At the Hoa Lo prison museum in Hanoi, Vietnam, an American tour group peruses an exhibit chronicling the North Vietnamese Army’s treatment of prisoners of war during the 1960s and ’70s. The group, run by Military Historical Tours, is composed of US army veterans and their wives.
Some of the men examine the flight suit of navy pilot John McCain, who ran for president in 2008. He was shot down over Hanoi in 1967. Others scan black-and-white photographs of POWs reading letters from their families and meeting with journalists.
One of the men is looking up, his dark glasses fixed on a wall-mounted television monitor. On it, the prisoners seem happy and relaxed as they play basketball, drink tea and celebrate Christmas.
The man doesn’t like what he sees.
“This is BS,” he growls loudly, and storms out of the gallery. Those around him exchange stunned glances.
“Hoa Lo” means “stove,” but that it also translates to “hell’s hole” conjoins rather grimly with the fact that the facility was long used to house, torture and execute Vietnamese political prisoners. The French built Hoa Lo in the late 1800s, and it stood for decades as a symbol of colonialist exploitation.
During the US-Vietnam war, the North Vietnamese Army assumed the warden’s role, and the American soldiers they kept there sarcastically dubbed it the “Hanoi Hilton.” In the 1990s, most of Hoa Lo was demolished, and the rest exists as a museum.
The preservation of the nation against foreign aggressors is one of the main themes of Vietnamese history. The atrocities visited upon them, including what happened at Hoa Lo, are not insignificant matters, and the Vietnamese deserve respect for the fortitude they have shown.
Nevertheless, Hoa Lo stands as much as anything these days as a monument to political propaganda, employed in modern times by authoritarian and democratic governments alike.
Propaganda refers to the persuasion of mass opinion, often through deceptive means. The word gained currency in the 17th century via the Catholic Church, which referred simply to “propagating the faith,” but it has since picked up a negative connotation, especially as a result of the two World Wars. At best, propaganda offers a one-sided view of things; at worst, it entails outright lying.
As with any good nationalistic institution, Hoa Lo takes its own “approach” to history, but it’s one that to the chagrin of the man in dark glasses is not always rooted in fact.
Take the pilot exhibit, in which a video boasts about how much better the American POWs were treated than their Vietnamese counterparts.
“The humane treatment of the Vietnamese Government converted most of the American pilot prisoners,” the captions read. “They have now changed their minds and points of view about the crimes they committed, and realized the unjust war they were battling against the Vietnamese people.”
It might be a laughable assertion, if not for the gravity of its implications. My mother, with whom I visited the museum, asked me about what we saw.
“I wonder if it’s really true,” she said. “If the Vietnamese really treated us so much better than we treated them.”
I had to say I wasn’t quite sure. But a simple Google search brought me to vast literature of Hoa Lo torture stories, written by the POWs themselves.
There are dozens of firsthand accounts, including by McCain and James Stockdale, a navy vice admiral who was known to have beaten and disfigured his own face so his captors could not use him in their propaganda films.
John Hubbell’s book, “POW: A Definitive History of the American Prisoner-of-War Experience in Vietnam, 1964-1973” describes how soldiers were routinely tortured in order to extract “confessions” and “apologies” condemning US military action. He writes of Everett Alvarez, who was ordered to “use a lot of adjectives” in a letter he was made to write to the Bertrand Russell tribunal: “I protest this long, involved, costly, controversial war, a violation of the gallant, heroic, liberated, freedom-loving, independent, loving Vietnamese people …”
The Vietnamese government continues to deny that American POWs were abused during the war.
In 2008, the Washington Post interviewed former Hoa Lo jailer Tran Trong Duyet who said all of the former POWs’ claims were lies and that McCain “invented that story that he was tortured and beaten to win votes.”
The Vietnamese are not the only propagandists around. Americans are some of the best practitioners. Nazis and Soviets alike were impressed with their effectiveness.
The enormously influential Edward Bernays, an American who founded the field of public relations, wrote in his 1928 book “Propaganda” that the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses” by “a relatively small number of men” was essential to maintaining order in a democratic society.
“Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country,” he added.
Bernays should know: US President Woodrow Wilson recruited him in 1917 to serve on the Creel Committee, tasked with drumming up enthusiasm for US entry into World War I. Billed by Wilson as the “war to end all wars,” it was supposed to “make the world safe for democracy” — just like the Vietnam war.
Hoa Lo’s insistence that the American POWs were treated “in accordance with the Geneva Convention” is ironic, considering what a big deal the museum makes of French maltreatment of Vietnamese there.
In a large, dark dungeon on the ground floor, torture devices are displayed. A French guillotine casts an ominous shadow on the back wall. Life-sized figures populate the cells, with many shackled to the floor with leg irons.
All of it is set to dramatic violin music wafting out of hidden speakers. The pitter patter of the rain outside, though, might have created a more chilling atmosphere on its own.
That’s the problem with Hoa Lo. What could have been a much worthier endeavor — a memorial to serve as a lesson for the world, and nothing more — is tainted with embellishments and lies.
On my way out, I chatted with one of the wives from the Military Historical Tours group. Most of the group’s men had fought in Vietnam, she told me. Many of them were from Michigan and Wisconsin. They had already been to several cities on their trip.
I asked what she thought of Hoa Lo.
“It’s one-sided,” she said. “But that’s okay. There’s no animosity.”
She’d been keeping a journal.
“There are pages and pages, but I haven’t processed any of it yet,” she said. “When I get home, I’ll have a lot of going through it to do, trying to make sense of it all.”