Don Luce, activist who helped bring end to Vietnam War, dies at 88

When students started missing Don Luce’s classes at Saigon Agricultural College in the 1960s, he learned to anticipate the worst.

Some will never return. Others return to stories of torture by the South Vietnamese government in search of suspected communist sympathizers or critics of the US-led war against North Vietnam. . The students were covered with bruises, welds and cigarette burns.

“There was a man who broke three fingers. Things like that,” recalls Mr. Luce, who arrived in Vietnam in the late 1950s with a group of volunteers based in the United States.

What he saw among his students began his development from a Vietnam War bystander to an influential activist who helped fuel the anti-war movement in his hometown. houses with eyewitness accounts and assists reporters and researchers – most notably in 1970 by showing members of a congressional group the appalling conditions inside the prison run by his allies. United States run South Vietnam.

Mr. Luce has a hand-drawn map, based on information from former inmates, showing the way to a secret area where hundreds of political prisoners are kept.

The photos of the “tiger cage” on Con Son Island were taken by a young congressional aide Tom Harkin (D), who later served four decades as a US congressman and senator from Iowa. The Picture appeared in Life magazine in July 1970, showing emaciated prisoners crammed into enclosed areas where they could not stand or seek escape from the sweltering heat.

Mr. Luce, who died on November 17 at a hospital in Niagara Falls, NY, at the age of 88, wrote: “I vividly remember the terrible stench caused by diarrhea and the open sores on his ankles. prisoner. de l’eau’ (‘Give me water’), they begged.

The last US ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, said Mr. Luce’s “multifaceted activities” were the main driving force behind public and Congressional opposition to the war.

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Mr. Luce was expelled from South Vietnam in 1971, but not before another attack from within. An open letter from Mr. Luce from Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) appeared in newspapers across the United States, describing the fate of an 18-year-old student who was arrested by South Vietnamese agents for his crimes. suspected of helping the North. In prison, the student’s legs were paralyzed from constant shackling and he was dying of tuberculosis, Mr. Luce wrote.

“I am writing to say that you and I are responsible for this man,” Luce wrote. “Our taxes are paying an ever-growing police force to intensify repression.”

Months later, after returning to the United States, Luce helped found the Indochina Itinerant Education Project, which traveled the country in a pickup truck condemning the war and the American alliance. United States with South Vietnam. Mr. Luce, always soft-spoken, would calmly and methodically explain the mistakes and brutalities of the war. At an event in Michigan, a Vietnam veteran shouted, “You are saying exactly how it is.”

At a Senate hearing in 1976 — a year after Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces — the former United States Ambassador Martin said Luce was part of “one of the best propaganda and pressure campaigns the world has ever seen.”

Even before the tiger case was revealed, Mr. Luce had established himself as a prominent voice against the war. In 1967, Mr. Luce resigned International Voluntary Servicean aid group founded by the church that also receives funding from the US government.

“We find it increasingly difficult to quietly pursue our main goal: to help the Vietnamese people,” read the open letter to the President. Lyndon B. Johnson, signed by nearly 50 people including Mr. Luce. “A war as it is now being waged is self-defeating.”

The Johnson administration treated the letter as a blow. These were young and idealistic Americans in South Vietnam who turned their backs on the war.

Mr. Luce and a former International Volunteers colleague, John Sommer, followed up the letter with a 1969 book, ““Vietnam: Unheard Voices.” They argue that American tactics, such as the destruction of villages and farmland, and ignorance of Vietnamese culture have helped increase the ranks of anti-American guerrillas.

“We are trying to find a way for the Vietnamese to have a voice in the debate,” Mr. Luce said.

During several public appearances in the 1970s, Mr. Luce carried objects made from war scraps: baskets woven from radio cords and metal combs of machines. plane was shot down.

“There is a Vietnamese folk saying,” he told the audience, “that you can make the most beautiful things out of weapons of war.”

Donald Sanders Luce was born on September 20, 1934, in East Calais, Vt., where his father ran a 200-acre dairy farm and his mother was a teacher. He received a degree in farm management from the University of Vermont in 1956 and a master’s degree from Cornell University in 1958.

He then joined the International Volunteer Service, which would become one of the role models for the Peace Corps. There are no major U.S. combat forces in the region, but the stage is poised for conflict. The split caused by the Cold War only deepened after the French-led forces withdrew in 1954.

Mr. Luce started learning the language by playing a game of dice with a teenage boy in the Central Highlands.

In 1961, Mr. Luce was appointed national director of the agency as the agency expanded into teaching and community development. In the mid-1960s – with US military involvement growing – agency volunteers were increasingly threatened by guerrillas or caught up in the crossfire.

After leaving the agency, Mr. Luce worked briefly as a research associate at Cornell and then, in 1968, returned to South Vietnam with a press commission from the Education Council. World Association. He mainly took on the role of guide or interpreter for journalists covering the war, including Morley is safer of CBS and Carl Robinson of the Associated Press.

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After the story of the tiger cage — forcing the South Vietnamese to shut down the website — Mr. Luce was informed by South Vietnamese officials that his press card would be revoked. In early 1971, Mr. Luce said he was regularly monitored. Once, after his apartment was ransacked, he found under his bed sheets a deadly scorpion that locals call a krait. “two steps” because its venom is said to be able to kill you before you can take more than two steps. He left the country on May 5, 1971.

In the 1980s, Mr. Luce rebuilt a new network in Vietnam with programs to combat HIV and AIDS. He was also a source for journalists, traveling with a television crew to Cambodia in 1979 to interview the leader of the Khmer Rouge genocide, Polpotat a chicken dinner at a forest hideout, according to a online bio.

Luce later taught sociology at Niagara County Community College in Sanborn, NY, and served as the director of public relations for the Community Missions of the Niagara Frontier, the organization that runs social services including social services. including homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

Mr. Luce’s husband, Mark Bonacci, confirmed his death. The cause was a heart attack.

In 1991, Mr. Luce led a group that included Harkin .’s wife Ruthto the site of the old Con Son prison, Bonacci said. Some people piled in cages to get a feel for the brutal conditions. Within minutes, Bonacci recalled, Ruth Harkin was dizzy from the heat and the rest of the group scrambled to get out, panicking with claustrophobia.


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