Last week, the Office of International Relations and the Brennan Center sponsored a presentation by agriculturalist and Vietnam War opponent/journalist Don Luce. Luce’s work helped expose atrocities committed by both the U.S. government and the South Vietnamese military. Perhaps most notably, Luce uncovered a prison in South Vietnam where prisoners were routinely abused, tortured and, in many cases, locked inside so-called “tiger cages.”
The talk was moderated by Dr. Deborah T. Curtis, vice president of the International Relations Office. At the onset, Dr. Curtis heralded Luce’s reputation as a man who embodies “social justice at its best” and praised him for his work during the anti-war movement, as well as work in agriculture and trying to help sustain economic development in post-war Vietnam.
Luce was also joined by Dr. Mark Bonacci, professor of human services at NCCC, who provided additional comments and insight, as well as a slideshow of Luce’s writings and photos throughout the presentation.
Having grown up on a farm in Vermont, Luce developed a lifelong affinity for agriculture. It’s almost no surprise then, that in 1958, Luce’s initial foray into Vietnam was as an agriculture expert and aid worker for the International Voluntary Services, a precursor to the Peace Corps. Luce was sent to Ban Me Thuot, a small South Vietnamese province with a high population of North Vietnamese refugees. There, he researched different varieties of sweet potatoes and helped local farmers grow the most resilient ones.
During this early period, Luce said he resolutely supported the war effort. He described himself at the time as politically conservative, and considered American diplomat John Foster Dulles and former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower as his heroes (the latter, he clarified, still is). He eventually moved to Saigon and began teaching for the College of Agriculture. It was during this time that Luce’s opinions about the war began to change.
“My students [who protested the South Vietnamese war effort] were getting arrested … and tortured. They would show me, when they came back to class ... cigarette burns where they had been tortured. One guy had three of his fingers cut off. Things like that,” Luce said.
As time went on, the brutality and rampant corruption of the South Vietnamese government became more and more apparent to Luce. Many officials openly advocated for the murder and torture of their opponents, and stories of their cruelty spread through cities and villages. Luce described a dinner where he met with Madame Nhu, the de facto first lady of South Vietnam, who openly and graphically mocked the Mahayana Buddhist monks who burned themselves alive in protest of Buddhist persecution.
During this time, Luce was also becoming particularly dismayed by the actions of his own government. He went on to cite the United States’ overall aversion to learning and understanding Vietnamese culture and customs as one of the key reasons the war was lost.
In one example, Luce described how he had worked on a small island with a group of farmers to cultivate sugar baby watermelons (a sustainable food source that can cross-pollinate very easily). One day without warning, the U.S. envoy defoliated the island and killed all the plants. When Luce protested to a U.S. provincial representative, telling him that the damage was estimated around $10,000, the agent scoffed and replied, “The whole goddamn country isn’t worth $10,000.”
“From the perspective of the provincial representative, I was being unreasonable. We were fighting a war and [I was] worried about sugar baby watermelons.” However, Luce’s concerns were not unfounded. Within weeks, all of the farmers had joined the Vietcong.
As the war continued, Luce became an activist and, at the behest of many locals, began working to free political prisoners from incarceration. Over time, his reputation as someone who could deal with South Vietnamese military grew. In 1970, Luce was urged to investigate a prison located on the Con Son island, where prisoners were reportedly being tortured and kept inside so-called “tiger cages.” Luce spoke with then congressional staffer (and future Iowa senator) Tom Harkin. Soon after a small group, including Luce, was sent to investigate.
Harkin went on to take a series of horrific photos which were eventually published in Life magazine, depicting prisoners, many malnourished and/or severely wounded, housed in small cages wrapped in barbed wire. The cages were designed in such a way as to prevent the prisoner from being able to sit upright or even stretch out. The cages were housed in pits which allowed sunlight and intense heat to beam down on the prisoners.
Dr. Bonacci interjected to detail how he had travelled as part of an envoy to visit the site in 1991 alongside Harkin’s wife. Some members of the group got into the cages for a photo to illustrate how inhumane the treatment was. Within minutes, Harkin's wife had fainted from the heat while other members quickly begged to be let out.
Some of the prisoners at the site had been kept in the cages for over a year. When the facility eventually closed, some prisoners were permanently paralyzed, while others would require lifelong psychiatric care.
The photos caused an outcry back in the States and forced the American government to pressure the South Vietnamese into closing the facility. For his actions, Luce was expelled from the country in 1971. By then, however, the reputation of the war was already beyond repair. As more and more gruesome images such as these began to reach U.S. shores, public support for the war continued to fall until 1975, when the war finally came to an end.
Luce’s commitment to social justice didn’t stop once the war ended. Throughout his life, he has remained a committed ally in the fight against poverty, corruption, and oppression. Throughout the 1980s, Luce conducted humanitarian work throughout Asia, helping to raise money and awareness about HIV. He’s found himself face-to-face with some of history's most brutal killers, including the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, with whom he ate dinner in 1979 while trying to set up an interview with Penthouse Magazine.
While his work overseas has made him something of an historical figure, Luce has spent the latter half of his life making a difference in and around the city of Niagara Falls, a city he has called home for nearly 40 years. He most recently served as the public relations director for Niagara Community Missions, a position he held for two decades before retiring last year.
For more information on Don Luce’s life and work, visit https://www.historynet.com/transformation-don-luce.htm