An American Abroad

Vietnam: The Hanoi Hilton

The Hoả Lò prison, better known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton, was built by the French in the late 19th century to house anti-colonial Vietnamese for political crimes. Many of the leaders of the successful fight against French colonial rule were imprisoned there. The complex was used to imprison American POWs from 1964 to 1973. Large portions of the prison were demolished in the 1990s. Spencer and I visited what remains of the site, which is now a museum.

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Most of the museum focuses on the incarceration and barbarous treatment of Vietnamese freedom fighters. This makes sense from a historical and nationalistic perspective, particularly since the complex’s use as a place to imprison American soldiers was comparatively short.

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Only one room is devoted to the prison’s days as the Hanoi Hilton POW camp. The flight suit and parachute John McCain was wearing when he was shot down are part of the exhibit, as are the personal effects of other American POWs. One of the most interesting of these was a little pamphlet that fliers carried with them which was written in Vietnamese and English and which was intended to be used by airmen who crashed to attempt to persuade the people they’d just been bombing to help them. “I am obliged to ask you for assistance,” it read. “You will be compensated by my government for your aid.” Right.

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The bulk of the exhibit, however, stressed how “humanely” American POWs were treated. This was obviously done in part to contrast with the brutal treatment Vietnamese prisoners received at the hands of the French during the prison’s first 65 years of operation. There were photos of “happy” Americans playing volleyball, putting up Christmas decorations, enjoying packages from home, smoking American cigarettes, receiving medical care, attending midnight mass on Christmas eve, and even singing along while one US soldier played a guitar (which instrument is also part of the exhibit). There is no mention whatsoever of the mistreatment and torture suffered by the Americans at the hands of the Vietnamese.

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I left the complex thinking that while many American POWs — including John McCain — appear to have made some kind of peace with their jailers and torturers, the Vietnamese government has failed to confront the horrendous abuses of human rights that occurred at the Hanoi Hilton. It’s still pushing the crude propaganda about guitar singalongs and volleyball games. Perhaps when the last of the victorious Vietnamese war leadership dies off and the Vietnam War ceases to be part of living history, the Vietnamese will be able to more honestly confront what their ancestors did at the Hanoi Hilton.

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