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Will Gorbachev Find World War II’s Long-Lost POWs?

    Mikhail Gorbachev just took an extraordinary first step in stripping away the lies of the Stalinist regime concerning the fate of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, the hero who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis.Last month, Yuri Kashlev, the chief Soviet negotiator at a Paris human rights conference, said the Soviet Union has no evidence that Mr. Wallenberg is dead. No witnesses, no documentation. Thus did the Gorbachev government cast doubt on the official Soviet explanation, devised by Stalin’s lieutenants, that Mr. Wallenberg died in 1947 while in a Soviet prison. (Many former Soviet prisoners have reported seeing Mr. Wallenberg as recently as 1987.)Mr. Kashlev went even further. He indicated that a new investigation is under way into Mr. Wallenberg’s disappearance while in Soviet custody at the end of World War II. And he said that if new information is discovered, the Soviet government will share it with the world.Mr. Kashlev’s comments raise the possibility not only of Mr. Wallenberg’s being found alive but also of the return of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of German, Japanese and even American prisoners of war who have been interned in the Soviet Union for the past 44 years.In 1950, the United Nations established the Ad Hoc Commission on Prisoners of War to account for and, wherever possible, repatriate all remaining POWs from World War II. Seven years later, the commission admitted defeat. It blamed the Soviet Union which, contrary to its pledges under the 1949 Geneva Convention, refused to participate in this humanitarian endeavor. Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania also refused to cooperate with the UN commission.Thus, 12 years after the war, the German people still didn’t know what had happened to 87,353 German soldiers “whose presence in captivity in the Soviet Union at one time or another had been established, but whose subsequent fate was not known,” according to the commission’s 1957 report. An 11,330 confirmed German prisoners in Poland also were still unaccounted for, as are others in other East-bloc countries.The commission further reported that, as of Oct. 1, 1955, “There were about 11,177 Japanese nationals believed to be in the Soviet Union whose fate was unknown,” plus 35,565 Japanese believed to be in China — another country that refused to help the commission.Italy, according to the UN report, still had nearly 1,000 confirmed prisoners of the Soviets unaccounted for. Belgium, Denmark, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands all still had nationals under detention in the Soviet Union; some are believed to have since been repatriated.Separately, in February 1946, the U.S. War Department notified the American Red Cross that 5,414 American soldiers known by the U.S. to have been in German POW camps still had not been accounted for. While the War Department offered no explanation for why such a large number of GIs had vanished without a trace, the fact is that the Soviet Army “liberated” nearly 29,000 U.S. soldiers from German POW camps during the waning days of the war — when Moscow and Washington were acting more like belligerents than allies. By comparison, as of February 1946, there were only 86 U.S. ex-prisoners in Asia who hadn’t yet been accounted for.While in Germany the other week, Mr. Gorbachev seems to have promised to account for all these long-lost POWs. Indeed, upon Mr. Gorbachev’s arrival in Bonn, the Soviet Union released the names of 1,500 German soldiers who died while in Soviet POW camps. This marked the first time a Soviet government had accounted for missing German soldiers. On the same trip, Mr. Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, spotlighted the POW issue by laying a wreath at a cemetery for Russian POWs who died while in German hands.It’s not just soldiers from World War II who need to be accounted for. The U.S. government must also be concerned about American soldiers in the Korean War who were taken to the Soviet Union and never seen again. On May 5, 1954, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow sent a note to the Soviet minister of foreign affairs saying that the U.S. has “recently received reports which support earlier indications that American prisoners of war who had seen action in Korea have been transported to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and that they are now in Soviet custody. “A week later, the Soviet foreign ministry replied that the U.S. contention “is devoid of any foundation whatsoever and is clearly farfetched.”More recently, Vietnam and Laos have been the scene of numerous live-sighting reports of American POWs. The most recent of these reported sightings was by a Japanese monk, released by Hanoi in January, who last month said he had been imprisoned with U.S. soldiers. Hanoi, of course, denied it, but as usual the Vietnamese denial was careful to say that no “Americans” are being held.That raises a critical point. While the 1949 Geneva Convention protects the rights of prisoners who have been accused of war crimes, Hanoi’s intepretation of the convention allows it to strip a POW of his rights — including even his nationality — the moment he is accused of being a war criminal. Indeed, Vietnam maintains that a POW accused of war crimes is an ordinary Vietnamese criminal who must serve a life sentence with no hope for release. Moreover, Vietnam maintains it has no obligation under the convention to inform the world that it is holding such “criminals.”During the war, North Vietnam routinely accused the Americans it captured of being war criminals. Thus, Hanoi could still be holding hundreds of U.S. soldiers and yet publicly deny holding any American prisoners.If he expands the Wallenberg investigation, Mr. Gorbachev could make an emphatic statement about human rights by reaching out around the world and accounting for every missing soldier.—

    The Wall Street Journal
    (Copyright (c) 1989, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)

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