Lessons from Vietnam’s Propaganda War

As a five-year prisoner of the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, then-Lt. James N. Rowe endured near-starvation conditions, persistent accompanying diseases, physical torture, and almost daily “lessons” in communist dogma. … Guided by the military’s Code of Conduct, Rowe refused to comply.

This article was originally published on American Free News Network on May 26, 2021, and again on March 6, 2022.

Then-Lt. James N. (Nick) Rowe would have been exposed to an earlier version of the Armed Forces Code of Conduct. Aside from a reconciling of the pronoun issue, they read the same. Credit: Open Source
Then-Lt. James N. (Nick) Rowe would have been exposed to an earlier version of the Armed Forces Code of Conduct. Aside from a reconciling of the pronoun issue, they read the same. Credit: Open Source

By Ethan Imaap

As a five-year prisoner of the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, then-Lt. James N. Rowe endured near-starvation conditions, persistent accompanying diseases, physical torture, and almost daily “lessons” in communist dogma. The cadre believed if they could only keep repeating the “truth of the situation”—that “the people’s” victory was a forgone conclusion—then this stubborn American would be forced to change his thinking and put it in writing. Guided by the military’s Code of Conduct, Rowe refused. He was informed by his captors that he was no longer a soldier but a prisoner of war, so he didn’t have to abide by the articles. He was told not to worry about any Army punishment because the anti-war protestors back in America, “the people,” would protect him.

Rowe knew the truth.

“The entire undercurrent of their efforts seemed to be based on the concept that an American soldier, if he could be coerced or led into violating the Code of Conduct, would be punished by the government and once punished would be alienated from the military and the government. He could then be exploited by groups within the United States which simply opposed our presence in Vietnam, or which actually supported the Vietcong. Either way, the individual would become a valued propaganda tool right within the U.S.”

Col. James N. Rowe, “Five Years to Freedom”

The Viet Cong used the threat of punishment as adroitly as punishment itself, knowing the prisoners fears and imaginings would make whatever horrors they planned even worse. If Rowe could prove in writting that he understood and accepted the brainwashing, the National Liberation Front (NLF) would release him so he could go home to his mom and dad, who he loved beyond measure and who constituted a big part of his emotional strength. The temptation to “cooperate and graduate” intensified as the years passed and Rowe was increasingly isolated. If he didn’t cooperate then the NLF simply wouldn’t be able to continue its “generous and lenient treatment.”

Rowe walked a tightrope between trying to sustain his physical health and trying to mentally resist and evade his captors. Could the cover story he concocted hold the cadre off one more day? If he told them how tired he was, would they allow him until the morning to hand in his assignment? If he wrote in English and made giveaway errors that Americans would pick up on, could he buy himself a few days of recuperation while a translator worked on the submission? Invariably, the answer came back down the NLF chain of command that he had not shown understanding of the “true” situation in Vietnam. He would need further instruction to “control” his thinking and “correct” any misunderstandings. By then, he’d rallied and garnered enough fortitude to hold them off just a little while longer.

In the beginning of his captivity, Rowe found it easier to resist absorbing the indoctrination sessions because all of the news sources, be they print or radio, were out of North Vietnam. The productions were heavy-handed and patently false. Captured Oct. 29, 1963, Rowe had only been in country three months, but he had been on enough humanitarian efforts in villages near base to know what was true and what was a lie. As the war ground on, though, Rowe’s cadre began presenting him with articles from well-known Western news outlets, such as the Associated Press, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. As American public opinion—at least as presented by the press—began turning against the war, Rowe questioned his perception of his country and countrymen. He never wavered, but by all appearances America and some of her citizens were sabotaging him from afar.

“I had reached a point where the war in Vietnam was a total mass of confusion in my mind.  It was no longer the war I had known and the American people has obviously rejected it, condemning our government and supporting the demands of the Communists,” Rowe wrote in his book, “Five Years to Freedom.” He made up his mind that he could not fight on all fronts. He determined he must focus on regaining his physical strength, getting medication to dampen his fungal infections and slow his dysentery. Even that seemingly minor shift serves as a modern-day example of survival during challenging times. If the little news you watch, read, or hear seems fabricated, then a strong body to support your brain and heart, your thoughts and emotions, helps to bolster your resilience.

In a last-ditch effort to convert this recalcitrant prisoner, the Viet Cong brought out their trump card: a ground game, street theater, as it were. Rowe was taken by boat to a series of villages. He was instructed to keep his head bowed in contrition because the villagers hated Americans and would only be prevented from killing him by the guards. At one village, Rowe was surrounded, but he didn’t feel threatened, more like an animal at a zoo. The people smiled and reached out to touch him. Rowe noted that nobody was paying much attention to the dry, boring speeches that the cadre delivered. One performance highlight consisted of an old man who was supposed to make a show of being angry, but he flubbed his lines and just grinned.

At a bombed-out church, which could have easily been repaired and tidied up, a monk made a speech that was intended to be anti-American, but which turned out to be about love and peace. It pays to know the language, and Rowe figured out quickly that what his interpreter was telling him was not what the monk was saying. The base commander handed Rowe the broken-off head of a Christ-child statue with the intend of having the ever-present photographer get a photo. Appalled by the blatant propaganda, Rowe refused.

Finally, he was taken to a village that he recognized. He and his fellow Green Berets had conducted humanitarian missions to the area, mostly providing medical attention. Instantly, he was recognized. An older woman felt Rowe’s arm and asked the guards if the Lieutenant was getting enough food. She received the same stock answer the POWs got: The National Liberation Front provides for the generous care and lenient treatment of the prisoners. She kept at it, stating that she remembered the lieutenant when he had come to their village years before and he was of stocky build. The soulless repetition of the party line was repeated.

Rowe knew the truth now, at least among the villagers who benefitted not only from the humanitarian efforts provided by Special Forces, but by the Americans’ willingness to help the South Vietnamese people fight off the enslavement of communism. Although areas had indeed been demolished by war, and, most unnervingly, the base Rowe had set out from those long years ago appeared to have been razed, the people had not swallowed the party line; they did not resent Americans. Even now, our enemies use the same tactics, repeating ad nauseam the world-communism stance, but if we shut off the TV, the computer, and the phone long enough to talk to people, we discover what they really think, not what our enemies would have us believe they think.

Rowe’s terrifying captivity nadir, however, came as a result of his own countrymen betraying him. After attending a council meeting, regional NLF officers returned to present Rowe with his true biological information, details that could have only been obtained from the United States. Rowe had hidden his true identity as a highly trained Special Forces intelligence officer. He had tried the patience of the NLF one too many times. By rooting around in an ammo can that served as a makeshift filing cabinet for the guards, he discovered that he was slated for execution. He would first be transferred. Mercifully, he escaped for a fourth time and was successful.

What is so powerful about Rowe’s story is that he was forced to challenge his beliefs, and in the process, he only strengthened his understanding of what he already knew to be true. His faith was never shaken, but his devotion to his country and his fellow Americans was undermined by the fear that either or both would abandon him to die in a jungle prison. He took in the new information, held it up against his experiences, and came away with even deeper love for God and country. At one point, he wrote:

“I wasn’t going to write that crap; I didn’t believe it.” In another instance he wrote, “From what I had seen, [the South Vietnamese’s] best chance to achieve the peace, liberty and independence they desired and so richly deserved would be with our help. Self-determination would be dead under Communism, yet with our help, it could live. … I disagreed with the opposition to our helping these people.”

As Rowe was flying over familiar areas of Vietnam during various legs of his journey toward home, he saw the construction and expansion of services to better the South Vietnamese peoples’ lives. There was no truer indicator to him of the psychological warfare leveled against him that the Viet Cong had demolished South Vietnam. He wished he could have shown his guards the development below as evidence of the party’s deceit.

Rowe recalled how sad it was when a young guard, a boy no more than 13 or 14, was indoctrinated.

“[He] would be strongly influenced by the teaching of a man dedicated to a political god, a man who would sever all basic relationship between family, religion and nationality to serve only his political master. It seemed so wrong that the cadre had the privilege of warping a mind too young to protect itself against misconception; teaching a child that he had no father, no mother, no God, no loyalties except to the party and the state. The reduction and condemning of this child to the one-dimensional world of dialectic materialism and political servitude was, to me, more hideous than anything they could do to me.”

The truth was as clear in the 1960s and it is today. Those blinded by the utopian ideal of communism seem incapable of acknowledging its totalitarian reality. Men like Nick Rowe knew that simply the way communists treated people was reason enough to stop its spread. The sacrifices he made in serving a way of life that honors our freedoms and the rule of law can never be measured or repaid. When the U.S. Army called Col. Rowe back into service to lead the development of the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Course, he didn’t just devise a training program for military members; he gave us a physical and emotional manual for dealing with the seeming dominance of communism in our own country today.

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