Featuring Tom Wilber & Jerry Lembcke, authors of “Dissenting POWs: From Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison to America Today,” from Monthly Review Press, 2021.

Tom Wilber’s father, Gene, was a Vietnam POW imprisoned in the Hanoi prisons for 56 months until his release in 1973. In his quest to learn the details of his father’s experience, Tom has partnered with author Jerry Lembcke to tell his father’s story and that of other POWs against the war, stories that have been “left out of mainstream history books” in the discussion of resistance.

“This was a real learning process for me to find out that there had been these dissenting POWs,…these guys who came out against the war while they were still being held. Then too,…try to understand what happened to this story because people did know, they did know this. In 1973, it was in lots of newspapers, but then it faded very quickly from memory. There are almost no historical accounts that isn’t in very popular accounts, so it’s kind of missing from mainstream history books as well.”

Vietnam Full Disclosure

This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace — “Towards an honest commemoration of the American war in Vietnam.” Last year marked 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. Interview and edit by Matthew BreemsJeff Paterson, Executive Producer, with assistance by Stephanie Atkinson.

“There are records of many prisoners of war making statements against the war or some sort of statement. Most of those were all retracted at some point, either by the individuals or by our own government saying, “Well, they must’ve been forced.” My father and a few others were pretty clear to say that they were not forced to make those statements and they did it out of some personal conviction. That would probably be certainly not what you hear of the majority of prisoners of war doing.”

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Transcript

Tom Wilber:
The statements he made, as a prisoner, were voluntary. That kind of set things on edge. From there I think just set forth a cascading series of things that resulted in a series of charges of violations to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If this thing goes forward, some of the punishments associated with these crimes include the death penalty.

Matthew Breems:
This is the Courage to Resist podcast. Since 2005, Courage to Resist has worked to support military resistance to illegal and unjust wars, counter recruitment, draft resistance, and the policies of empire. Authors, Tom Wilber and Jerry Lembcke, are the podcast guests today. Their new book, Dissenting POWs, chronicles the men that actively spoke out against the war in Vietnam. This book attempts to restore the dissident POWs to their proper place in the history of anti-war activism.

Matthew Breems:
Well, we’re excited today to have Tom Wilber and Jerry Lembcke on the podcast. They have just finished up writing a book called Dissenting POWs. The book will be coming out in late April or early May of 2021. Welcome to the podcast.

Jerry Lembcke:
Good to be here.

Tom Wilber:
Yes. Thanks, Matt, nice to meet you.

Matthew Breems:
On the podcast, we’ve done many interviews with Vietnam veterans. We haven’t had a lot of POWs on the podcast, and we’re very interested to hear this side of the story of resistance and antiwar activity. Tom, maybe I’ll start with you. Your father is actually one of the main POWs featured in this book. Is that what got you initially interested in this topic?

Tom Wilber:
Well, yes, most certainly. That’s been something that I’ve had a lifelong experience with, since my teenage years. I’ve always been interested in this topic.

Matthew Breems:
If you could, just give us a brief summary of what the book touches on.

Tom Wilber:
Well, I’ll share this summary with Jerry because I had some time actually finding somebody to work with to help convey this story, Because what we’ll talk about is an angle to a story that I don’t think our popular culture knows about very much. We don’t hear much about this idea of dissent and what an important factor that was in that whole history.

Jerry Lembcke:
In 1998, I wrote a book. The book came out in 1998, called The Spitting Image, in which I debunked the myth that Vietnam veterans had been spat upon by the anti-war activists when they came home. After that, I wrote a book called Hanoi Jane: War, Sex and Fantasies of Betrayal, because Jane Fonda had become a kind of icon for the image of female betrayal figures some people hold responsible for the loss of the war. We kind of then zero in on how those narratives of my other books played out with POWs. This was a real learning process for me to find out that there had been these dissenting POWs, these guys like Tom’s father who came out against the war while they were still being held. Then too, as Tom has said, try to understand what happened to this story because people did know, they did know this. In 1973, it was in lots of newspapers, but then it faded very quickly from memory. There are almost no historical accounts that isn’t in very popular accounts, so it’s kind of missing from mainstream history books as well.

Matthew Breems:
Tom, to get us started on the book, why don’t you summarize your father’s experiences as a POW and as a dissenting POW. Just give us a little bit of insight into his experiences and his response to the war.

Tom Wilber:
Well, his experiences as a POW were probably pretty much, I would say, standard fare in terms of, sure, he was shot down, he was captured, he took a fairly lengthy walk to Hanoi, or by truck and walking to Hanoi, went into prison, went through 20 months of solitary confinement, lived mostly initially at the Hỏa Lò main prison, which people referred to as the Hanoi Hilton. That was pretty much the same as a lot of people experienced. I’ve used the term solitary confinement. He didn’t see other Americans or interact with other Americans at the time, but we talk in the book how that term may not have been as bad as what it sounds to most folks when they hear the term. They certainly got out every day, had a chance to bathe every day, went out for meals, but they just didn’t have contact with others. That’s a short way of saying it.

Tom Wilber:
Another aspect of his experience, his speaking out against the war, he did do that. There are records of many prisoners of war making statements against the war or some sort of statement. Most of those were all retracted at some point, either by the individuals or by our own government saying, “Well, they must’ve been forced.” My father and a few others were pretty clear to say that they were not forced to make those statements and they did it out of some personal conviction. That would probably be certainly not what you hear of the majority of prisoners of war doing.

Matthew Breems:
Yeah, his treatment when he returned home was also not very welcoming, to say the least. Can you describe a little bit of his experiences as a returning POW that had vocally dissented against the war as a POW?

Tom Wilber:
Right. Well, from a personal perspective, that’s where it gets probably the hardest. That’s when things all seemed to come raining down. I think his going forth and saying that he made the statements he made as a prisoner were voluntary, when others were coming back and retracting their statements. That kind of set things on edge, and from there, I think just set forth a cascading series of things that resulted in a series of charges of violations to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Came back just in time to go to my high school graduation. I’m getting ready to go to college and dealing with a summer of wondering if this thing goes forward, some of the punishments associated with these crimes include the death penalty.

Matthew Breems:
The charges were all dropped after a couple of months, correct?

Tom Wilber:
They were, yeah, dropped in September for the two officers that were charged. We also talk in the book about separate eight enlisted personnel were also charged with similar charges, and we talk about that quite extensively in the book, too.

Matthew Breems:
Jerry, a question for you. In the book, this whole concept of brainwashing and America’s fascination really with POWs being brainwashed to say these traitorous things is all over the American conscious. Can you just describe the influence of that a little bit?

Jerry Lembcke:
The POWs who came out against the war, as far as we know, as far as anything they said or the things that they wrote, they did so as a matter of conscience. They did it of their own volition. They didn’t do it in order to gain favor with the prison guards. They didn’t do it because they had been, yes, “brainwashed”, that they had been sort of won over to the side of the communist North Vietnamese. But that was sort of the, I don’t know, the common public American sense of why these guys must have spoke out against the war.

Jerry Lembcke:
A lot of that was a hangover from the Korean War and the fact that after the Korean War, some Americans refused to come home. Well, they chose to stay in North Korea. There were films that were made about them, probably most listeners would know the film, The Manchurian Candidate. That’s an important part of our book, this brainwash thing. It was kind of debunked by psychologists. There are very few psychologists who think that there’s anything to that, but at the time, still in 1973, when the POWs came home from Vietnam, that notion of brainwashing was still very much in play.

Matthew Breems:
I found it interesting in the book that there’s a long history in American think, American culture, of this captivity narrative, going all the way back to John Smith and his experiences in early America. Would you like to touch on that briefly?

Jerry Lembcke:
Oh, absolutely. Well, some people say the captivity narrative and the stories that were written at the time in the 1700s, the 1800s, are really one of the first forms of literature, in English literature in the United States. It’s the idea that Native Americans who sometimes raided the settler villages, a lot of it here in New England, they would take captives. Well, sometimes the captives, when they had their chance to return to the European village, they would not. They would choose to stay with their captors. Among other things, that was sort of the birth of the idea of brainwashing.

Jerry Lembcke:
That storyline then became a kind of touchstone for the American sense of loyalty, and then that reappears. I mean, it stayed in play throughout the years of American development and settlement in the west, then that’s what it reappears then in the context of the Korean War and appears again in the context of the war in Vietnam.

Matthew Breems:
One of the other topics that the book hits on is how race and how class lines played a role in how POWs responded into the war and being dissenters or not being dissenters. Tom, would you like to delve into that a little bit?

Tom Wilber:
Some of that is something that former POWs have actually written about, in terms of the class narrative, and would distinguish that to medicalize or somehow psychologize the character of the dissenter POWs, was that they weren’t educated enough perhaps and cited some sort of difference in education and perhaps the service academy graduates with their academic training were more capable of dealing with the ambiguities of the country’s foreign policy and the situation they were in. Two of the dissenting POWs we talk about were actually quite senior officers, one of them being Gene Wilber, the other Edison Miller, both career officers, but if you look at their backgrounds, they both came from working class who enlisted in the military as soon as they got out of high school and worked their way up through pilot training and earned their commissions as officer pilots, never went to college. Here these were then commanding officers of fighter squadrons over combat over Vietnam 20 years later and were shot down and became POWs. They were kind of an outlier among the majority of officers who went through the service academies and became commissioned that way. So there’s that aspect of it.

Jeff Patterson:
Okay, I need to jump in here for a second. If you don’t already know me, I’m Jeff Patterson, the director of Courage to Resist, an organization dedicated to supporting the troops who refuse to fight. As a Marine, I publicly refused to fight in the 1991 Gulf War, so this work is personal for me. These podcasts are possible only because of supporters like you. It’s your tax-deductible donations that allow us to ensure our collective people’s history of resistance to war and empire is not lost. Please visit couragetoresist.org to make a donation today. There, you’ll also find our entire podcast library, going all the way back to 2007. Finally, like and follow us on Facebook at Courage to Resist. Thanks for listening, and back to today’s episode.

Matthew Breems:
Jerry, what were some of the hallmarks of POWs that were dissenters versus those that weren’t?

Jerry Lembcke:
Well, I mean, race, as Tom said, was a part of it. The enlisted people were captured in the south, they were Army, they were Marines, but the fact that they had been on the ground in the south before capture, well, and during their period of captivity there, they came to know the Vietnamese and they came to appreciate the Vietnamese and to appreciate the difficulty of the war for the Vietnamese. The pilots flew off aircraft carriers, they had never been in Vietnam, they had never met the Vietnamese. Then they get shot down and captured by these people that they knew nothing about, and so there was an element of fear, the fear of the unknown, the fear of the unknown Other. The basic fundamental racial class prejudices that Americans go to war with then, for them, became what they drew on.

Matthew Breems:
What are the best estimates for how many of the POWs were dissenters or came out against the war? Is there any evidence or information on that?

Tom Wilber:
That’s a great question, yeah. What we end up with is those that basically didn’t recant in any way, that didn’t change their stories and said they did this and that, that gives you about 10 of the 591, the eight and the two we’ve talked about.

Matthew Breems:
They were of the POWs that were returned shortly after the peace accords.

Tom Wilber:
Of the 591 returnees after the peace accords, there’s 10, okay? There’s roughly maybe 5%. But when you read through all the literature and then you put together even a lot of media statements that you can pull from the period of time, you’ll see a lot of prisoners are expressing either no opinion or saying that that’s up to an individual and not expressing anything. There are some authors that have written, even in the narratives that are more favorable of the hero, the hero genre, will say that there are pretty large percentages of people against the war, estimates that maybe 40% were against the war.

Matthew Breems:
Why is the American collective memory so poor on this subject when obviously there’s a fair amount of evidence that, yes, there were many dissenting POWs?

Jerry Lembcke:
One reason is that when the POWs returned early in 1973, the war was over and so interest in the war was declining, but again, by the time the POWs came home, the anti-war movement was dissolving. There was just not the kind of embrace for these anti-war POWs, the dissenting POWs. Plus, what we developed in the book is that this idea that the dissenting POW’s had been brainwashed, that had acted out of something other than just their own convictions, it seemed like the pro-war people in the pro-war media, they somehow needed to explain that, and a sympathetic, empathetic way of doing that was to say, “Well, they came home traumatized. They came home having been subjected to brainwashing.” They psychologized it. It was written off as an anti-war story and within a few years it was gone .

Matthew Breems:
Here we are 48 years after the peace accords. Why did you feel that now was the right time to write a book about this?

Jerry Lembcke:
The context is the series of 50th anniversary studies. We wanted to make sure that the POW story gets into this commemorative process. We want to make sure that this story that we tell is recovered and then use it to, once again, delve into that question that you have asked, which is what happened to this? What happened to this story? The stories of resistance, the courage to resist kinds of stories is where our book really belongs.

Tom Wilber:
From my perspective, what took so long was that in some ways I did experience a lot of this stuff because of the family situation and how that seemed to capture national attention in the late ’60s and early ’70s. My father was making anti-war statements, the first recorded Radio Hanoi statement I heard from him was in November of 1969. It clearly made a strong and coherent anti-war message. I just remember discussions and whisperings and direct talk about, “Oh, we don’t know, maybe he’s brainwashed.” This is, at that time, at 14 years old hearing this. Yet, I was getting a letter from him or a broadcast birthday greeting from him and he was saying, “I am fine.”

Tom Wilber:
I had the sense that what he was saying early on was what he meant, but I couldn’t have a conversation with anybody about the substance of what he was saying because I just found whenever I’d want to talk about that, it was immediately discounted. That’s carried forward for years. In 2014, I decided to go to Vietnam and start looking around myself to find some answers to this and took me a couple of years to assemble what I thought was a critical mass of information, but I still was the same dilemma.

Tom Wilber:
If I start talking about this, the first thing that people are going to say was, “Oh well, he was under a lot of stress. Oh well, he was brainwashed.” The one that other POWs tell me, “Well, he did suffer a stroke when he was a prisoner of war and he did spend 20 months in solitary,” kind of giving him a “bye” for what he said. I wanted to talk about what he said and I needed a framework to be able to do that. That’s how I met Jerry, is to be able to put up a framework that really would address these things.

Matthew Breems:
Well, Jerry Lembcke and Tom Wilber, their new book is Dissenting POWs, coming out this Spring 2021. Thank you so much for taking the time to be on the podcast today.

Tom Wilber:
Thank you, Matt.

Jerry Lembcke:
Thanks, Matt.

Matthew Breems:
This podcast is a Courage to Resist production, recorded and edited by Matthew Breems, with special thanks to executive producer, Jeff Paterson. Visit couragetoresist.org for more information and to offer your support.