Lieber to draw up instructions for use by the Union Armies as a guide for handling prisoners of war. Lieber’s “American Instructions” became the first comprehensive codification of international law relating to prisoners of war issued by any government.22 However, the code had little impact on treatment received by captives where the major factor was the inability of either side―especially the South―to provide adequate facilities, food, and shelter for prisoners. A flood of Northern publicity on the miserable conditions in Southern prisons such as Andersonville fanned an already emotional issue into a postwar controversy that raged for years.23 There is no doubt that prison conditions were deplorable, but a more objective analysis has revealed that Northern prisons were little better than Southern and the percentage of deaths was only slightly higher in the South.24

During the Civil War the fortunes of war played a larger role in the treatment of prisoners than any evil intentions of the captors. The term “fortunes of war” has been defined as:

The relatively unpredictable outcome of the applications of strategies and resources in conflict that determines how many prisoners are taken by a particular power at a particular time and place. Indeed, . . . the severities of climate, the lack of logistical preparation and resources, and the disorganization of supplies have probably played a greater role than the malevolence of the capturing troops or government. 25

This explanation of “fortunes of war” seems to have a great deal of relevance to the plight of prisoners in World War I and to military prisoners in World War II. The total number of prisoners taken by both sides during World War I was estimated at over 6,000,000,26 many of whom starved to death. As most of the European countries involved in the war had been participants in the 1899 Hague Conference and the 1906 Geneva Convention, it can be assumed that the intent of governments to provide humane treatment was present, but the capability was not.27

The “fortunes of war” explanation is necessary but not sufficient to explain the deviation between the general acceptance of international humanitarian principles and the actual treatment of prisoners by captor nations. As late as 1877 the ancient custom of making trophies of the beads of enemy soldiers was still in effect in Japan; it was also employed by the Chinese in the war of 1894.28 Only a decade later during the Russo-Japanese War, the treatment of prisoners by both sides was hailed as quite humanitarian and in complete accord with the Hague Convention of 1899.29

The nature and ends of warfare play a big role in the treatment of prisoners. The two total wars of the twentieth century have reached new heights of intensity and nation-state involvement. An objective of unconditional surrender generates an absolutism in which the opponents are mutually depicted as representing everything alien and detestable. Total objectives are symptoms of the extremes in nationalism, imperialism, or ideological commitment which have spawned the conflicts. “Fortunes of war” does not explain the conduct of the Japanese guards supervising the Death March after the fall of Bataan.30 Nor does the phrase explain a smaller-scale march of over 300 miles to Pyongyang through North Korea in which 200 of 320 American prisoners died and the remainder lost from 60 to 80 pounds each.31 Such treatment is motivated by the nature of the warfare, by historic, cultural, and political characteristics of the captor nation, and by the interpretation of the battlefield commander as to what is necessary treatment to protect his own forces and mission.32

In the wars of the twentieth century, it has become more difficult to separate political action from military action. For example, in World War II the Allies―particularly the United States―took great pains to give their prisoners humane treatment and advertise that fact to the enemy. Interrogation of German POW’S who surrendered voluntarily indicated that an overwhelming majority of them expected good treatment in accordance with the Geneva Convention in spite of German efforts to make them believe otherwise.33

This was a tactic aimed at the enemy’s military forces which, obviously, would have political impacts from the standpoint of ending the war in Europe sooner (if, indeed, it did) and of transmitting a humanitarian image of the Allied side to the enemy. Considering the absolute nature of World War II and the ideological fervor and irrationality of the Nazi leadership, it was a logically conceived and implemented tactic. However, it was a tactic designed primarily to provoke a response in the enemy’s military sphere, not the political.

Wars since World War II have been militarily limited in scope and objectives but waged politically across a wide national and international spectrum. The treatment of prisoners in the Korean and Vietnam wars has been part of this spectrum.

Two words came into new or renewed usage during the Korean War―“brainwashing” and “turncoat.” “Brainwashing” was the term widely used to describe the elaborate system of thought reform used by the Chinese and North Korean Communist captors of United Nations military personnel. From a psychological point of view, it has been called a “ recurring cycle of fear, relief, and new fear.” Prisoners were kept in fear of death, torture, or starvation while all their norms of group associations and beliefs were systematically distorted by controlling information they received. The conditions of stress and deprivation wore away the physical stamina and mental orientation until the captors’ descriptions of  “truth” were accepted.34 Four reasons have been advanced for brainwashing: (1) to obtain military information; (2) to obtain false confessions; (3) to reindoctrinate the captive so that he will act in the approved political fashion; and (4) to make the prisoner inform on his fellow captives.35 Regardless of the specific reason, the fundamental motivation is for political, not military, gain. Few captives in either the Korean or Vietnam war would possess tactical military intelligence of more than a few weeks’ significance to the enemy.36 Major General William F. Dean, captured by the Communists in August 1950, was an exception, but he was not subjected to the severe treatment of other prisoners.37 Most of the 427 known prisoners now held by Hanoi are Air Force or Navy airmen who were prohibited by Department of Defense regulations from flying over North Vietnam for twelve months after exposure to sensitive classified information.

Apparently the treatment of prisoners in Hanoi—like that of previous captives in North Korea—is designed more toward attitude conversion and thought reform than toward intelligence gathering. The political benefits reaped by the Communists from the twenty-one American turncoats who refused repatriation in 1953 were of much greater significance to them than any intelligence data they might have gained. The reported collaboration of American prisoners with their captors and these turncoats touched off a controversy in the United States which raged for years. The writings of Eugene Kinkead convinced many Americans that this conduct was inexcusable and the result of social and moral decay in this country.38

It is difficult at this point to make generalizations concerning the treatment of prisoners by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. To this date most of the testimony of the few repatriated prisoners is classified.39 The Department of State has issued one short “white paper” in which it described mistreatment and atrocities by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong against U.S. prisoners as contrasted to the humane treatment of prisoners by the South Vietnam and U.S. forces.40 On 14 October 1967 Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze issued the following statement:

The Hanoi government has thus far refused to abide by provisions of the Geneva Convention covering prisoners of war. Representatives of the International Red Cross con­tinue to be denied access to prisoners of war held in North Vietnam. Mail privileges to and from families are restricted or totally denied. No list of prisoners has been provided to the International Red Cross as required by the Convention. Attempts by the State and De­fense Departments and the International Red Cross to secure compliance with requirements of the Geneva Convention have been persistently rebuffed.41

The pattern is familiar and should not be surprising. The techniques are more exotic than during the Korean War, but the objectives are identical: psychological disorientation and isolation from traditional groups (family, country, fellow prisoners) to effect behavior opposed to United States policies. Although the techniques now in use are obviously more sophisticated, so are the prisoners in custody. Whereas most Korean War prisoners were low-ranking young Army men, Hanoi must deal with college-educated men, many of them field-grade officers. With this type of man the mental manipulation problem for the Communists is more difficult and occasionally backfires.

Humane treatment of prisoners as a gen­eral goal is a recent phenomenon. The concept began with eighteenth century philosophers, and the practice has gained momentum since then as religious and humanitarian movements pressed for international law sanctions after each major war since the middle of the nineteenth century. After the turn of the century and before World War I, the upward trend toward humane treatment had been so rapid that English lawyer J. M. Spaight felt justified in the following euphoric conclusion:

To-day the prisoner of war is a spoilt darling; he is treated with a solicitude for his wants and feelings which borders on sentimentalism. He is better treated than the modern criminal, who is infinitely better off, under the modern prison system, than a soldier on a campaign. Under present-day conditions, captivity―such captivity as that of the Boers in Ceylon and Bermuda and of the Russians in Japan―is no sad sojourn by the waters of Babylon; it is usually a halcyon time, a pleasant experience to be nursed fondly in the memory, a kind of inexpensive rest-cure after the wearisome turmoil of fighting. The wonder is that any soldiers fight at all: that they do so, instead of giving themselves up as prison­ers, is a high tribute to the spirit and the discipline of modern armies.42

Such conditions for prisoners of war―if they ever did exist outside the Victorian view of the world held by Spaight―were to be short-lived. The wars of the twentieth century have been far different from those of the nineteenth, and in many ways the treatment of prisoners has undergone a reversal to ancient forms of barbarism.

World War I and World War II were a return to what sociologist Hans Speier refers to as “absolute war,” unrestricted and unregulated.43 There were fewer rules and more chaos, total commitments to expansionist ideologies and total resistance determined to fight for unconditional surrender. Then a new and critically important event in the history of warfare occurred, ending World War II in the Pacific. In the nuclear age thus initiated, absolute war has not occurred. The quantum jump of potential destruction seems to have been a major influence in returning warfare to a lesser level of intensity.

Limited war is the term applied to the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as other smaller conflicts around the globe since World War II. The fact that limited war is characterized by considerable restraint on military action while the realm of warfare is expanded into the economic, social, and political arenas would hardly be challenged today. The significance of that fact with regard to prisoners of war, however, has yet to be fully realized or exploited.

To support that statement, it will be necessary to review the subject of motivation for prisoner of war treatment as summarized in Figure 1. This table represents the general opinion of historians and psychologists who have studied the prisoner of war problem. A few comments will explain the eight motivational headings under which seven forms of treatment have been plotted.

Figure 1. Motivation for prisoner of war treatment

Figure 1. Motivation for prisoner of war treatment

Ancient peoples thought it necessary to exterminate supporters of an adversary in order to destroy his power. Tacitus credits Germanicus with crying to his legions (ca. A. D. 11): “Slay, and slay on. Do not take prisoners: we shall only have peace by complete destruction of the nation.”44 Individual and collective fear that the vanquished enemy will rise again and attack is well recognized in psychiatric theory. Religion (column 2) has been a motivational factor for both harsh and humane treatment. Human sacrifices, cannibalism, and holy crusades against the heathen and infidel had at least partial motivational roots in religious beliefs. But the liberal humanism of Christianity, Confucianism, and Buddhism also helped to break the “eye for an eye” and revenge traditions (column 3).

Military motivational considerations include necessity due to battle conditions and security of the force, intelligence requirements, inducements to defect or desert, availability of logistical support, warnings to belligerent neighbors, and intangibles such as emotional reactions. In discussing the Crusades, Montross stated:

The psychologist is perhaps best able to explain, but the historian can at least assert that these excesses usually come as the climax to the capture of a fortified post or city. For long the assailants have endured more punishment than they were able to inflict; then once the walls are breached, pent-up emotions find an outlet in murder, rape and plunder which discipline is powerless to prevent.45

The motivation for economic gain has probably played as large a role as any in the treatment of prisoners. It was the self-interest of the captors which turned the trends from death to enslavement and then to ransom. Prisoners of war built the Great Wall of China, elaborate canals, and irrigation systems. The Roman transportation network of roads and fortresses was built with slave labor. The ransom of Richard the Lion-Hearted brought 100,000 pounds into the coffers of the Duke of Austria during the Third Crusade. Historical examples are in abundance.

Pride and glory, per se, were associated more with the ancient extermination practices or the Romans’ festive use of prisoners. But certainly there is an element of this motivation also in the political advantage category. Revolutionary ideology, pride, and glory have a great deal in common.

It is at this point that the trends and motivations cross for the primary interest of this paper. The fact that a return to a type of warfare less than absolute did not reinstate Spaights turn-of-the-century “halcyon times” for prisoners in spite of a new international treaty (Geneva, 1949) and the fact that the political dimension in warfare has become increasingly important in wars for limited objectives lead to a fundamental observation: the overwhelming motivation for treatment of prisoners of war under these conditions is political.

If this conclusion seems naïvely obvious, why were we so surprised and unprepared for brainwashing and forced confessions of guilt by airmen in North Korean prisons?46 And why was the country shocked when the application of these sophisticated physical and psychological programs produced a few “collaborators”  and turncoats? And if we were surprised, why were we not better prepared for the Vietnam version of North Korean brainwashing or for the Pueblo crew treatment? The pattern is identical: no access by the International Red Cross, extremely restricted mail privileges, no list of prisoners provided; controlled press interviews with prisoners who “are ready.”47

Figure 2 shows the patterns of influence on the political world which are the product of the treatment of prisoners by North Vietnam. News media communications are much more efficient and pictorial now than they were fifteen years ago, and decision-makers in open societies are becoming more aware of public opinion. The external international public―in all its various groups of interests and pressures―and the domestic population are targets for the propaganda resulting from the treatment of American prisoners. At times this effort appears to have been counterproductive, as when the world was shocked at the sight of a dazed and confused U.S. Navy officer at a press conference in Hanoi. At a command from his captors, he bowed stiffly but said nothing while a recording, credited to him, confessed to war crimes. However, it is reasonable to assume that the public reaction within North Vietnam may have been different.

Figure 2. Influence channels for POW confessions ( a simplified view)

Figure 2. Influence channels for POW confessions ( a simplified view)

Just how effective Ho Chi Minh’s program has been is impossible to guess at this time. But what of the communication flows in the opposite direction? If we were not surprised by the opposition’s tactics and were prepared to handle them, what programs of our own did we implement? As far as effectiveness of South Vietnamese POW programs is concerned, Herman Kahn, after analyzing the first four years of Vietnam combat, made the following statement:

More Effective Chieu Hoi, Prisoner-of-war, and Reconciliation Programs: While the importance of improving these programs has frequently been emphasized by the United States, and to a lesser extent by Saigon, the implementation of anything effective has been painfully slow. Returnees are still often mistrusted; very little money is available to provide assurance to a returnee that his family will be moved out of the range of VC vengeance; and many returnees are still badly treated, inadequately protected from VC retaliation, and not given useful and satisfying training or employment. Ironically, the resources that would be needed to treat a returnee reasonably well by Vietnamese standards are infinitesimal when compared to those available for killing the same man on the battlefleld.48

The plea here is not that the United States establish a thought-control program for its prisoners of war but that it make the subject a research and training effort of greater proportions than it has in the past The classic writers and authorities on war have generally ignored the treatment of prisoners of war in discussions on tactics and strategy. Modern defense policy and national strategy writings also rarely touch on the subject. International law contains a great deal on the development of the legal status of prisoners; psychologists and medical researchers have been much interested in effects on the human body of physical and mental stresses in prison camps; and there is an abundance of literature on the personal experiences of prisoners of war.

What is not found is a body of literature considering the political implications of the programs carried out by the Communists with U.S. prisoners of war in North Korea, China and North Vietnam. In the modern world, where instant communications cover the globe and world opinion and national domestic opinion seem to have as great an impact on the decision-making process as military capability, the influence flows should be understood. Ho Chi Minh and Kim I1 Sung have used U.S. prisoners to try to establish the legitimacy of their positions and widen the credibility gap in the United States. As yet we have no consistent or effective response to these tactics.  

There should be other, more tangible benefits from a research program designed from a political viewpoint. Will the country be eager to condemn repatriates from Hanoi on the basis of innuendo and sketchy information, as it was after Korea?49 How much would those prisoners now in Hanoi have been helped by a carefully prepared training program based simply on the Korean experience? What can we learn from the Communists techniques that would be useful in our own political manipulation of prisoners? How applicable is the Code of Conduct for American servicemen, in view of these new tactics?

It was not our initiative to make prisoners of war political pawns in the international chess game of limited war, but we should be able to relate history to the present situation with an eye for assisting American prisoners, understanding opponents’ tactics, and applying lessons learned to the future.

University of California at Los Angeles


 1. Herrlee Glessner Creel, The Birth of China (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1937), p. 207, which cites The Chun Tsen, trans. James Legge (1871).

2. Marcel Cranet, Chinese Civilization, trans. Kathleen E. Innes and Mabel R. Brailsford (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930), p. 32.

3. I Samuel 15:3.

4. Deuteronomy 20:l6-17.

5. Ibid., 18.

6. H. H. Bancroft, The Native Races of the Pacific States of North America (1875), as cited in Maurice R. Davie, The Evolution of War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1929), p. 297

7. Davie, p. 299.

8. Tacitus described the Romans as a people no less remarkable for their courage in the field than for their humanity to the vanquished. See Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, trans. A. C. Campbell (Washington, D.C.: M. Walter Dunne, 1901), p. 361. William E. S. Flory discusses the entertainment usage of prisoners by the Romans in Prisoners of War (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Public Affairs, 1942), p. 12.

9. The Republic of Plato, trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), paper ed., p. 170.

10. E. G. Trimble, “Prisoners of War,” Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (1934), Vol. 12, p. 419.

11. Amos S. Hershey, The Essentials of International Public Law (New York: Macmillan, 1912), p. 29.

12. Lynn Montross, War Through the Ages (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), p. 138.

13. J.  Fitzgerald Lee, “Prisoners of War,” The Army Quarterly, Vol. 3 (1921-22), p. 351.

14. Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, trans. Thomas Nugent (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1955), vol. 1, p. 283.

15. Grotius, p. 345.

16. Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses, trans. G. D. H. Cole (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1950), pp. 7-11.

17. Flory, citing Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1777), p. 16.

18. Herbert C. Fooks, Prisoners of War (Federalsburg, Maryland: J. W. Stowell, 1924), p. 174, citing D. Dandridge, American Prisoners of the Revolution (1911).

19. J. M. Spaight, War Rights on Land (London: Macmillan, 1911), p. 264.

20. Edward Fraser, Napoleon the Gaoler (London: Methuen, 1914), pp. 13-14. This march bears similarities to the one at Bataan during World War II.

21. Ibid.

22. For a reproduction of the code see Fooks, Appendix 11. A modified form of ransom is recognized by “American Instructions” (Article 108): “The surplus number of prisoners remaining after an exchange has taken place is sometimes released for the payment of a stipulated sum of money, or, in urgent cases, of provision, clothing, or other necessaries.” The idea of ransom is far from dead today: the Bay of Pigs prisoner were ransomed from Castro’s Cuba in 1962.

23. See John McElroy, Andersonville (Toledo: D. R. Locke, 1879), and A. C. Roach, The Prisoner of War (Indianapolis: A. D. Streight, 1865).

24. William Beat Hesseltine, Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1930), p. 254.

25. Albert D. Biderman, “Internment and Custody,” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1968), vol.8, p. 141.

26. Daniel S. McHargue, “Prisoners of War under International Law,” (unpublished masters thesis, University of California at Los Angeles, 1941), p. 4.

27. For example, the American position was that the Geneva Convention was not binding in the war because not all the belligerents had signed it. However, the U.S. State Department considered the results of the convention to be international law, and General Pershing instructed his provost marshal general to “follow the principles of the Hague and Geneva Conventions in the treatment of prisoners.” See Flory, p. 22.

28. Flory, p. 11.

29. McHargue, p. 43.

30. Sidney Stewart, Give Us This Day (London: Staples Press, 1956), p. 76. In this personal account of the march, he cites the instance in which during nine days of forced march when “more than fourteen thousand men died,” four Japanese guards walked through the ranks of prisoners with freshly decapitated American heads stuck on the ends of their bayonets. Another account estimates that more than 17,000 Filipino, and U.S. troops died during the march (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1967, Vol. 11, p. 648).

31. William Lindsay White, The Captives of Korea (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1957), pp. 45-53.

32. At least two authors (William Lindsay White in the Korean War and John McElroy in the Civil War) cite inferior intellect and psychological instability of military guards and prison administrators as factors in inhumane treatment This seems a logical assumption, as few military commanders would use combat-capable personnel on prison duty.

33. U.S. House of Representatives Reports, No. 513-738, 79th Cong., 1st Sess. (Misc Reports III), 12 June 1945, No. 728, p. 3. Safe-conduct passes, written in English, German, and French and promising good treatment, were widely distributed behind the German lines. This promise was remembered by 59 to 76 percent of prisoners captured from December 1944 through February 1945 (percentages varying with time periods), and considerable numbers came carrying the passes. (p. 13)

34. The entire issue of The Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 13, No. 3 (1957) was devoted to the subject of brainwashing. For discussion of the fear-relief cycle, see Edgar H. Scheins “Reaction Patterns to Severe, Chronic Stress in American Army Prisoners of War of the Chinese,” pp. 21-29.

35. James G. Miller, “Brainwashing: Present and Future,” Ibid., p. 48. In the same Journal of Social Issues Julius Segal describes research with samples of the 3323 repatriated Army prisoners. The research concluded that 15% were participators with their captors; 5% resisted the brainwashing in the face of personal danger, torture, and deprivation; and 80% remained passive or neutral to the program. See “Correlates of Collaboration and Resistance Behavior Among U.S. Army POWs, in Korea,” pp. 31-40.

36. Some of the 82 crewmen of the Navy intelligence ship Pueblo were obvious exceptions, and the Pueblo was a unique case in many ways.

37. General Deans Story, as told to William I. Worden (New York: Viking, 1954).

38. Eugene Kinkead, “A Reporter at Large: The Study of Something New in History,” The New Yorker, 26 October 1957, pp. 102-53; also, “Have We Let Our Sons Down?” McCalls, January 1959, pp. 23-81; and In Every War But One (New York: Morton, 1959). These writings, based on scanty research, were condemned by professionals. A. D. Biderman designed his book, March to Calumny (New York: Macmillan, 1963 as a complete refutation of Kinkead’s “sensationalistic and tendentious portrayals.” (p. 3) [Postscript: Of the 21 defectors, only two remain in China. Fifteen have returned to the United States, three are in Europe, and one died in 1954. Time, 15 July 1966, pp. 20-21. One British Marine and 327 South Koreans also refused repatriation, while 88,000 Communist troops refused to return to North Korea. See White, p. 330.]

39. The first repatriated prisoner to break this silence is a Navy lieutenant released in August 1969. See Lieutenant Robert F. Frishman, USNR, “I was a Prisoner in Hanoi,” Readers Digest, December 1969, pp. 111-15, which substantiates the charge of inhumane treatment by the North Vietnamese against U.S. prisoners of war.

40.“Prisoners of War,” Vietnam Information Notes, Department of State, No. 9, August 1967.

41. Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, November 1967, p. 30. [Postscript: In the last seven months Secretary of Defense Laird has made several public statements condemning North Vietnamese treatment of U.S. prisoners of war.]

42. Spaight, p. 265.

43. Hans Speier, “The Social Types of War,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 46 (January 1941), pp. 445-54.

44. Fooks, p. 8.

45. Montross, p. 138.

46. Of 131 total Air Force prisoners in North Korea and Communist China, 78 were subjected to varying types of torture, deprivation, and thought-control programs. Thirty-eight confessed to dropping germs over North Korea, White, p. 261, (Germ warfare was not used in Korea.)

47. When three sergeants were released by the Viet Cong in November 1967, a Viet Cong defector in Saigon admitted that he had tutored the captive sergeants on the United States’ responsibility for the war and stated that they were to have been released as early as December 1966 but were not because they “weren’t ready yet,” Time, 17 November 1967, p. 39. Three more prisoners were released by the Viet Cong on 1 January 1969. Whether the VC motivation was based on these prisoners being ready” or on a desire for the United States to negotiate officially and directly with them cannot be determined. Either motivation had political overtones.

48. Herman Kahn, “Toward a Program for Victory,” Can We Win in Vietnam?  (New York: Praeger, 1968), pp. 320-21. As with most programs in Vietnam, there is considerable debate over the effectiveness of the Chieu Hoi (open arms) program and the meaning of the statistics associated with it. Mike McGrady, in A Dove in Vietnam (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968), states the figure of 67,000 Viet Cong who had joined the Government of Vietnam by 1967 but says that only 64 percent of those were military, of whom only 5 percent were Main Force soldiers. (p. 129) William R. Corson, in The Betrayal (New York: Ace Books, Inc., 1968), claim, that “less than one-half of 1 percent of all Vietcong defectors turn out to be Party member.”(p. 138) He is referring to the People’s Revolutionary Party (PRP), the group of from 50,000 to 60,000 hard-core organizers and planners behind the National Liberation Front and the Viet Cong.

49.Apparently not, if the reaction to the Pueblo is an indication. In a Louis Harris public opinion survey, 68 percent rejected the charge that Commander Bucher did disservice to the country in signing the confession, while on 9 percent agreed with that statement.  Los Angeles Times, 10 February 1969, Part I, p. 26. However, the answer to this question depends to a great extent on how the military reacts to prisoner conduct.

This article is based on a paper written for a seminar in National Defense Problems conducted by Dr. Bernard Brodie at University of California at Los Angeles. I am indebted to Dr. Brodie and Colonel Harry M. Darmstandler, USAF Research Fellow with the Security Studies Project at UCLA (1968-69), for their critical review of the original paper.



Colonel Robert M. Krone (M.A., University of Pittsburgh) is enrolled in the Graduate Department of Political Science at the University of California at Los Angeles under the AFIT doctorate program. Commissioned from AFROTC at University of Southern California, 1952, he has served for most of his career in the operations field, flying F-84, F-86, F-100, and F-105 aircraft. His assignments have included Aide-de-Camp to the Chief of Staff, United Nations Command, Korea; Operations Officer and Commander, 469th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Southeast Asia; and Personnel Staff Officer, Hq USAF. Colonel Krone is a graduate of Squadron Officer School, U.S. Naval War College Command and Staff School, and Industrial College of the Armed Forces.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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