For a pacifist, I have a strange fascination with military history; always have. I have read numerous books on The Vietnam War and have already visited numerous sites on our trip to Vietnam. My favorite part is seeing the government’s spin and propaganda on the war. I went to one Museum that was propaganda-free; boring. However, that was not the case at the Hanoi Hilton, the propaganda was over the top. It was basically the complete opposite of everything I have read about the conditions and treatment of US prisoners held there.
The Hanoi Hilton was a sarcastic name given by US pilots to this infamous prison during the war. American pilots shot down were held here, including senator John McCain. It is now a museum; the first part is dedicated to the brutal treatment the Vietnamese suffered under French rule after World War 2. The second part is dedicated to The American War and how well the US prisoners were treated.
Pictures of of pilots gardening, playing basketball, and raising chickens in the prison yard. Pictures of them playing chess, billiards and hanging out, laughing in a large communal dorm room. Displays of items the prisoners had while incarcerated: Winston cigarettes, Vicks cough drops, hand-held fans, winter and summer clothing. They did not show the solitary confinement cells that pilots were held in.
Photos of pilots receiving medical care in a hospital, and a list of rules for prisoners including how they had to inform guards in the morning if they didn’t feel well, so they can get immediate treatment. John McCain did not receive any care for days for his serious injuries after being shot down; not until the Vietnamese found out his father was a four star admiral and McCain could be use for propaganda purposes.
A video showed pilots released after the war, before returning home receiving souvenirs from officials. They looked confused as they accepted these gifts for their time in prison. I chuckled out loud at this, people looked at me like I was crazy. The video did not show the forced confessions of the pilots or how after being shot down the pilots were marched through the streets of Hanoi, being abused by people that lined the streets.
I realize that I have been subjected to my own government’s spin on the war and I have tried to keep a open mind. I also know that North Vietnamese prisoners were treated brutally by both Americans and the South Vietnamese army. Cutting through the propaganda of both countries and coming to the truth is difficult, but one thing is for certain, it was a dirty and ugly war and atrocities were committed by both sides.