On November 26, 1969, Mrs. Trinh Thi Ngo, known to Americans as “Hanoi Hannah”, read over Radio Hanoi an introduction to a tape provided from Hoa Lo prison, just a city block away: “Now listen to a US pilot captured over North Vietnam on the occasion of the [American] Thanksgiving Day.”
“To the Vietnam Moratorium Committee and all those dedicated to freedom: Dear fellow Americans. I am Commander Wilber. When I was shot down and captured in North Vietnam, I was the commanding officer of a navy fighter squadron. During my detention in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, I have followed the world news, especially the news from home. The recent unification of the many anti-Vietnam war groups, along with millions of peace-loving citizens, for an early end to the Vietnam war, brought floods of joy into my heart…”
The Moratorium Committee referred to by Wilber was the body responsible for the recent October and November Moratorium Days against the war in Viet Nam. With endorsements from the United Auto Workers Union, the United Church of Christ, and the NAACP, turnout for the October 15th Moratorium is said by observers to have been the largest ever public display of opposition to the war. Ninety percent of New York City high school students stayed away from school and college students flocked to the demonstrations. The October rally in Washington D.C. that drew 250,000 was followed by one twice as large a month later.
Fifty years later, Wilber’s broadcast might have little interest beyond scholars exploring the nooks and crannies of Viet Nam War history for still-untold stories. In the context of the Moratorium Days on which he was commenting, however, the letter invites a fresh look into how the image of POWs figured into the decline of the antiwar movement after its peak in November 1969, and the way they shaped the narratives of post-war remembrances.
A groundswell of citizen sentiment against the war had engulfed the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, scuttling his plan for reelection in 1968. Now, it threatened to overtake the Nixon White House, who responded with an incisive strategy: make opposition to the war synonymous with abandonment and betrayal of the prisoners held in Hanoi. The war must go on until the POWs are released. As historian H. Bruce Franklin later wrote, the POW issue functioned “as a potent counterforce to the anti-war movement” because no loyal Americans could oppose support for their own prisoners of war.
On November 6, just days after the October Moratorium and a week before its November sequel, President Nixon signed a bill declaring November 9 a National Day of Prayer for the POWs. Newspaper advertisements began appearing demanding the release of the prisoners and, as demonstrators filled the streets on the thirteenth and fourteenth, the House of Representatives held committee hearings condemning the cruelty of the North Vietnamese and demanding release of the prisoners.
“I thank you for your patriotic efforts in the behalf of peace and happiness. The spontaneous response to the early October peace demonstration and the first Vietnam Moratorium Day, October 15th, proved that the people in my homeland are still united, and the subject is the immediate restoration of peace in Vietnam.”
But Americans were not united in their views of the war, and Nixon’s ploy exacerbated divisions even within the antiwar movement. Liberals fearful that continued opposition to the war could be interpreted as betrayal of the POWs, while the left wing saw demagoguery in the President’s maneuver.
Moreover, the Nixon administration controlled the release of CIA monitored radio recordings and there is no record that Wilber’s message ever reached the media. Headline news that he and other prisoners had spoken out against the war awaited their release and return in early 1973, soon followed by the news that the dissident POWs like Wilber—one other officer and eight enlisted men—were being charged with collaboration with the enemy. As heard by most Americans, the charge was treason.
In no time, the story of dissent from Hoa Lo merged into the betrayal narrative that would frame public memory of the lost war, a war lost to failings on the home front.
It’s unlikely that Wilber’s singular voice would have changed the course of history, had it been heard. But as we remember the Moratorium events upon their 50th anniversary, we should remember as well that some pieces of the story were kept from us. The Nixon administration used POWs as props in a propaganda campaign to sell the war in Viet Nam to voters long after it knew—as we would soon learn from the Pentagon Papers—that the war was a lost cause, and despite knowing that some of the prisoners, like Gene Wilber, wanted the war ended.