Interviewed by Allen Ruff, host of “A Public Affair,” 89.9 WORT-Madison
If you think you’ve heard enough about the Vietnam War, just wait. Speaking with Tom Wilber and Jerry Lembcke about their new book Dissenting POWs, long-time activist-scholar Allen Ruff recently commented, “I thought to myself, ‘I’ve never heard any of this really,’ and I (came of age during) the anti-war movement, I’m a historian of this time period…. And the only images that I had came from the ‘Official Story’ guys.”
As Ruff says on the community radio program “A Public Affair,” the new book poses “a major challenge to the conventional accounts of the POW experience and a debunking of the legends that have grown around it since.” During the 1970s, Americans were riveted by stories of prisoners of war coming home from Vietnam. But some significant stories were purged from public memory: The story of the POWs who opposed the war while still enclosed by prison walls. Wilber and Lembcke share their stories for the first time in their book Dissenting POWs, coming out this week, April 23rd, from Monthly Review Press.
“Why such a book now?” asked long-time activist-scholar Allen Ruff, on the Madison, Wisconsin community radio program, “A Public Affair.”
The “again” in “Make America Great Again,” replied Lembcke, “for people who are drawn to that, is the time before the war in Vietnam, and that the war and the loss of the war knocked America off its perch – and that we lost the war because of betrayal! We didn’t lose the war to this small, under-armed, underfed nation of ‘Asian-Others,’ we lost the war because we were betrayed on the home front, because we were sold out by ‘fifth columnists’ working behind our back, liberals, radicals in the streets and so forth! And that betrayal narrative really got started with the POW story after the war, and the claim, some people believed, that POWs were left behind, they were sold out, they were forgotten by the Americans… that really grabbed people because POWs were kind of built up in American mindsets as heroes. They had held out against torture…they were able to say, ‘We held out against this, while these other guys, some weaklings, actually revealed sensitive information to the North Vietnamese guards.’ So they (the dissenting POWs) became kind of the mythical anti-hero in the story. And those are the people that Tom and I talk about in our book: There were dissenters. And they came out against the war while they were still held as prisoners…”
So who were these dissenting prisoners? “So 591 prisoners were released after the signing of the Peace Accords over about a two month period till the last group came on March 29th of 1973,” says Wilber. “The bulk of them were air force pilots and navy marine corps aviators…and Vietnamese refer to the prisoners as ‘the pilots’.” Among those pilots, “eight enlisted prisoners who were all in a camp called ‘Plantation’ about one mile north of the main prison at Hoa Lo, in Hanoi, just a bit to the north of downtown…were given the name the “Peace Committee” as a form of denigration of what they were doing. I think the other prisoners gave them the name, but the name stuck and I think the Peace Committee held that name proudly.” Wilber adds, “we write a lot about their background, the diversity of their background and experience in the book, and I think that’s critical” to their understanding, even their identification, with their captors. In other words, some of them were people who had experienced oppression while growing up within the American system – and could relate to some aspects of the Vietnamese perspective on the United States.
To understand more about why and how the story of these dissenting POWs was suppressed, listen to the rest of the interview with Wilber and Lembcke, above, or head to WORT’s “A Public Affair.”