Initial perceptions of the Vietnamese
Vietnam. Lt. Col. James
Rowe. Tape 1, Side B. SR 2654. Ch.
SR 2654. Nick Rowe.
When I ah came into Vietnam it was in 1963 in mid ’63, I was probably
better prepared than most because I had studied the insurgency against
the French. Ah. I knew of the Viet
Minh, I knew of revolutionary warfare. I knew of the
structure. But, it was ill-defined in my mind ah because I knew of the
Viet Cong ah the term for
Vietnamese communists, but I wasn’t quite certain who the Mah Tron
was, the National Front for
Liberation. And, so it was a, a case of a, an indefinable
organization out there represented by individuals we call the Viet Cong who populated the area
around the cam in which we were operating. Ah. The VC either in a combat situation or...
Just a second.
The times that we encountered...pardon.
You ready. The times that we encountered the Viet Cong as individuals whether
in combat or as prisoners ah our contact was limited in that we had the
Vietnamese special forces who were actually in control of the cam. They
ran it. We were advisors. So, we in a sense viewed from a distance and
could only measure our knowledge based on, in many instances, what the
Vietnamese special forces allowed us to know. Ah. Ah.
Their perception was not necessarily the correct one
at all times. Ah. There were times when we did get to ah to talk with
Viet Cong, either officials
or operatives or soldiers, and those were the only real breakthroughs
that we had. Of course, engaging them in combat ash we were able to
measure just how intensely they were involved in what they were doing
because they were tough. They were good fighters.
Rowe's interactions with his captor, Major Bai
Beep. Beep. Beep
After I was captured and was in the PW camp. Of course,
controlled by not only the type of Viet Cong I had faced, that is, combatants who were the
guards, but also the Viet Cong
political cadre ah I began to understand a little bit more about how
they functioned. Not only what they believed, but why they believed it.
And, of course, this was the, the first change that I had had really to
study them ah in effect on their own ground.
One of the individuals ah Major Que Inshi
ah cover name was Bai Cong, Major Bai had begun as a rear rank private
with Ho Chi Minh fighting
against the Japanese during the
Second World War. And, after the defeat of the Japanese had joined the Viet Minh had fought through that conflict
and then from 1954 through ’60 he had
been an underground operative for the emerging Viet Cong.
Now, he had lived in the U Minh Forest where I was held, and so
here was an individual who had started as a rear rank private with Ho Chi Minh and had fought
right straight through two conflicts and was in his third. Ah.
His belief and his dedication was number one to the
expulsion of all foreigners from Vietnam. Xenophobia was, was an
important part of his belief, but secondly, was the charismatic appeal
of Ho Chi Minh who was
the, the nationalistic leader in their minds, not necessarily totally
communist because that some of them even rejected, but he was the leader
in the movement of the Vietnamese to make Vietnam a country of the
Vietnamese without foreign influence or foreign domination.
Beep, beep, beep, beep.
One of Major Bai’s responsibilities was my
indoctrination and because he was military and I was military, I think
he felt that one of the ways that he could influence me was by
expressing to me and giving examples of the strength of his belief and
dedication. And, to do this, during the indoctrination sessions ah he
would get into war stories, and of course, this allowed me to probe into
his background ah as much as he was trying to prove into mine and by
doing so to attempt to sway me and so I was able to spend more time
listening ah with him ah rather than attempting to fend off and resist
interrogation and indoctrination ah he gave me an opportunity to just
sit back and listen. Ah. I was very happy for that but nevertheless it
With Major Bai it was a case of listening to his war
stories during the indoctrination, you know, which gave me an
opportunity to sit back and listen rather than attempting to resist an
interrogation and indoctrination ah I could sit back and find out about
him. I didn’t necessarily agree with him ah but that wasn’t required at
the time because he seemed to believe so strongly that he felt that the
weight of his convictions would sway me.
Beep, beep, beep.
At the time that Major Bai was conducting these
indoctrinations I was in a camp in the Mekong
Delta of Vietnam, the U Minh Forest which is a swamp forest.
Ah. I was in a camp that we had nicknamed ah the NO K Corral and ah I
was at that time being held in ah a cage, wooden structure with a
thatched roof. Ah. It was about four feet high, about three feet wide
and about six feet long. But, during the indoctrinations I was taken
over to a guard hut which was somewhat more spacious and ah I would be
seated on the ah pole floor while Major Bai was sitting ah at a raised
platform and ah sort of talking down at me ah during this period of
It was to establish a, a subservient and superior
relationship between the PW and the cadre. Ah. The thing that I remember
from this was Major Bai’s definition of friends and enemies and the
Americans were representative of the French presence. In other words, he
ah he felt there was really no difference between the Americans and the
French other than the fact that there were more of us and we had better
equipment than the French had
But, as far as the Vietnamese, he seemed to equate
all Vietnamese interests with the interests of the Liberation Front, ah, which I knew was
wrong, but of course, in, in their dialectic ah the people supported the
revolution. And, we’ve seen that this is false time and time again, but
nevertheless, that was what was conveyed.
That’s where I understood that with them there was no
need to understand, just to memorize, repeat and believe and ah he, he
tried to float some real winners past me as far as concepts probably
having dealt with people who were ah less well-equipped with current
events, with history and with foreign affairs so that a half truth or a
lie could get mixed up in half truths, and ah they could get past them.
But, again I never doubted the sincerity of what he was saying to me. He
really believed it.
Beep, beep, beep.
One of the major themes that Major Bai expressed and I
really had difficulty ah arguing with this in my own mind was the
ultimate victory of, of the revolution in that the thought that he
expressed was that the Americans would get tired and go home before the
Liberation Front and the
North Vietnamese got tired and quit fighting and he was talking about
Mao’s protracted war, which they were well-prepared and willing to fight
and we, being impatient, would be unwilling to endure.
The prisoner conditioning systems used by the communists
Beep, beep, beep, beep.
One of the important things to, to realize in this is
that being a prisoner of the communists ah bears absolutely no
resemblance to what you see on Hogan’s Heroes or remember about
imprisonment during the Second World
War with the Starlags and all of that. The communist
have a prisoner management system which is designed to systematically
break down an individual’s will to resist. Break his faith in his
country, in his government, in his own people, ah his loyalties ah to
alter his pattern of, of responses. Ah.
This is where we got the term brainwashing from Korea
which is not really accurate.
The Viet Cong and the North
Vietnamese call it thought correction or thought reform and in this they
have three stages. Interrogation, indoctrination, and exploitation. Ah.
The interrogation sometimes was used simply to pressure an individual,
make him susceptible to indoctrination which is where they actually
tried to alter ah his past patterns of beliefs and his loyalties. Ah.
Once they can do that then they’re on the way to
inducing an individual to either collaborate with them, to at least
conform to their requirements and produce propaganda and ultimately, if
they can, to convert you. That’s way down the line though and so their
immediate goal is to, to induce collaboration. That’s to produce
propaganda for them or to help them.
The ah the system that they use is, is basic respondent
conditioning. It’s a punishment and reward type of system and, you know,
they can use all the subtle pressures. Ah. Malnutrition, disease,
vitamin deficiency, ah dehydration, sleep deprivation, isolation which
is one of their best techniques, most effective techniques. They just
let disease work on you. The threat of death is always there and it’s a
laboratory situation, but what you realize is that they’re bargaining
with you. Ah. It’s a cooperate and graduate situation. If you will
Now, if you don’t ah they can go from a more subtle
psychological pressures to more obvious physical pressures ah down to
and including physical torture. Ah. They did use that. They found,
however, as one of the cadre first told me and it was a revealing
statement. He said merely because you control the physical does not mean
that you control the individual. But, if you can control and manipulate
the mind, then you have the individual. And, so, we began to realize
that the target was the mind, and ah if you were not cooperative ah you
hurt. One way or another they made you hurt.
Communist use of thought control on their own units
Beep, beep, beep. Beep, beep, beep, beep.
One of the most revealing things that, that I learned
while I was a PW was that after beginning to decipher the system that
they were using against me I began to realize that they used it on their
own people. Ah. Behavioral modification and thought control ah was a
standard pattern that they, they established within their own
organization and that...For instance a squad of nine men was broken down
into three three-man cells. Each of the cells had a cell leader and in
turn the squad had a squad leader but he was a, a sort of a thought
reformer, thought control leader and each of the individuals was
responsible for watching and commenting on the actions and thoughts of
the individuals within his group. Ah.
A sort of a system of dynamic mistrust. They had the
three togethers. Eat together, work together, sleep together. And, at
least once a week they would have a critique and self-criticism session
in which peer pressure was exerted I think to the utmost in that each
individual within the, within the group that he was operating and he
would criticize himself for all of the actions and thoughts that he had
had during that week which did not contribute to the party goals or to
the unit goals. Then it was open season on him as everybody else in the
group just lacerated him verbally on the things that they had observed
that he did that did not conform to the party requirements.
And, so they actually just through peer pressure just
forced everybody into lock step and there was no way to doubt or to
question anything that was said and so that you actually had one mind
thinking for all of those bodies. And, that was frightening. That was
where I realized it was there’s no need to understand it. Just memorize
it and repeat it and believe it.
Beep, beep, beep, beep.
All, you know, although I was busy fighting my, my own
little war there trying to stay alive, ah, one of the things that struck
me about the revolutionary process and the, the thought control and the
pressure that’s existing or that does exist within that system is that
it is a, it’s an economical form of warfare. You don’t need a lot of
people belonging to the movement because you have ah total unanimity
within the organization.
You don’t have to worry about dissent. You don’t have
to worry about opinion within the group in that the group is guided by
one mind. One central committee. One central planning group and in
directing it towards underdeveloped countries or emerging countries ah
it’s a natural vehicle, a very inexpensive economical vehicle for, for
taking governments. You know, look at the Soviet Union
I think it was eleven percent of the population ah
effected the revolution
of 1917, and you see minorities in each one of these
countries because they are a united minority ah able to accomplish, you
know, total domination within an expended, expanded period of time. They
look in terms of decades. We look in terms of years.
Lessons from Vietnam
The ah question of Vietnam being relevant to me is, is,
is really simple because in the case of Vietnam was, is past is truly
prologue. Not necessarily for us, but for them. Because as one of the
cadre told me in one of the indoctrinations, he said to the effect of
Vietnam is but one act in a worldwide drama and we simply play our part,
play our role. And, after Vietnam, it will be Laos
, it will be Cambodia
, it will be Thailand
, it will be Indonesia
, and so on.
And, I think what they have established in their
minds with Vietnam is not necessarily that they can defeat us militarily
but that they can outlast us. And, of course, with the, the double-edged
sword in our own country of, of dissatisfaction with Americans being
committed to that type of war, that is, dissent against our being there,
and the other side of it active and open support for the aims and goals
of the enemy among a minority in our country, they have the basis for
destroying our will to continue to resist.
And, of course, they did that with the French, they did it with us in
Vietnam and they look forward to doing it in the future. So, that
established for them ah the, the modus operandai for the future. It’s an
economical form of warfare. It’s the way they’ve made their money for
the last two decades and I would suppose just from a personal point of
view not a, not an official point but, of course, my own, is that we’ll
see more of it. And, we have to learn how to win it.
Wait a second.
Okay. The things that I, that I drew from my experience
were that number one that type of conflict no matter where it may spring
up it, it’s called a war of national liberation or national liberation
movement, it’s the same thing, it will be protracted. Ah. It will be a
classic example ah adapted, of course, to the environment, but a classic
example of revolutionary warfare.
We know the stages, we know how it works, but we have
to be prepared I think to go to what we first said in Vietnam, that is,
when we went there it’s their country, it’s their war, let them fight
it. If they want to win it we’ll help them, but the, the country, the
people, the government of that country they have to want to defeat the
revolution. Ah. The US can’t do it for them.
But then if...
Beep, beep, beep.
I was an advisor as a, an executive officer on a
special forced AID
attachment in the Mekong
and ah had gone on an operation to ah
sweep a number of canals ah where suspected enemy forces had been
gathered. Ah. En route back from the operation ah we were ambushed by ah
a large enemy force.
It was ah roughly a two battalion size force against
our one company. Ah. We were surrounded and overrun all three of
Amer...the Americans on that operation were wounded and we were taken
prisoner and then I spent five years and two months as a prisoner of the
Viet Cong before I escaped
in December of 1968.